Grassroots activists who took on British mining giants and a serial plastics polluter – and won – are among this year’s recipients of the world’s most prestigious environmental prize.
The environmental campaigns led by the six 2023 Goldman prize winners highlight the hurdles faced by some local activists, who are often on the frontlines confronting the toxic mix of corporate greed and systemic corruption that is fuelling the climate emergency, biodiversity collapse and increasingly forced displacement.
The winners include the fourth-generation American fisher Diane Wilson, who won a landmark lawsuit against Formosa Plastics, one of the world’s largest petrochemical companies, for dumping vast quantities of toxic plastic waste on the Texas Gulf coast.
Wilson, 74, collated insider information from more than 100 whistleblowers, becoming a self-trained private investigator and citizen scientist after state authorities let the Taiwanese multinational pollute with impunity for more than three decades.
“The system is totally broken, there was no enforcement by our industry-friendly politicians while the company destroyed our fishing communities and the ecosystem. I am just a high school graduate, but feel a deep connection with the water and after 34 years of persistence we won, and it felt incredible,” said Wilson, who helps oversee the 2019 court order to monitor and clean up the Texas wetlands and shoreline.
The $50m settlement is the largest award in a citizen-led suit against an industrial polluter in the history of the US Clean Water Act, and Formosa has since been forced to pay additional multimillion-dollar penalties for violating the new “zero-discharge” rule.
In another David v Goliath legal victory, the African winner helped change UK law after the supreme court in London ruled that the British mining company Vedanta Resources could be tried in the UK court system, including on whether they owed a duty of care.
Chilekwa Mumba worked closely with villagers throughout the protracted legal battle during which he was publicly criticised and harassed for his activism. The villagers claimed their crops, livestock and only drinking water source were for years poisoned by pollution from a huge open-pit copper mine, and in 2021 Vedanta settled the claim without admission of liability.
“The ruling gave the communities back hope that justice was possible, and are now even more motivated to protect their environment. This victory should have a ripple effect to companies who come to exploit resources in Africa and elsewhere, and force them to do business in a different way as they will be held responsible,” said Mumba, 40, a business development consultant turned community organiser.
The 2021 legal precedent has been used to argue a duty of care by British companies across the supply chain, and has already been used to hold the fossil fuel giant Shell Global to account in the UK for pollution by its subsidiary in Nigeria.
Across the world, Indigenous and pastoral communities are on the frontline against unchecked urban development, industrial agriculture and polluting industries such as mining and fossil fuel projects.
This year’s Goldman winners include Indigenous women from Indonesia and Brazil who overcame powerful corporations and deep-seated misogyny in their communities to safeguard large swaths of two of the world’s largest rainforests.
In Brazil, Alessandra Korap Munduruku organised community efforts to stop the British mining company Anglo American from encroaching on Indigenous lands in the Amazon by exposing the corporations plotting to take advantage of former president Jair Bolsonaro’s rollback of environmental and Indigenous rights protections. In May 2021, Anglo American formally committed to withdraw 27 approved research applications to mine inside Indigenous territories, including 440,000 acres (178,000 hectares) of rainforest in Sawré Muybu lands which is home to Munduruku communities.
“To be a female leader in the white people’s world is not easy, so just imagine how difficult it is in our patriarchal societies. But I was determined to do something to protect our land, rivers and forests from the invaders, and convinced the chiefs that women can be leaders in this ongoing struggle,” said 33-year-old Korap.
As Korap helped coordinate national and international campaigns to name and shame the opaque mining deals, other multinationals also backed out and for the first time in decades, none of the 130 companies represented by the Brazilian Mining Association (Ibram) reported active mining applications in Indigenous territories.
Amid record-breaking levels of violence and criminal persecution, the courage of environmental defenders like winner Delima Silalahi from North Sumatra is inspiring – and paramount to saving the planet from environmental collapse and climate chaos.
In 2022, Silalahi’s campaign led to the Indonesian government awarding legal stewardship of 17,824 acres (7,200 hectares) of the over-exploited forest to six Indigenous communities with a history of forest stewardship. The new guardians have begun restoring the biodiverse tropical forest to create valuable carbon sinks; a safe habitat for endangered tiger, orangutan and rhino species; and a source of income through the sustainable cultivation of the native benzoin styrax trees for frankincense harvesting.
Now in its 34th year, the prize has recognised 219 environmental leaders (121 men and 98 women) from 95 countries. And while many have gone on to hold leadership positions in government and non-profit organizations and as Nobel prize laureates, others have faced retaliation for their dogged campaigning, ending up arrested, jailed or dead.
The Indigenous leader from Honduras Berta Cáceres was assassinated in 2016, the year after being awarded the Goldman prize for leading a campaign to stop construction of an illegally sanctioned hydroelectric dam. The clean energy advocate Nguy Thi Khanh, the 2018 winner from Vietnam, is currently serving jail time for tax charges widely seen as bogus.
This year’s other winners include Zafer Kizilkaya, whose innovative approach to marine conservation has helped turn Turkey into a role model for the Mediterranean, and Tero Mustonen, a fisher and climate scientist who helped transform dozens of severely degraded former industrial peat mining and forestry sites throughout Finland into carbon-absorbing biodiverse wetlands and habitats.