Meet the women who won the 2021 “Green Nobel” for their fight to protect the planet
Five women have been awarded the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize, a reward that honours environmental activists from six regions around the world.
The Prize, also called the ‘Green Nobel’, was created in 1989 to inspire grassroots action to protect the planet. It is awarded annually to individuals who are often from isolated villages or underdeveloped cities, and who take great personal risks to safeguard the environment.
In 2017, Maida Bilal led a team of women in a blockade of heavy equipment, spending more than 500 days guarding the site of a planned mini hydropower plant on the Kruščica River in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After the war in the 1990s, Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced a dam boom, with 454 mini-hydropower projects built, planned or under construction. Dubbed the “Blue Heart of Europe,” Western Balkans have largely undammed rivers and biodiversity hotspots. The Kruščica river, which runs through mountains, brings fresh drinking water to villages around and offers a critical habitat for many species.
Bilal and protesters endured an attack by the police who forcibly moved them for violating public peace and order, but they kept fighting.
“I lost my job, I lost my friends, my daughter was bullied in school,” Bilal told Reuters. “I would lie if I said it was easy, but then I did it in spite of everything. I have a daughter and don’t want her as a grown up to face the same problem as her mother.”
“We have defended the river for 503 days, physically 24 hours a day. If needed, we’ll guard her for another 5,300 days.”
Women left when the regional court cancelled all environmental and construction permits for the dams in December 2018 – the first legal and community environmental victory of its kind in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Kimiko Hirata has been a climate activist since the 1990s, after reading Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance and learning about the dangers of climate change. In 1997, she founded the Kiko Network, a NGO campaigning for emissions reductions.
When an earthquake and subsequent tsunami ravaged Japan in March 2011 and caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, all the country’s nuclear plants had to shut down. The country faced an energy crisis, and turned to coal as a major energy source, planning 50 new coal plants by 2050.
Burning coal is responsible for 46 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. It’s the single biggest contributor to climate change. Facing a new coal power plant boom, Hirata launched a national anti-coal campaign which culminated in the cancellation of 13 planned coal plants in 2019, averting the emission of 42 million tons of CO2 per year – the equivalent of taking 7.5 million passenger cars off the road every year for 40 years.
“I think (our work) helped put the brakes on to a certain extent,” she told AFP. “But there are more coal plants than before, so in the broader sense we still face challenges and haven’t won a victory yet.”
In 2020, Hirata spearheaded Japan’s first climate resolution against Mizuho Financial Group, which garnered 34.5 percent of shareholders’ support and put significant pressure on private banks. Her campaign helped build strong momentum for Japanese companies to move away from coal, and more than 10 Japanese coal plant developers – including Mitsubishi – announced that they will no longer develop or finance new coal projects, a significant policy transformation.
“If we take action now, we can still make it so I have hope,” Hirata said.
For five years, Gloria Majiga-Kamoto has been fighting the plastics industry in Malawi to bring an end to single-use plastics.
According to a study commissioned by the government, an estimated 75,000 tons of plastic are produced in Malawi each year, of which 80% is discarded after use. In the community of Mponela, 40% of slaughtered livestock in the area were found to have ingested plastic fragments.
“It became very personal for me after interacting with farmers,” Gloria Majiga-Kamoto told CNN. “Some of them are losing their livestock because once the animals get into the field, which is so heavily polluted with single-use plastic, they consume these plastics, which kill them, thereby affecting the livelihood of their owners,” she said.
In 2017, Majiga-Kamoto formed a coalition of activists and NGOs to pressure the government into instituting a national plastic ban, rallying public outcry over the government’s failure to act.
“We organised several marches to the court and in communities to document their experiences and the challenges they encountered because of the plastic problem we have in the country,” Majiga-Kamoto said.
After unrelenting pressure from her campaign, in July 2019 Malawi’s High Court ruled in favor of the enforcement of the ban on the production, importation, distribution, and use of thin plastics.
“Plastic is quite a useful innovation, but the challenge is that we are using it unsustainably,” Majiga-Kamoto told CNN.
In September 2019, Sharon Lavigne successfully stopped the construction of a US$1.25 billion Chinese-owned plastics manufacturing plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana, US. The plant would have released hundreds of tons of toxic pollutants into the environment – directly into the predominantly Black community, already burdened with health hazards.
St. James Parish sits between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, in a region known as “Cancer Alley” for the 200 petrochemical plants, pipelines and oil depots that run for 80 miles along the Mississippi River.
The parish is a prime example of environmental racism. It has among the highest concentrations of toxic chemicals in the country, with cancer rates found to be 50 times higher than the national average, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Yet, the state of Louisiana plans to build or expand 111 petrochemical facilities, with Black neighbourhoods at the epicenter of this toxic boom.
In 2018 the parish council granted the chemical company Wanhua permits for the plant. Lavigne, a special education teacher turned environmental justice advocate, organised door-to-door visits to residents, hosted meetings, and petitioned the parish council and governor’s office to issue moratoriums on new industrial construction. When it was denied, she led marches, and built coalitions with environmental and climate justice organisations, until Wanhua withdrew its land use application, less than a year later.
“We stood up for our health because it is more important than wealth. If we hadn’t spoken up, the plant would have gone ahead. It felt like a victory,” Lavigne told The Guardian. “I didn’t realise I’d become an activist. I was just a concerned citizen trying to save lives.”
Liz Chicaje, leader of the Indigenous Bora community of Loreto in Peru, has led a long campaign which in 2018 resulted in the creation of Yaguas National Park, protecting more than two million acres of Amazon rainforest.
Illegal logging and mining have plagued the region and its inhabitants for decades, and were expected to impact 3.8 million acres over the next 20 years, according to the Conservation Strategy Fund.
Realising that the formal status of a national park would help protect the region’s rainforests and river systems, Chicaje partnered with members of other indigenous groups from the area, and created a coalition with government officials, conservationists, and scientists – including researchers at the Field Museum of Chicago. They built political support for the park and ensured that, once created, Indigenous peoples would still be able to hunt and fish there as they had for generations.
The government’s decision to declare the area a national park is a key step in conserving the country’s rich ecosystems and protecting the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples. According to a report by Peru’s National Service of Natural Protected Areas, upgrading Yaguas to national park status will sequester about 1.5 million tons of carbon over the next 20 years.
When asked by the BBC what message she would like to convey as winner of the Goldman Prize, Chicaje said: “Keep putting your faith in the forest and the environment, which is the foundation of planet Earth.”
The prize for Asia went to Thai Van Nguyen, in Vietnam, for dedicating his life to protecting the pangolin, a critically endangered species and the world’s most heavily trafficked animal.
Learn more about women leading the fight against climate change