The Water Defenders: A Discussion with Robin Broad '76 and John Cavanagh

Robin Broad/John Cavanagh video

As alumni prepared to return to Williamstown this Homecoming weekend, Robin Broad ‘76 had a homecoming of her own this past Wednesday, November 9th, her first time back in Williamstown in 45 years. She was joined by husband, co-adventurer, and co-author John Cavanagh in speaking about their recent book, The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed, which tells the story of community members across El Salvador coming together to combat international mining companies in the fight for protecting water resources. In addition to their work in El Salvador, Broad teaches as a Professor of International Service at American University and Cavanagh is a senior advisor at the Institute for Policy Studies, both located in Washington DC.

Broad and Cavanagh were invited to speak as part of the Center for Environmental Studies Class of 1960’s Scholars program, which involves a seminar with a group of students selected to be 1960’s Scholars for the year. After their discussion, Broad and Cavanagh spoke to the broader Williamstown community about their work and book, including four of Broad’s former Williams professors, one of whom—Roger Bolton—introduced the couple. Broad started the talk by telling the story of the anti-mining activists in El Salvador, people who, in Broad’s words, are ordinary community members who are doing extraordinary work. Among these activists is Marcelo Rivera, the introductory figure of the book, whose murder in 2009 marked the first of several water defender assassinations in the 21st century fight to save El Salvador from mining companies. Marcelo was the leader of the foremost group of water defenders in El Salvador known as la Mesa. Broad and Cavanagh first came to this fight after the Institute for Policy Research selected la Mesa to be honored for their dedication to social justice, a fight that would soon transform into a legal battle between international mining company PacRam and the country of El Salvador itself. Broad and Cavanagh worked to support la Mesa and El Salvador in this legal fight, together inspired by incredible persistence of la Mesa’s coalition despite the threat of corporate greed.

As Broad and Cavanagh emphasized, this is a global story, one that we are all familiar with, one that inspires us, through thoughtful, determined citizens who persist in the face of corruption and exploitation. Within this greater takeaway of the power of community members building solidarity are three key lessons that Cavanagh shared with the audience: Firstly, the power in coalitions comes from the bottom up, as grassroots community dynamics are vital to solving these problems. In the case of El Salvador, people without college-level education educated themselves about mining, and spread that knowledge throughout their communities, spreading awareness to local, national, and even international levels. The second lesson was how to frame the social justice battle in a positive light: the water defenders posed their movement as pro-water as opposed to anti-mining, promoting an incredibly unifying message for their coalition. The third tactic central to the coalitions’ fight was to go after the unlikely allies, including the catholic archbishop who, after meeting with the Water Defenders, joined their mission to stop mining and its subsequent contamination of water resources.

For both Broad and Cavanagh, the biggest takeaway from their time in El Salvador is the “creative audacity” of citizens to make the impossible possible by working within communities and coalitions. The two authors spoke to how, as academics, we have a tendency to write about how coalitions fall apart; what’s incredible is when they actually stay together, as La Mesa accomplished in El Salvador. This power to take down international mining companies speaks to the end of Latin American countries’ shouldering the burden and the labor of climate change to sustain the lifestyle of global capitalism, nor should they. Broad and Cavanagh view this resistance as a significant sign of hope; for Broad specifically, working in this field with real people for real reasons paves a path leading to a form of climate activism that is both hopeful and passionate about the future.

Robin Broad ’76 pictured alongside four of her Williams professors

BY CAMPBELL LEONARD ’25