The Struggle to Protect Mother Earth: David vs. Goliath

Apr 22nd, 2015 | By | Category: Environment/Sustainability

By Suzanne York,

The Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony was held this week, just prior to Earth Day.  It is an annual prize given to six environmental activists who face tremendous struggles – even death threats – to protect their environment.

Marilyn Baptiste
[photo credit:]

As the world endures increasingly serious environmental problems and intensifying impacts from climate change, it is a good time to recall the quote from Margaret Mead, who said “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world.  In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

For the past twenty six years, Goldman Prize winners have made Mead’s quote a reality. Here is a look at two of this year’s inspiring environmental activists.

Marilyn Baptiste, a former chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation in Canada, received the prize for her struggle to prevent an open-pit copper and gold mine in Xeni Gwet’in territory.  It would have been one of the largest proposed mines in British Columbia and would have drained and destroyed the pristine Fish Lake, which is also a source of spiritual identity and livelihood for the Xeni Gwet’in.

According to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the mine would have negative impacts on both wildlife and human communities in the area.  The mine would have destroyed the lake, and the forest cleared to make room for roads, transmission lines, and other infrastructure.

Baptiste’s full story may be read here.  Suffice it to say, she was a huge force in halting the mine and protecting the lands of her people.

She made a powerful statement that we should all heed.  Baptiste said that “It is our duty and responsibility to protect Mother Earth, to protect our land, waters, wildlife, plants, and our way of life.  It is for the good of all and future generations.”

Fish Lake
[photo credit:]

Baptiste was not the only female indigenous woman to share this year’s stage at the Goldman Prize ceremony in San Francisco. Berta Cáceres was another courageous indigenous woman who won for her long struggle against extractive industries in Honduras.

She co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) to address the growing threats posed to Lenca communities by illegal logging, hydroelectric dams, mining, and to protect indigenous and campesino land rights.

Cáceres was recognized for her actions to stop the building of a dam that posed a threat to the environment, the water supply, and local livelihoods.  It would have also destroyed the community’s spiritual connection to the river and the land.  Against militarization, death threats, and even killings of activists, Cáceres and the local people prevailed and prevented the dam’s construction.

According to Friends of the Earth, 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.

Berta Caceres
[photo credit:]

Sadly, Honduras is ground zero for threats against environmental activists.   A report just released by Global Witness called Honduras the deadliest place for environmental activists.  Between 2010 and 2014, 101 activists were murdered in Honduras, the highest rate per capita of any country surveyed for defending land rights and the environment from extractive industries such as mining, dams and logging

Overall, Global Witness reported that globally, killings of environmental activists reached an average of more than two per week in 2014, up 20 percent from the previous year.  Indigenous communities in particular have been hardest hit.  This is not surprising, as indigenous peoples are on the frontlines protecting much of the world’s remaining natural resources.

Women such as Marilyn Baptiste and Berta Cáceres show what people and communities across the world are up against, and most importantly, they prove that we can win and take back our lives, homes, and environment.  But it is a huge struggle, and people who rise up to protect nature do so at great risk.  It shouldn’t be that way.

To state the obvious, Earth is the only home we have.  Our modern society plunders and destroys the planet for short-term gain to our own peril.  Humans are part of the web of life.  Protecting the lives of environmental defenders should be a global priority.

Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies.

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