From tropical rain forests to drinkable water, a vast share of the planet’s essential environmental resources are found in developing countries. When growth-oriented governments and powerful Western corporations set their sights on these lands, or the minerals beneath them, local people standing in their way frequently find themselves bulldozed.
In the era of climate catastrophe, these injustices take on a new urgency. Our future standard of living—even for those in wealthy areas like, say, Texas or California—is now tied to our collective ability to conserve some environmental resources and leave others in the ground. Due to climate science if not solidarity, the prospects of local communities and activists for notching environmental wins against wealthy and well-connected companies take on a more global significance. The climate crisis adds a dose of dread to a question long pondered by environmentalists: How can poor countries and communities protect the environment when the system is stacked against them?
In The Water Defenders, Robin Broad and John Cavanagh seek answers to that dilemma.
The book chronicles the improbable victory of grassroots activists in El Salvador who fought to protect local water resources against foreign mining companies. Broad and Cavanagh, a wife-and-husband team of development scholars who joined in the water defenders’ movement, detail the hardships, strategy debates, and breakthroughs of their more than decade-long campaign. The book is an environmentalist playbook, a how-to guide for activists seeking to defeat a power structure that is rigged in favor of their opponents.
In the course of their struggle, the water defenders face trials of biblical proportions, including the brutal and unsolved murder of their leader Marcelo Rivera, a teacher and activist who directed a cultural center in his rural hometown of San Isidro. The authors recount these dramatic setbacks and how the movement responded to them, extracting lessons that might apply to future campaigns. The water defenders are guided by three basic strategies: maintaining a positive message, recruiting unlikely allies, and building international support.
From early on in the dispute, the authors write, Canadian gold-mining company Pacific Rim and its allies deployed sleazy tactics to overwhelm opposition and win a license to mine. Astroturf protesters were paid to pose as members of the local community. Prostitutes were sent to local community groups to try to entice the water defenders’ leaders. Gang members were bused in from San Salvador to intimidate opponents of the pro-mining local mayor. Through it all, the water defenders stayed on message, focusing on the importance of clean water with slogans such as “Agua es vida” and “Si a la vida” (“Water is life”; “Yes to life”). The charismatic Rivera attained folk-hero status with his impersonations of a popular children’s character known as Cipitio to spread his environmentalist message. These efforts helped convince a majority of Salvadorans to oppose mining, including more than 3 out of 5 consulted in a 2007 University of Central America poll.
The most shocking ordeal faced by the water defenders was Rivera’s gruesome murder. In June 2009, the community leader disappeared without a trace. Two weeks later, Rivera’s body was found at the bottom of a well, tortured beyond recognition. Three gang members were convicted of the murder. El Salvador’s attorney general’s office classified the killing as a “common gang crime,” but the water defenders were convinced that mining interests and their local political allies had masterminded the assassination. Events lent credibility to their suspicions: In the months after the murder, activists were flooded with death threats and two other mining opponents were gunned down.
Despite the brutality of Rivera’s death, and its similarity to tactics used by right-wing death squads in El Salvador’s civil war of the 1980s, the water defenders were undeterred. They launched an ambitious campaign seeking not only to block Pacific Rim’s mine but to impose a nationwide ban on metals mining. Even as they grieved, they set aside their historical enmity with rightist parties that were linked to their own community’s violent displacement during the civil war. Among the allies the water defenders won over were a legislator from the conservative ARENA party who led a key committee in El Salvador’s Congress, a prosecutor who had served as a military attaché to the United States during the civil war, and El Salvador’s influential archbishop, a member of the ultraconservative Opus Dei order. They persuaded the archbishop with an appeal to his knowledge of the dangers of cyanide, which is used in gold-mining operations, based on a degree he had obtained in chemistry.
How can poor countries and communities protect the environment when the system is stacked against them?
When El Salvador’s government imposed a de facto moratorium on new mining licenses, Pacific Rim filed a lawsuit in 2009 with the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, a staunchly pro-business tribunal that adjudicates disputes between governments and foreign investors. Pacific Rim demanded that El Salvador either allow it to mine or pay more than $300 million to cover not only its costs but the future profits it would forgo. The water defenders and their allies responded by mounting an international campaign to put the World Bank in the spotlight. This campaign recruited allies including the AFL-CIO and Teamsters, earned coverage in leading U.S. media outlets, and convened a rally in Washington, D.C., outside the tribunal’s hearings, complete with an inflatable, cigar-toting fat cat.
Each of the water defenders’ key strategies—their positively framed message, their outreach to unexpected allies, and their development of an international coalition—paid off at critical moments. In October 2016, the World Bank tribunal where their international partners held protests dismissed the mining company’s claims. Five months later, the nationwide mining ban proposed by the water defenders and introduced by their partner in the ARENA party sailed through El Salvador’s Congress by a vote of 70 to 0. In the end, the water defenders’ victory was as resounding as it was improbable.
Their victory against such formidable odds also reveals the book’s central paradox. The story’s power derives from the water defenders battling a system stacked against them. How might the system be unrigged so that victory doesn’t take a miracle?
Part of the answer lies in underlining a key threat faced by the water defenders and other affected communities: the collapse of the rule of law. In the remote regions where many environmental resources are found, development projects are often backed by a toxic mix of political corruption, organized crime, and unchecked corporate power. These alliances allow bad actors to run roughshod over community resistance, from towns like Marcelo Rivera’s to the Brazilian Amazon to the palm oil plantations of Indonesia. Recent investigations hammer home the point. The 2020 “Lawless Amazon” project by the Brazilian media outlet Agência Pública details how mining, sugar, and cattle interests have overrun indigenous communities in their drive to clear rain forest lands. A 2020 Greenpeace report on Indonesia found that only four companies were convicted of deforestation crimes during the previous five years, a period in which rain forests covering an area larger than the Netherlands had burned.
Another crucial factor is the role of international development institutions and treaty bodies, which regularly judge disputes involving foreign investors. Too often, these groups’ close ties to business elites place them on the wrong side of conflicts between local communities and development projects tainted by crime or corruption.
Sometimes these tribunals even help Western corporations override decisions by the governments of developing countries when they refuse to accede to their wishes. The World Bank’s international dispute settlement tribunal, where Pacific Rim filed suit against El Salvador, was created over the unanimous opposition of 19 Latin American nations, and its docket was almost exclusively composed of cases brought by companies against governments of developing countries. Other international trade tribunals don’t do much better, according to a 2016 BuzzFeed investigation of investor-state dispute settlement, a secretive court system written into international trade deals. Foreign companies used these courts to pressure governments into voiding criminal convictions against their executives for offenses including embezzlement, fraud, and the lead poisoning of dozens of children.
The impunity surrounding environmental crime and corruption points toward a crucial new agenda item for protecting the planet: restoring the rule of law in regions with essential ecological resources. For the United States government, this would mean prioritizing environmental enforcement and anti-corruption measures in relations with foreign counterparts, and holding U.S. companies to the same standards. It would also entail demanding more even-handed justice in disputes between governments and foreign investors, including the possibility of eliminating tribunals with flawed structures and track records. For consumers, it would mean taking a closer look at the supply chains of the products we use, considering not only companies’ environmental footprints but their conduct in foreign countries.
Ultimately, the water defenders win the day when democracy and the rule of law prevail over strong-arm tactics. The World Bank’s tribunal dismisses the mining company’s case when El Salvador refuses to back down; El Salvador bans mining when its legislature responds to years of campaigning by activists who refused to be cowed by the brutal murder of their leader. Governments will continue to set their own rules on the environment, and foreign companies and local communities will continue to have disputes. By helping to ensure that those laws are upheld—and that those who invoke them can live free from fear—we can offer those communities a fighting chance at victory.