Since 1989, the Goldman Environmental Prize recognizes environmental defenders and change makers. The 2022 Goldman Prize winners provide us with inspiring examples of leaders making a difference, working to restore, rebuild, and regenerate our world. This year’s winners are using a wide array of tools including lawsuits and divestment to address climate change and environmental degradation. These cutting-edge leaders allow us to see innovation in the making, alongside new paradigms and emergent language. Here are snapshots of the six Goldman Prize winners:
Divestment as a tool for phasing out coal (Australia)
Australia is a major producer and exporter of coal and as a result is facing climate change, in the form of heat waves, mega fires, and damage to coral reefs. Goldman Prize winner Julian Vincent targeted the finance side of coal – including Australia four largest banks. Vincent led grass roots initiatives to persuade banks to move away from coal. For example, Vincent led “divestment days” where Australians were encouraged to close bank accounts and destroy credit cards to push banks towards getting out of thermal coal. As a result of these efforts, Australia’s four largest banks and some insurance companies have promised to cease investing in coal by 2030.
Lawsuit against the Government of Ecuador
The Government of Ecuador granted mining licenses to companies without consulting the Cofán indigenous community where the mining was contaminating the Aguarico River. The Cofán people filed a lawsuit against the Government of Ecuador. Cofán leaders Alexandra Narvaez and Alex Lucitate led efforts to guard the rainforest. Technology proved to be a powerful tool – as the use of drones, GPS and cameras provided crucial evidence to the judges on the extent of the damage. As a result of the efforts of Alexandra and Alex the mining concessions were nullified, and 79,000 hectares of the rain forest have been protected.
Lawsuit against a company (Nigeria/Netherlands)
A ruptured oil pipeline in the Niger Delta created serious environmental degradation in the mid 2000s in Africa’s largest wetland. Environmental lawyer Chima Williams conducted interviews and ascertained that Royal Dutch Shell had knowledge of the state of disrepair of the pipeline – belonging to one of its subsidiaries. Chima took the case to The Hague in the Netherlands, where Shell is headquartered. When the Court disagreed, he filed an appeal, showing that Shell hid evidence. After seven years of litigation, Shell was held accountable for the oil spill and forced to compensate residents of the Delta. According to the Goldman Foundation, this landmark case shows that “litigation can be used to change the narrative.”
Lawsuit against the Dutch Government for reneging on pledges to reduce emissions
The Netherlands is among the many nations that has made public pledges to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases to combat climate change. Marjan Minnesma’s non-profit Urjenda, filed a lawsuit against the Dutch Government for failing to provide its “duty of care” to the Dutch people.
Marjan created a novel approach to activism: crowd pleading, in which Dutch citizens could join the lawsuit. Through the “Crowd pleading strategy” 866 plaintiffs joined the lawsuit. The lawsuit has been successful and over $35 billion euros have been allocated to provide for the Dutch Government’s duty of care. Similar lawsuits have been filed in Italy and Ireland.
Protecting Rivers (Thailand)
The Mekong River is a lifeline for 65 million people, providing water and food to communities throughout Thailand. The Thai and Chinese governments began to dredge and use explosives to broaden the riverbanks to create a path for cargo ships to navigate the river. This destruction blocked the fish from spawning, among many other forms of impact which caused poverty to communities dependent on the river. Niwat Roykaew led a campaign alongside a wide range of partners to end the blasting. In 2020, the Thai government cancelled the project.
Suing the City of Los Angeles for health issues associated with urban oil fields
Since 2004, the city of Los Angeles in California has permitted urban oil fields which have led to serious health issues for the front-line communities adjacent to the oil fields. The front-line communities are disproportionately home to people of color, such as Nalleli Cobo. As a child, Nallelibegan to suffer from asthma, nosebleeds, and heart palpitations due to the oil fields. When she was just ten years old, Nalleli became an activist, going door-to-door and speaking at rallies. In 2019, she developed an aggressive form of cancer linked to the oil fields. The alliance created by Nalleli sued the City of Los Angeles for environmental racism. The oil company, AllenCo, was forced to close and faced 24 criminal charges.
These environmental defenders illustrate the shift from the concept of “stakeholders” to “rightsholders”. In the past, the front-line communities bearing the brunt of the environmental degradation were considered to be “stakeholders”. These communities are more than stakeholders – they are “rightsholders” using legal tools to challenge governments both national and municipal — for their rights — and they are winning. Now forms of activism – such as crowd pleading — are emerging in this struggle. Technology and media are playing a pivotal role in this transformation.