The Water Defenders: How ordinary people saved a country from corporate greed (Broad and Cavanagh, 2021)

Alejandro Artiga-Purcell

HDBroad, R. and Cavanagh, J. 2021. The Water Defenders: How ordinary people saved a country from corporate greed. Penguin Random House. ISBN 9780807055403, 224p., $16.95.


Alejandro Artiga-Purcell

San José State University;

To cite this review: Artiga-Purcell, A. 2024. Review of “The Water Defenders: How ordinary people saved a country from corporate greed", Penguin Random House, 2021, by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh, Water Alternatives,


How is social change made? What role do ordinary people play in making it? What makes social movements effective? These are the big questions at the heart of Robin Broad and John Cavanagh’s extraordinary book, “The Water Defenders: How ordinary people saved a country from corporate greed.”

This deeply researched, nuanced, and accessible book traces how El Salvador became the first country in history to ban all metallic mining at a national scale. As the authors state, “This is a David-versus-Goliath story about a battle between a country and a foreign mining company” (p. 2). The unlikely twist in this instance, as is so rarely the case, is that David won.

The narrative begins in the early 2000’s, when a group of “ordinary people” in rural El Salvador launched one of the most successful social movements in recent history. The fast-paced thriller-of-a-story uncovers how in their struggle against notoriously water-intensive and polluting gold mining, local community organizers became internationally renowned “water defenders.” First, under constant pressure from “White Men in Suits” representing transnational mining interests, the water defenders won the battle over hearts and minds in local communities surrounding proposed mines. Then they won the unlikely support of apolitical water scientists, right-wing politicians, and El Salvador’s conservative Catholic Church elites—a big deal in a staunchly Catholic country. They won a miraculous legal battle against Pacific Rim mining corporation (and later OceanaGold) in the World Bank Group’s obscure and anti-democratic International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). Finally, when the choice came to the usually hyper-partisan Salvadoran legislative assembly to decide between “water for life or water for gold” in 2017, the water defenders won a unanimous congressional vote to pass the unprecedented metal mining ban.

So how did they do it? As the authors ask, “what is required to win when the odds seem stacked so heavily, as they often do, on the side of the wealthy and powerful” (p. 14). To answer this question, Broad and Cavanagh skillfully weave together analyses of the histories of mining and social conflict in El Salvador, shifting social movement tactics and national economic interests, nuanced electoral politics and corporate lobbying campaigns, technical reports on hydrology, ecology, and international law, scientific and religious discourses, as well as their first-hand witness of the testimony and lived experiences of the movement’s protagonists. Indeed, the power of the narrative stems not just from the incredible facts of the case, but from the authors’ ability to pair complexity with vivid storytelling that pays homage to the lived experiences of the “water defenders” themselves.

Broad and Cavanagh emphasize that this social movement victory would have been unthinkable without fearless and tireless organizing of a few dedicated individuals in the face of corporate intimidation, political opposition, and even the murder of environmental activists like Marcelo Rivera—an unsolved case that bookends the authors’ analysis. Though necessary, brilliant organizing wasn’t enough. The timely election of the country’s first ever left-wing presidents in 2009 and again in 2015 gave the water defenders unprecedented access to key political decision-makers. Mining corporations’ frequent blunders, including their failure to court the support of Salvadoran elites, reduced potential opposition to the social movement. The overlapping geographies of the country’s gold deposits and Lempa River watershed—the lifeblood of Salvadoran development—enabled movement leaders to successfully transform a local environmental justice conflict into an issue of national security, sovereignty, and development. The movement slogan of “water over gold” resonated with both environmentalists and industrialists whose bottling plants, urban developments, and sugarcane plantations relied on water. “Rich or poor, progressive or conservative, water was valued by all” (p. 73). These material realities, narrative framings, and political savvy made possible a diverse and potent coalition of unlikely alliances interested in saving Salvadoran water from toxic mining.

Ironically, this last point complicates the framing of this as a traditional David versus Goliath struggle. For what made the social movement David victorious against the mining company Goliath was precisely their unlikely alliances with and reliance on other Goliaths—the institutional church, national elites, political heavyweights in the Salvadoran legislative assembly and executive branch, and even in the World Bank Group. This does not undercut, but rather reinforces the importance and ongoing relevance of this book for El Salvador’s ongoing movements for social and environmental justice, and for social movement studies and praxis more generally.

The “Water Defenders” is a must read for those looking to find, teach, and instill the hope to enact meaningful and just social change. The book reminds us that social movements are made by contingent and often contradictory political and environmental forces. Ordinary people, when organized, do and must make a difference. Movements are most effective when they bridge seemingly unbridgeable ideological and social divides. Social and environmental justice victories and defeats are rarely pure, always partial, and never final.


Additional Info

  • Authors: Robin Broad and John Cavanagh
  • Year of publication: 2021
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House
  • Reviewer: Alejandro Artiga-Purcell
  • Subject: Water governance, Water rights, Water quality, pollution, Water ethics, Equity, Water and community
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English