Friday, June 24, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Berta Cáceres's 2015 Goldman Prize Speech

Sadly, it was a surprise to no one when Berta Cáceres was killed by gunmen in March this year. Death threats had been part of the Honduran environmental activist's life for more than two decades, and some of her closest colleagues had been similarly gunned down. According to a 2014 report by the international NGO Global Witness, Honduras was the most dangerous country per capita to work as an environmental activist, and Cáceres and her colleagues were nearly always in the crosshairs.

In 1993, Cáceres, a member of the Lenca indigenous community in Honduras, cofounded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) to organize the Lenca against illegal logging and dam building near their lands. COPINH and Cáceres are best known for leading a 10-year campaign, including a one-year physical blockade, against the building of the Agua Zarca dam. Violence erupted at several points during the standoff over the Río Gualcarque, a river sacred to the Lenca. Cáceres argued that the Honduran and Chinese companies behind the Agua Zarca had ignored international law protecting indigenous rights, and in 2013 the Chinese company Sinohydro and the World Bank's International Finance Corporation withdrew from the project.

Cáceres, a mother of four, drew some inspiration for her activism from her own mother's work with refugees from El Salvador in the 1970s. She was well aware of the dangers she faced. In 2013, Cáceres said in an interview with Al-Jazeera:
"I want to live. there are many things I still want to do in this world but I have never once considered giving up fighting for our territory, for a life with dignity, because our fight is legitimate. I take lots of care but in the end, in this country where there is total impunity I am vulnerable...When they want to kill me, they will do it."
Cáceres received the 2015 Goldman Prize for Central and South America, one of the world's most prestigious awards for grassroots environmental efforts. Her acceptance speech demonstrates many of the attributes that made her such a strong advocate for the Lenca people and such a dangerous foe for those who sought to silence her. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Start strong. Most award acceptance speeches sputter to a start, full of thank-yous and other preliminaries like acknowledging members of the audience. Cáceres begins instead with a strong statement about the Río Gualcarque and why it matters to the Lenca people. With only a short time to speak, she takes advantage of her audience's "sweet spot" of attention and doesn't waste time with less memorable words up front.
  • "Grow big."I love this insight from one of Cáceres' long-time friends, the Jesuit priest Padre Melo, who is quoted in a New Yorker article about the activist:
    "She could empathize and spar with humble people, he told me, telling jokes and stories 'with the same smile as always.' But when she was in front of the police or the military, he said, 'se engrandecía'--she grew big--'speaking firmly, elevating her voice with strength. She was like a machine gun. She would finish talking to the authorities who opposed the community, and then return to the people. She would go back to being Berta.'
    This speech features an excellent example of 'se engrandecía,' when Cáceres transitions from talking about the river to what COPINH has done to protect it. You can hear some steel creep into her voice, and even her posture becomes less relaxed and more animated. The change serves to highlight what she feels is the key message in the speech.
  • Speak as yourself. It's wonderful to have the Goldman translation for this speech, but I love that we get to hear it delivered in Spanish--without apology to her international audience. Combined with her lyrical descriptions of how the Lenca people tend the river in return for the guidance of the spirits of young girls, this speech showcases the power in telling a story rooted in your own experiences, and making a speech that only you can make.
You can watch the full video of Cáceres' acceptance speech here:

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post)

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Prachatal)

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