Page last updated at 11:09 GMT, Monday, 20 April 2009 12:09 UK

Saluting the unsung local heroes

Richard Goldman (Image: Goldman Environmental Prize)
Richard Goldman

Richard Goldman, founder of the "green Nobel prize", says it is vital to recognise the efforts of grassroots activists. In this week's Green Room, he explains why he believes some of the world's most powerful people could learn a lesson or two from the winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Marc Ona (Image: Goldman Prize/John Antonelli)

As governments around the world struggle with the crushing economic downturn and increasingly scarce natural resources, leaders at the grassroots level are continuing the critical work that often goes unnoticed, promoting environmental health, civil society, and reform in the face of great hardship.

The Goldman Environmental Prize, an award created by my family 20 years ago, honours fledgling leaders who exemplify unwavering commitment to their struggles; a quality that is more relevant now than ever.

In the past months, I have watched the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world scramble to solve problems that, in all likelihood, could have been prevented if leaders had exhibited more foresight and less greed.

The downturn has served to shine a light on the irresponsible tactics used for short-term gains over the course of many years. Inevitably, business as usual will no longer suffice.

'Local leaders'

With this shift comes the opportunity to rethink the way progress is made.

Deforestation (Image: AP)
Mr Goldman seeks to reward people who make a difference on the ground

By looking to the grassroots, where small-scale community and economic development is flourishing and networks of like-minded organisations are building real infrastructure, we may be able to find a new way forward built on community involvement and stability instead of a financial house of cards.

We started the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1989, before the save-the-Earth mantra of the 1990s had taken root.

My late wife, Rhoda, and I had long supported land conservation efforts in California and felt a deep connection to the environment.

One morning in 1989, as I sat with my daily breakfast and newspaper, I read about the most recent Nobel laureates and wondered if there was a comparable award for environmental work.

We asked a staff member at our foundation to do some research and he found that nothing yet existed to recognise environmental work on an international stage, thus the Goldman Prize was born.

Our choice to focus specifically on grassroots environmental leaders was unique at the time.

Unsung heroes

In developing the prize, we reached out to organisations working in the field on each of the world's inhabited continental regions for help in identifying worthy candidates. The response was overwhelming.

Leaders from seemingly disparate movements are coming together and recognising that environmental health is directly related to economic development and social justice

Reading through the nominations, it became clear to us that much of the critical advocacy for the environment around the world was being taken on by small groups with little or no financial support.

Unsung heroes continue to risk their lives and livelihoods every day to protect the environment and speak out against corruption on behalf of their communities.

We were awestruck by these plights and committed to focusing our prize on these fledgling leaders.

Twenty years later, this mission continues. Each year, we honour a total of six grassroots leaders, one from each of the world's inhabited continental regions.

Each of the winners receives a $150,000 (£100,000) cash award and undertakes a US media tour to San Francisco and Washington, DC.

The group is always diverse, with indigenous leaders, scientists, lawyers, and community organisers.

Yet there are ties that bind every recipient: they are ordinary citizens taking on extraordinary struggles and they do so with little expectation of fame or wealth.

August alumni

In the ensuing years, we have found that the Goldman Prize has served to elevate many up-and-coming leaders within their own countries and on the international level.

Wangari Maathai (Getty Images)
Ms Maathai is helping to shift attitudes and personal actions around sustainability from the bottom up

Wangari Maathai, who won the Goldman Prize in 1992, went on to serve in Kenya's parliament and win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Her international Green Belt Movement, which empowers women to plant trees and participate in environmental stewardship, continues growing across continents.

She has emerged as a force within the global sustainability movement, yet continues to engage the grassroots.

Recognising the importance of continuing to grow a vibrant and committed citizenry, Ms Maathai is helping to shift attitudes and personal actions around sustainability from the bottom up.

As governments develop economic recovery plans in the wake of the global financial meltdown, I strongly urge leaders to look to the grassroots for help in forging a new way forward.

Given a voice, financial support, and recognition, grassroots groups can help to enact lasting change through on-the-ground campaigning and advocacy.

Around the globe, grassroots groups are connecting via the internet and developing vast international networks that efficiently work together for common goals. The cross-cultural co-operation is astounding.

Leaders from seemingly disparate movements are coming together and recognising that environmental health is directly related to economic development and social justice.

As these previously separate movements merge into a potent force advocating on behalf of the world's future, we should take notice and find ways to bring them into the process of developing a new, more secure future.

Richard N Goldman is the founder and president of the Goldman Environmental Prize

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Mr Goldman? Can grassroot leaders teach the world's most powerful people a lesson or two about sustainability? Has the economic crisis acted as a wake-up call to the damage we are causing to the planet? Or are the problems we face too great and too widespread to be solved?

Grassroots leaders are real, deeply connected with their communities and love their land. They are not de-sensitized, in some distant air-conditioned office influenced by special interests and corroded in values and ethics. They are people of honor, integrity, vision and courage. They are human to the core. If we listen and acknowledge their momentum, we'll be empowered in return because their spirit is contagious.
Sudeep Motupalli Rao, San Francisco, USA

great job!
manu, cusco cusco Peru

Absolutely! Recycled paper used to be a cottage industry - my kids called it "wholemeal paper" - long before the mainstream consumer even thought about the damage of cutting trees for pulp. Wangari Maathai has demonstrated the power of grassroots environmentalism and, hey, anyone noticed how some of the best known, global environmental charities began as grassroots movements?
Toni Massari, Bristol, UK

Grassroots leaders are an essential element in the mix, as governments and the media have been so backward in addressing environmental degradation and climate change. For example, climate change was put before Congress as long ago as 1988 and resource depletion, as long ago as Limits To Growth published by the Club of Rome in 1972. Now in the UK, the Transition Movement is growing rapidly, helping people not only do something about the problems, but in doing so, giving them hope in the face of global catastrophe. The same applies to the organic and home grown food movements that are slowly eroding the dominance of the supermarkets. It cannot be measured, because no one can count what people are growing at home or selling in farm shops. Grassroots movements mobilise the pent up energy that exists in societies to solve problems. Their leaders have much to teach governments, because most people in governments just don't 'get it' yet. Perhaps it is because they are run by older people supported by vested interests. "To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing." And to be truly radical, you have to act locally, because governments rarely can be. I don't think the economic crisis has acted as a wake-up call to environment degradation. That is a separate issue. What can be reasonably speculated is that the economic consequences of the environmental degradation combined with peak oil were factors behind the economic recession. "If you think you can or you think you can't, you are probably right". If we think we cannot find social and technical solutions to the environmental crisis and supporting 7 billion people on the planet, then we won't. If we think we can, then we align our thinking in that direction and surely will.
Anon, East Grinstead,UK

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