Water Defenders Face Dangerous Challenge
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New book documents how El Salvador became the first nation in the world to ban metal mining.

Shortly after Marcelo Rivera and his colleagues had won a prestigious human rights award in Washington, D.C., in 2009, the teacher in El Salvador abruptly disappeared. Two weeks later Rivera’s  body was found in a well; he had been tortured and murdered.

Rivera and his colleagues had gained attention for their work as “water defenders,” having spoken out against a large international mining corporation for polluting water sources on which their communities relied. They gave voice to the concerns of thousands of Salvadorans, mostly impoverished and disempowered, who were affected by the destructive practices of the corporation.

Over the course of the following decade, the movement started by this small group of ordinary Salvadoran villagers gradually built a supporting coalition that included international advocacy groups, researchers, lawyers, Salvadoran politicians and leaders in the Catholic Church. Against all odds, after a transnational lawsuit played out in secret tribunals in Washington D.C., and after an arduous campaign in the Salvadoran national legislature, El Salvador in 2017 became the first nation in the world to ban metal mining.

This “David and Goliath story,” documented in the newly released book The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh, demonstrates the potential of nonviolent campaigns to protect the interests of local communities against corporate powers. It also shows the power of the Catholic Church to be a voice and instrument for justice within such campaigns.

However, the victorious ending of this campaign is an anomaly among countless stories of other water defenders today. In many countries in the world, access to clean water is increasingly scarce due to climate change, mismanagement and pollution. Because of the way trade agreements are structured to favor international corporate interests over local efforts to protect environmental resources and community interests, companies in extractive industries such as mining are often able to pollute natural resources with impunity through the course of their work.

Those who stand against this kind of environmental destruction are increasingly threatened. The year 2019 was the deadliest on record for environmental defenders around the world, with 212 recorded murders. The perpetrators and masterminds behind these murders are almost never discovered or prosecuted, and their victims are most often rural citizens who spoke out to protect community resources.

As residents of the United States and consumers of everyday goods produced through mining—such as cell phones, jewelry, building materials, etc.—we are compelled by the consequences of many mining projects for impoverished communities to ask complicated, difficult questions: When and where should mining be allowed? Is there a less destructive way to do it? Who should be held responsible for environmental damages that will affect generations?

Faith in action:

Read more about the campaign of the Salvadoran water defenders in The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed, by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh, available in March 2021: http://bit.ly/WatDefendElSalv

March 22 is World Water Day. Read more about efforts to protect the right to clean water around the world: https://www.worldwaterday.org/

The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, based in Washington, D.C., is a resource for Maryknoll on matters of peace, social justice and integrity of creation, and brings Maryknoll’s mission experience into U.S. policy discussions. Phone (202) 832-1780, visit www.maryknollogc.org or email ogc@maryknollogc.org.

People in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, protest the privatization of water in 2017 and demand lawmakers provide water access to the poor. (CNS/Jose Cabezas, Reuters)


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About the author

Kathleen Kollman Birch

Kathleen Kollman Birch is communications manager for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.