JOAS dedicates International Rivers Day to slain anti-dam activist

This article was originally posted in JOAS’ Facebook page with the same title.

International Day of Action for Rivers 2016 was foreshadowed by the heinous murder of Honduran environmental activist and indigenous leader of the Lenca people, Berta Cáceres. Berta was brutally murdered in her own home on 2 March 2016, La Esperanza, Honduras, when gunmen stormed in and shot her.

“In solidarity with Berta Cáceres as a fellow indigenous rights defender, Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) decided to dedicate our commemoration of International Rivers Day in Malaysia to her work and contribution, particulary her efforts in opposing the construction of the Agua Zarca dam in land of the Lenca people in Honduras,” explains Jannie Lasimbang, Secretary General of JOAS.

“Her struggle resonates closely to ours as we, the Orang Asal of Malaysia, have been battling to defend our rivers in Malaysia,” she added.

WISER participants – including Berta Cáceres – rallying against dams at the WISER conference in Malaysia last year (copyright: The Borneo Project)

There are at least 16 more proposed dams in Sabah, 11 in Sarawak and 3 more in Peninsular Malaysia.

“Our human rights defenders who oppose the construction of dams on their lands and territories face similar intimidation. We are concerned that if these sort of treatment go on with impunity, things can only get worse and may lead to violence and criminalisation of human rights defenders” Lasimbang stressed.

“We call on the government to view activists as sound boards, rather than instigators or an anti-development group. We do not choose sides, rather we want to engage with government and provide viable alternatives for the conservation of our valuable rivers, watersheds and the survival of indigenous communities” Lasimbang added, in reference to a public forum organized in Sabah on 16 September last year, during which JOAS, the Ulu Papar community and other NGOs presented alternatives to the construction of the controversial Kaiduan dam in Ulu Papar, Sabah.

The Water Department and Ministry of Infrastructure Development were invited to the public forum, but failed to show up.

Berta Caceres speaking at WISER Baram 2015 in the Malaysian town of Miri on the island of Borneo (copyright: Bruno Manser Fund)

By dedicating International Day of Action for Rivers which falls on 14 March, to Berta Cáceres, JOAS hopes that her sacrifice would open a space for more meaningful engagement between government and civil societies, and improve methods of conflict-resolution surrounding projects affecting rivers around Malaysia.

“We were fortunate to have met Berta Cáceres who visited Baram, Sarawak, during the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers (WISER), in October last year. The summit brought together indigenous leaders opposing dams from around the world, during which she shared about the threats she and her community members faced from the military, paramilitaries, police, and hitmen,” explained Caroline Nyurang from SAVE Rivers, one of the organizers of WISER.

“As a woman and as an indigenous person, she was truly inspiring. Her sacrifice will not be forgotten, rather, it will give us strength in our time of doubt as we battle to save our rivers for a better future for all of us,” Nyurang added.