Every year, the Goldman Environmental Prize honors those working to protect the earth on a grassroots level. After scouring all continents for environmental heroes who have had a significant environmental achievement, the organizations awards six people. This year, Guatemalan indigenous activist Rodrigo Tot and mark! Lopez – who’s fighting high pollution levels in East Los Angeles – took home the prize.
During Tot’s most formative years, the mining industry began booming in Guatemala – setting him up for a lifelong battle against the government-supported multinational companies interested in tapping nickel deposits at the expense of indigenous communities. Tot, who belongs to the Q’eqchi’ community, moved to Agua Caliente at age 12 after his parents died. Agua Caliente has shaped who he is and his activism.
Starting in the 1960s, the Guatemalan state allowed mining companies to strip the land for nickel. According to the Associated Press, in 1974, the government began charging landowners $4,500 in exchange for property titles. 11 years later, Tot and more than 60 farmers received a provisional title as they continued to make payments on their land. During this time – the 1980s – the price of nickel had drastically dropped and though some of the corporations moved out, they left behind destruction and death. Lake Izabal – which Tot’s community relies on for sustenance – became the country’s most polluted lake. By 2002 – when Tot and the farmers finished paying the thousands of dollars – the government refused to give them the title. Four years later, the price of nickel shot back up and these companies returned.
With the help of Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC) and Defensoria Q’eqchi’, this community took on the government. On February 8, 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the Q’eqchi’ indigenous group and demanded that the government issue the land title. As the government continues to turn a blind eye to the injustices its inflicting on indigenous groups – including Tot’s – they keep fighting.
Environmental activism comes at a high cost in Latin America, with more than 570 land defenders murdered between 2010 and 2015. This makes Latin America the most dangerous region for environmental activists. As a matter of fact, two previous Goldman honorees – Honduran Berta Cáceres and Mexican Isidro Baldenegro – were killed as a result of their activism.
Tot has certainly made powerful enemies because of his work. In 2012, one of his son was shot and killed, though the official account is that the “assassination [was] passed off as a robbery.” Tot knows that his activism puts him in danger, but it’s not enough to stop him fighting for his community. “I will never forget the loss of my son, but I continue to fight,” he said. “We are no longer in the 1980s, when they could make a leader disappear and everything was kept quiet. Not today. When they make a leader disappear, 10 more rise up.”
mark! Lopez was destined to become an activist. Born into a family of organizers, 31-year-old Lopez followed in their footsteps. Since childhood, Lopez has known that high levels of pollution disproportionately affected his very Latino community of East LA. It’s not just the highways that are in near proximity and filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic, it’s also the Exide battery recycling plant that has poisoned their air for decades.
“And the aim of the facility was to get the lead out that was inside those old batteries to make new batteries,” said Andrea Hricko, a professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California. “So it sounds like a great type of recycling operation, right? But the fumes from the lead in the batteries would go up the stack and up in the community.” This released lead dust into the air, exposing children and adults to dangerous levels of the chemical element.
With the state seriously failing this community, Lopez – alongside the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice – went door to door informing residents about the contamination and to get them to sign up to get their homes tested. Through protesting, government panel testimonies, and his toxic bike tours – which showed residents just how far reaching the poisoning went – he drew attention to the damage Exide inflicted on East LA. His efforts led to soil testing, which revealed that the effects were even worse than previously thought. Exide closed, but left behind the mess it created.
In April 2016, Governor Jerry Brown approved $176.6 million for the cleanup of the area – a fraction of what it would take to restore this community’s clean air. “There’s never been a cleanup of this magnitude,” Lopez said. “And the area the state is currently looking at, we’re talking about 10,000 residential properties. Thinking of my daughters, Chole and Luna, I want them to understand they have a responsibility to ensure that our communities are safe, that our communities are healthy.”