What Salvadoran Activists Can Teach Us About Building Coalitions

What Salvadoran Activists Can Teach Us About Building Coalitions

What Salvadoran Activists Can Teach Us About Building Coalitions

The water defenders recognized the fight was less a contest of right versus left than right versus wrong.


In March 2017, people from poorer communities across El Salvador stood up to corporate power and convinced their legislature to make their country the first in the world to ban mining to save its precious rivers. Their battle cries: “Water, not gold” and “Water for life.” In the process of their 13-year fight, these water defenders organized a national coalition that came to be known as La Mesa.

During those years, Marcelo Rivera and three other defenders were brutally assassinated. But Marcelo’s brother Miguel, their friend Vidalina Morales, and the members of La Mesa never gave up. They linked up with international allies to defeat a lawsuit by OceanaGold, a multinational firm that argued the Salvadoran government did not have the right to prohibit mining.

How Salvadorans achieved such major wins against enormous odds has a great deal to teach people around the world struggling to save their communities from corporate predators—whether they are mining corporations, or Amazon, Walmart, Google, ExxonMobil, or the titans of Wall Street. Undoubtedly, the most vital component was the determination and organizing acumen of the Riveras, Morales, and their allies in the community groups that anchored La Mesa.

Yet other community-based movements have lost similar battles all over the world, so what else was critical to their achievement? One factor was La Mesa’s education campaigns, which creatively spread the word on the science of mining and water through radio and TV programs, community forums, church sermons, university-based events, fact sheets, and flyers at mass marches. The success of these efforts was demonstrated in polls conducted by the University of Central America in 2007 and 2015, which revealed overwhelming disapproval for mining.

Another factor was La Mesa’s framing of the issue. The water defenders did not see their fight as simply one against mining; instead, they were “pro-water, pro-life.” This suggests that similar campaigns should champion a positive goal, expressing what the movements are for—particularly if it’s something as vital and popular as ensuring clean and affordable water for all. The terms “water defenders” and “water protectors” resonate broadly and effectively around the world.

Among the most intriguing lessons comes from La Mesa’s pursuit of seemingly unlikely allies. The water defenders recognized this to be less a contest of right versus left than right versus wrong—an idea that’s also central to the Reverend William J. Barber II and the Poor People’s Campaign in this country. Yes, the left-wing FMLN party—especially its female leaders—proved instrumental. But notable heroes also emerged in the right-wing ARENA party. This is especially significant if you remember that from 1980 to 1992, roughly 75,000 people were killed in El Salvador’s civil war. It thus took a great deal of courage for the water defenders to reach out to ARENA, as well as to the ultraconservative archbishop of San Salvador, the nation’s capital, and to a leading government attorney who had served in the military during the war. The water defenders also demonstrated remarkable perseverance when some likely allies in the FMLN were tempted by the inducements of Big Gold.

What the two of us have learned from the water defenders has transformed the way we think about unlikely allies in our US work, expanding our sense of who might join us in a fight. A corollary of this lesson: Some in the private sector can emerge as comrades in a struggle that many perceive as anti-corporate. Granted, the water defenders in El Salvador had an advantage over their counterparts in Guatemala, Peru, and the Philippines, where mining projects created webs of local corporate leaders who were intertwined with and enriched by the extractive industry. But after the Salvadoran civil war, there were few influential families linked to the sector. Since domestic elites in tourism and agriculture depended heavily on water, many supported the defenders or at least refrained from actively assisting Big Gold.

La Mesa’s international alli­ances that included labor, environmental, faith, and solidarity organizations from Melbourne to Manila to Washington, D.C. played a role as well. To the extent this network, which came to be known as International Allies, was successful, it was because its members understood that OceanaGold’s lawsuit against El Salvador was their fight too, not just something done in solidarity with Salvadoran groups. The global coalition respected La Mesa’s lead on the domestic mining ban and used its own creative media work to turn the struggle into a universal story that revealed how rules privilege corporations over people and the environment.

According to one of La Mesa’s unlikely allies—José Luis Escobar, the archbishop of San Salvador, who found himself leading a pro-water march to the national legislature—there was one final X factor in their victories: a miracle from God. Whether you agree with this or not, any such miracle would not have occurred without the blood, sweat, tears, and doggedness of so many who had so much to lose.

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