In 1988 U.S. philanthropist Richard N. Goldman was inspired to create an honor recognizing six grassroots environmentalists each year--"among the most important people you have not heard of before," as Goldman has put it. "All of them have fought, often alone and at great personal risk, to protect the environment in their home countries." Goldman and his late wife Rhoda envisioned the prize as a way to demonstrate the international nature of environmental problems, draw attention to critical global issues, and inspire others to emulate the examples set by Prize recipients. Since 1990, 119 individuals from 70 countries have been rewarded with US$125,000 and a 10-day media and publicity tour. An international jury bases their selections on confidential nominations submitted by a worldwide network of environmental organizations and individuals.
This year's prize winners shared their stories with World Watch staff writer Ben Block during their visit to Washington, D.C. Additional information about current and past winners can be found at www.goldmanprize.org.
Maria Gunnoe, United States
Maria Gunnoe raises her children in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. Her grandfather toiled in the coal mines for 32 years to buy the property where she lives. She helped build the house that her son and daughter call home.
Five years ago, a spring rain turned the docile creek that transects Gunnoe's yard into a barrage of black water. "There is nothing more intimidating than a 60-foot-wide, 20-foot-tall wall of water coming at you," said Gunnoe, whose property has flooded seven times in the past nine years. She blames the 486-hectare mountaintop removal mine that has been leveling the ridge above her home.
Now one of the most fearless opponents of mountaintop removal in her state, Gunnoe has helped attract international attention to the damaging practice. During mountaintop removal, miners blast away ridges to expose coal seams deemed too costly to reach via traditional subsurface mine-shafts. Bulldozers push the rubble into adjacent valleys, which can fill with rain and trigger flooding. Holding ponds at the sites often contain high levels of heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, and selenium.
Gunnoe is a medical technician who now works as a grassroots organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. In 2007, the coalition sued the Army Corps of Engineers to stop new mining at a mountaintop site near Gunnoe's town. Days before the hearing, Gunnoe gathered 20 local residents to join her in testifying against the site. But more than 60 miners showed up at the community hall to harass the protestors, leaving Gunnoe as the only resident willing to speak up.
The federal court ruled in the coalition's favor. Soon after, the mining company announced potential job losses at the site, and Gunnoe found her face on local "Wanted" posters, labeled "Job Hater." Her daughter's dog was shot. Friends heard rumors that Gunnoe too would be shot and her home burned with her children inside. "There were times when I literally stayed up all night long so my children would sleep," she said.
But Gunnoe has remained steadfast. She continues to lobby for an end to mountaintop removal mining, and she...