Last week, I was lucky enough to attend the 27th annual Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony in Washington, D.C. Each year, the prize is awarded to six grassroots environmentalists from around the world who have gone to tremendous lengths to protect or improve our environment. From preventing the construction of what would have been the largest trash incinerator in the United States to exposing Cambodia’s illegal logging industry, these winners define courage, determination and strength.
All the recipients’ stories are powerful, proving that what seems impossible often is not. When Máxima Acuña de Chaupe went on stage to accept her award with a song she wrote in lieu of a speech, I was completely transfixed.
Máxima, an indigenous farmer living in Peru, was awarded the Goldman Prize for South and Central America for her ongoing battle against Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation, whose joint-venture, Minera Yanacocha, has repeatedly threatened and mistreated Máxima and her family because they live on the land where the company planned to expand their Conga mine.
“My hut, they burned down. My things, they took away. Food, I did not eat. Only water I drank,” she sang.
I was in awe of Máxima, and so was every person in the audience. The ceremony had this incredible ability to foster such a strong sense of unity that the connection almost felt tangible.
Following Goldman’s announcement that Máxima was a prize recipient, Newmont released a statement that it does “not anticipate development of Conga for the foreseeable future.” Never again can we justify inaction by making the excuse that we are only one person and, as result, carry no weight. But the truth is, none of this progress comes without real danger.
As earth rights defenders grow stronger and more effective, so do the threats they face. On Monday, Grufides, a Peruvian nonprofit that supports Máxima’s legal battle against Newmont, reported that gunshots were fired at her house late Sunday night. Máxima said, “I want to say that if anything happens to me, the ones responsible will be Newmont.”
Máxima said before walking off stage at the award ceremony, “I am not afraid of corporate power. I will continue the struggle.” Earth rights defenders are more than aware of the risks they face simply by peacefully protesting against corporate interests, but they continue to seek justice.
From Slovak to Swahili, five languages were spoken during the ceremony, but perhaps the most significant take-away from the ceremony is that this fight has no language barrier. This movement – the protection of human rights and the environment, the denouncement of corporate interests which finances damaging projects in the name of development– is truly universal.