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Two Latinos Win Prestigious Prize as ‘Grassroots Environmental Heroes’

Two Latinos, one from East Los Angeles, California and one from Guatemala are the recipients of a prestigious prize honoring "grassroots environmental heroes."

mark! Lopez, 32, has been leading efforts against lead contamination in East Los Angeles, while Rodrigo Tot, of the indigenous tribe the Q'eqchi, has been fighting to protect his ancestors' lands from nickel mining. They both received the Goldman Environmental Prize on Monday in San Francisco.

"The Prize recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk," states the organization's website, which chooses one person from each continent.

mark! Lopez is the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient for North America. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

"It's pretty incredible. When I received the call I was pretty shocked," said Lopez to NBC Latino. He said it felt like "validation" for his community's struggle.

Since 2008, Lopez has worked with under served communities in East Los Angeles on environmental issues; he is currently the Executive Director of the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

One of the biggest problems in area is lead dust contamination coming from a battery recycling plant owned by Exide Technologies in Vernon, about five miles south of downtown L.A. In 2014, Lopez began a door-to-door campaign to encourage people to undergo free lead testing. Then, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control tested the ground of the homes near the smelter. It found dangerously high levels of lead in the soil.

"A sampling of dust on rooftops of nearby buildings found lead levels of 52,000 parts per million—where 1,000 parts per million is considered hazardous waste," states Goldman's website.

As part of an agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, Exide agreed in March of 2015 to close the plant. But Lopez's fight continued until California Governor Jerry Brown signed $176 million to test up to 10,000 homes and clean up 2,500 of them.

Lopez said holding both companies and legislators accountable takes "all the energy," but the Goldman Prize helps his work. "It lends us a little bit of power."

Rodrigo Tot, 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient for South and Central America. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

In Guatemala, Rodrigo Tot, 57, has been fighting to preserve the land of his ancestors and it has come at a steep personal price.

The land surrounding Lake Izabal, the biggest lake in Guatemala, contains vast amounts of nickel ore, which has been mined for decades, first by the government and then by transnational companies. Discharge from the mining waste water made the lake the most polluted in the country.

Tot worked with groups to spearhead a legal effort in the courts to claim the land, and a court decision gave the Q'eqchi land titles to the area of Agua Caliente. He is still battling to ensure the government enforces the decision.

"The court already ordered that they handle us our title," Tot explained. "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."

Nonetheless, Tot says he will continue to fight because his fight has value. "It is extremely important that we continue fighting for our land and the natural resources, like the water because that is what gives us life."

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The Goldman Prize organizers state that the work "has come at an enormous personal cost for Tot. In 2012, two of his sons were on a bus to Guatemala City when they were shot in what appeared to be a staged robbery. One of them died, and the other survived with grave injuries."

Speaking in Spanish to NBC Latino, Tot said, "This has been a very difficult fight." He said the violence and crimes have not been investigated because "when an indigenous person disappears or is murdered nobody does anything because they see us as people who are not important."

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The prize comes with a monetary sum; both men say they are consulting with their communities on how best to utilize the money. Tot did say he will use some of it to pay for the education of his remaining seven children.

For both, there is much more work to be done.

"Exide is not the only issue we face," said Lopez. "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."

"We have problems, not only with the water and the land; there is also the mountains, they also give life," said Tot. "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."

"Climate change starts in our 'hoods and not in Washington D.C," said Lopez.

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