Water defenders: how ordinary people saved a country from corporate greed

David slays Goliath in El Salvador

Broad and Cavanagh’s book is meant not only for the historical record but to distill the lessons of a landmark people’s struggle for battles against corporate greed that are yet to come.

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Stories of Davids beating Goliaths are so rare that when they happen, they ought to be painstakingly studied and ransacked for lessons. Robin Broad and John Cavanagh have done precisely that in the case of El Salvador’s historic ban of the mining of all metals in The Water Defenders[i]. A work that is likely to serve as a handbook for future Davids fighting corporate or political Goliaths. That the book unfolds as a riveting, suspenseful narrative while not sacrificing substance will ensure a varied audience of activists, academic specialists, and ordinary readers in search of a real-life account of the good guys winning over the bad guys.


Well known in activist and academic circles for their work on popular struggles in the Philippines and the United States, the wife-and-husband team did not set out to work on El Salvador, a tiny country that they had known mainly as the site of a bloody civil war in the 1980s. What drew them was the brutal murder of a Salvadoran activist, Marcelo Rivera, who was leading a budding movement for water rights a few months before he was expected to travel to Washington, DC, to receive an award from the Institute for Policy Studies, the famous progressive think tank of which John was the executive director. That was in 2009. Thirteen years and eight intensive research sojourns in El Salvador later, Cavanagh and Broad, who is professor of development studies at American University and a Guggenheim Fellow, have come out with one of the most painstakingly – and lovingly–detailed case studies of people-based resistance to environmental depredation. The subhead of the book tells it all: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed.


Big Gold may be much less known for dirty tricks than Big Copper or Big Bauxite. But it is just as bad. The chain of events that led to Marcelo’s horrible murder – ‘no jaw, no lips, no nose … fingernails … ripped off … testicles bound … trachea … broken with a nylon cord’ – began with the discovery of apparently rich gold seams in the department of Cabanas in the north central part of the country. The interest shown by the Canadian company PacRim evoked the curiosity of Marcelo, his brother Miguel, their friend Vidalina Morales, and an ever-widening circle of ordinary people whose primordial concern was the likely effect of gold mining on their water supply, which was life-giving, not only to human beings but to their fields and their animals and the lush vegetation surrounding their communities. Taking it upon themselves to look into the impacts of gold mining, they discovered that it was comprehensively destabilizing, with its most potent threat being the poisoning of a community’s water supply by cyanide, which is used to leach gold from ore. In the process, they assembled a hardy band of community activists and national organizations that they named La Mesa (‘the Round Table’). From modest beginnings, La Mesa embarked on a mission that eventually created a movement composed of people from the bottom of the country’s social structure to the very top whose point of unity was whether they were poor or rich, metals mining would eventually poison the water on which their lives, occupations, and environment depended. The book is about how such a politically effective alliance was constructed around what were veritably motley elements.


As Broad and Cavanagh spin their tale, we are treated to some surprises. A hard core conservative of an archbishop is turned into an attentive listener and instant opponent of gold mining when he is told that cyanide is used to leach gold from ore. It so happens that this political conservative has a degree in chemistry.


The leader of the government of El Salvador’s defense team at the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in a notorious case filed by PacRim is a former officer in the Salvadoran military and a member of ARENA, the dominant party of the right. So is the scion of an aristocratic family who, as a member of parliament, becomes a crucial supporter of the bill to ban metals mining. Now, probably only those who cut their activist teeth doing work on human rights in El Salvador in the 1980s will appreciate the significance of these facts. ARENA, which was supported by the Reagan administration, was synonymous with its founder Roberto d’Aubuisson. This individual was for many of us the devil incarnate, a man linked to the death squads that counted among their thousands of victims Cardinal (now Saint) Oscar Romero, then archbishop of San Salvador.


A third surprise is that ICSID, which usually favors corporations in investment disputes, rules unanimously in favor of the Salvadoran government.


Finally, and perhaps most surprising of all, the final vote in favor of the legislative ban on metals mining on 29 March 2017 is 70 to 0!


It is this story full of seeming surprises that Broad and Cavanagh unravel, deploying the investigative and analytical skills they learned as academic activists in other struggles, such as their lifelong engagement with the progressive movement in the Philippines. What emerges from their account is a people’s movement that is not only determined but one that is, for lack a better term, smart. The leaders of this movement, foremost of which were Marcelo Rivera, Miguel Rivera, Vidalina Morales, and their colleague Antonio Pacheco, not only were not awed by the upper or middle class status of the people whose support they needed to be successful in reaching their objective. They also did not let political credentials get in the way, even if a targeted person’s record appeared to be that of a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.


At the same time, they did not allow themselves to be complacent about people they would normally regard as allies. While most of the key figures that belonged to the progressive Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), which reigned at the time the mining ban was being considered by parliament, supported the anti-mining movement, there were key figures in the party who were apparently ready to make a pact with the devil. These were not villains but well-meaning leaders who bought into the left-wing developmentalist narrative that saw revenues from extractive activities by transnational corporations as the key to funding social programs even if this meant environmental damage ‘in the short or medium term.’ At the time that the Salvadoran villagers were waging their campaign, developmentalist governments of the left favoring extractive processes were in power in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Fortunately, unlike in these countries, the ruling FMLN came through in the clutch, though the feet of some government leaders had to be held to the fire by people who formed its mass base during the civil war and after.


The movement’s leaders were also cognizant of the fact that the struggle could not be won if they confined their activities to El Salvador. Thus, they cultivated friends abroad to form a second front centered in the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, DC, and Mining Watch Canada in Ottawa, whose constant encouragement was instrumental in creating support groups in a number of countries under the banner of the ‘International Allies against Mining in El Salvador.’ Bringing together faith-based groups, environmental organizations, solidarity groups that had been formed during the Salvadoran civil war, progressive lawyers, specialists in gold mining, and labor unions, the network had an impressive global reach, mobilizing support not only in the US and Canada but in Europe, Australia, and the Philippines as well. When she was not working with La Mesa in Cabanas, the indefatigable Vidalina Morales was somewhere on the globe drawing attention to the David versus Goliath struggle unfolding in her country.


The international pressure generated by Vidalina and La Mesa’s foreign allies put PacRim and OceanaGold, which gained control of PacRim in the later stages of the conflict, on the defensive, and served as a constant reminder to the ICSID tribunal that the whole world was watching. Used to closed-door meetings where its arcane proceedings took place in Masonic Lodge-like secrecy, this was probably the first time that the winds of democracy wafted in to the corporate-dominated body through holes from which some items of its deliberations were leaked and carried in the other direction to the light of day.


The ICSID verdict and the mining ban triggered celebrations throughout El Salvador and those parts of the world that had been inspired by the never-say-never stance of La Mesa’s feisty fighters. Yet there was also a touch of sadness, a sense that victory never comes cheap. The authors of the murders of Marcelo Rivera and two other supporters of La Mesa remain judicially unidentified, though many people are certain of who these individuals are and on whose behalf they acted.


Moreover, Big Gold may have suffered a setback in El Salvador, but Big Gold, Big Copper, Big Bauxite, and other mining Goliaths continue to finance intimidation and spread dollars to dirty politicians throughout the global South. And when they are not sowing fear and bribing, they are funding studies, as they did in El Salvador, to try to seduce well intentioned technocrats desperate for revenues to fund social programs on the ‘benefits’ of mining.


This is why Broad and Cavanagh’s book is so important. It is meant not only for the historical record but to distill the lessons of a landmark people’s struggle for battles against corporate greed that are yet to come.



- Walden Bello, State University of New York at Binghampton.



[i] Water defenders: how ordinary people saved a country from corporate greed, by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh. Boston, Beacon Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-0807029022


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