This interview was conducted over email with Mendez Award Winners, Robin Broad and John Cavanagh, by Zac Johnson, a fourth-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Broad and Cavanagh will be joining the Duke Human Rights Center to accept the Mendez Award on February 22 at 5PM. Register here.

Zac Johnson (ZJ): How did you end up writing a book on Salvadorans combatting the extraction of their natural resources? What motivated you?  

Broad and Cavanagh (B&C): We met five dynamic “water defenders” from El Salvador in October 2009 when their organization won the prestigious Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award at John’s Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) for their work to stop toxic mining to save their rivers.  Water defender Marcelo Rivera was to have been among them; alas, he had been brutally murdered just months before. In his place came his brother Miguel. The five we met were shell-shocked by Marcelo’s murder and the death threats that others were receiving. But they were also incredibly focused on continuing Marcelo’s work. They asked our help in finding out more about a secretive Washington, D.C.-based tribunal.  At that World Bank venue, a Canadian mining corporation had sued the Salvadoran government for listening to the water defenders and putting a temporary moratorium on new mining permits as it studied mining’s impacts. That drew the two of us and IPS and, subsequently, hundreds of other organizations around the globe into an effort to beat back the corporate lawsuit and to collaborate with those in El Salvador who were intent to make their country the first in the world to ban mining. Dare we add that this seemed like an impossible mission in 2009 – but it was the morally right thing to do.

ZJ: What was the trajectory of this book like? How did you conduct your research? 

B&C: Between 2011 and 2019, we travelled each year to El Salvador, not to research a book but to coordinate with the Salvadoran water defenders in their attempts to save their country from Big Gold.  Part of our job – and the job of a global coalition called International Allies that we helped set up — was to research what was happening in that World Bank tribunal as well as to learn more about the global mining corporations that were so intent on mining. And part of our job was to publicize the work of the Salvadoran water defenders. So we interviewed dozens of people for the advocacy work and for articles that we published in op-eds and places like The Nation and that we shared with human rights and other groups around the world.  In the process, we developed deep bonds of trust with a wide range of people, from farmers to community organizers and leaders of national groups, and to members of the Legislative Assembly, and even the Minister of the Environment as well as El Salvador’s key lawyer for the legal battle.

But, we were not doing this for a book. Indeed, the idea of a book never entered our minds until the seemingly impossible happened: in 2016, the mining company lost its lawsuit in that corporate-biased World Bank tribunal, and in 2017 El Salvador became the first country in the world to ban all metals mining to save its rivers.  At that moment, we knew we needed to write a book to share this story and the lessons from it.  We knew most of the story by then, but we returned several times to spend more time with the water defenders and to fill in the gaps about the origins of the story — going all the way back to the early 2000s when the “white men in suits” mining company executives started to flood into El Salvador. That too was a pretty incredible experience as the water defenders not only wanted us to write this book, but they also became co-authors of a sort – taking us to places to which we had not been but that needed to be part of this book.

ZJ: To what extent did you encounter human rights frameworks in the work of these water defenders? 

B&C: The Salvadorans on the ground instinctively saw their struggle in human rights terms: they viewed themselves not as anti-mining but as advancing the human right to clean water. They were not alone here.  Their companion human rights defenders just to the north in Honduras also shared this human-rights frame.  Indeed, many of the Salvadoran water defenders were Lenca people from the same indigenous community as another great environmental human rights martyr, Berta Cáceres of Honduras.  In addition, one of the water defenders’ key allies in the Salvadoran government was the Human Rights Ombudsperson, to whom they turned after the 2009 assassination of Marcelo Rivera. Interestingly enough, El Salvador’s human rights office has a deputy in charge of environmental rights – so that human rights framework was also advanced by the Salvadoran government itself.  While that office did not have the power of an executive ministry, the various ombudspersons and deputies served as a bully pulpit to defend the rights of the frontline communities, including their environmental rights.

ZJ: When you were notified of the Award you wrote, “May the victories of the Salvadoran water defenders inspire us all to rethink the possible.” How did exploring this story help you rethink the possible?  

B&C: Here we sit in the United States where we bemoan the rise of the Trump right and the appalling attacks on democracy in this country.  We think we face intractable obstacles to human rights, and democracy, and justice.  Yet, imagine people in a small country with limited financial resources, a country where 75,000 were killed in a brutal civil war in the 1980s when the United States backed death squads, a country where global corporations have had their way for decades.  Imagine ordinary people who chose not only to organize themselves but also to reach out to some very unlikely allies. Together with these allies, the water defenders defeated a giant corporation from an economically richer country and convinced their deeply-divided legislature – where left and right, liberals and conservatives never agreed on anything – to become the first government on earth to ban all metals mining.  If they can win these victories against almost impossible odds, imagine what we can do here and what can be done in other countries.  So, it is important not to avoid challenges that, while morally correct, seems impossible because, as was the case in El Salvador, what may seem impossible today may become very possible tomorrow.

ZJ: What other lessons relating to policy and social justice do the Salvadoran water defenders provide for those of us who want to see communities protected from exploitative resource extraction by global corporations?  

B&C: There are many lessons laid out in the book, but the big three are these:

(a) The key to most victories against large corporations with greater financial resources is the organized “bottom-up” power of communities on the ground.  In El Salvador, “ordinary” people in the economically-poorer but gold-rich north of the country educated themselves about the dangers of mining, then educated their communities, and then did the same with national groups who might be sympathetic and with global groups.  But the key to victory was strong organization – the social movement, if you will — on the ground.

(b) The Salvadoran water defenders organized around positive slogans: “Water is Life” and “Water, not Gold.”  They did not want to be billed as anti-mining because they did not see themselves as such; they were pro-water as a most fundamental of human rights. But their positive messaging broadened their audience to understand the impact of toxic mining on water and land.

(c) In addition to organizing what we call “likely allies” in the environment, human rights, and religious communities, the water defenders displayed creative audacity in reaching out to “unlikely allies” – including  two conservative archbishops, a member of the right-wing party in the legislature, and even the co-founder of that political party who had been a key “death squad” supporter during El Salvador’s bloody civil war and who in 2006 served as minister of environment in a right-wing government.  While this was not an easy decision for all of the water defenders, they realized could win only if they reached across the political aisle, and they did.

Suffice it to say: food for thought for those of us in the United States and elsewhere as we lay out paths to a greener and more just future.