The Water Defenders: how ordinary people saved a country from corporate greed (Beacon Press, 2021) by Robin Broad and John Cavanaugh is the winner of the 2021 Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America.
This is the thirteenth year of this prestigious award. The award is supported by the Duke Human Rights Center@the Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the Human Rights Archive at the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscripts Library.
The Water Defenders tells the story of courageous El Salvadorans who fought together to combat the exploitation of their country’s natural resources. As the writers note, while this story is about El Salvador, as importantly, it is “also about how global corporations—be they Big Gold or Big Pharma or Big Tobacco or Big Oil or Big Banks–move into poorer communities in countries all over the world.”
Robin Kirk, chair of the selection committee and co-director of the Duke Human Rights Center, noted that the book is both timely and representative of long-standing conflict around natural resources in Latin America. “Since Europeans first began exploiting the region’s wealth, native populations have fought back. But rarely have we been so well and intricately guided on how these fights take shape in villages and towns that rarely make the news. It is there, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, that human rights takes shape and gains real power to make positive change.”
The judges were unanimous in their praise. Patrick Stawski, Human Rights Archivist at Duke’s Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, noted:
Broad and Cavanagh address how international global capital, particularly Big Mining, connects climate change and human rights in its pursuit of profit extraction at the cost of local communities. The authors tell this story by focusing in on a singular set of communities in El Salvador and the individual lives impacted by these vast processes. I liked how the authors historically situated the current fight for clean land and water as an extension of the long human rights struggles in Central America, and how those struggles created a very capable indigenous human rights movement. I was particularly drawn to the autochthonous nature of the activism that confronted the insurgent mining interests. The book underscores the agency of these activists, their intelligence and sophisticated understanding of the issues confronting their communities, as well as their agile deployment of human rights strategies to defend their communities.
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, a senior legal adviser to Human Rights Watch and a former Méndez winner, noted that “this is an inspiring story about how people with limited resources were able to organize and protect their community. It’s well told, and highly relevant to current events, including protest movements over mining and environmental harm throughout the region.”
For Prof. Kirsten Weld, also a former Méndez winner and professor of history at Harvard University, the story was important and “told with brio, very readable and inspiring. It engages the politics of extractivism in a way that resonates beyond the Salvadoran case.”
When notified of the award, Broad and Cavanagh stated, “We are deeply honored by this Award which we accept in the names of the hundreds of environmental defenders who are murdered each year around the world for fighting for the most basic of human rights. So too are we honored by the fact that the Award is named for the venerable human right champion, Juan Méndez. May the victories of the Salvadoran water defenders inspire us all to rethink the possible.”
First awarded in 2008, the Méndez Human Rights Book Award honors the best current non-fiction book published in English on human rights, democracy, and social justice in contemporary Latin America. The books are evaluated by a panel of expert judges drawn from academia, journalism, human rights, and public policy circles.