“It’s actually surreal,” said Cook Islands marine conservationist Jacqueline Evans upon finding out she was one of this year’s winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize – the world’s largest award honoring grassroots environmental activists and often dubbed the ‘Green Nobel Prize.’ “It’s really strange having so much attention focused on me!” said Evans.
Her words likely resonate with many of her contemporaries. So much activist work is quiet and unglamorous: beavering away in remote landscapes, dusty libraries or on laptops late at night.
The Goldman Prize aims to give some of these quiet heroes the recognition they deserve. Each year, it honors one activist from each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions. On 29 April, the 2019 recipients were announced. So, who are they?
Jacqueline Evans, Cook Islands: Creating the world’s largest mixed-use marine protected area
Evans campaigned for five years to create Marae Moana, a mixed-use marine protected area (MPA) covering the Cook Islands’ entire exclusive economic zone (EEZ). She wanted to make sure the country’s fisheries remained sustainable amidst pressure from outside interests to exploit them. The campaign was successful, and the park was officially established in 2017.
“I’m particularly proud of the fact that the communities are super happy that they’ve got these special protected areas established around their islands,” she says. “These are 50-mile [80 km] zones around each island where the long-line and purse seiner fishing boats cannot go fishing. That’s really good for the communities at home.”
Now, as Director of the Marae Moana Coordination Office, Evans is working hard on implementation. “It’s a really critical time,” she says. “Especially having a multiple-use MPA, where there is still some economic activity allowed in most of the EEZ, it’s very important that we get the implementation right.”
What motivates her to continue doing this work? “I really have a lot of concern about what we’re going to leave our children – what kind of a planet we’re leaving for them. I think that that’s really what drives me,” she says. “And also just a love of the ocean. I love our animals, I love to be in the water and I want to leave the planet just as clean – if not cleaner – than we found it.”
Alberto Curamil, Chile: Kickstarting Indigenous resistance to hydro projects
Chile’s Araucanía region harbors vast expanses of forests, lakes and rivers and is home to many Indigenous Mapuche who view natural entities as sacred – and depend on them for their livelihoods, too.
In 2010, the Chilean government announced a plan to build 40 large hydroelectric dams on Araucanía’s rivers, including two multi-million-dollar hydro projects in the heart of Mapuche territory – without any consultation of local communities. If implemented, the projects could devastate the sacred Cautín river and its surrounding ecosystems.
Local Mapuche activist Alberto Curamil began a movement to halt the projects. He educated people at traditional Mapuche gatherings and built a coalition with non-Mapuche community members, environmental organizations and academics. They used street protests, marches and road blocks to raise the issue’s profile and challenged the legality of the proposals, citing the lack of free, prior and informed consent for communities.
The campaign worked: in May 2016, the Cautín hydro project was canceled. Since then, however, Curamil has been jailed for armed robbery – a crime that local sources say he didn’t commit. Most suspect the arrest was an excuse to curb his activism.
Alfred Brownell, Liberia: Protecting rainforests from palm oil development
When Liberian environmental lawyer and human rights activist Alfred Brownell learned that a palm oil company was destroying huge tracts of his country’s carbon-rich tropical forests – and desecrating communities’ livelihoods and sacred sites in the process – he was horrified.
So Brownell launched a legal advocacy campaign against Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), working with community members to file a complaint with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in October 2012. It worked, and RSPO gave GVL a ‘stop work’ order and prevented them from clearing any more forest.
But the fight wasn’t over. When Ebola hit Liberia in 2014, GVL called meetings with communities in forested areas – in defiance of a government ban on big gatherings to stop the spread of the virus – and signed four memoranda of understanding to convert 13,300 hectares of forest to plantations, promising community benefits in exchange. When these benefits failed to materialize, locals protested at GVL offices, and a number were jailed.
Brownell managed to secure their release but then found himself the target of a manhunt and fled the country with his family in 2016. Now living in exile in the US, he continues his advocacy from afar.
Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, Mongolia: Preserving 730,000 hectares of snow leopard habitat in the Gobi Desert
Only 4,000 to 7,000 snow leopards remain in the wild, and nearly 1,000 of these are in Mongolia. But the country’s booming mining industry is fragmenting and destroying critical habitat for the animals, and the South Gobi Desert – the heart of snow leopard territory – is a major mining hub.
In 2009, Agvaantseren, a former teacher and mountain tour guide, heard of mining plans in the Tost Mountains of South Gobi, which bridge two national parks and thus provide a critical migration corridor and habitat for snow leopards. Concerned about the impending threat to these vulnerable creatures, she led a nine-year campaign to protect the area.
In April 2016, as a result of her advocacy, the government designated the 730,000-hectare zone as a federally protected area for snow leopard conservation – the first of its kind. However, a number of active and exploratory mining licenses remained active within the area. Agvaantseren continued her pressure on government authorities to nullify the remaining licenses, which it eventually did in June 2018.
Linda Garcia, U.S.: Halting the flow of oil to protect her community and save a river gorge
Following a shale oil boom in North Dakota, fossil fuel companies are building infrastructure to move coal, oil and natural gas to West Coast refineries and for export to Asian markets. The Tesoro Savage project aimed to transport 41.6 million liters of crude oil per day from North Dakota to the Port of Vancouver in Washington state, making it the largest oil terminal in North America.
To reach the port, the pipeline would pass through the Columbia River Gorge Natural Scenic Area, which could put local residents of the Fruit Valley neighborhood in Vancouver’s port area at risk of health impacts from air pollution.
Fruit Valley resident Linda Garcia learned of the proposal in 2013 while serving as leader of the local neighborhood association. Concerned about her community’s health and safety, she reached out to influential stakeholders and testified as a key community witness at public hearings and city council meetings.
Garcia convinced the city council to appeal the Tesoro Savage proposal to Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) – the state agency responsible for permitting new projects. In November 2017, EFSEC recommended that the state turn down the Tesoro Savage permit, which it did in January 2018.
Ana Colovic Lesoska, North Macedonia: Defending the habitat of endangered Balkan lynx from hydropower projects
North Macedonia’s Mavrovo National Park is one of Europe’s last undisturbed natural areas. It is an important habitat for a wide variety of rare plant and animal species, including the critically-endangered Balkan lynx, of which only around 35 adults remain in the wild.
But in 2010, a state-owned power utility proposed two hydropower plants in Mavrovo. Hydropower projects in North Macedonia have been fast-tracked in preparation for EU membership, which will require compliance with the Union’s renewable-energy mandates.
Colovic Lesoska, a biologist by training, was concerned about the impact of the hydropower plants on biodiversity and began the ‘Save Mavrovo’ campaign. She put pressure on the international banks funding the projects – the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the World Bank – to opt out and submitted a complaint to the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, a legally binding international treaty. The Convention ruled in her favor in 2015, and the banks pulled out amidst international pressure.
Now, if the country’s government attempts to restart the projects, it will violate the Bern Convention and could compromise its chances of joining the EU.