After a long year of environmental disasters across the globe and in the midst of a public health crisis that has killed well over a million people, six “environmental heroes” were announced on Monday as winners of the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize, an annual honor that recognizes grassroots activists from each of the world’s inhabited continental regions.
“These six environmental champions reflect the powerful impact that one person can have on many,” John Goldman, president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, said in a statement. “In today’s world, we witness the effects of an imbalance with nature: a global pandemic, climate change, wildfires, environmental injustices affecting those most at risk, and constant threats to a sustainable existence.”
“Even in the face of the unending onslaught and destruction upon our natural world, there are countless individuals and communities fighting every day to protect our planet,” Goldman continued. “These are six of those environmental heroes, and they deserve the honor and recognition the prize offers them—for taking a stand, risking their lives and livelihoods, and inspiring us with real, lasting environmental progress.”
This year’s winners are Kristal Ambrose of the Bahamas, Nemonte Nenquimo of Ecuador, Lucie Pinson of France, Chibeze Ezekiel of Ghana, Leydy Pech of Mexico, and Paul Sein Twa of Myanmar. Although the foundation typically holds a ceremony for the recipients at the San Francisco Opera House in April, the prize is being awarded virtually on Monday, at 4:00 pm PST, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ahead of the livestreamed award ceremony, the foundation released videos and online biographies of the 2020 recipients, who join 200 activists from 90 nations who have been honored with the prize in the past.
Kristal Ambrose, the Bahamas
Ambrose is being recognized for helping convince the government of the Bahamas to impose a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags, plastic cutlery, straws, and Styrofoam containers and cups, which took effect this year. The foundation says that “operating outside of the traditional power structures in the Bahamas, Ambrose used science, strategic advocacy, and youth empowerment to get her country focused on plastics.”
She explained the significance of her government’s recent plastics ban in an interview with The Guardian. “In the Bahamas, it’s a really big deal because we receive the world’s waste as well as producing our own,” Ambrose said. “This is paradise, until you look closely. Then you see the plastic pollution that washes in with the Sargasso Sea.”
The founder of the Bahamas Plastic Movement, she is currently studying marine waste in Sweden and, according to the newspaper, “aims to use the results of her research to build stronger organizations and awareness in the Bahamas.”
Nemonte Nenquimo, Ecuador
Also named one of the 100 most influential people of 2020 by TIME magazine, Nenquimo led an Indigenous campaign and lawsuit that blocked Ecuador’s government from selling 500,000 acres of Waorani territory in the Amazon rainforest for oil extraction—which, as Mongabay noted, “set an important legal precedent for other Indigenous communities in the rainforest, and put in motion a movement to redefine national community consent laws.”
Nenquimo told to Mongabay in September: “We are not waiting for the government to respect us. We are demanding that they respect our life, our home, our culture, and our territory. That’s the most important thing now.”
Following that legal victory in April 2019, the foundation says, “Nenquimo continues to fight for self-determination, rights, cultural, and territorial preservation for the Waorani and other Indigenous communities.”
Lucie Pinson, France
The foundation calls Pinson “a climate soldier,” pointing out that her activism not only “successfully pressured France’s three largest banks to eliminate financing for new coal projects and coal companies” but also “compelled French insurance companies to follow suit.”
“As a result of her work with French institutions, 22 global banks and 17 insurers now cease to support coal development,” the foundation says. “Pinson’s activism has already resulted in the adoption of new coal policies by investors managing more than $7 billion in assets. She vows not to stop until financial institutions cease all new investment in coal.”
After working as a campaigner for Friends of the Earth France from 2013 to 2017, Pinson founded Reclaim Finance this year. The vision of the group is “to create a financial system that supports the transition to sustainable societies that preserve ecosystems and satisfy people’s basic needs.”
Chibeze “Chi” Ezekiel, Ghana
Ezekiel led a four-year grassroots campaign that compelled the Ghanaian government to cancel what would have been the country’s first coal-fired power plant. In 2017, the year after that 700-megawatt project was defeated, Ghana’s president announced that all new energy projects would be renewable.
The activist is founder of the Strategic Youth Network for Development, which “harnesses the power of youth to make environmental and social change in Ghana,” as well as the national coordinator of 350 Ghana Reducing Our Carbon (350 GROC), an affiliate of the global environmental group 350.org, whose executive director May Boeve and Africa team leader Landry Ninteretse celebrated the prize announcement in a statement.
Calling Ezekial “a strong voice of the youth and grassroots groups,” Ninteretse said that “the recognition of his and other allies’ work shows that collective efforts through community organizing and campaigning can empower ordinary people to demand their rights and overcome social injustices and achieve inspiring wins for thousands of grassroots activists, frontline communities, and local groups of Africa and beyond working for real climate justice.”
Leydy Pech, Mexico
An Indigenous Mayan beekeeper born and raised in Hopelchén, Pech spearheaded a coalition that took on American agrochemical giant Monsanto and secured a 2015 Mexican Supreme Court ruling that suspended the planting of genetically modified soybeans in Campeche and Yucatán, two states in Southern Mexico.
“In September 2017, thanks to Pech’s organizing, Mexico’s Food and Agricultural Service revoked Monsanto’s permit to grow genetically modified soybeans in seven states, including Campeche and Yucatán,” the foundation notes. “This decision marks the first time that the Mexican government has taken official action to protect communities and the environment from GM crops.”
The foundation adds that “an unassuming but powerful guardian of Mayan land and traditions, Pech experienced frequent discrimination and was widely underestimated: upon seeing her in person following her court victory, a lawyer for Monsanto remarked that he couldn’t believe that this little woman beat them.”
Paul Sein Twa, Myanmar
Sein Twa, a member of the Karen Indigenous group in Myanmar, helped lead his people to establish 1.35-million-acre peace park in the Salween River basin, a major biodiversity zone home to Karen communities as well as Asiatic black bears, clouded leopards, gibbons, sun bears, Sunda pangolins, tigers, and teak forests.
Officially created in late 2018, the Salween Peace Park includes 27 forests and three wildlife sanctuaries. The foundation notes that Sein Twa “has ably combined grassroots environmental activism and Indigenous self-determination to create the peace park in a conflict zone—a singular and unprecedented achievement.”
As co-founder of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), Sein Twa and his organization “are moving forward in assisting communities to develop land management plans, documenting biodiversity gains, and using the park as a bulwark against destructive megaprojects,” according to the foundation.