Because the River Told Me So: Stories of two 2015 Goldman Prize winners and their rivers

Margaret Zhou

“When we started the fight for Rio Blanco, I would go into the river, and I could feel what the river was telling me. I knew it was going to be difficult. But I also knew we were going to triumph, because the river told me so.” These are the words of Berta Cáceres as she describes the successful but life-endangering campaign she led to stop Agua Zarca Dam from being built on Honduras’ Rio Blanco. Berta, a long-time friend and partner of International Rivers, was awarded a Goldman Prize for her work on Monday, but her life is still under threat from a repressive military government and financial interests embroiled in a race to develop Honduras’ rural indigenous regions.

Myint Zaw
Myint Zaw
Photo Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize

Another one of this year’s six Goldman Prize winners, Myint Zaw of Myanmar, also worked under a repressive military government to protect a river of great significance to his people, the Irawaddy. Myint, who was also in contact with International Rivers during his campaign, visited our headquarters during his brief visit to the Bay Area to accept the award. Stating that the culture and livelihood of the people depend on the river, Myint calls it “the lifeblood” of the community. His campaign to stop the Myitsone Dam that would displace 18,000 people from nearly 50 villages and submerge their cultural heartland met with success when the current president vowed that the dam would not be approved during his term. 

Similarly, in Honduras, the Agua Zarca Dam would have cut off the supply of water, food and medicine for hundreds of Lenca people and violate their right to sustainably manage and live off their land. Both the Agua Zarca and Myitsone dams are backed by Chinese companies—China Power Investment and Sinohydro.

In moving speeches and videos shown at the Goldman Prize Ceremony on Monday, Myint and Berta explained the significance of these rivers to the well-being of their people and the Earth, while returning to the spiritual significance of waters regarded as sacred by their people. Berta explained, “This river has ancestral and spiritual importance to the Lenca people, because it’s inhabited by the female spirits. These spirits guard the rivers. The Gualcarque River is also used for growing food and gathering medicinal plants. And of course it’s vital to the entire population downstream. I believe it signifies life.”

The spiritual reverence for sacred waters is not just a symbolic measure of appreciation for nature, or a right of the world’s remaining indigenous communities. It’s the driving force behind many of these communities’ struggles to defend their land and water. It’s the fuel that feeds the fire of courage, which ultimately keeps one standing firm in the face of bulldozers, or at gunpoint. Last year, one of Berta’s colleagues, Tómas Garcia, was shot and killed at a peaceful protest to defend Rio Blanco. The murder only galvanized the community further, with even larger protests ensuing. Berta and the Lenca people set up a year-long human roadblock to defend their village and river from invasion by construction companies, knowing that they could be killed or arrested at any time.

Spiritual reverence for rivers isn’t held merely for the sake of conserving “pristine environments.” It comes out of an understanding that rivers are a critical source of nourishment for both the land and the people, without which life would be impossible. Myint credits this sense of connection to the river for inspiring his career in environmental journalism. And, while Berta and her colleagues put their bodies on the line as a physical shield to defend Rio Blanco, Myint brought together a community of artists and activists to erect a cultural defense of the Irrawaddy.

Berta Cáceres
Berta Cáceres
Photo Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize

Because the Myanmar government does not allow assembly of more than five people in the same place at one time and imposes strict censorship controls, Myint faced difficulty spreading his word through government-controlled methods of communication. On top of that, most of Myanmar’s population does not have Internet access, rendering social media and email tactics useless. Under these conditions, Myint and his colleagues decided to host art exhibits in galleries that were deemed “non-political” spaces. At the exhibits, they distributed informational materials that were not approved by censorship authorities. The exhibits became so popular that Myint was able to gather famous musicians and artists to perform at his events, and help him educate the people about the importance of the Irrawaddy. Myint explained that, “Through our photographs and artwork, we wanted audiences to visualize the impact of dams on people’s everyday lives.”

During Myint’s visit to International Rivers, he told us a personal story of the moment when he realized the full extent of the impact of his work. On his way home from an event in a neighboring town, Myint was making small talk with his taxi driver when the driver suddenly recognized Myint from a DVD he had been given. The DVD was one of Myint’s informational pieces on the Irrawaddy River, in which songs of the people who live on Irrawaddy were recorded along with Myint’s explanation of the Myitsone Dam project and its destruction. The taxi driver told Myint that he was so moved by the DVD that he took it to a shop and had 40 copies made. The shop owner who burned the DVDs watched the film and was also compelled to take part. He gave 20 extra copies to the taxi driver for free. The taxi driver then started giving the DVDs to all of his customers. Myint described what he felt at that moment—a great appreciation for the people, who were playing a part in the movement in whatever way they could.

Myint’s story shows the importance of emotional investment in creating change. When asked what lessons can be learned from his experience and applied to river movements around the world, Myint said that for a movement to succeed, it must “capture the hearts of the people.” Only when they felt a true emotional connection to their river and those affected by the dam did people start proactively participating.

Growing up in China in the 1990s, I witnessed first-hand the beginning phases of intense urbanization and pollution that have ricocheted into today’s sorrowful degradation of China’s environment. It hurts me to know that the lands my ancestors and even those of my close relatives are now forever destroyed by dams, factories, landfills, and air pollution. Furthermore, it’s shameful for many Chinese people to feel somehow responsible for Chinese companies’ investments in megaprojects that are set to inflict the same injury upon precious forests and rivers around the world. It’s this emotional tie to our earth, and how connected we all are by it, that keeps me rooted in the work I do everyday. So, you can imagine how honored I was when Myint told my colleagues and I as we sat around our office conference table, munching on pretzels and sipping lemonade, that he was very grateful for International Rivers’ work. It was our website and online publications that he and his fellow activists referred to again and again in the process of their campaign. The only thing he wished, Myint said, was that we had more information translated into Burmese.

Through telling the stories of Berta and Myint on a global stage, the Goldman Prize conveys the message that everyone has a role to play in this important work, from whatever corner of the world they inhabit. Both Myint and Berta gave calls to action for us in their speeches on Monday. As US citizens and supporters of their work, they called on us to let the governments of their countries know that we’re watching, and that the rights of their people will not be overlooked.

Berta ended by telling us that the Gualcarque River and many other rivers are calling us and we must follow. In his final words on stage, Myint said, “We will work to keep our river singing. We cannot let it go silent. If we all join together to do our part, all of us will live in a peaceful harmony.” 

Today, as we celebrate Earth Day in the United States, I invite you to reflect not only on the rivers that feed us, but also on whatever it is that feeds the fire inside of you. For any of our efforts to be successful, it’s going to take first and foremost an investment of all of our hearts.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015