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Political Capital: Goldman Environmental Prize Winners in Politics

June 11, 2019

Over the years, Goldman Environmental Prize winners have parlayed the public awareness and support the Prize has generated to make a profound impact in the world. A few of these winners have even catapulted into public office—17 at last count.

No Prize winner has achieved more in the political arena than Zuzana Čaputová (pictured above), who on March 30 was elected president of Slovakia in a landslide. In her first campaign for public office, running on a platform of anti-corruption, transparency, and civility in government, her victory was hailed as a repudiation of the recent movement toward right wing, ethnic nationalism in Central and Eastern European countries.

Čaputová, an environmental attorney who was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2016 for her work preventing illegal dumping of hazardous waste in her hometown of Pezinok, is just one of several Prize winners who launched a political career after receiving the honor.

Michael Sutton, the executive director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, is not surprised by the success of Prize winners in the realm of politics.

“One of the things we try to do is to use the Prize as an accelerator to help Prize winners achieve even more,” he says. “We recognize their ability and their achievements in the past, but empower them to do even more. And, in many cases, they do. This is the power of an award or a prize like this. It elevates your gravitas, it propels you into the limelight, and allows you to accomplish even more.”

Here is an overview of several other Prize winners who have served in office, including an in-depth look at Marina Silva of Brazil, who has a long and distinguished career in the Brazilian government.

Marina Silva, Brazil

1996 Goldman Prize recipient

Marina Silva, 1996 Goldman Prize winner for South and Central America. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

While we all like to think that the fight for environmental protections proceeds along a steady upward trajectory toward a more sustainable future, oftentimes a Prize winner must contend with the zigs and zags of progress. In Marina Silva’s case, her resolute advocacy is being put to the test.

In October, Silva, a former minister of the environment, ran for president of Brazil as the leader of the Sustainability Party. She garnered a little over one million votes (1%). She didn’t expect to win but ran to ensure that the issues she cares about, such as preserving and extending environmental protections and battling corruption in the political system, were put before the public. However, the winner, Jair Bolsonaro, the leader of the country’s far right party, is determined to roll back many of the environmental protections Marina dedicated her career to institute.

Now, Silva says that the threat posed by Bolsonaro’s government means that she and her allies must redouble their efforts.

“So much is now under threat,” says Silva. “For example, over the last 20 years we had built up some policies protecting biodiversity and indigenous people’s rights, and now they are in danger of being dismantled. There is legislation to allow mining on indigenous land, which would not only displace many people but increase the deforestation rates—which we fought so hard to reduce.”

Brazil’s leadership in the fight to slow climate change is also under threat. Under a previous administration, Brazil hosted one of the first international conferences on global warming and was instrumental in the Paris Accords. But the new foreign minister calls climate change a “Marxist plot.”

Challenges are not new to Silva. She was awarded the Goldman Prize in 1996 for her work, in partnership with the late Chico Mendes (he was assassinated in 1988 for his environmental activism), in counteracting the deforestation of the Amazon. When Silva won the Prize, she already had a public profile in Brazil—in 1994, she was elected to the Brazilian Senate, representing Acre, a state in the Amazon. She was appointed minister of the environment in 2003 and served in that role until 2008. Her efforts paid off. Deforestation decreased in Brazil by 59% during those years.

In 2010, Silva joined the Green Party and ran for president, finishing with a respectable 19% of the votes. She ran again in 2014, earning 20%, but again failing to advance to the runoff.

In 2012, Silva was among the human rights activists (including former Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon and Muhammad Ali) chosen to carry the flag at the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games.

Looking back over her storied career, Silva says that winning the Goldman Prize was instrumental in her ability to make an impact. “That was the first international recognition I won, and I feel very fortunate as it gave me such relevance and visibility,” she says. “The Prize helped me strengthen my work as a senator and administrator and led directly to the protections we now have in place.”

Despite the challenges Silva and Brazil’s environmentalists now face, she says she is optimistic, because she believes their fight transcends political parties and will be vindicated in the end.

“It is very important that we persist and avoid the polarization, because saving our natural resources is not a matter of left or right—it is a matter of humanity,” she says. “So the fight to preserve our environment is, in the end, a fight for all people.”

Rudolf Amenga-Etego, Ghana

2004 Goldman Prize recipient

Since the 1980s, public interest lawyer Rudolf Amenga-Etego has put his life on the line representing the poor and disenfranchised in Ghana. In the late 1990s, he spearheaded a coalition of students, health workers, farmers, environmental groups and religious leaders to suspend a water privatization project that would have reduced access to clean drinking water. In 2003, their campaign was successful, and the following year Amenga-Etego was awarded the Goldman Prize. In recent years, Amenga-Etego parlayed his visibility and clout into a political career. Today, he is a member of Ghana’s Parliament.

Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho, Timor-Leste

2004 Goldman Prize recipient

Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho, 2004 Goldman Prize winner for Islands and Island Nations. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

In 1975, Indonesia invaded the tiny island country of Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor). Thousands were murdered, and many had to flee for their lives. Nine-year-old Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho and his family hid in the jungle until it was safe. In 1999, after nearly one-third of the population had died from disease, malnutrition and violence, Indonesia relinquished control and Timor-Leste declared independence.

Carvalho was a resistance leader in the fight for Timor-Leste’s independence. The occupation and struggle destroyed large swaths of Timor-Leste’s lush rainforests, which spurred de Carvalho to focus his work on saving his country’s natural resources. He founded the Haburas Foundation (“To make green and fresh”). After independence, the Foundation successfully fought for the inclusion of four articles in the new country’s constitution: the right to a healthy environment; respect for traditional customary law; prioritization of sustainable development; and natural resource management. de Carvalho received the Goldman Prize in 2004 for his advocacy.

Today, de Carvalho is Timor-Leste’s secretary of state for the environment. In 2018, he launched a government effort to reduce the use of plastics in the country, to minimize its impact on streams and surrounding ocean waters, and declared government plans to implement a Zero Plastic Policy.

Noah Idechong, 1995 Goldman Prize winner for Islands and Island Nations. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)Noah Idechong, Palau

1995 Goldman Prize recipient

The people of Palau, an archipelago of 340 islands in Micronesia, are largely dependent upon fishing and ocean resources. However, by the 1990s those resources were being depleted by over-fishing. Noah Idechong, then the chief of the nation’s Division of Marine Resources (later a member of congress and speaker of the house), created a marine conservation model that combined traditional and leading-edge practices, and in the process convinced Palauans, many of them villagers dependent upon fishing, that it was in their long-range interest to limit fishing in spawning channels. He also led the effort to pass the country’s first sustainable marine resources bill in 1997.

Laila Iskandar Kamel, 1994 Goldman Prize winner for Africa. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)Laila Iskandar, Egypt

1994 Goldman Prize recipient

Cairo is a city of 20 million people, which means the population generates a lot of garbage. Traditionally, the city’s garbage collectors, or zabbaleen, earned a subsistence living. In the 1980s, Laila Iskandar, appalled by the substandard of living and the treatment of the zabbaleen, began a school for their children. Over the years, she increased her involvement, by introducing social and environmental projects aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty and exploitation. Working for the Environmental Protection Association of Pollution, she trained the garbage collectors in recycling methods, which had the dual impact of increasing their earnings and reducing the impact on the environment.

Iskandar leveraged her successful efforts into a public office, serving as Egypt’s minister of environmental affairs, and minister of state for Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements.

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