The Goldman Prize continues today with its original mission to annually honor grassroots environmental heroes from the six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America. The Prize recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.
Being an environmental activist in (at least most of) Europe is relatively easy. Although the working hours are long and the payment — if there is any, which is a privilege in itself — is zero! Most of the hard work is thankless.
But in most countries you can go organize a protest against a clearcut logging proposal in Sumava National Park, or opening a gold mine in Oulanka National Park. You will know that, when the demonstration is done, you can likely go home safely. You might even be lucky enough to be part of a community of like-minded dissidents whose similar passion energizes you. And even if and when you do decide to cross the line into civil disobedience, the consequences are likely to be no greater than a few hours in plastic handcuffs and then a relatively modest fine.
The Goldman prize in 2014 was though given to a person, who is working in hard personal conditions to protect Europe’s wild places.
Suren Gazaryan from Russia developed a deep love for wild nature when he was a boy. He often explored the wilderness area of Krasnodar, a region in a Western Caucuses that includes some of the most unique and diverse ecosystems in Europe, and eventually developed a passion for caving. His passion became an profession as his fascination with bats led to graduate studies and a career in zoology.
While doing fieldwork in Krasnodar in the 1990s, Gazaryan discovered illegal logging and construction in the area. The unchecked development worsened as members of the Russian elite began building massive luxury getaways in the area. The forest clearing accelerated when, in 2007, the nearby town of Sochi was picked to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Gazaryan began collaborating with a local conservation group, Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, to monitor and try to stop the deforestation: “I said to myself, we are losing this site we have been studying. What’s the point in studying it if we’re going to lose it tomorrow?” The grassroots activists even challenged plans for a lavish palace on being built for then-president Dmitry Medvedev.
Gazaryan’s energy paid off. Illegal logging in the Chernogorye Wildlife Refuge was halted. In 2010, after years of intensive campaigning, the Utrish Nature Preserve on the Northwest shore of the Black Sea was created with the highest level of protection available under Russian law.
The victories, however, have come at a real personal cost. In June 2012 Gazaryan was sentenced to a three-year probation for organizing a rally near the regional governor’s mansion. Then, just a few months later, he was charged with allegedly threatening to kill security guards at an illegal construction site. Today he is living in exile in Estonia. “My main goal is to continue to try to change people’s consciousness so they better understand that nature isn’t just something that we can sell off and get rich on,” Gazaryan says. “We have to preserve these places for future generations.”
“Mr. Gazaryan’s win is a great support for every individual and organisation who are involved in protecting wilderness in Europe” adds Zoltan Kun from the European Wilderness Society.