Meet Myint Zaw and Berta Cáceres – the 2015 Goldman Prize Winners who are being honored for dedicating their lives to protecting rivers and communities that depend on them. Watch the live stream of the ceremony on April 20 at 5:30 pm PDT here.
Asia 2015 Goldman Prize Recipient
Facing heavy government scrutiny and restricted use of tools like email or social media, Myint Zaw launched a national movement that successfully stopped construction of the Myitsone Dam on Myanmar’s treasured Irrawaddy River.
After a bloody crackdown of citizen uprisings in 1988, Myanmar became largely isolated from the rest of the world. The extraction of natural resources—for the benefit of neighboring countries and at the expense of local communities—became the hallmark of the ruling military regime for many years.
Among these developments is the Myitsone Dam, a 6,000 megawatt hydropower project proposed by a Chinese state-owned dam developer. Slated to be built on the critical watersheds of the Irrawaddy River, the dam would displace 18,000 people from nearly 50 villages and submerge their cultural heartland. It would also destroy the immense biodiversity in the area, while putting millions of people downstream at risk from its impact.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of electrical output would be going back to China, doing little to address energy needs in Myanmar and the local community.
Raised in a rural area in the Irrawaddy River delta, journalist and social activist Myint Zaw grew up swimming in the river and climbing neighboring mountains. His childhood taught him the importance of the natural environment as a vital source of water and food, in a country where more than 70 percent of the population lives in rural communities.
South and Central America 2015 Goldman Prize Recipient
In a country with growing socioeconomic inequality and human rights violations, Berta Cáceres rallied the indigenous Lenca people of Honduras and waged a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam.
Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has witnessed an explosive growth in environmentally destructive megaprojects that would displace indigenous communities. Almost 30 percent of the country’s land was earmarked for mining concessions, creating a demand for cheap energy to power future mining operations. To meet this need, the government approved hundreds of dam projects around the country, privatizing rivers, land, and uprooting communities.
Among them was the Agua Zarca Dam, a joint project of Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam developer. Agua Zarca, slated for construction on the sacred Gualcarque River, was pushed through without consulting the indigenous Lenca people—a violation of international treaties governing indigenous peoples’ rights. The dam would 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.
Cáceres grew up to become a student activist and in 1993, she cofounded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) to address the growing threats posed to Lenca communities by illegal logging, fight for their territorial rights and improve their livelihoods.
In 2006, community members from Rio Blanco came to COPINH asking for help. They had witnessed an influx of machinery and construction equipment coming into their town. They had no idea what the construction was for or who was behind the project. What they knew was that an aggression against the river—a place of spiritual importance to the Lenca people—was an act against the community, its free will, and its autonomy.