Goldman Prize winner Chilekwa Mumba and his wife, Helen Mosha Mumba, stand in San Francisco with the award. (The Goldman Environmental Prize)
Goldman Prize winner Chilekwa Mumba and his wife, Helen Mosha Mumba, stand in San Francisco with the award. (The Goldman Environmental Prize)

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Six grassroots activists, each with a unique David-and-Goliath story about fighting environmental destruction around the world, received recognition at an April 26 Kennedy Center ceremony for the Goldman Environmental Prize. 

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) spoke at the award ceremony, noting her connection to the prize’s creators, the San Francisco-based Goldman family, and praising the 2023 winners. 

“The courage it takes to fight the powers that be and the opposition that awardees face in speaking truth to power — we’re all in awe of all of you,” Pelosi said. “[You are] Indigenous and indomitable catalysts for change, rescuing our planet one community at a time. Thank you.”

The initial Goldman Prize ceremony was held on April 24 in San Francisco, where the awardees were officially announced. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year marked the first time since 2019 that the dual ceremonies were held in person. 

What is the ‘Green Nobel’?

The Goldman Prize honors achievements by grassroots environmental organizers around the globe. As one of the most prestigious awards for environmental work, the prize is sometimes referred to as the “Green Nobel.” Each year, six activists — one from each of the world’s six continental regions — receive the award. This is the 34th year for the prize.

This year’s awardees included Alessandra Korap Munduruku, from Brazil, and Delima Silalahi, from Indonesia. Both Indigenous activists led successful years-long campaigns to protect and reclaim their communities’ forested lands. Finland’s Tero Mustonen and Turkey’s Zafer Kizilkaya each spearheaded projects that brought acres of wild habitat back to life after severe degradation caused by big industry. Victories in court against major corporate polluters led American Diane Wilson and Zambian Chilekwa Mumba to take home the prize. 

Actress Sigourney Weaver narrated individual videos telling the stories behind each winner’s accomplishments. The videos, each just under five minutes, played during the ceremonies in San Francisco and here in D.C. 

“If we protect our environment, we’re protecting our future,” Mumba says in his video. “We’ve been given a responsibility.”

Unexpected Interruption at Invitation-Only Event

In the middle of her speech, the California legislator found herself interrupted by hecklers, who appeared to be affiliated with the anti-war protest group Code Pink. One person got up onto the stage with a canvas sign reading “War is Not Green.” The disturbance took the audience by surprise at the invitation-only event. 

“You’ve made your point,” Pelosi told the protesters. “As a courtesy to the awardees and the Goldman family — and we hear you, we respect you — please take your place.”

A Kennedy Center staff member escorted the sign-bearer off the stage and out of the theater, but at least one other protester remained in the audience, who continued to shout over Pelosi on and off. It took several minutes for security to locate and remove the other activist. 

Beyond that moment of excitement, the evening went smoothly, mirroring the San Francisco ceremony earlier in the week.

Environmental Pollution Horribly Affects Zambian Villages 

As the recognition event continued, the audience heard how the land in several communities in Zambia slowly deteriorated. 

The country is one of the largest producers and exporters of copper in Africa. The Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) is one of the largest mining operations in Zambia and the country’s single largest employer. That operation is 11 square miles along the Kafue River. In 2004, Vedanta Resources, a company headquartered in the U.K., acquired KCM. Gradually, residents of four local villages close to the Kafue River, Shimulala, Kakosa, Hippo Pool and Hellen, noticed contamination of the river and its tributaries.

“People’s lives were disturbed by the pollution from the mine,” Mumba said. “It was absolutely shocking to me. Something had to be done about it.”

Communities relied on the river for drinking, fishing, bathing and agriculture. From the pollution, the river emitted foul odors, fish were dying in large numbers along the banks, crops and livestock were decimated, and local villages suffered from major health issues. Mumba was compelled to do something, but it was tough rallying people who were affected by the pollution.

The biggest challenge was to get everybody to believe that something could be done about what was going on,” Mumba said. “These were typical villages prone to rumors.”

How a Zambian Activist Brought Down a Polluter in U.K. Courts 

Mumba is an admitted accidental environmental activist. His sense of responsibility for the environment led him to challenge Vendanta. The company had left his community in Chingola, Zambia, with water so polluted it was described as a “river of acid.” When Mumba learned how farming communities were being harmed by pollution from the mines, he began researching environmental law firms and wrote to nearly a hundred firms. Leigh Day, a UK-based law firm responded, and meetings were scheduled with community members in the villages. Also, water samples were gathered, and blood samples were taken from residents. In 2017 while deliberations were underway, Mumba and an attorney from Leigh Day were arrested while meeting with community members.

“I just had this drive in me that we won’t fail. It got my heart and became personal for me,” Mumba said. “Justice will somehow, some way be attained for these communities.“ 

In April 2019, the UK Supreme Court found that Vedanta, as the parent company of KCM, owed villagers near the mine a duty of care. Further, Vedanta could be held accountable in a UK court for environmental damage from the Nchanga copper mine’s operations. This ruling meant the company could not escape liability for environmental damage caused by a subsidiary. In 2021, Vedanta settled with nearly 2,000 people from the four villages near KCM; villagers received undisclosed financial compensation from Vedanta for the pollution that devastated their lives and environment. The Vedanta case is now being applied in UK courts as a legal precedent.

“It brightened up the whole community,” Mumba said about the ruling. “For me, the most important part of the settlement is how it is going to end up educating a whole generation of kids who have an even greater impact in the future.”

Mumba’s overview of environmental lawsuit success in Zambia can be viewed on YouTube at Learn more about the Goldman Prize at

Kayla Benjamin photo

Kayla Benjamin

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

Brenda Siler photo

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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