Activists to receive world’s top environmental honor in SF 

Illegal palm oil plantations in northern Sumatra. A toxic waste dump in South Africa. Fracking in the state of New York. Government corruption and illegal use of federally protected forestland along Russia’s Black Sea coast.

Helping to shut down such practices is not just a cause taken on in protection of the environment but an award-winning achievement for several advocates from across the globe. Six grassroots activists who’ve succeeded in eradicating such activities, including one who believes he was the target of a fire-bomb for his efforts, will receive the world’s largest environmental honor in The City today.

The San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation will award $175,000 each to the winners, who were selected from different continents of the world after a months-long vetting process, said David Gordon, the foundation’s executive director.

In 2009, Ithaca, N.Y., resident Helen Slottje attended a community meeting that discussed how fracking — the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers deep in the earth — would be coming to the state of New York. Images from fracking in Pennsylvania reportedly showed scarred landscapes, decimated areas, pollution and spills.

“It was just terrifying,” said Slottje, the honoree from North America. “Communities were scared to death.”

Though oil and gas production is mandated at a state level, Slottje and her husband David used a loophole in the state’s constitution that gives municipalities the right to make local land use decisions, and since 2011 have helped nearly 200 towns pass laws that effectively prevented fracking due to purported negative land impacts.

Another Goldman Prize winner, Desmond D’Sa, helped to shut down a toxic waste dump that allegedly exposed the poorer, predominantly black communities in Durban, South Africa, to dangerous chemicals.

It’s the fourth toxic waste site D’Sa has helped eliminate with the environmental justice organization South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. D’Sa, who worked for an oil company before he was fired in 1998 for protesting the alleged harmful effects, said the most recent toxic waste site that was shut down in 2011 is just one of hundreds polluting the air, water and land of poorer communities in South Africa.

But D’Sa also accomplished preventing hazardous toxic trucks from commuting through residential areas as they previously had.

Saving the Durban communities from toxic waste sites not only cost D’Sa his job, he said his house was fire-bombed in what D’Sa believes was a deliberate attack, leaving him with burns on his face and arms. But he was undettered from seeking justice.

“As a result of that people thought I would give up and not continue the work I was doing,” D’Sa said. “But the very same day I was discharged from the hospital I went back to work.” Other winners of this year’s prize are based out of India, Peru, Russia and Indonesia.

Often considered the Nobel Prize of environmental work, the Goldman Environmental Prize was established in 1989 by the late San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman to reward and honor grassroots environmental activists.

In celebration of the prize’s 25th anniversary this year, winners for the first time will each receive $175,000, up from the previous $150,000 prize. Six winners are selected annually out of about 120 candidates.

The winners are being honored tonight at an invitation-only ceremony at the San Francisco Opera House.

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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