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On Wednesday night, I attended the premier annual event of the DC environmental activist community: the Goldman Prize ceremony, held each year to recognize a half-dozen grassroots environmental heroes selected from hundreds of nominees from around the world. As always, hearing the recipients share the stories of their lives, and their transformations into eco-warriors, brought tears to my eyes – sometimes of joy and sometimes of sorrow. Each and every one of them gave me a poignant reminder of the power of people!

Below are their stories.

Dmitry Lisityn, from Sakhalin Island in Siberia, was honored for the work he’s done to protect the ecology of that island, and the populations, human and otherwise, who call the island and its surrounding waters home. The island is being threatened by massive oil development and logging. Although he started out thinking that “regular people” like himself don’t make a difference, he became the leader of Sakhalin Environment Watch and a recognized expert on regional environmental protection. His collaboration with indigenous villagers, fishermen, scientists, government leaders, and industry representatives have led to the cancellation of a planned underwater pipeline which would have disrupted critical Western Pacific gray whale habitat, put constraints on logging, in order to protect one of the oldest populations of spawning salmon in the world, and increased the rights and benefits enjoyed by the island’s indigenous population.

Raoul Du Toit, from Zimbabwe, spoke of how he didn’t give up in his efforts to protect the very endangered black rhino population, despite major political and economic setbacks — not to mention threats from poachers armed with submachine guns and backed by international criminal gangs. The numbers of black rhinos in Zimbabwe and neighboring countries, once decimated by the obscenely lucrative but unsustainable sale of rhino horns, have stabilized due to his work. But that work is not just about protecting a limited number of animals in a small island of protected land. He and the people he works with on a day-to-day basis are also addressing larger issues of bio-diversity, national and international policy, and the balance between conservation and development. With the needs of the local population in mind, he is also working on establishing economic incentives for preserving the rhino and the environment that will allow them to thrive.

Ursula Sladek, a mother of five from a small community in Germany’s Black Forest region, was motivated to action by the Chernobyl nuclear accident, 25 years ago – a situation, as she noted, which is eerily similar to what is unfolding at the Fukushima power plant right now. When Chernobyl’s radiation prevented her, and her community, from eating local foods or allowing their children to play outside, she helped establish Parents for a Nuclear Free Future, leading that group in their efforts to pursue the production of clean alternative energy. I especially loved when she told about how, when the local utility refused to buy or transmit their energy, they went on a campaign and not only legally took over control of the energy grid, they eventually raised enough energy to buy it, outright, from the electric company. She is now a leader of one of Europe’s 1st cooperatively-owned green energy companies, providing power to over 100,000 households and businesses.

Francisco Pineda had studied and was pursuing sustainable agriculture in his native El Salvador, when he became personally aware of a serious ecological threat to his region from proposed gold mining. The water supply he relied upon to irrigate his crops dried up, and he soon learned that it was being siphoned off by Pacifc Rim, a Canadian mining company, as part of their exploration efforts in the area. Knowing that deadly cyanide is regularly used as part of the mining process, Francisco led efforts to opposed the mine. Complaints to the local government fell on deaf (or corrupt) ears. Not being fooled by claims that the minewas needed for jobs and development, Francisco organized and led a protest movement which eventually stopped the project – although not before 3 activists had been tortured and killed. Francisco, always accompanied by two armed guards, continues with his struggle to prevent mining from destroying the environment, and peoples lives and health.

Prigi Arisandi grew up swimming and playing in the Surabaya River, which runs through Indonesia’s second largest city, of the same name. Although he seemed to me to still be a young man, he told his tale of these childhood memories as if they were part of a distant past. Industrial pollutants, and untreated effluent, have turned the river toxic – yet the local people still need to rely on this water for drinking and bathing! Prigi committed himself to fighting this pollution – which was causing concentrations of heavy metals in the local peoples’ bodies and high levels of cancer among their children – and educating people about the link between their illnesses and the pollution in the water. He has reached out to schools and brought people on tours of the river to see its reality first-hand. In 2008 he, and his organization, won a precedent-setting decision, which ordered the Governor of East Java to change government policy and ensure compliance with environmental protection legislation.

Hilton Kelley’s story is one whose beginning was all too familiar. He grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, where the income level, among a largely African-American population, was inversely proportionate to the high rates of cancer and childhood respiratory illness caused by the heavy concentration of petrochemical plants and hazardous waste facilities there. After many years away, a visit home showed Hilton how severe both the economic and physical damage to his community had become. Motivated to do something about these problems, he moved back to Port Arthur, started educating himself about the issues, then formed the group Community In-Power and Development Association, which trained local residents to monitor air quality. He also worked with government and industry officials, the results of which were significant emission reductions, industry payment of heathcare coverage for local residents, and a $3.5million fund to support the development of local businesses.

Virtually all of these activists presented themselves as ordinary people, just doing the right thing. They talked of how if you love something – the earth, your children, your community – and you see it being hurt, you must act to protect it. They called on all of us, in the audience, to join them, and reminded us that each of us, in our own way, is capable of making a huge difference. They showed by their example, how you can educate yourself about an issue, join with others, and mobilize to do something about the problems we face.

Listening to them, I thought of our EarthRights School students, and I wondered if one day one of them would be standing on that stage telling their own story of how they took up a fight and won.