How a small group of activists took down the mining company destroying a Salvadoran watershed

This time, David beat Goliath.

Twelve years ago, Robin Broad and her husband, John Cavanagh, attended an event that would change their lives. A small group of Salvadoran activists had been chosen to receive a prestigious human rights award from the Institute for Policy Studies, where Cavanagh works. Known as “water defenders,” these activists were members of a group called La Mesa—the National Round­table on Mining in El Salvador. When they came to Washington, DC, to receive the award, they brought bad news: one of their own, Marcelo Rivera, had just been murdered, his killer unknown.

For the next eight years, Cavanagh and Broad found themselves accompanying Salvadorans in a multifaceted effort to protect their main watershed, the Lempa River, from the greed of multinational gold corporations. The process of gold mining involves using the highly toxic chemical cyanide to extract the metal from rock—a process that all around the world has turned once-lush landscapes into wastelands while polluting countless communities’ water.

Stories of mining companies’ greedy machinations generally make for grim reading. While no less sobering than other such stories, this account differs in that it ends on a note of hope. This time Goliath was defeated. After facing a corporate lawsuit in the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (a branch of the World Bank) in which the company Pac Rim Cayman, a subsidiary of OceanaGold, sued El Salvador for “future profits forgone,” the country emerged victorious. In 2017, the Sal­vadoran Legislative Assembly voted to ban all mining within its national borders.