DEFENDERS OF LAND, AIR, WATER AND OUR PLANET
Written by Hannah Hadikin VOW Board Member
photos by Heidi Hadikin
First published in Iskra Publication, Voice of the Doukhobors, April 2, 2016
Take care of the land and the land will take care of you. It’s likely that many of us have heard this or a similar mantra. We can assume that people globally, in a variety of languages and nuances, subscribe to this advice. The past month I was witness to those who not only inhabit the land, but who see themselves as stewards and for whom the land has far greater value than mere economics. People who do not treat the land they live on as a commodity, but rather as a community to which they belong. People with a deep ecological conscience, demonstrating that it is the responsibility of those who receive sustenance, to preserve the health of the land, water and air.
One such land defender was Berta Caceres. Berta was a Honduran environmental activist and an Indigenous leader of the Lenca people in Honduras. Berta was totally committed to defending the environment, the rights of her people, along with protecting the land from development and subsequent destruction of their livelihood. Berta led campaigns against the proposal for building one of the world’s largest hydro electric dams in the area, resulting in the displacement of the Lenca people. On March 3, 2016, Berta was killed by intruders as she slept in her home in the town of La Esperanza.
Last year, during the School of the America’s Watch (SOAW) Spring Day of Action, Berta Caceres was a featured speaker. SOAW released a statement condemning the murder of Berta and demanding an investigation. “Berta Caceres is one of the leading indigenous activists in Honduras. She spent her life fighting in defense of indigenous rights, particularly to land and natural resources.” The statement went on to declare that the Honduran government was granting approval for the privatization of rivers and land with the intention of building multiple dams throughout Honduras. This would ultimately result in uprooting and displacing the people living in the surrounding communities. These disturbing actions have been taking place ever since the School of the America’s led military coup was carried out by graduates of the school in 2009. “ Almost 30 percent of the country’s land was earmarked for mining concession, creating a demand for cheap energy to power future mining operations…Honduran human rights organizations report there have been over 10,000 human rights violations by state security forces and impunity is the norm—most murders go unpunished.”( http://soaw.org/news/news-alerts/4362-indigenous-activist-berta-caceres-assassinated-in-honduras).
Members of the Kootenay UN chapter (KRUNA), have been active in calling for the closure of SOA and ending military training and aid for the Honduran security forces. Individuals at our local level, have engaged in peaceful acts of solidarity, as well as participating in protests on the site denouncing the U.S. government’s support of the school.
As I stood in solidarity with people assembled in downtown Toronto in memory of the amazing land defender, I listened with a heavy heart to the testimonies from people who were close to Berta. Student activists unfurled a long piece of blue silk cloth, swaying it in an imaginative flow of the Gualcarque River which is believed by the Lenca people to be guarded by female spirits. I imagined that Berta’s spirit would continue to watch over the river and her community. Berta lived with constant threats to her life. On several occasions she was detained by the military on trumped up charges, all the while continuing to be a global voice for the indigenous people and an inspiration to millions. More than 20 years ago, Berta founded the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). There is no doubt that Berta will remain a beacon for ‘non-violent’, but energetic struggles.
Closer to home, my daughter Heidi and I visited another amazing land defender. Kristin Henry has been on a hunger strike since March 13, protesting the Site C dam. This mega hydroelectric project in northeastern BC, will severely impact the livelihood of the First Nations communities, farming families and individuals who rely on the Peace Valley for food security. The valley floor is surrounded by south facing slopes, creating a unique microclimate which attributes to the long growing days.
Kristin’s current ‘lodging’ is a makeshift camp on the grounds outside of the B.C. Hydro head office building in downtown Vancouver. The encampment consists of a few tents and tarps grouped together. Kirstin was on the 10th day of her fast, in support of First Nations sovereignty, treaty rights, food and water security and awareness of climate change. Heidi and I shared her convictions in opposing the wanton destruction of agricultural land and the flagrant disregard of future generations. Kristin is intelligent and articulate about the real reasons behind the project. The purpose of a third dam on the Peace River is to supply electricity to liquefied natural gas (LNG) proposed projects. Studies show fracked natural gas can produce as much greenhouse gas emissions as coal. “The Pembina Institute estimates that if five LNG facilities are built, the industry would more than double B. C’s carbon pollution, single-handedly emitting nearly three-quarters as many greenhouse gases as Alberta’s oil sands”. http://www.ammsa.com/publications/windspeaker/site-c-dam’s-electricity-destined-lng-industry.
One has to wonder what justification can there be for Site C when it is essentially a huge taxpayer subsidy to LNG industrialists? First Nations burial grounds along with crucial ceremonial sites will be submerged. An 83-kilometer-long stretch of incredibly valuable fertile soil at the Peace River Valley bottom will be flooded. Kristin feels strongly that “it is irresponsible to destroy such productive land, intact wilderness, unique ecosystem and biodiversity, not to mention some 5,000 hectares of agricultural potential that can conceivably feed a million people.”. Kristin had never undertaken a fast before and she told us that she is prepared to protest peacefully until construction of Site C is halted.
We were deeply moved by the dedication of this young woman who was undertaking such a heavy fight for issues which will in all likelihood impact us all. We were in admiration of her passion for what truly is a planet matter. Climate change is real and so is fracking’s heavy carbon footprint.
During our visit, a small group of supporters were encouraging folks to write to the Prime Minster with a request to withdraw all permits related to the construction of the Site C dam. To urge the PM to observe and ensure that the rights of Indigenous people are protected under Treaty 8, the Canadian Constitution and International Human Rights law. Fourteen work permits were issued by the former government for the $9-billion project during the writ period of the last election. Legal challenges are before the courts. “Treaty 8 First Nations in B.C. are vehemently opposed to BC Hydro’s plans. Flooding would violate their treaty rights to hunting, fishing and collecting medicinal plants. What’s more, the federal Joint Review Panel found there to be no justification for the Site C project”. http://canadians.org/action/stop-site-c-dam.
We left the small enclave of young people, an example to us all, with many questions. Should we be concerned about protecting farmers, local food producers and farming families and their livelihood? Do we have a responsibility to ensure local food supply and food security? What policies should be in place to protect valuable existing farmland? And as importantly, are we willing to be defenders of our planet as part of our responsibility for future generations?
Prior to my return back home, friends invited me to a screening of a newly released film “A Last Stand for Lelu”. The film profiled the Lax Kw’alaams First Nations who are fighting against a proposed LNG export terminal on Lelu Island in the Pacific northwest, near Prince Rupert. The proposed LNG terminal would be on top of an extremely sensitive fish estuary and marine habitat. The project would devastate the Skeena River, cause irreversible damage to the critical salmon habitat, and along with it, the livelihood of indigenous communities. Ironically, the terminal would be serviced with fracked gas, through a pipeline from northeastern B.C. The land defenders voted unanimously against the project, rejecting an offer of $1.15 billion by Petronas. Disregarding indigenous territorial rights and their livelihoods, Petronas, backed by the BC government, have begun the process of illegal drilling. The film portrays the peaceful occupation of Lelu Island by tribal members. Meanwhile strong resistance is expressed in a declaration: “We, the Indigenous leaders of British Columbia, come together united in our resolve, determination and commitment to ensure the protection and conservation of wild salmon. Wild Salmon—relative and an intrinsic part of our territories to which we hold a spiritual and cultural connection is integral to the culture and well-being of our communities and families.”