A Blueprint for Those Hoping to Beat Corporate Greed

'The Water Defender’s' telling of how a small group of El Salvadorians took on global mining interests is inspiring and empowering.

Remote Central American communities standing down giant mining companies; the treacherous grassroots defense of beloved natural territories; tracking down the murderer of a conservation activist; helping the world understand the depth of destruction a mega-industry can inflict on a small country. These are exactly the elements of a book that I would love at first sight, so it is no surprise that I appreciated The Water Defenders, a book by academics and activists Robin Broad and John Cavanagh.

In The Water Defenders, Broad and Cavanagh outline how El Salvador came to reject the idea that “progress” must be fueled by ever-more resource consumption in favor of a vivir bien (living well) concept of progress which centers community and nature preservation. Photo of Lago Suchitlán by Ryan Poole.

But I am hardly the only one. Climate activist Bill McKibben highlighted the book in the New Yorker magazine. Foreign Affairs praised it as “a practical David-versus-Goliath playbook” for communities advocating for environmental justice. Opal Tometi, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, enthused about the book’s account of how disempowered people in El Salvador showed “how we can build power and win” against huge odds.

Part of The Water Defenders broad appeal is its ability to expertly dispel two myths about climate justice. The first myth is that “progress” must be fueled by ever-more resource consumption and short-term financial gains. In The Water Defenders, Broad and Cavanagh outline how El Salvador came to reject that definition of progress by banning all metal mining nationwide in favor of a vivir bien (living well) concept of progress which centers community and nature preservation.

Skeptics say El Salvador shot itself in the foot by banishing a mega-industry. But The Water Defenders shows — beyond corporate greenwashing about so-called “sustainable mining” — how residents of El Salvador came to determine that gold mining would threaten their water supply given that mining utilizes toxic cyanide, diverts water needed for farming, and in many cases releases arsenic at the mining sites. From 2002 to 2017, local people organized door-to-door, exposed corruption, and formed national and international alliances toward eventually nixing a hazardous extractive industry. Their journey also included imagining a vivir bien economy which embraces businesses that achieve a broader well-being. Industries like agro-ecology, sustainable tourism, and metals recycling.

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The second dangerous myth The Water Defenders attempts to dispel is the idea that you have to be rich to be green. Many of us assume that people must cross a certain wealth-threshold to finally demand that one’s country care about a luxury like conservation. Yet, The Water Defenders shows that in El Salvador, ranked 103 globally in GDP, the rural poor were willing to put their lives on the line to protect their water supply from Big Gold. As Broad and Cavanagh put it in the book, “It is the poor who often care most [about the environment], in part because the precious land and water and natural resources that surround them are vital to their survival.”

One of major mysteries that The Water Defenders works to unravel is the story of Marcelo Rivera, a working-class Salvadorian “water defender” who lost his life while working to organize impoverished communities against metal mining. Rivera was tortured and killed in 2009. The book asks, was it the miners and their allies who did it?

I won’t deliver the spoiler here. But to give you a taste of the odds of finding Marcelo’s killers, consider that the organization Global Witness reports that more than 1,700 “environmental defenders,” have been killed across 50 countries between 2002 and 2018. However, only about 10 percent of murders of environmentalists lead to convictions, as opposed to nearly half of total homicides globally. Only the biggest of names, such as those of Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips who were gunned down in the Brazilian Amazon in June 2022, make it into the headlines.

The Water Defenders lays out the blueprint for people anywhere in the world wishing to beat greed. One of many lessons learned from El Salvador: form intelligent international alliances. When global mining firms sued El Salvador for supposed lost investments in the World Bank ICSID tribunal, El Salvadorians were joined by a loose international alliance of progressive groups and individuals who helped launch creative media strategies that turned the El Salvador struggle into a story picked up in media outlets worldwide. With public support at their backs, El Salvador, remarkably, beat Big Gold in that tribunal.

The Water Defenders co-authors were, of course, part of this international alliance. Both Robin Broad and John Cavanagh have vast experience in those critical spaces that bridge academics, policy, and on-the-ground “real-life” experience. Most authors inhabit only one of those spaces, but they bring all three together to deliver us this saga that won the 2021 Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights. Their expertise is complemented by a tender personal connection with many of the people and situations they are writing about, and that makes the details pop off the page. Beyond doubt, Broad and Cavanagh are the real thing in their decades-long struggle for what environmentalist Charles Eisenstein calls “the better world our hearts know is possible.”

The Water Defenders does, alas, at times provide excessive, granular detail about meetings, protests, and other milestones on the road to victory over Big Gold.. This is the flip side of the authors’ uncanny intimacy with their subject. The book might have benefited from a dash more parsimony without losing impact.

This minor quibble aside, we’ve got a remarkable, deeply inspiring book in our hands. El Salvador, as the first nation to pass a complete ban on metals mining, is the harbinger of other changes worldwide. Costa Rica has passed an executive order limiting mining. In the United States, Maine barred open-pit mines, and Montana outlawed gold mining with cyanide. New Zealand is opening new frontiers in considering limits to seabed mining while shifting power to Indigenous people. If a force as unlikely as the El Salvadorian water defenders can take down a behemoth like the metals mining industry, what else is possible?

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