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, today Goldman awarded six people, including Peruvian Máxima Acuña and Puerto Rican Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, at a San Francisco event.
Máxima Acuña was awarded for her work fighting exploitative mining companies. As Peru’s mining industry grows, it’s the campesinos who suffer. They continue to live in poverty, and their drinking water becomes polluted with mining waste. When Newmont – a Colorado-based company that works with Peru’s Buenaventura – looked to expand in 2010, it planned to drain lakes for its new Conga Mine.
In 2011, it tried to move into the Tragadero Grande property Acuña and her husband purchased in 1994, according to Goldman. They tried to evict the family, who didn’t stand for it. And she and her daughter unfortunately paid for their bravery by being knocked unconscious.
It didn’t end there. “The company sued the family in a provincial court, which found them guilty of illegally squatting on their own land,” the Goldman site explained. “Acuña was sentenced to a suspended prison term of almost three years, and fined nearly $2,000 – a huge sum for a subsistence farmer in Peru.”
Acuña reached out to GRUFIDES, an environmental NGO, who helped her appeal the case, and the community rallied around her cause. In 2014, the Cajamarca court ruled in her favor, making it impossible for Newmont to move forward with the Conga Mine. But her fight is hardly over, as it makes its way toward the Peruvian Supreme Court. And Newmont has retaliated by building a fence around her property, destroying her potato crops, and making it impossible for her to plant more.
“I may be poor. I may be illiterate, but I know that our mountain lakes are our real treasure,” Acuña told New Internationalist Magazine in 2011. “From them, I can get fresh and clean water for my children, for my husband and for my animals.”
Meanwhile, Puerto Rican activist Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera was recognized for his 16-year-long fight to establish a nature reserve in Puerto Rico’s Northeast Ecological Corridor. At age 8, his family lost a farm that they’d owned since 1873. In 1999, when he learned developers planned to turn the Northeast Ecological Corridor – a 3,000 acre territory with significant biological significance – into two megaresorts, Rivera sprung into action.
He and his friends worked together to get Puerto Rican citizens to stand against the megaresorts, which eventually led to the Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor. He even drafted a bill to get the area, which is a nesting site for endangered leatherback sea turtles, nature reserve protection. The bill didn’t move forward, and he continues to fight for this cause.
“You know that you are doing what’s right and when you are completely conscious about that and see that other people feel the same way, the only thing that you can do is move forward and make it happen, even if the odds are against you,” he told NBC News. “This kind of recognition from a foundation and a prize that is already internationally known, that raises your work to a whole new level of merit.”
The prize comes with $175,000 and a 10-day tour of San Francisco and Washington D.C. Following the death of indigenous environmental activist, Berta Cáceres, today’s ceremony will emphasize the importance of protecting activists.