Wednesday Jan 26

Winter 2020

It Takes a Village & Their Allies to Stop Mining

EXCERPT FROM The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved A Country from Corporate Greed BY ROBIN BROAD & JOHN CAVANAGH


“Your coalition of US and other groups coordinating with La Mesa (the National Roundtable against Metals Mining) in El Salvador may be a great idea,” a sympathetic foundation director had told us in 2011. “But it won’t work if you don’t have muscle.” By “muscle” she meant the clout of large unions and other organizations with massive numbers of members.

Here is what we did have—what we had built up since the first tour of the five representatives from El Salvador’s Roundtable on Mining (La Mesa) back in 2009, just months after the brutal killing of local water defender Marcelo Rivera. For starters, we had Manuel Pérez-Rocha, who had worked at the Institute for Policy Studies for only two years at the time he coordinated this 2009 first visit of farmer Vidalina Morales and Marcelo’s younger brother Miguel Rivera, along with three colleagues. But Manuel seemed destined for this work as he had mobilized groups against the corporate bias of trade agreements in Central America. He knew water defenders in El Salvador and other Central American countries, and he had earned their trust.

The two of us and Manuel entered the campaign against the mining company Pac Rim and its corporate lawsuit at the World Bank in Washington, DC already understanding the wide abuses of corporate power around the world and knowing about some of the rules rigged by corporations to give themselves an edge over governments and ordinary people. Between the three of us, we also had connections with a good array of groups from our decades of international work. Using the momentum from the 2009 Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) human rights award to La Mesa, we began meeting and talking with likely allies. Looking back to 2009 some years later, Manuel explained the logic: “In those early months, we reached out to three streams of organizations. First were the groups that had campaigned against corporate trade agreements: the Council of Canadians, the Center for International Environmental Law, Public Citizen, unions, environmental groups, farm groups. Second were the groups that worked in El Salvador and Central America: faith-based groups, solidarity groups, community development groups. Groups including US-El Salvador Sister Cities, Maryknoll, Sisters of Mercy, Washington Ethical Society, SHARE, and CISPES—some of which had roots in El Salvador dating back to the civil war in the 1980s. And, third, groups with expertise on mining, notably MiningWatch Canada and Oxfam, which had long been working with communities trying to halt mining destruction in countries from Canada to Peru.” This third group knew the nitty-gritty details of mining’s environmental, social, and economic threats inside and out.

The members of these three sets of groups became the core. Yet we quickly learned that we needed to reach out beyond that core to grow “muscle,” as that sympathetic foundation director had termed it. We cer- tainly made mistakes. At one point we reached out to the big unions in the United States, institutions with significant muscle. Their representatives asked us where the Salvadoran unions stood in the mining fight. It was, to say the least, a logical question. Truth be told, we had no idea. Would we bump up against Pac Rim’s job-creating myths, (which like mining companies the world over had way overstated the likely jobs that mining would bring to this economically poor region)? Fortunately, perhaps because there was no active commercial mining in El Salvador at that moment, the Salvador unions responded that they were not opposed to the anti-mining activities of La Mesa. That opened the door for US and international unions, including the AFLCIO, the Communications Workers of America, and the Teamsters with their giant inflatable Fat Cat, to join in.

By 2011, the IPS and MiningWatch Canada decided to turn this ar- ray of groups and individuals into a more formal network called Inter- national Allies Against Mining in El Salvador. Two coordinators stood at the center: Manuel of IPS and MiningWatch Canada’s Jen Moore, a journalist fresh from Ecuador with deep knowledge of mining in Latin America. Just as La Mesa coordinated its work through monthly meetings in San Salvador, the inner core of International Allies groups coordinated through monthly phone calls. Smaller working groups focused on specific tasks based on individual and group interests and expertise.

The International Allies had researchers, writers, activists, and law- yers. Insiders joined outsiders (and inside-outsiders like Robin with her academic credentials). Some focused on an old mine in northeastern El Salvador, most recently owned by US-based Commerce Group, that had poisoned nearby land and water and then sued the government for shutting it down. Others concentrated on the northern Salvadoran province of Cabañas, where Pac Rim had found gold during its “exploration” period and now wanted a permitted mining concession. Still others zeroed in on the World Bank tribunal. Religious groups made sure no one forgot the moral arguments at the center of the campaign. In Washington, DC, members of the Washington Ethical Society could be counted on for leafleting and demonstrations. Unlike La Mesa, we defined ourselves as a loose coalition. There was no pledge to make, no form to sign. Those who hopped aboard simply made a commitment to work together with guidance from La Mesa in El Salvador.

The International Allies was clear that we had no intent to duplicate La Mesa’s work in El Salvador. From the start, we worked out distinct and logical lines of responsibility. La Mesa focused on stalling any new mining licenses in El Salvador while educating and advocating for a government ban on mining. The International Allies focused on pressure against the lawsuit and the global mining corporations, especially Pac Rim, while using media and other venues to spread the word about how global corpo- rations unfairly sue sovereign nations like El Salvador.

The International Allies respected the expertise and domain of La Mesa and the Salvadoran water defenders, and vice versa. Vidalina and other Mesa representatives toured the United States, Canada, and Australia several times, and Manuel, Jen, the two of us coauthors, and other International Allies members visited El Salvador regularly. Whatever the ease and immediacy of cyberspace connections, such face-to-face interactions proved vital to building trust.

While International Allies included Oxfam, which provided funding to some groups in El Salvador, that was the exception. Indeed, we under- stood that financial dependence could interfere with what was a budding relationship of coordination and trust. Still, we came to the realization that the International Allies needed an El Salvador–based representative so as not to overtax an already overburdened La Mesa secretariat and its members. So, in 2012, the work entered a vital new stage. The foundation director who had asked about “muscle” funded an International Allies liai- son based in El Salvador. We hired Jan Morrill, a young woman originally from Maine who had worked in El Salvador for over three years at US-El Salvador Sister Cities, hosting sister city delegations. Jan was known for her knowledge of mining, her deep cultural sensitivity, her alreadystrong relationships to La Mesa, and her energy, as well as her driving skills along San Salvador’s streets and the hills of Cabañas. The liaison post proved key to a constant and honest dialogue with La Mesa.

Pac Rim had assumed that a charm offensive in Cabañas—combined with cozying up to key leaders and the pressures of the global lawsuit— would do the trick. But it had not worked thus far. So, Pac Rim went to the global airways.

This new stage of Pac Rim’s campaign came across starkly in a twenty-eight-minute Canadian Broadcast Corporation radio show that aired in January 2013, called “High Stakes Poker” (from a quote by Pac Rim CEO Tom Shrake). Shrake appeared prominently in this documentary, along with his boss, Pac Rim board chair Catherine McLeod-Seltzer, a third-generation mining executive with a business degree and expertise in mining finance.

On air, Shrake’s boss claimed that the murders of Marcelo Rivera and two other Cabañas water defenders, Dora Sorto and Ramiro Rivera, were due to general violence and lawlessness in Cabañas: “The three people who were killed have nothing to do with mining. I mean, these are Hatfield and McCoy areas, right?” she said, laughing. “I mean, people carry long grudges and they have access to firearms. And, you know, you come on my land, I’m going to shoot you. A very long leap was made to say that, you know, this is an anti-mining murder. It wasn’t.” 

Pac Rim’s problem, McLeodSeltzer explained, was “rogue” groups and “factions.” More specifically, “anti-development NGOs fomented anti-mining by spreading lies.” When the CBC commentator asked for specifics, Pac Rim’s board chair named Oxfam, adding, “I don’t think they control their people on the ground. I think these are probably rogues who seize upon an opportunity.” Outside of such “rogue” elements, McLeod-Seltzer asserted, the local communities absolutely wanted Pac Rim to mine: “I mean, they subsist on beans and corn.” In her view, there could be no other logical explanation for opposition beyond those “rogue” elements: “[They] purport to be environmentalists. They’re not. . . . .If they were, they would support this mine.” Shrake put on an air of bravado for the CBC audience: “This is going to be mined. I mean, these things are too precious to the country and to people in the country to sit here. Eventually, we’ll get a permit.”

The bluster and the name-calling were unnerving to La Mesa and unsettling for the International Allies. But, summoning up the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, we wondered if we could turn Pac Rim’s media assault and faulty claims to the water defenders’ advantage. As Sun Tzu had admonished, “Force [your enemy] to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.”

Back in Cabañas, Miguel devised a way to identify and take on those “vulnerable spots.” Driving with us over the mountainous roads of northern El Salvador one afternoon soon after the CBC program aired, Miguel and a colleague started listing the spurious claims of the company. To wit: The company had met all the regulatory requirements. The mine would not negatively affect water supplies or quality. The mine would bring jobs and an economic boost. Pac Rim’s global lawsuit was just. Pac Rim had a global reputation as a socially and environmentally responsible company. “Could International Allies do a report exposing the lies of Pac Rim?,” Miguel asked as we pulled into San Isidro. “Let’s work on it together,” Robin replied.

Editor’s Note In the end, the local organizations and their allies were able to win a ban on additional mining in order to protect water.

Robin Broad Robin Broad is a professor at American University’s School of International Service

John Cavanagh John Cavanagh is the former director of the Institute for Policy Studies. Water Defenders is available from Beacon Press at


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