Goldman environmental prize winners overcome challenges of the pandemic

The prestigious 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony was held Tuesday night, honoring the six winners at a virtual online ceremony.

The awards, often called the equivalent of Nobel prizes, recognize grassroots activists across the globe. 

The virtual ceremony included inspiring stories, celebrity appearances, and videos showing the work of the winners, five women and one man, in their home countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Japan, Malawi, Peru, Vietnam, and the U.S.

"Our global community is gathering virtually to honor six formidable environmental champions who've put themselves on the line to protect the planet," said the ceremony's emcee, activist and actor Jane Fonda, who praised the winners' courage.

"We award the prize to candidates from six continents each year and people want to watch from all over the world, so the virtual ceremony has probably expanded our audience," said Michael Sutton, Executive Director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.

Sutton says the 2021 winners were chosen from a pool of more than 100 nominations.

"We're proud of the fact that we have the first prizewinners from two countries, Malawi and Bosnia/Herzegovina," said Sutton, noting that the 2021 winners followed a recent trend, "About 75% of our prize-winners over the last four years have been women, many of them indigenous women."

Actor Sigourney Weaver served as narrator for the winners' videos, stepping into a role held for decades by Robert Redford, who retired this year. Musician Lenny Kravitz also participated with a performance, as well as Senegalese musician Baaba Maal, and the Ndlovu Youth Choir from South Africa. Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate also gave a speech.

The pandemic, however, took a toll on many of the activists.

"We had...prizewinners come down with COVID-19 during the pandemic and had to help them seek proper medical care," said Sutton.

One of the nominees Benjamin Rodriguez of Peru died from COVID-19 last summer and was remembered by his fellow Peruvian activist 2021 winner Liz Chicaje Churay who had been nominated with him for their work creating a national park in the Amazon forests by uniting more than twenty indigenous communities.

"The virus hit these remote communities very hard all over the world and it had a disproportionate impact on grassroots activists as a result," said Sutton.

"I was there to defend the rights of indigenous people," said Churay, describing the work they did to rally international organizations and researchers to the indigenous communities' cause.

The prize for North America went to Sharon Lavigne from Louisiana, who organized a grassroots movement to stop the construction of a plastics plant in St. James Parish where predominantly African American communities have cancer rates higher than the rest of the nation.

From Japan, Kimiko Hirata led a coalition to stop the planned construction of 13 coal plants after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Instead, Hirata was able to raise support for renewable energy sources.

"Having this success makes me confident we can make a difference," said Hirata.

In Vietnam, Thai Van Nguyen was honored for fighting to save the pangolin, an endangered animal which is hunted for its meat and for use in traditional medicines. His work reportedly led to an 80% decrease in illegal activities.

In Malawi, Gloria Majiga-Kamoto became the first in her country to win a Goldman Prize. Majiga-Kamoto, a millennial activist, fought to reduce plastic waste and pushed to get new policies to address plastic problems.

"We need to start making different choices...we need to start reducing plastics," said Majiga-Kamoto.

Maida Bilal from Bosnia Herzegovina was honored for leading a group of women to stop two proposed dams along a river near her hometown. Bilal was the first from her country to get a Goldman Prize.

Sutton says he hopes the ceremony will return to San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House and City Hall next year. The prizes were established by Rhoda and Richard Goldman and usually include trips for the winners to San Francisco and to Washington D.C. for a ceremony in April on Earth Day.

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Jana at and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or