The Water Defenders

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

The National Book Awards held at the Metropolitan Theater a few weeks ago was a joyous occasion—the first face-to-face ceremony since the pandemic to celebrate the best books published in 2021 and 2022. But there was a somber note when the Elfren S. Cruz Award for Best Book in Social Sciences (yes, an award I donated to support Philippine publishing) was announced for The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh (Bughaw/Ateneo de Manila University Press) was announced. 

Nueva Vizcaya Governor Carlos Padilla was supposed to be present and accept the award in behalf of the authors who reside overseas, but quite unexpectedly, he passed away on May 5, a week before the ceremony. In accepting the award, the authors Broad and Cavanagh sent a message of condolence from The National Roundtable against Metals Mining in El Salvador, and International Allies of the Roundtable, the latter of which Broad and Cavanagh were co-founders:

“El Salvador lost a gentle but formidable and wise friend on May 5. In March 2017, Philippine governor Carlos Padilla flew halfway around the world to share with the people and leaders of El Salvador the truth about how a global gold mining firm had brought environmental, social and economic destruction to his province of Nueva Vizcaya. His testimony before members of the Salvadoran legislature and also to large public forums was crucial in the final push for the historic unanimous vote by the Salvadoran legislature that made El Salvador the first nation on earth to ban all metals mining to save its rivers. Governor Padilla is – and will always be – a good friend of El Salvador and what he did for us is immortalized in the book The Water Defenders. The people of El Salvador and the global movement of environmental defenders thank the people of the Philippines for sharing Governor Padilla with us. We join you in mourning the loss of this visionary environmental leader. CARLOS PADILLA, PRESENTE!”

The Foreword by Antonio Gabriel M. La Viña speaks of the epic struggle for water to win over gold in El Salvador—a long protracted fight with the unexpected victory. He hopes that someday, a similar victory in the Philippines of such a David-and-Goliath fight with water winning over gold, will also happen in the Philippines and the triumph be documented.

In the book, the authors wrote about the issue of the exploitation of mining as a global problem. They wrote: “Something else changed by the end of 1990s, and not just in El Salvador. In the mid 1990s, poorer countries from around the world – from El Salvador to the Philippines – were pressured by the richer countries’ governments and the global institutions they dominated, such as the Washington-based World Bank, to change national mining laws to be more welcoming to foreign investors than they already were.”

The authors also wrote that the World Gold Council which consisted of twenty-five of the world’s largest mining firms from Canada’s Barrick Gold Corporation to Colorado-based Neumont and Australia-based multinational Oceana Gold. These mining giants used political influence around the world to gain economic power. 

For the people of poor agricultural countries like El Salvador, protecting their scarce water is a unifying priority. For these people, “Water is life,” is not just a slogan. It is everything. Water and land mean food and livelihood and culture. 

A major personality in the book is one of the leaders of the movement against mines, Marcelo Rivera. In 2009, Rivera’s family could not find him until they received an anonymous call about a body found in an abandoned well. Rivera became the first “water defender” to be assassinated in the fight against mining in El Salvador.

 But who killed Marcelo? “The water defenders had an answer right away. To them, all signs pointed to some combination of PacRim (the mining company) and the mayor’s office.”

The term “water defenders” or “water protectors” is how organizations and individuals across the Western Hemisphere engaged in the struggle to save waterways from “mining, fossil fuels extraction and new dams and other harms.” In El Salvador, they have opted to be called “defensoras y defensores del agua” or water defenders.

El Salvador is a country in Central America facing the Pacific Ocean. Its land area is 8,124 square miles, which is smaller than the island of Luzon. It has a population of 6,500,000 and like the Philippines, it is predominantly Catholic and a former colony of Spain. 

The book’s subtitle is How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed; this is a struggle that is still constantly happening in the Philippines.

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There is another hybrid run of Writefest (and the final one for 2023) for kids and teens on June 26, 28, 30, July 3, 5 & 7. Email [email protected] or call 0945. 2273216 for details. Not a rerun as we have a new set of guest authors and facilitators.

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Email: [email protected]

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