Louisiana Catholic environmental justice activist wins Goldman Prize

Sharon Lavigne at the burial site on the property that Formosa bought to build its petrochemical complex (Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize)

“I had no intention of being an activist,” Sharon Lavigne, a Black Catholic from St. James Parish, Louisiana, said of her battle to keep plastics factories out of her neighborhood. But her race and her place of residence made her a fierce advocate for environmental justice.

And God, she would add: “It was him that put this fight in me.”

On June 15, Lavigne received the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize for North America. The award honors activists from the six inhabited continental regions who are involved in local efforts to protect the natural world. The other winners were Gloria Majiga-Kamoto of Malawi, Thai Van Nguyen of Vietnam, Maida Bilal of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kimiko Hirata of Japan and Liz Chicaje Churay of Peru.

The award recognizes Lavigne’s fight against new petrochemical plants in St. James, beginning with her successful effort to stop the Chinese chemical company Wanhua from building a $1.25 billion plastics manufacturing facility. The retired schoolteacher mobilized neighbors in 2018 to fight the plant.

The company withdrew its application in September 2019, and the movement Lavigne started grew into Rise St. James, a faith-based grassroots group fighting the incursion of petrochemical plants in the parish’s Black majority districts. She is now a leader in the battle to stop a much larger endeavor: Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group’s planned construction of a 14-plant manufacturing complex. 06-16-21

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