Winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize Use Courts to Contest Oil Projects


New coal mines continue to open each year, and oil and gas companies are still exploring new parts of the world. But increasingly, people — especially Indigenous communities — are saying no to new fossil fuel developments on their land and using courts and legislatures to deliver the message.

In India, protests by Adivasi communities persuaded officials to cancel the auction of land for coal mines in the biodiverse forests of Chhattisgarh State. In South Africa, the Mpondo people stopped the Shell Global company from carrying out seismic surveys for oil and gas off the Wild Coast. In Australia, First Nations people blocked development of a coal mine in Queensland.

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These legal victories occurred within the past three years. On Monday, leaders of these and other grass-roots environmental movements, spanning six countries, won the Goldman Environmental Prize.

“One of the things we’ve seen in recent years is that environmental law, protection of natural resources, has become intertwined with human rights law and the law of Indigenous people,” said Michael Sutton, an environmental lawyer and the executive director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.

Forcing these types of cases is the fact that as climate concerns have risen so has exploration for fossil fuels in many places, said Carla García Zendejas, a lawyer and director of the People, Land & Resources program at the Center for International Environmental Law.

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“With all the decisions that are being made for climate change, trying to address the climate crisis,” Ms. García Zendejas said, “it seems that the oil companies are just trying to get every drop of oil out of the ground as soon as possible, before permits and concessions are halted or revoked or stopped.”

In most countries, a proposed project to extract natural resources must undergo an environmental review process, she said. And people living in the areas have a legal right to access information about the proposed project.

In 2021, locals in Mpondoland on the Wild Coast of South Africa learned from visiting tourists and guides that a project was underway to conduct seismic surveys for oil and gas off their shore.

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“It was a shock for us to hear that the Department of Minerals and Energy has already given permission for Shell to explore oil and gas,” Nonhle Mbuthuma, a local resident and community organizer, said. “But the people on the ground were not aware.”

She had co-founded a group called the Amadiba Crisis Committee — originally to fight a proposed titanium mine — which she quickly mobilized to oppose the seismic surveys.

Ms. Mbuthuma is one of the winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize, along with Sinegugu Zukulu, a program manager for a local NGO called Sustaining the Wild Coast.

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The region’s coastal waters provide habitat for dolphins, whales and many migratory fish species. Communities in the area depend on fishing and eco-tourism for their livelihoods.

“When you talk about the ocean to the people of Wild Coast, the ocean is home to us,” Ms. Mbuthuma said. “The ocean is the economy.”

Seismic testing can harm wildlife — damaging marine animals’ hearing, disrupting their natural behaviors and causing them to leave affected areas. Studies of smaller invertebrate species like lobsters, scallops and zooplankton have found that some species become injured or sick enough to die after exposure to seismic air guns.

Both coastal and inland communities in the region mobilized to oppose the project, “speaking in one voice to say no to oil and gas,” Ms. Mbuthuma said.

Ms. Mbuthuma and Mr. Zukulu, along with other community members, filed a legal challenge to the project’s environmental approval, arguing that local people hadn’t been properly consulted. In 2022, South Africa’s High Court ruled in their favor and rescinded Shell’s permit.

Shell did not respond to a request for comment, but the company has appealed the court’s decision.

The Mpondo people are concerned not only about direct threats to their livelihoods and about local pollution, but also about global climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels, Mr. Zukulu said. “It wasn’t just us in our land, in our little corner,” he said. “It is a global challenge.”

Similar local fights are playing out around the world. In quickly developing countries, demand for energy is still rising as more people gain access to electricity and economies grow.

In India, more than 70 percent of electricity currently comes from coal, and more than 20 percent of that coal comes from Chhattisgarh State.

For years, India’s central government went back and forth on whether to open the state’s Hasdeo Aranya forest to coal mining or to declare it a “no go” zone. The forest is home to dozens of rare and endangered species, including the Asian elephant. About 15,000 Adivasi people in the region depend on the forest for their traditional ways of life.

But Hasdeo Aranya also sits on top of one of the country’s largest coal reserves.

“It represents a very unique microcosm of all the environmental and social justice movements that exist in India,” said Alok Shukla, another winner of this year’s Goldman prize, through a translator. Mr. Shukla helped found the local Save Hasdeo Aranya Resistance Committee, and also convenes an alliance of grass-roots movements in the state called the Save Chhattisgarh Movement.

With help from Mr. Shukla and other organizers, residents of the region have protested the proposed mines for years, and successfully lobbied for a protected elephant reserve in the forest. In 2020, the government announced a new set of land auctions for potential coal mines, setting off a new wave of protests.

Neither India’s Ministry of Coal nor Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change responded to requests for comment.

In October 2021, 500 villagers went on a 10-day march to the state capital, Raipur. The following spring, women in several villages began a weekslong tree-hugging protest, employing a tactic used to stop deforestation in northern India in the 1970s.

That summer, Chhattisgarh’s state legislature adopted a resolution against mining in the region.

Other winners of this year’s Goldman prize include a lawyer from Spain who won legal rights for Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon; an activist from the United States for work to limit carbon emissions from freight trucks and trains in California; and a journalist from Brazil who traced the beef supply chain back to illegal deforestation, persuading major supermarkets to boycott illegally sourced meat.

In Australia, Murrawah Maroochy Johnson, a young Indigenous Wirdi woman, won the Goldman prize also for work blocking coal mining on her community’s land. Ms. Maroochy Johnson argued in court that the greenhouse gases released from this mine would violate the human rights of First Nations people across Australia.

Mr. Shukla hopes that their actions inspire others around the world.

“There is a way that local communities can actually resist even the most powerful corporations using just their resolve and peaceful, democratic means,” he said.

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