The Goldman Prize award dates back more than 30 years. This year’s winners hail from all parts of the globe, but they’re all rooted in one common theme: the grassroots. The Frontline talks to award executive director Michael Sutton to learn about the responsibility that comes with awarding environmental defenders.
WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
There’s no Nobel Prize for the environment. There is, however, the Goldman Prize Award.
It’s an award that has been around as long as Earth Day has, the first ceremony happening in conjunction with the inaugural Earth Day, in fact. Since then, the award has gone on to honor some 180 environmental achievers. And they’ve succeeded to miraculously protect some critical piece of habitat or endangered species. Other times, winners have been able to prevent a proposed project from happening, keeping their community safe.
Welcome to The Frontline, which is highlighting some of this year’s winners. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. This year’s awards include Chibeze Ezekiel in Ghana and Kristal Ambrose in the Bahamas. You’ll their stories this week, but today I’m focusing on the award at large. Recently, Goldman Environmental Prize Executive Director Michael Sutton sat down with me via Zoom to talk about the award and the responsibility that comes with uplifting environmental defenders who are at increased risk of violence because of the work they do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
There’s a long rich history here. How has the prize’s mission and ethos changed since Richmond and Rhoda Goldman first founded the award more than 30 years ago?
When I look back at the history of the Goldman Prize, I think the founders were incredibly prescient. They anticipated that environmental issues would become much more important over the years. I think their foresight has really been born out in the last 30 years. What motivated them more than anything is there is no Nobel Prize for the environment. And they said, “Well, why is that?” So that’s the niche that they were trying to fill to draw attention to those people laboring in obscurity all around the world who are really grassroots heroes for the environment. That remains as relevant today as any time in the past.
Very often the award comes with action, right? Like someone wins an award and, then, some international governmental body takes action depending on the work that they’ve done. Sometimes the award follows this, and that action comes before the award, but I’m curious how much that plays a role in who is chosen.
The Goldman Prize is given for environmental achievement. The single most important criterion for winning the Goldman Prize is a recent significant achievement. We don’t give the Goldman Prize for lifetime achievement. We don’t give the Goldman Prize to people who talk a lot but actually don’t accomplish much. You have to have accomplished something very significant for your community and for the planet to win the Goldman Prize. We have a number of different categories ranging from wildlife protection to environmental justice. Our prize winners are incredibly diverse, ranging from very well-educated people, scientists, leaders, to community activists.
“We want the Goldman Prize to be a shield—not a target—for our prize winners.”
I think the first time that I got familiar with the award was when Berta Cáceres won it. Because of the work she was doing in Latin America and as a Latina myself, I was really drawn to her. I know that a lot of attention comes with the award, right? It uplifts people, it sheds light on the work they’re doing. I’m curious to hear how you all grapple with the reality of the dangers that may potentially come with this attention. I’m thinking again of Berta Cáceres who was killed almost a year after receiving the award. How do you all grapple with that potential danger, and how do you all work to bring more protections for global environmental defenders?
It’s an important question. You’re right. The Goldman Prize elevates prize winners from obscurity to the level of rockstars. It’s an incredibly emotional rush for them. We raise their level of gravitas, which increases their effectiveness and the impact of their work globally. We inspire millions of other people to do similar things. The message is that one person can make a difference for the environment and for their community.
There are risks associated with environmental defense. Global Witness in London keeps track of the threats to environmental defenders around the world, including Goldman Prize winners but not limited to them. Last year, more than 200 environmental activists were killed as a result of their work. Those threats are increasing. We have responded by launching, in 2015, a Defense of Prize Winners program aimed at protecting these people proactively. We’re spending six times as much money now as we did at first on this program. Our goal is to enhance the safety and security of our prize winners so they can continue their work unimpeded.
We can’t guarantee the safety and security of our prize winners. Many of them are not at risk because they won the Goldman Prize. They’re at risk because of the work that they do. We want the Goldman Prize to be a shield—not a target—for our prize winners. There have been three prize winners killed after they won the Goldman Prize. My goal is to make sure we have no more assaults or serious attacks on our prize winners. To do that, we try to be proactive, anticipate threats, and deal with them before they arise. Our board considers that defending our prize winners is the second-most important thing we do behind awarding the prize.
In the past, I think the environmental community was very reactive. They waited for something to happen and then reacted to it. That’s not good enough. We have been trying to become much more proactive at addressing threats to our prize winners and other environmental defenders. In Europe and North America, environmental defenders are used to operating in a relatively risk-free environment, but in many countries, that is not the case.
That safety that exists right now for North American and European environmental defenders is also decreasing as we’re seeing this increase in military response, like in Standing Rock, for instance. So even here—I’m in New York—that safety is decreasing.
You’re right. And interestingly enough, the pandemic has made this situation worse. In some countries, we believe that governments are using the pandemic as a cover to limit environmental activism by limiting rallies, public gatherings of any kind. The pandemic, of course, has slowed down environmental protection across the board. But grassroots activists have to be very careful. We’ve had around six prize winners, that we know of, contract the virus so far. That limits their ability to do their work, so we’re very conscious of the need to protect our prize winners from all threats, including the pandemic. But governments have used the pandemic and anti-terrorism laws to clamp down on activists.
Where do you hope the award goes moving forward, especially as the urgency around the ecological crises accelerates? I’m assuming the goal is to eventually no longer require a Goldman Prize award.
Our founders recognized that we’re always going to need grassroots and community activists looking after their communities and the planet. The Goldman Prize has spawned a number of other prizes. The most recent example is the Earthshot Prize. I think that’s one measure of success: the number of other environmental prizes that have sprung up over the past 30 years. With the growth of populism around the world and right-wing leaders in various countries, the need for grassroots environmental action is greater than ever. There is no shortage of candidates for the Goldman Prize.
It sounds like the Goldman Prize is going to exist for a very long time then, right? Because even if we succeed in addressing the climate crisis, threats will never go away, and so the need to spotlight these individuals who are organizing around keeping those threats at bay will always be there.
You’re right. And you asked earlier, what’s changed in the last 30 years. I think you’re touching on one of the things that’s really changed. When the prize was launched, the biggest threats to the environment were perceived as pollution and habitat destruction in places like the Amazon. Of course, that remains the case today, but nobody 30 years ago was really paying attention to the ultimate threats like climate change.
If you read about how to address climate change, it’s not just big government programs that are gonna be needed. It’s community-level action. Threats may change over time, and our understanding of real environmental problems may shift, but grassroots activism, the bottom-up approach to environmental protection is really what the Goldman Prize is all about. That’s going to remain necessary no matter what the threats become in the future.
Update 12/3/20 10:25 am ET: This story has been updated to remove a budgetary number that the Goldman Prize Foundation was worried would increase the risk to prize winners.