THE WATER DEFENDERS
HOW ORDINARY PEOPLE SAVED A COUNTRY FROM CORPORATE GREED
Robin Broad | John Cavanagh
Water is life. Countless communities across the world, from Flint, Michigan to the Standing Rock Reservation to the Gualcarque River in Honduras, have used this phrase as a rallying cry against powerful corporations that value profits over the environment and the health of local communities.
The movements waging these struggles can take some inspiration from El Salvador.
In 2002, a small group of citizens in El Salvador joined the global community of water defenders when representatives from multinational mining company Pac Rim appeared in their home province of Cabañas. This ignited a people’s fight against corporate power that would last for over a decade.
In The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved A Country from Corporate Greed, Robin Broad and John Cavanagh tell the harrowing, inspiring saga of Salvadorans’ fight — and historic victory — to save their water, and their communities, from Big Gold.
Based on over a decade of research and their own role as international allies of the community groups in El Salvador, Robin Broad and John Cavanagh unspool this untold story, replete with corporate greed, a transnational lawsuit at a secretive World Bank tribunal, violent threats, murders, and — surprisingly — victory.
The husband-and-wife duo immerses the reader in the lives of the Salvadoran villagers, the journeys of the local activists who sought the truth about the effects of gold mining on the environment, and the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of the corporate mining executives.
The Water Defenders demands that we examine our assumptions about progress and prosperity, while providing valuable lessons for other communities and allies fighting against destructive corporations in the United States and across the world.
The book has been favorably reviewed and reported on in The New Yorker, Foreign Affairs, Ms. Magazine, Maryknoll Magazine, The Revelator, The American Prospect, The Journal of Peasant Studies, and beyond.
The Water Defenders won the 2021-222 Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism, the 2021 Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America, and a Philippines National Book Award for Best Book in the Social Sciences in 2023.
Reviews and Interviews
In McKibben’s “Passing the Mic” column, he interviews American University professor Robin Broad about her new book, “The Water Defenders,” co-authored with IPS director John Cavanagh. Read the interview here.
“In this gripping page-turner, Broad and Cavanagh narrate the uplifting story of how a global coalition of environmental activists, labor unions, and religious leaders blocked a Canadian firm from opening a gold mine that threatened fragile watersheds in rural El Salvador.”
“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.”
“If you’re in need of some inspiration this winter, look no further than this crucial and absorbing account of the ordinary people in El Salvador who won big against a seemingly insurmountable international mining corporation.”
“It is rare, in the world of corporate power, to have a story where David beats Goliath. And rarer still to have one that reads like a fast-paced thriller. The brave activists whom Robin Broad and John Cavanagh write about stopped a giant mining company from ripping up the landscape to find gold. But in telling the story of how that happened, the authors have found a narrative gold of their own.”
—Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost and Rebel Cinderella
“Bravo to the courageous Salvadorans — and their likely and unlikely allies — who prove that victories against overwhelming odds are possible. If they can defeat Big Gold, then surely we can have other big wins too. The water defenders of El Salvador and their international partners provide a powerful guidebook, poignantly retold by Broad and Cavanagh, of how the struggles for justice in the United States can link with allies abroad to build power and win.”
—Opal Tometi, cofounder, Black Lives Matter
“This story of how everyday citizens, against implacable odds, managed to defeat a corporation that ravaged their community and polluted their water is one of the most inspiring I have read in many years. A blueprint for further global action and a lesson about how to enlist an array of unlikely allies in the struggle for a more luminous and clean future, it is also exceptionally moving, full of unforgettable characters, intrigue, and surprising twists and turns. An essential, enthralling book for our dire times.”
—Ariel Dorfman, author of Death and the Maiden
“In these riveting pages, you will enter the lives of Vidalina and Miguel and follow the extraordinary steps they take over thirteen years to defend their land and rivers so that their children can live in dignity and avoid the dangerous trek north. Broad and Cavanagh bring the ups and downs of this epic fight into clear focus by carefully conveying the voices of the water defenders and their corporate antagonists. If you ever felt that your own contribution didn’t matter and that the powerful always win, this captivating saga will help you envision who truly has power if we unleash our imaginations and act together.”
—Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, author of The Age of Dignity, and MacArthur awardee
“Broad and Cavanagh are masterful storytellers. The words, deeds, and stories of people in El Salvador come alive so vividly in these pages to reinforce what we in the Poor People’s Campaign in the United States know well: the most powerful defenders of water, of the environment — of justice across the board — are poor people. Read this book to understand how determined people can build a moral movement and defeat policy violence.”
—Rev. Dr. William Barber II, national co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and author of The Third Reconstruction
“When the story of the courageous Salvadoran people came to my ears, I was full of pride and hope. Indigenous peoples everywhere are fighting for their water, and enlightened governments are valuing water over foreign corporate control. Our work in the Great Lakes, home to a fifth of the world’s water, is a parallel struggle, and we are inspired by the people from the south — the Eagle and the Condor meet again. Water protectors are the heroes of all time, and this book honors those epic battles.”
—Winona LaDuke, executive director, Honor the Earth, and author of To Be a Water Protector
“In this gripping tale full of drama, plot twists, and, most importantly, the powerful and savvy dedication of ordinary people and their communities, Robin Broad and John Cavanagh have given us a terrific play-by-play handbook of how David can, in fact, beat Goliath. They show how a small community in El Salvador, drawing in key national and international allies, won hands down against the slick suits of international mining companies and their repressive tactics—not only defeating them in court at the World Bank but producing a nationwide ban on all mining.”
—Dana Frank, research professor and professor of history emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Long Honduran Night
- Hilary Goodfriend, “Review of The Water Defenders,” NACLA Report on the Americas, Volume 53, Issue 3 (2021), pp. 314-315, posted online August 19, 2021. Read here.
- David Ranney, “The New Era of Extractivism—And How to Defeat It,” Foreign Policy in Focus, August 6, 2021. Read here.
- Barbara Fraser, “Book Recounts Successful Campaign to Ban Metal Mining in El Salvador,” National Catholic Reporter, August 6, 2021. Read here.
- Charlotte Dennett, “Book Review: The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed,” Toward Freedom, May 31, 2021. Read here.
- Jeannine Marie Pitas, “How a small group of activists took down the mining company destroying a Salvadoran Watershed,” The Christian Century, magazine in print May 5, 2021; online April 28, 2021. Read here.
- John Gibler, “El Salvador’s Water Defenders and the Fight Against Toxic Mining,” Sierra Magazine, April 11, 2021. Read here.