‘Green Nobel Prize’ crowns 2020 award winners

Having been a regular fixture since 1989, the Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded to individuals who make great efforts to protect the environment.

This year, the Goldman Environmental Prize was to be awarded to no fewer than six recipients, each one from a different corner of the globe. Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Europe, North America, as well as Islands and Island Nations all received recognition for individuals from those regions striking out and achieving incredible work in the name of the environment.

The recipients showed dedication in the work they did, bridging the gap between different peoples and cultures, reflecting how anyone can make a difference, no matter where they’re from. For anyone interested in catching the star-studded award ceremony, here is a link to a recording of the show, which included segments featuring Sigourney Weaver, Robert Redford and many more.

Chibeze Ezekiel – Africa

Like many nations seeking to grow their economies and raise living standards across the board, Ghana was at a crossroads in terms of energy. Power outages have been less of a bug and more of a feature of life in modern Ghana – in 2015, there were an estimated 159 blackout days in total.

This means facilities including many Ghanaian hospitals are badly hit – this results in many Ghanaian babies being born in rooms lit by light from cell phones and nothing else. To try and stem this energy crisis, the Ghanaian Government opted for the path of least resistance, resorting to proposals for a coal-powered plant.

However, just because it was the easiest option didn’t mean it was the best. In fact, more coal power would make Ghana more dependent on a finite source of power which would pollute the air and accelerate climate change.

Chibeze Ezekiel, as organiser of 350 Ghana Reducing Our Carbon, an affiliate of the NGO 350.org, managed to lead a grassroots campaign which was instrumental resulting in the cancellation of the plan for the new coal-powered station. It was so successful that it steered Ghana decisively away from hydrocarbons and towards a greener future, as laid out by the 2019 Renewable Energy Masterplan.

Paul Sein Twa – Asia

Paul is a member of the Karen people, a distinct culture and one of eight ethnic groupings to be found in Myanmar. The Karen people call the Salween River basin their home, and they have intertwined their culture with the surrounding environment. This makes them truly in-tune with a rich ecosystem which boasts great biodiversity.

Myanmar’s transition from a military dictatorship to a booming capitalist democracy has had some false starts. Since 1998, the Karen people have been fighting the government over plans to build the Hatgyi Dam, a hydroelectric dam which would cut through the heart of Karen territory.

Not only do the Karen people have this to contend with – logging and a boom in agribusiness have encroached on their lands. However, Paul Sein Twa, a founding member and Executive Director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, received recognition for his efforts in 2018 towards the creation of a 1.35 million-acre peace park.

This park is intended to preserve the natural beauty of the Salween River basin for future generations, while also protecting the future of this resilient yet isolated culture.

Lucie Pinson – Europe

Coal plays a recurring role in the activities of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize winners. Lucie Pinson gains recognition for spearheading a campaign which targeted some of the largest financial institutions and insurance companies in France.

French banks play an integral role in the investment and growth of coal power in not only France, but countries all over the globe. According to estimates, 20 international banks provide 75 per cent of the loans the coal industry needs – three of these are French.

Lucie Pinson knew what she had to do. Using her NGO and think tank, Reclaim Finance, Lucie managed to gain significant traction to make the banks change tack and stop financing coal-powered companies and their projects. But it didn’t end there – insurance is another means coal projects need to survive. Without adequate insurance, they simply can’t get off the ground.

By turning their attention to these insurance companies in turn between 2017-19, Reclaim Finance managed to prompt the likes of AXA and SCOR to cancel plans for providing insurance coverage on coal projects.

Leydy Pech – North America

The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico has been both a source of life and a testament to how easily it can be snatched away over the long history of our planet. It is believed to be the very place where the Chicxulub asteroid collided with Earth 66 million years ago, which resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Nowadays, the Peninsula is a highly fertile place, considered the seat of Mayan culture. It is rich in dense forests and is considered home to a sizable population of indigenous Mayan people to this day. The production of honey and the practice of beekeeping are a precious link to the past as well as a way of life for the Mayan people who remain there. In fact, beekeeping is one of the factors which is cited as being integral in helping protect the forests of this region.

Agricultural biotech company Monsanto was beginning to gain a foothold in Mexico, growing GM soybeans which have a high tolerance to a specific herbicide commonly used by farmers, which is believed to be a carcinogen. Leydy Pech led a campaign which resulted in Monsanto being banned from planting these GM beans in seven states.

Nemonte Nequimo – South and Central America

In Ecuador, a campaign led by indigenous leader Nemonte Nequimo helped result in a court ruling protecting 500,000 acres of the Amazon Rainforest from companies wishing to mine in the area for oil. As many as 80 per cent of her people, the Waorani, find themselves living on barely one-tenth of the land their ancestors used to call home.

Nemonte’s leadership in the campaign to protect these lands set a precedent for indigenous people taking back control and extending their rights over the business interests of petrochemical companies. Her work leaves future generations the building blocks they need to continue protecting the Amazon Rainforest for many years to come.

Kristal Ambrose – Islands and Island Nations

Last but not least, Kristal represents the work being carried out to protect the planet in some of the places most at risk due to rising sea levels. Hailing from the Bahamas, Kristal’s non-profit organisation, the Bahamas Plastic Movement, managed to mobilise support from local young people to change how the government treated the threat posed by plastic.

Millions of tonnes of plastic enter our oceans each year. Kristal’s hard work managed to persuade the Bahamian Government to take measures to ban single-use plastic items including cups, cutlery, straws and containers altogether. Announced officially in 2018, the measures went into effect this year.

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