In honor of Women’s History Month and International Day of Action for Rivers, we’re highlighting five Goldman Prize-winning women who have worked to protect bodies of water from environmental destruction. As noted by our nominating partner, International Rivers, Day of Action for Rivers celebrates environmental wins such as dam removal and river restoration, informs about the threats to rivers and how to take action, and remembers those who have made profound sacrifices in defense of our earth.
In 1980, plans were made to build a dam on the upper part of the Loire River—the longest waterway in France—also known as the last wild river of Europe. With the building of the main dam threatening the ecology and livelihood of the area, Christine Jean led citizens in a successful movement to oppose the development. Through her leadership, the French government canceled plans for the dam in January 1994.
Dai Qing (1993, China)
A journalist by trade, Dai Qing fearlessly opposed the Chinese government’s construction of the Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze River. In 1989, Qing spoke out against the project in the press and published a collection of essays by Chinese scholars opposed to the dam. Her actions helped apply pressure on the government to postpone the plan, though, during the process, she was banned from publishing and jailed for 10 months. Despite public opposition, China began work on the dam in 1994 and opened it in 2003. Qing’s perseverance and sacrifice in the fight for environmental justice continue to resonate deeply today. International Rivers notes that the Three Gorges dam is one of the world’s most notorious dams, displacing over a million citizens and creating lasting environmental destruction. Learn more via International Rivers.
Ikal Angelei (2012, Kenya)
Ikal Angelei organized indigenous communities around Kenya’s Lake Turkana to oppose the Gibe 3 Dam, which, if completed, would be the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa. Likened to China’s Three Gorges Dam, the Gibe 3 Dam would cause the lake’s water level to drop by as much as 23 to 33 feet within the first five years. Angelei’s advocacy helped secure an environmental assessment of the dam by the Kenyan Parliament, in addition to convincing major banks to withdraw support. She continues to champion environmental issues in Kenya as the director of Friends of Lake Turkana. Follow Angelei on Twitter for more updates.
Ruth Buendía (2014, Peru)
Belonging to the Asháninka tribe of Peru, Ruth Buendía was 12 years old when her father and thousands more were killed by guerrillas invading their indigenous land. Buendía was sent to Lima to seek safety, and later returned to take part in her community’s healing through the Asháninka Center of the Ene River (CARE). Buendía eventually became CARE’s first female president and, with her team, led a powerful campaign against large-scale hydroelectric dams in the Amazon that would have uprooted indigenous communities still recovering from Peru’s civil war. Buendía rallied indigenous groups and raised awareness of the dam project on an international scale, which persuaded the Peruvian Ministry of Energy to cancel the project.
Berta Cáceres (2015, Honduras)
A beloved indigenous leader of Honduras’ Lenca people, Berta Cáceres rallied her community and waged a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to cancel the Agua Zarca Dam, which would have been built along the sacred Gualcarque River. Founder of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Cáceres devoted her life to protecting and advocating for her Lenca community. On March 3, 2016, she was assassinated in her home, an event that sparked international outcry and magnified the dangers environmental defenders face on the front lines. Her legacy as an indigenous leader, anti-dam activist, and environmental hero continues to be celebrated the world over. To learn more about her story and impact, watch the film Mother of All Rivers, or follow @justiceforberta on Twitter for updates from her family.
It is our honor to recognize these heroes and shed light on their mission to safeguard rivers, halt destructive dams, and uplift communities. In celebration of these winners from across the globe, we share these words from of Monti Aguerre, friend of Berta Cáceres and Latin America campaigner for International Rivers: “Today, on the 21st International Day of Action for Rivers, a plethora of actions manifesting the importance of rivers and why they need to be protected and celebrated is taking place. We are very proud to work alongside the many women, like dearly missed Berta Cáceres and Ruth Buendía who stood forward to protect the rights of rivers and the livelihoods of many communities. Their vision and courage have in turn empowered many women and men through the world to defend rivers and to carry the message that water is not for sale; water is to be loved and protected.”