Goldmans say prize empowers activists to save Earth

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When Nigerian author and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by his country's military government earlier this month, the staff of the Goldman Environmental Foundation was devastated.

Saro-Wiwa was one of six recipients of the Foundation's 1995 Goldman Environmental Prize, an award for grassroots environmentalists that was established by San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman. Recipients of the prize, the Goldmans say, are like one big haimishe family.

"This really has been like a death to all of us," said Duane Silverstein, executive director of the foundation. "It has been a shock to all of us."

Saro-Wiwa, 54, had been imprisoned since last year after being convicted of murder charges that he steadfastly denied.

For the last couple of years, the activist led a peaceful movement for the environmental rights of the indigenous Ogoni people, whose land was ravaged by multinational oil companies. He was charged with inciting murder after four pro-government Ogoni tribal chiefs were burned alive by a mob of Saro-Wiwa supporters following a rally. Saro-Wiwa had nothing to do with the murders, according to Silverstein.

"It's stupefying," he said. "It's an outrage."

The Goldman Environmental Foundation joined with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Sierra Club and the Body Shop retail chain to fight for Saro-Wiwa's release.

"The prize is non-political in every way," said Richard Goldman, chair of the independent insurance brokerage firm Richard N. Goldman & Co. and chief of protocol for the city of San Francisco. "But it's political because we've helped arouse the world to this dastardly act."

The Goldmans, members of the city's Congregation Emanu-El, established the Goldman Environmental Prize five years ago. Each year, the juried prize is awarded to six environmental heroes — one from each of six inhabited continental regions — for their work in preserving or enhancing the environment.

Earlier this year, five of the 1995 prize recipients — and Saro-Wiwa's son — came to San Francisco to accept the award, a "no-strings- attached" sum of $75,000 — and worldwide recognition for the causes they champion.

Nominated by a network of internationally known environmental organizations, the 1995 prize winners include a young English woman who organized demonstrations that stopped a massive national road-building program; a South Korean man who has spearheaded an anti-nuclear movement in his country; and an elderly Hispanic woman from East Los Angeles who has led her community in the fight for environmental justice.

The winners vary in their ages, geographical origins and accomplishments. Nevertheless, said Rhoda Goldman, "they are motivated by one common goal: to protect the earth's natural resources regardless of the personal sacrifices involved."

On Nov. 10, Saro-Wiwa made the ultimate sacrifice, a fact that has not been lost on his fellow 1995 prize recipients. Before Saro-Wiwa died, a number of them got involved in his case, protesting his imprisonment to their governments.

According to Richard Goldman, that effort exemplifies the networking that goes on among recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Last year, 24 past winners met in Berkeley for a three-day reunion.

During the reunion, they discussed how to address some of the world's pressing environmental problems: over-consumption of limited resources, rapid population growth, unprecedented deforestation and species extinction.

For their part, the Goldmans have been dedicated to environmental causes for several decades. Since 1951, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund has supported environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club Foundation and the Wilderness Society.

In California, the Goldman Fund has worked to protect the San Francisco Bay ecosystem and the San Francisco waterfront; to preserve the California desert, Mono Lake and the Tuolomne River; and to protect the state's plant and animal species.

The couples' concern for such causes dates back to their childhoods in San Francisco.

"Both of us grew up in families where the out of doors was positive," Richard Goldman said. "As children, we were individually taken into the high country, the Sierra and other places, and we've all our lives spent time in such situations."

The couple, in fact, recently returned from a two-week trip to the Amazon.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.