The Goldman Environmental Prize has selected two latinos as this year’s recipients, honoring them as leaders in grassroots environmental activism. mark! Lopez, an activist from East Los Angeles, and Rodrigo Tot, a leader of the indigenous Q’eqchi tribe in Guatemala, received their awards on Monday in San Francisco, NBC News reports. They were joined by four other community leaders from all six inhabited continents.
“The Goldman Prize views ‘grassroots’ leaders as those involved in local efforts, where positive change is created through community or citizen participation in the issues that affect them,” the award’s website reads. “Through recognizing these individual leaders, the Prize seeks to inspire other ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the natural world.”
Though residing in different parts of the world, both Lopez and Tot have exhibited these qualities. Lopez assists his local community by holding the local government in East Los Angeles accountable for lead contamination. Tot, who resides in Guatemala, works to protect indigenous lands from nickel mining.
Lopez told NBC News that this honor was validation for his efforts.
“It’s pretty incredible,” he said. “When I received the call I was pretty shocked.”
Lopez is the executive director of the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and has been working with underserved communities since 2008, NBC News reports. In recent years, he has been combatting lead dust contamination from a battery recycling plant owned by Exide Technologies. After a sample of the local soil revealed dangerously high lead levels, the government shut down the plant, according to the award’s website.
Lopez decided this was not enough. With the health of his Los Angeles community in mind, Lopez and his team began knocking on doors to warn residents of these toxic levels.
“Exide is not the only issue we face,” Lopez said in a statement to NBC News. “There is no lack of issues in our community — East LA and South LA — there are 60,000 trucks that come to our community everyday, trash incinerators in our community. We need resources for the community, education programs. We need to address these long-standing issues in our community.”
Lead poisoning is just one of the many environmental issues that can affect public health and quality of life in dense urban areas. The United Nations Center for Human Settlements recently reported that just 22 to 55% of urban waste is actually collected by a municipal authorities.
Over 2,000 miles South of Los Angeles, Tote is taking a similar responsibility for his community. Part of the indigenous Q’eqchi tribe, he has been working to protect Lake Izbal from nickel mining operations. The waste from the nickel mining polluted the lake, threatening the health of his tribe and the land they depend on. After a 2011 decision granted land rights to the Q’eqchi people, Tot says they have not seen much action since.
“The court already ordered that they handle us our title,” Tot said in a statement to NBC news. “But so far we have not seen anything. We made the last payment for the land in 2002. Now, [Guatemalan] officials say some of the documents in the registry are broken.”
Recently, grassroots environmental activists have become major newsmakers, both here in the United States and around the world. With efforts like that of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota, indigenous tribes have been making headlines for fighting for their right to clean drinking water. While even mild dehydration (involving 1-3% of body weight) can impair brain function, mining pollution can have even more dangerous affects. A recent study found magnetic waste in the brains of people living in polluted urban centers. These metals, which include nickel and lead, are toxic.
Tot said that this environmental protection effort goes beyond just the lake’s pollution levels.
“Mountains, they also give life,” Tot said to NBC News. “Our fight to defend the mountains is to guarantee that we always have a clean source of water. There are companies that all they want is to take down trees.”
In a statement, Tot said that the fight for environmental protection needs to start as a grassroots issue if governments are not going to make an effort.
“Climate change starts in our ‘hoods and not in Washington D.C,” Lopez said.