The story of the water defenders — a community in El Salvador that took on an international mining corporation and, against impossible odds, won a historic victory.
Stories of man-made environmental degradation proliferate around the globe. The abuse of natural resources, coupled with the impacts of climate change, have created unspeakable danger for the human condition.
My guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, John Cavanagh, director of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies and author of The Water Defenders, became deeply involved in the effort to stop a Canadian-based multinational, the Pacific Rim Mining Corporation, from gold mining in El Salvador. The key concern was that the mining process, which uses cyanide to extract gold from rocks, has a long history of doing irreparable harm to local water supplies around the world.
In 2006, a group calling themselves “the water defenders,” in El Salvador’s Cabanas Province, set to work ousting Pacific Rim from the country. Cavanagh explains how their successful efforts should be a model for grassroots activists everywhere.
He details how he personally got involved in 2010, five years after the fight began. We learn how he helped defeat a lawsuit brought by Pacific Rim against the sovereign nation of El Salvador, and helped to formalize international pressure against the mining company.
The grassroots effort was ultimately directed toward getting the government of El Salvador to ban all mining for metals in the country, and enlisting the efforts of unlikely allies, including the Catholic Church. This approach altered the nation’s future.
The story Cavanagh tells is about repelling “big gold.” Yet he argues that the same tactics could be adapted to stopping a Walmart, or to ban fracking or mining for lithium, cobalt, or nickel.
The “water defenders” were deeply committed to self-education and networking beyond their own borders. They gave birth to a monthly roundtable of lawyers, researchers, farmers, and organizers, and were so successful that the ending of this David vs. Goliath story will surprise you.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Stories of environmental degradation proliferate around the globe. The abuse of resources combined with the impacts of climate change has created unspeakable danger for the human condition in too many places. While much of this is taking place in the Third World, the US is not immune. As the American West faces shortages of water, the quality of that water becomes more essential.
In many cases, the forces responsible for the man-made degradation are powerful multinational corporations, often with resources and influence far beyond fraying local governments and, in many cases, even more powerful than national governments, particularly in the Third World. However, the good news is there are increasing examples of grassroots efforts to try and turn things around. Some have even been very successful.
Perhaps, the penultimate effort has been in El Salvador in the early 2000s. My guest, John Cavanagh, was a part of that effort. John is the director of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. He formerly did research on corporate power for the UN and he’s the author of the book, The Water Defenders. It is my pleasure to welcome John Cavanagh here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. John, thanks so much for joining us.
John Cavanagh: Great to be with you today.
Jeff: John, begin by talking about how this successful effort in El Salvador actually began.
John: Well, it all began when people, as folks in El Salvador refer to them, ‘men in white suits,’ came in in the early 2000s where mineral prices were going up all around the world. In northern El Salvador, there’s a lot of gold and there’s silver. Prices were going up in part because people were buying more cell phones and computers, which use these minerals, which use gold to conduct electricity. And as the prices went up, mines that had been closed down decades before when prices were low, all of a sudden, looked very profitable to these companies.
They descended and said to the people in the north, ‘Look, we’ll bring you jobs. We’ll bring you prosperity because you’ll get some of the revenues from the gold. Let us in.’ That’s the beginning of this tale. This story was repeating itself all over the world, so not just in northern El Salvador. The people there as we got to know them said this sounded very good. It’s a poor part of the world, northern El Salvador. Most of the people are farmers of beans and corn. It sounded good. That’s the beginning point.
Jeff: Was there any initial resistance to this idea?
John: Not right off the bat. However, many of the people had been across the border. In northern El Salvador, there’s a river that goes right across the top of it that separates it from Honduras that is actually — and then it plunges through El Salvador. It’s the source of water for over half of the people in that country. A number of the people in this area, new people in Honduras in part because they’d been forced to cross that river to live in refugee camps during the brutal civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. They said, ‘We remember. There are a lot of mines up there. Let’s go visit them.’ Very quickly, after the men in suits arrived, they organized the delegation. They went to a big open-pit mine. What they saw shocked them. Which is, first, they learned that in almost all industrial gold mining, the mining companies use cyanide to separate the gold from the rock. Once you do that and you cover all these rocks with cyanide, it’s very hard to contain it.
They saw dead fish. They saw basically a dead river coming out of this mine. Dead fish, people with skin diseases, and they also saw a lot of local conflicts because the mining companies, like most big companies, they come in with money and they’re offering local elected officials money to accept their desire to mine there. Some of the community sees the environmental effects and become opposed. Others think, ‘Oh, my God. We can make a ton of money.’ They become in favor and conflicts emerge. So pretty quickly, they saw that. They came back and they concluded, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re a country like California right now. We don’t have much water. Therefore, we’ve really got to protect the water we have.’ They started to educate their neighbors and the people in their community about the dangers of mining.
Jeff: As they did that, how was that met by the political establishment?
John: Well, the political establishment — and this is interesting because in a country like this, you’ve got both local governments and you got the national government. The national governments usually look at the numbers. Gold, by the way, sells for $1,800 an ounce. It’s way more precious than just about anything else you can buy. The national governments, even though they’re only going to be getting 1 percent of the profits, it’s really a scam by the mining companies.
Still, that’s a ton of money, so they’re for it. Local governments tend to be for it because for them, they get 1 percent also. It’s a huge amount of money for them. Pretty immediately, they ran into opposition from the local governments who really just wanted them to go away. Fascinating few years in the early 2000s. The people, most of them farmers who begin to oppose mining, are incredibly creative.
There’s a wonderful community radio station there run by youth. They started doing education on mining. These people educated themselves. They learned about mining. They learned about water and hydrology, they held seminars, they did marches using laughter and creative cultural work, dances, and all sorts of things that would pull the community in. Pretty quickly, the majority of people in the communities were opposed.
Now, this, again, plays itself out in communities in the US when a big Walmart wants to expand. The company then starts throwing money around. It went to the people who were opposing and said, ‘What do you need? How much money can we give you to win you over?’ They’re not incredibly subtle about it. These people said, ‘No, water is more important than gold and, therefore, nothing. You can’t offer us anything. We’re opposed.’
As in Honduras, the conflict emerges. My wife Robin Broad and I got involved in the story five years in when we give out at my institute in Washington a human rights award every year. The human rights, the selection committee, selected this group of people fighting mining. None of us had heard of them. We were excited, but what knocked us over the edge very quickly was a month after we told them that they were getting the award. We started to arrange for five of them to come to Washington, DC, and then to send them on a tour. We got the horrible news that one of them, one of the local leaders, a man named Marcelo Rivera, who was a great cultural worker, had been assassinated and his body brutally tortured and found in the bottom of a well. You can imagine, for us here, we’ve already gotten a visa for this guy. He’s coming to us.
That led us into thinking this is different. In the end, they sent his brother in his place. These people organized us. They pulled us into the fight. In a very obvious way, they said, ‘Look, we can fight this in El Salvador, but you have much more access to information about the company.’ It was a Canadian company, one, and two, they told us something that was even more bizarre. They said, ‘Look, as we’ve been able to slow down new mining licenses in El Salvador as we spread the word, the mining company has come back and sued our government in a tribunal right near you in Washington, DC. It’s based at the World Bank. We need your help.’ It’s interesting. We thought this would maybe be a week of research and help, but we got sucked in. Here we are now 12 years after that fateful meeting here in Washington, DC. These people have become some of our best friends, very close relationships, and amazing things came out of this friendship.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about how the movement grew. Was it a grassroots effort? Did it have top-down leadership? Give us a sense of how the movement really started to gain the kind of traction you’re talking about.
John: Sure. Well, as they did their education in northern El Salvador — and none of these people were leaders or well-known. They truly were ordinary folks. Some of them worked for a nonprofit that helped farmers shift into organic agriculture. As they did that education work, they concluded pretty quickly, ‘Okay, we may be able to put up good opposition to the company here, but our bigger goal, now that we know the dangers of mining to the whole country, is to end mining in this country. We’re only going to do that if we go national.’
This is a country of about six and a half million people and there’s another two million Salvadorans here in the United States. As we began to work on this, we immediately had a lot of people who were quite eager to join and help, but they went national. They did their education and, quickly, they won onto their side, safe groups, environmental groups, women’s groups, youth groups. Everyone was attracted to this larger slogan of ‘Water is Life.’
They built a pretty good, strong national coalition. However, El Salvador is as polarized as the United States. Actually, in their case, it’s even more difficult. At this time, two-thirds of the legislators, our equivalent of congresspeople, were from conservative parties. They were doing this great education, building this great coalition, and yet we sitting pretty far back, we looked at this and we said, ‘Ooh, boy, their chances of actually changing those laws are next to none even with a big coalition. Our chances of helping them win this case in this tribunal are also pretty slim because the tribunal rules were set up to favor the corporation.’ They’ve been written really with the help of corporations and it’s a tribunal where corporations can sue governments. Right now, a big corporation in Canada is suing the Biden administration for $15 billion for stopping the building of that pipeline, that TransCanada pipeline that would come into the US.
Corporations can sue governments, but governments and communities can’t sue back. It’s a very narrow set of rules that you can look at. In this case, was the mining company promised that it could mine? You can’t bring in environmental issues. You can’t bring in, ‘We’ve got to save our rivers.’ It’s a rigged court and the legislature was rigged. Some of you listeners might be saying, ‘Why do you all keep doing this with the odds so stacked against you?’
I have to be honest. We knew they were heavily stacked against us. We knew we would all probably lose, but we felt this was an important fight. One, because they asked us, but two, because it helped educate people about the bigger dangers of mining. Most people don’t know about that. It helped educate people about these unequal rules that still govern much of the global economy.
Jeff: While this effort was coming together, to what extent was the mining going forward?
John: The mining wasn’t going forward. What mining companies do is they go in there. They get first a license to explore. This is when the communities really started to wake up. What they do is they go in and they drill holes deep down into the soil, take up core samples, send them back to Nevada, which is the center of gold mining in the United States, and they test them. They see how much gold is in there. The mining companies did get these licenses to explore. Even in the exploration, you’re drilling these big holes.
They were disrupting the water tables in the communities there. That’s when people thought, ‘Oh, my God. If this is affecting the water so much when they’re just exploring, imagine what we’ll be up against if they actually could mine.’ The exploration stage went forward. These communities found a few allies in the environment minister and the government. The government responded by saying, ‘Okay, we better study this. We better step back and study it, so no new mining licenses until we figured it out.’
It was at that point that the mining company said, ‘Wait a second. There was an implicit deal here that we could mine, so we’re suing you and we’re jumping over your courts and we’re going to Washington, DC.’ No mining yet, which is great. There was no cyanide going into the rivers, but their water tables had already been disrupted by 500 wells being driven hundreds of feet down into the rock.
Jeff: As you read about it in this period of time, something like 60 percent of the country became opposed to the idea of this mining going forward. How did that impact those in power?
John: Politicians, I must say it’s true here in Washington too, what is the first thing they read in the morning when they get up? They read public opinion polls. They know they have to get reelected. It’s a terrible thing to say and I may sound a little bit cynical. Here, what’s fascinating is that the water defenders as they built this national coalition, they did creative education nationally. One of the critical things in that country — the US is still a very religious country, in El Salvador, the vast majority of people are Catholic. They figured out pretty early on, ‘Let’s try to win over the Catholic Church.’ Now, most of their people said, ‘Are you crazy? There’s a very conservative archbishop. He’s pro-business. He comes from something called Opus Dei, which is incredibly conservative.’ They said, ‘Don’t even try.’ This is what we loved about these folks. They said, ‘No, let’s try,’ and so they called, they called. The archbishop blew them off.
Finally, they got a meeting. They got in there and I’ve been in meetings like this. He was not interested. He was reading stuff on his desk. Then one of them mentioned cyanide, that you use cyanide to separate the gold from the rock. All of a sudden, his face lights up and he says, ‘Cyanide? Oh, my God. I have a degree in chemistry and I know that stuff is toxic. We can’t have that in our rivers.’ They turn the archbishop. He then gets the priests and the local churches to talk about mining.
They do a sort of educational sessions with the water defenders. All of a sudden, you have the Church as a huge educational platform. You’re right. Quite early on, 2007, an independent poll showed 62 percent opposed. That’s why the government said, ‘Okay, whoa, we better slow down and look at this.’ Now, at that stage, they just thought they would look at it and figure out a way around this and get back to mining. The government wanted those revenues, but in pausing, they invited these lawsuits. It’s outrageous that mining companies can do this, but this is one of the realities of mining companies.
Jeff: What other pushback was there from the mining companies beyond just in the courts?
John: It’s like Washington, DC is filled with corporate lobbyists. Imagine the same thing in San Salvador. They came in. They refused to talk to us, but we got a treasure trove of their documents from two places. The lawyer for El Salvador got the documents from the lawsuit here made public. We saw a lot of their emails and then one of the mining company executives, I think, later on, felt guilty about all this and gave a whole bunch of documents to a graduate student who worked for my wife at American University.
Those documents were fascinating. They were infiltrating all of the meetings of the water defenders, and then they were doing their best to do PR. A lot of it was PR. They did try to buy off local officials and they did buy them off in effect. They gave lots of money to all sorts of things, schools and to the soccer leagues, and so on in Northern El Salvador. Walmart does the exact same thing when it wants to come into a community. They tried to buy people off.
Then they did another thing, which ended up being one of their Achilles’ heels. They said, ‘Look, you people.’ They sort of insulted people. They said, ‘You’re stupid. If you were smart, you’d know that this is a good way to get wealthy. If you could just see our mine in the Philippines,’ halfway around the world, they, I think, strongly suspected that few Salvadorans had been there, ‘you would see what a green and sustainable mining company we are.’ This is one place where the international support was really helpful.
A number of us, including Robin and I, we’d been to their mine in the northern Philippines and we knew it was a disaster and all the same problems that the water defenders had seen in Honduras. We helped them arrange to bring this very good, strong activist governor from the province where their mine was in the Philippines to El Salvador. He testified before Congress. He spoke before public forums. He met the president and he showed these amazing before-and-after slides of a beautiful mountain and not a horrible pit with polluted water.
He helped dispel the myth of the mining company that they could be green and sustainable. I want to say your listeners, this is a shocking thing. It was a shocking thing for me. Look around your room. It’s filled with products made out of metals. It is almost impossible to mine these things sustainably. It led us to the conclusion by the end — I mean, it led the Salvadorans to the conclusion that they could not have mining.
It led us to the conclusion that we need to get rid of about half of the mines in the world, mines near Indigenous communities, near biodiversity regions, near earthquake zones. We can do that if we just start recycling most of the metals we use, but most people don’t know about this. It’s interesting. We’re in a country in a world where most people now know the horrible dangers of climate change, but very few know of the horrible dangers of mining and its threat to our water systems everywhere.
Jeff: Will we get to a point, though — because of the pressures that you’re talking about, the global pressures, and we still will talk about the global pressure that really helped those that were opposing the mine — will we get to a point where there may be a sustainable way to get these resources out of the ground?
John: On a small scale, I think of the history of California. There are a few thousand people in California, then somebody discovers gold in a river near Sacramento in the 1840s. All of a sudden, California explodes. In the early days, they were just panning gold out of rivers. That’s completely sustainable. I’ve seen small-scale mines that are not using chemicals that are sustainable.
On a big scale, it’s almost impossible to do it sustainably. I’m open to the idea that this could emerge in the next 20 years. It’s a huge challenge because right now, the US government is about to pass a big infrastructure bill that will put huge incentives to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy and to electric cars. Electric cars use batteries made out of lithium, which has to be mined in similar ways to gold.
We’ve been digging into this. A lot of lithium comes from Nevada, again, also from Chile, Argentina. It is wreaking havoc in much the same way that fracking does for natural gas. Some people I have heard are claiming that they figured out a way to do it a bit more sustainably in Chile. I’m very interested to see what that looks like. I think in any future scenario that’s sustainable and that protects precious water, we will be doing less mining and we will be doing far more recycling of metal.
Jeff: Of course, at the same time, there’s recycling. The demand for these metals keeps increasing dramatically.
John: It increases, but I just want to say one thing that’s very interesting about gold. Only about 10 percent of its uses are for industrial uses. It’s a great conductor of electricity and it’s used, for example, in our cell phones. 90 percent of it isn’t. Over half of it is used in jewelry. You could imagine people just getting attached to something else there, but the thing I want to say about gold is people have estimated that gold has always been so expensive and precious that about three-quarters of all the gold ever mined is still in use. It’s been recycled. I have a wedding ring that is made from recycled gold. We can do this. Copper, more and more, is being recycled. Yes, there’s new demand, but there is also great new technologies of how to recycle it more cheaply. I can imagine in five years, it will simply be routine that when your computer dies, your phone dies, whatever. You are bringing it down to a local place where people are working — these would be very good jobs — simply repurposing all of the materials in your computer, in your phone off of your refrigerator, and right on down.
If you did that, you would greatly reduce the demand for new minerals and you would create millions of good jobs in the process. Seems like a no-brainer and all it takes is more education on the dangers of mining and why this is a necessary course if we want to protect our water in the future, all over, California, across the US. But there’s over a billion people in the world, so over one and six that do not have access to clean and affordable water and struggle every day to get it and those numbers go up. I think the demand to protect it and to think about mining differently will increase.
Jeff: We know there’s a demand for recycled copper just by the theft of catalytic converters that goes on, particularly in California.
John: There you go. Beautiful example. Right now, one of the biggest fights in the US over mining is in Arizona on sacred Apache lands. John McCain wanted to build the biggest copper mine in the US there and it was about to go through before Biden was elected. Now, they’re slowing it down to look at the environmental costs. That’s a beautiful place where we could start to turn this around in this country right away.
Of course, Jeff, the great thing about this story is that despite all of the odds that we’ve just talked about, in the end, the people of El Salvador pulled together, convinced enough politicians on the other side of the aisle that mining would be bad, that they became, in 2017, the first country in the world to ban all mining, and they defeated the mining company in this tribunal in Washington, DC. Oh, my God. These two incredible victories in the most unlikely place. If they can do that there, a country where a lot of the odds are rigged against people, imagine what we can do here.
Jeff: It wasn’t just that they convinced enough people. They had unanimous support. Nobody voted against the bill.
John: Yes, and you can’t always count on this in these fights, partly, it was the stupidity and arrogance of the company. The timing was interesting. These court cases stretch out forever. Seven years after the lawsuit was introduced that it was finally decided against the company. This was October 2016. The company’s reaction was pure arrogance. The court asked it to pay $8 million to El Salvador.
They said, ‘We’re not paying,’ ‘Again, you’re stupid. You don’t understand that this is key to your future prosperity.’ That offended not just progressives, not just people who think about water a lot in poorer regions but everybody, even more conservative politicians. This is what’s so interesting. Again, key individuals can play such a role, turned out that the most conservative party there that controlled about a third of the legislature had, as its lead person in the environment committee, a young guy, his name is John Wright Sol. He has a rich family, father’s a big sugar mill owner. He had gone to school in the US. He’d been introduced to the environmental movement. He was here when there was that big, horrible mining spill in Colorado that sent yellow effluence into this big river that then went into New Mexico and then up to Utah. He’d seen the dangers of mining and he did more and more education. He opened his mind to the water defenders and he concluded that this would be horrendous for the country. He, in turn, was able to pull a lot of people in his party over. Again, here, the Catholic Church played a huge role. The Catholic Church, when it was uniformly opposed, it went to politicians of all stripes and it just said, ‘Come on.’ It got people in pulpits to write, call their legislators, and say, ‘You should be opposed to this.’
Amazing efforts over the final five months. At the end of March 2017, you’re right, it was stunning. No one predicted this. It looked like it was going to be a super close vote. I think, in the end, these politicians simply concluded, ‘Look, we’re going to lose this vote. Do we want to be on the wrong side of history?’ The public by this point was 80 percent opposed to mining, so that played a big role too. It was a unanimous vote, the vote heard around the world.
One of the great things is that it really has had an impact on the mining debates in other countries across the region. Movements in other countries have invited the water defenders. They’ve told their story. Now, we’re in a situation where Costa Rica has largely stopped mining and based its whole economy on ecotourism and on saving the environment. Panama has restricted some mining, Argentina has. Chile and Argentina have stopped mining around their glaciers.
This truly was a vote heard around the world and it started a very different debate. I don’t know. They’re still mining all over the place. Most governments are still pursuing it full blast, but at least there’s now a debate and there’s an alternative. You aren’t considered completely off the spectrum when you come out and say, ‘There’s an alternative to this. We don’t have to mine.’ That’s, to us, a huge victory.
Jeff: John Cavanagh, thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. John’s book is The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed. John, thank you so much for joining us.
John: Wonderful to be with you today. Thanks for getting deep into the story that you were able to guide that in a beautiful way.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.