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Goldman Prize History

Early Inspiration

“Rhoda and I spent many summers in the Sierra Mountains and she enjoyed it as much as I did. From the earliest days of our marriage we would often say we'd like to leave the world a little better than we found it.” - Richard Goldman

Richard N. Goldman (1920-2010) and his wife Rhoda H. Goldman (1924-1996), a Levi Strauss heir, learned to appreciate the environment at an early age. As youths, they participated as Boy and Girl Scouts, and as adults, spent many vacations hiking with their children and grandchildren in the California Sierras.

The couple was on a guided trip down Oregon’s McKenzie River when Richard Goldman realized the need to appreciate the people – like his tour guide, Prince Helfrich, an adventure pioneer and custodian of Oregon’s rivers – who work to protect the environment and our natural resources.

After the Oregon trip, Richard Goldman lamented that there was no “prize of record,” like the Nobel or Pulitzer, to recognize the accomplishments of grassroots environmental champions. In 1989, he and Rhoda acted to fill this void by committing significant financial resources to develop a world-class award. The Goldmans identified and vetted nominators with environmental expertise, selected a Prize jury, commissioned an artist to design the Ouroboros statuette, and settled on a prize concept that rewards ordinary individuals who take extraordinary actions to protect the earth and its inhabitants.

Within a year, the first Prize winners were selected. Their work, which until then had gone unrecognized, was celebrated at the first Goldman Prize ceremony on April 16, 1990. Eight hundred supportive audience members cheered the first six Goldman Environmental Prize winners as they received a $60,000 cash award. The occasion marked the birth of what would become the world’s largest and most prestigious prize for grassroots environmental activism.

Selecting Goldman Prize Recipients

“We had no idea how important this Prize program would turn out to be, but we hoped it would be very important.” - Rhoda Goldman

Over its 23-year history, the Prize has brought cutting-edge environmental issues to the fore, including the ban on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and cleanup of the Love Canal. To uncover such innovative grassroots environmentalists from the world’s six inhabited continental regions (Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America), the Prize considers nominations from more than 50 organizations working on environmental issues and 150 environmental experts from more than 70 countries. These nominations are researched and fact-checked over a five-month period, during which time hundreds of references are contacted.

Since 1989, 151 winners from 81 countries have received the Prize for outstanding efforts to preserve and enhance the environment, often at great personal risk. For example, Alexander Nikitin (1997) was unjustly imprisoned for revealing the risk of a potential nuclear catastrophe from Russia’s aging nuclear submarine base, preventing him from attending the Prize ceremony. Ken Saro-Wiwa (1995) was hanged by the Nigerian military after leading a peaceful movement for the human rights of the Ogoni people whose land had been exploited by multinational oil companies. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanza (2008) are leading one of the largest environmental legal battles in history against oil giant Chevron, demanding justice for the massive petroleum pollution in the region. Fajardo has been subject to harassment and threats on his life.

The Prize cash award has increased over the years and today each winner receives an award of $150,000. Winners also participate in a 10-day tour of San Francisco and Washington, D.C. that includes award ceremonies, news conferences, media briefings and meetings with political, public policy, financial and environmental leaders.

Beyond the Goldman Prize

“Tonight we are honoring people like me who the Goldman Environmental Prize recognized when nobody else could see them. Almost 15 years ago - before the Nobel Peace Prize knew I existed - the Goldman Environmental Prize realized that I existed.” - Wangari Maathai addressing the 2006 Prize ceremony audience

The Goldman Prize amplifies the voices of its recipients and provides them with international recognition to enhance their credibility, worldwide visibility for the issues they champion, and financial support to pursue their vision of a renewed and protected environment.

For example, Wangari Maathai (1991), the founder of Kenya’s tree-planting movement, was elected to Parliament in 2002 and was subsequently appointed Assistant Minister for the Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. In 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African woman and the first environmentalist to do so. Marina Silva (1996), a former rubber-tree tapper who led a movement to halt deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest, was elected to the Brazilian Senate in 1994, making her the youngest senator in Brazil’s history. Then, in 2003, she went on to become Brazil’s Minister of Environment. Robert Brown (1990), a physician who won the Prize after leading a successful grassroots campaign to stop the damming of Australia’s last free-flowing river, went on to establish Australia’s Green Party and was elected to the Australian Senate in 1996.

 

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