June 12, 2021
In 2002, ACORN, Local 100, the local labor council and a host of others banded together to successfully beat back the privatization of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water system. One thing led to another, and when we started working in Peru, ACORN’s first international project, one of our main partners was FENTAP, the water workers national union, which was trying to rebuild after being beaten down during the Fujimori years to less than 200 members. Reviving the union meant fighting off water privatization efforts in cities throughout the country from Lima to Arequipa and beyond, we were their partners in the campaign. In both countries and globally, the trigger was neoliberalism and rules promulgated by the World Bank, IMF, and the NAFTA and CAFTA treaties that required countries to consider privatization of basic services. The campaign throughout Latin America became Aqua Pro Vida or Water is Life, and led to us meeting water warriors from Canada, Argentina, South Africa, and elsewhere and going to an international meeting in Kyoto, Japan where we joined demonstrations against all of these efforts.
All of which is to say, that when I saw a new book called The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed, I was there “from hello.” Luckily, not only did I get to read about the historic, exhilarating, and bloody victory of grassroots community groups in northern El Salvador joining with international allies to protect their water from being destroyed by mining, but I was also able to visit with John Cavanagh, one of the co-authors with Robin Broad, on Wade’s World (here). Cavanagh is no stranger to these global battles, having spent decades as the director of the DC-based Institute for Policy Studies, where he reminded me that our paths had crossed decades ago as well.
Winning these fights is all uphill against enormous odds, so hearing John explain how some local groups along with a community radio station had managed to pull this off was fascinating. The grassroots base was key, even though the politics in El Salvador, since their long civil war, continue to be polarized, but the defenders mobilized flawless research on the damage underground mining for gold had done elsewhere in the country and in neighboring Honduras to move the opposition’s environmental minister onto their side. Equally fortuitous, they were willing to engage likely opponents as well, including the powerful Archbishop, who flipped to their side after he heard that arsenic was the key agent in separating the gold from the tailings. It turned out that he had a degree in chemistry that trumped any conservative leanings he might have had and led him to bring the Church on their side. Add the international allies, like IPS, and even the AFL-CIO, once the Salvadorean miners’ union also joined the fight, and they were able to do actions in Washington at the World Bank and scale the fight from northern El Salvador to a level where it could not be ignored. They also tracked down the governor of one of the states in the Philippines where the same company had a mine, and he vigorously condemned their environmental record and came to Salvador to do so.
Listing those positives shouldn’t fool anyone that the fight was easy.
Unbelievably, companies are able to sue countries before a World Bank tribunal and avoid the national courts with countries often coming out on the losing end of these disputes. In fact, when El Salvador finally won at the tribunal, when the court ruled that local people had to give permission for mining under their land because of its impacts, the mining company tried to refuse to pay the $8 million owed and pretend it was going to mine anyway, turning the right and left against them. Bottom line, they blew it so badly, that the Salvadoran Congress voted to ban any new mining permits in order to protect their water.
These kinds of struggles around land and environment are deadly serious as well. Mining supports killed three people, including one of the central community activists and organizers, Marcelo Rivera. Throughout Latin America these disputes between local people trying to protect their land, water, and way of life against corporate powers too often finds blood spilled, making the story of these water defenders even more precious, and their victory even sweeter and more inspirational to us all..