I recently attended the award ceremony for the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize winners in Washington, D.C. Six people, one from each of the inhabited continents of the planet, was honored for their tireless conservation work.
I have followed the Goldman awards since my days at E Magazine, and each year I am inspired and uplifted by hearing the stories of sacrifice and struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds. In an introduction video to the event, Robert Redford pointed out that the Goldman Prize has been awarded for 24 years, to 157 “environmental heroes” from 82 countries.
“The impact of their work is immeasurable,” said Redford.Goldman winner Azzam Alwash (right) meets with local people in the marshes of southern Iraq, which he helped restore. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize
John D. Goldman, who presented the prizes on behalf of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, and in memory of his late parents Richard N. and Rhoda H. Goldman, said the awards mark each winner’s dedication and selflessness. Although the winners each receive $150,000 and a bronze statuette, as well as international recognition, they may still face dangers for their activism, said Goldman.
One former winner recently received a year-long prison sentence in South Korea as a direct result of his environmental work, Goldman told the crowd. Another past winner, in Gabon, “has been charged with illegal defamation of the government for speaking out against damage by oil palm plantations and other problems,” said Goldman.
On the other hand, a number of past Goldman Prize winners have been elected to public office in their home countries. One recent winner successfully convinced Apple to allow third-party auditing of its overseas factories, said Goldman. Another was instrumental in convincing the Obama administration to block construction of a massive mountaintop removal coal mine in Appalachia.
Other past winners have included Wangari Maathai, the late Noble Prize winner and legendary tree planter from Kenya; Love Canal’s Lois Gibbs; Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian activist and media personality who was executed for his work on behalf of the Ogoni people; and Terri Swearingen, who became well known after defeating a toxic waste incinerator in Ohio.
“These individuals have shown to all of us the power of the individual,” said Goldman.
DC TV presenter Barbara Harrison, the emcee of the award ceremony, added, “They are individuals who don’t take no for an answer… The recipient has always set personal risk aside to take a stand.”
The 2013 Goldman Prize winners are Azzam Alwash (Asia), who has helped restore marshlands in his native Iraq; Nohra Padilla (South and Central America), who has organized recycling “waste pickers” in Colombia; Jonathan Deal (Africa), who fights fracking in ecologically sensitive parts of South Africa; Aleta Baun (Islands), who has fought against destructive marble mining in West Timor; Rossano Ercolini (Europe), who is spreading the concept of municipal Zero Waste from his Italian hometown; and Kimberly Wasserman (North America), who defeated dirty coal-fired power plants in a Latin neighborhood in Chicago.
Rebirth of the Mesopotamian Marshes
Displaying deep humility, Azzam Alwash accepted a Goldman Prize on behalf of his team Nature Iraq, a group he founded in 2004. Going further, he added, “It is the Marsh Arabs who showed what is possible in a free Iraq.”
Alwash said, “With patience and a sense of humor my team worked under incredibly difficult circumstances to achieve what some experts said was impossible.”
Alwash grew up fishing in the Mesopotamian marshlands in southern Iraq, which scholars believe is the cradle of one of the earliest civilizations. The lush habitat was also the cradle of diverse wildlife, from water buffalo to lions, otters, foxes, and a plethora of birds and fish. But in the mid 1990s, Saddam Hussein burned and drained much of the area to drive out Shiite Arabs that had staged uprisings and then fled into the reeds.
The marshes turned to dust bowls, and the people who had lived there for thousands of years, descendants of the Sumerians, began to suffer. Like many Iraqis, Alwash fled the country in those troubled years, and he settled in Los Angeles. There, he became a successful engineer, and in the 2000s he began returning to his homeland for extended periods, with a goal of using his technical skills to bring water back to the region.
Working with the local Marsh Arabs, Alwash and team helped reflood the area. The reeds returned, followed by much of the wildlife. About half of the original marshlands are now flourishing, and the area is slated to become Iraq’s first national park.
Alwash’s next challenge is fighting off a plan to build 23 dams upstream along the Turkey-Syria border, which he says would reduce the flow of water into the marshes to a trickle.
When she accepted her Goldman Prize, Kimberly Wasserman said, “I always believe the hard work we do as organizers is the reward itself.”
Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.