This past Monday, environmental activists from six continents were honored with the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest environmental award honoring grassroots leaders for their efforts to protect the environment and make positive changes in their communities. The story of Leng Ouch the Goldman Prize winner from Cambodia was truly inspiring. He went undercover to document illegal logging and exposed the corruption of vast deforestation and displacement of indigenous people from their land. His documentation eventually led to the government cancelling logging contracts and exposing criminal collusion between timber companies and government officials. The stories told by Leng and the other prize winners show that it doesn’t take a political figure, tons of money, or fancy technology to make a difference, all it takes is showing up and doing what needs to be done.
Being on the front lines of an environmental movement and standing up to large corporate interests, corrupt governments and unjust laws takes courage. Many activists are threatened, harassed, slandered and even killed, as was last year’s Goldman Prize recipient Berta Cáceres, a woman who rallied the indigenous Lenca people in a successful grassroots campaign that pressured the world’s largest dam builder Sinohydro to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam. We don’t have to go far to find examples of fallen heroes in our own community. The untimely deaths of Judy Bari and David “Gypsy” Chain devastated the activist community, but like Berta, their efforts didn’t die, they multiplied.
The people who make sacrifices for our environment and for future generations, are the true heroes of our time and more of these people should be honored, supported and celebrated. Most activists burn the candle at both ends, they work hard and make little, but the work needs to be done so they continue carrying the torch because they know that our future depends on it.
Because we all share this irreplaceable planet with each other and future generations, it is crucial that we work together to find and apply solutions to protect the intact wild places that still exist. Scientists have revealed that fragmentation and loss of natural habitats are the main factors threatening plant and animal species with extinction. Our forests provide essential ecosystem services like food, air purification, clean water, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, erosion and flood control, but because there is no dollar value placed on these services, they are often disregarded by corporate interests who seek to make money from extractive practices that fragment our forests and destroy our ecosystems. The science is clear, but a social revolution is needed to change the system.
The existing system protects corporate interests and incentivizes governments to sacrifice the environment and the communities that depend on them to sell off their land and resources for short-term profits, it criminalizes activism and creates a culture of fear for those speaking up for the land, water, air, animals and future generations. Not too long ago genocide was promoted, it was legal to have slaves and steal indigenous land and it was illegal for people of color and women to vote. Today, it is still legal to decimate old growth forest ecosystems, build dams that destroy rivers and fisheries and permits are still given to “take” endangered species. Although the science is clear that human activities are directly responsible for climate change and the ongoing mass extinction of species, our actions have not significantly changed.
It took a strong community of brave people to protect many of the places we know and love. If not for the actions of dedicated grassroots activists in our local community, we would not have the Headwaters Forest Reserve, Sinkyone Wilderness, Owl Creek or Luna, and the Klamath dams would not be coming out.
Even the smallest of actions can make a huge impact. This Earth Day, think about what part of your natural environment means the most to you and what you can do to help protect it for our children’s children. We need all the help we can get, so while you are participating in an Earth Day event in your community, start a dialogue with your neighbors and friends and decide how you can act locally to make a global impact.