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Goldman Environmental Prize winners announced

Ineke Mules
April 24, 2017

A former child soldier and a Guatemalan evangelical pastor are among this year's winners of the prestigious award, which recognizes activists from each of the world's six geographic regions.

Goldman Environmental Prize- 2017 Gewinner- Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo
Image: Goldman Environmental Prize

The winners of this year's prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize have been announced in San Francisco, honoring their work in a range of environmental fields across the world's six inhabited continental regions.

Recipients receive a monetary award of USD $175,000 (161,200 euros) and are selected by an international jury based on nominations submitted by a network of environmental organizations and individuals. The prize was created in 1990 by philanthropists Richard N. Goldman and his wife, Rhonda H. Goldman.

David vs. Goliath

Rodrigue Katemno from the Democratic Republic of the Congo was honored this year for risking his life to document and expose information concerning pervasive corruption in ongoing attempts to drill for oil in Virunga National Park. His work led to widespread public backlash, ultimately forcing British oil company Soco to withdraw from its oil exploration plans.

Goldman Environmental Prize 2017- Gorilla "Virunga" aus Kongo
Virunga National Park is home to a great range of biodiversity and is a vital habitat for mountain gorillas Image: Goldman Environmental Prize

A former child solider, Katemno has experienced numerous violent setbacks during his fight to protect the wildlife in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, including a stint in prison in 2013 where he was tortured for 17 days and subjected to mock executions.

A member of the DRC wildlife authority, he has since been posted to Upemba National Park for his own safety, however still faces threats from illegal miners who seek to exploit the region's natural resources, including gold, emerald and coltan. 

South American recipient Rodrigo Tot is an indigenous Guatemalan leader who also fought a successful legal battle on behalf of his community, ordering the government to issue official land titles to the Q'eqchi people and halt the expansion of environmentally destructive nickel mining. 

Goldman Environmental Prize- 2017 Gewinner Rodrigo Tot
Guatemalan pastor Rodrigo Tot has been recognized for defending the lands of his indigenous Q'eqchi community against environmentally destructive miningImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Castillo

The evangelical pastor says his life been threatened multiple times as a result of his work; in 2012 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Guatemalan government to offer protection to Tot and his lawyer, however the request was ignored. 

In India, Prafulla Samantara was recognized for his 12-year-long fight to ensure the land rights of the 8,000-member indigenous Dongria Kondh tribe, ultimately preventing the construction of an open-pit aluminum coal mine in the thick forestlands of the Niyamgiri Hills, which is also home to the endangered Bengal tiger and is a vital migration corridor for elephants.

Samantara has been kidnapped and assaulted numerous times for what his opponents call his 'anti-development' stance.

Goldman Environmental Prize- 2017 Gewinner Prafulla Samantara
Prafulla Samantara has been recognized for his marathon legal battle to protect India's Niyamgiri Hills region from an open-pit aluminum coal mineImage: Goldman Environmental Prize

Other winners include Slovenian organic farmer Uroš Macerl who successfully stopped a cement kiln from burning hazardous industrial waste, community activist mark! Lopez who persuaded the state of California to perform lead testing on homes which had been contaminated by a battery smelter, and Wendy Bowman, who for 30 years refused to let a multinational mining company take over her farm in Australia's Hunter Valley region.

Activists under threat of violence

Despite widespread international support for their work, violence against environmental activists has continued to increase around the world.

Honduras Berta Caceres
Honduran activist and 2015 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Berta Caceres, was killed in March 2016Image: picture alliance/dpa/T. Russo/ Goldman Environmental Prize

Two previous recipients of the Goldman Prize were killed for their efforts against environmental destruction: Mexican anti-logging campaigner Isidro Baldenegro was assassinated by gunmen in January and Honduran indigenous rights activist Berta Caceres was killed last year.

"That environmentalists are under threat is a reflection of what's happening in the world right now," acting director of the Goldman Prize, Lorrae Rominger, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Activists fighting very powerful interests are being targeted."

The Goldman Prize committee is currently investigating possible measures which will help winners continue their environmental work safely.