Goldman Prize Winners 2015: When Art Empowers Society, and So Much More!

04/21/2015 11:14 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

Once again, Goldman Prize awardees embody how single, determined individuals across the world can mobilize enough groundswell to conquer industrial Goliaths. Hailing from diverse backgrounds, these 2015 superheroes form a fountain of inspiration for all of us, and their weblinks show how we can act.

At the awards ceremonies, Goldman Environmental Foundation Vice President Susan Gelman gave a stirring call to action on climate change, which forms a challenging context for all these heroes.

Indeed, the backgrounds of their stories illustrate the complex, proliferating problems and conflicts brought on by dwindling resources in an ever-more-overcrowded world, and how this is worsened by a powerful few who can pollute the populous many in the name of blind greed -- when they are not stopped.

The stories themselves (view the videos -- @@s) hold out to all of us important solutions, based on the potency of intelligent, creative and brave actions. Here they are:


"The children were passing out ... it was a really, really terrible situation that no one should allow another human being to live under," says Phyllis Omido, describing community conditions created by a local lead smelter that she shut down.

@@ Phyllis Omido, a young Kenyan mother whose son had contracted lead poisoning from her own breast milk, successfully shut down the toxic smelter where she worked. It was poisoning not only factory workers but the entire community living in Owino Uhuru, a shantytown in Mombasa.

Five of the six winners are protecting water resources, increasingly threatened by human pollution and exploitation worldwide. Our oceans are acidifying, filling with plastic and toxics and being emptied of important sea life that sustains us. Overfishing is a worsening global problem, created by ever-rising demands of our unsustainably high populations. Getting people engaged to protect their resources at sustainable levels is integral to our future survival on this planet. Two of the winners did just that, on two different continents:


"Politicians, government seldom listen to individuals," noted Howard Wood, explaining why he built a groundswell of support for the first community-promoted marine protected area in Scotland. Above, Howard Wood, a threatened marine habitat, and Jean Wiener.

@@ Jean Wiener is a civic leader who empowers poor Haitians to protect and restore their deteriorating marine environment. Via education and hands-on engagement, Haitians went from charcoaling their mangroves to restoring them with a million new trees, from destroying reefs to planting new corals. Then, Jean succeeded in establishing Haiti's first-ever Marine Protected Areas. His eyes welled up as he thanked his family for understanding all the time he devoted to this legacy.

@@ Howard Wood is a Scottish recreational diver who, after witnessing the severe degradation of the Isle of Arran's marine environment from destructive commercial fishing practices, spearheaded the establishment of Scotland's first community-developed Marine Protected Area, leading to a dramatic recovery of biodiversity. Taking his message to every club, he won over not only every fisherman but, ultimately, the politicians who represented them.


Berta Cáceres of Honduras and Myint Zaw of Myanmar harnessed the people power needed to prevent megadams from destroying their homelands.

Renewable power, a major pathway for combating climate change, can be harmful when developed wrongly. Hydropower can be useful, but too often large industrial interests profit by destroying vast habitats and large communities to construct megadams to feed rising foreign energy demands. The dams themselves can contribute to climate change, emitting large amounts of methane as drowned habitat, often carbon-storing forest, disintegrates. The next two winners stopped megadams in their communities, via very different means.

@@ Myint Zaw is a Myanmar journalist and activist. In an intimidating atmosphere of political turmoil and censorship, he harnessed the power of art. Collaborating with famous artists, writers and musicians, Myint organized art exhibitions to inform, ultimately harnessing wide public opposition to a proposed megadam on Myanmar's Irrawaddy River. The dam would have displaced over 17,000 indigenous people, impacted millions more, and destroyed the forested watershed, while exporting 90 percent of the energy generated to China. Bowing to public pressure, the government halted the project.


A threatened Myanmar watershed: "Our culture depends upon it," said Myint Zaw, who used art galleries to inform and harness public pressure, halting a megadam.

@@ Half a world away, Berta Cáceres is an indigenous Honduran mother who, in the "murder capital of the world," has repeatedly risked her life standing up to the government, multinational corporations, and global investors to prevent the devastating effects of a proposed dam on her people's sacred territory, and to protect their sources of food, water and medicine. "I believe that the river signifies life," Berta states simply.


Former Xeni Gwet'in chief Marilyn Baptiste, a First Nation tribal leader who prevented a large mine that would have demolished their lakes and homelands.

Our final winner belongs to a group of native nations that have been battling the mindless Canadian government as it seeks to prioritize industrial greed over long-term social and environmental safety. The First Nations are known for their forthright protests and legal battles over the destruction of their homelands from fossil fuel development and its transport via pipelines.


Words we can all live by, floating on Fish Lake, which was threatened by a proposed mine (source:

@@ Marilyn Baptiste illustrates how the First Nations are at the forefront of protecting their homelands from blindly destructive exploitation by any outside entity. A First Nations leader, she defeated three attempts by a powerful mining company to construct British Columbia's largest gold and copper mine, which would destroy much of her tribe's traditional territory and watershed ecosystem.

Congratulations to all of them -- and may it inspire you to step forward, and act!