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Protecting the Public Right to Water


March 18, 2015

In honor of World Water Day on March 22, we are focusing on water issues this month. From marine conservation to water privatization, we are exploring how Goldman Prize winners are working to secure a sustainable future for our most precious natural resource.

From privatization to mining, private interests around the world pose an increasing risk to the public right to water. This week we are spotlighting two Goldman Prize winners who are working to protect their community’s water resources from private interest takeovers.

In 1999, the Bolivian government responded to structural adjustment policies of the World Bank by privatizing the water system of its third largest city, Cochabamba. The government granted a 40-year concession to the multinational consortium Aguas del Tunari Corporation.

Almost overnight, residents experienced rate increases of up to 200%. Water collection also required the purchase of expensive permits. For many of the city’s poor and working-class citizens, the new rates were untenable and posed a serious threat to their health and safety by restricting their access to water.

Oscar Olivera, a labor leader for the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life, emerged as a leading advocate against the city’s plan. He led hundreds of citizens, NGOs and environmental groups to protest the plan by organizing peaceful marches and demonstrations in the city’s streets.

The government responded with a brutal crackdown that left one dead and many more injured, sending Olivera into hiding for a short time. Before long, he emerged and continued the protests and negotiations that eventually forced the government to cancel the sale in April 2000.

It was the first grassroots victory against water privatization in history, setting a global precedent for communities waging similar battles against resource takeovers.

In 2002, shortly after winning the Prize, Olivera used his award money to found La Fundación Abril. Through initiatives based on organization, education, research, and grassroots mobilization, La Fundación Abril’s mission is to promote participatory and democratic processes for labor claims and for managing water as a common good.

Olivera is currently working on a project to secure the health of the region’s water resources by restoring the Rocha River. He and his team at La Fundación Abril are working to rehabilitate the river valley by fostering a culture of ecology and environmental conservation in the communities that live along its banks.

In El Salvador, another private interest is posing a serious risk to the country’s dwindling water resources and livelihoods of rural communities.

In 2002, Canadian mining giant OceanaGold (formerly Pacific Rim) began the exploration phase for a gold and silver mine in Cabañas. Growing concerns over the environmental consequences for the region’s forests and the Lempa River were largely ignored by the government.

That changed in 2004 when Francisco Pineda discovered that the creek supplying irrigation to his crops had completely stopped flowing. Pineda walked along the water’s edge and found OceanGold’s pumps siphoning the creek to its exploration area upstream.

Recognizing the potentially devastating situation, he and his neighbors immediately approached local government officials with their concerns about the water supply, but were told that the mine was moving forward regardless of local protest.

In response, Pineda embarked on a community organizing campaign, going door-to-door  to raise awareness about the mine and the serious threats it posed to the community’s water resources. Pineda and his team set in motion a people’s movement that would eventually succeed in convincing the government to halt the mine, but their struggle did not stop there.

Francisco Pineda
In 2014, OceanaGold filed suit against El Salvador, claiming that “El Salvador imposed an illegal and unjustified ban on metal mining… that ignored a 1999 investment law under which its predecessor had plowed tens of millions of dollars into exploration.”

The dispute is being heard by a three-judge tribunal of the World Bank and will decide if OceanaGold will get a green light for the project, or in lieu receive $301 million in compensation from the Salvadorian government. The tribunal, known formally as the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, is expected to issue its ruling in 2015.

“This is extortion,” said Pineda. “These companies are using tactics that violate our country’s sovereignty. We are already in economic trouble and this lawsuit jeopardizes our government’s investment in education and the health of our people.”

Want to get involved? We asked Pineda what you can do to help:

“I ask the environmental and social activism community, as well as my fellow Goldman Prize winners to write a letter to the World Bank, in particular the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, demanding justice for the Salvadorian people, whose lives and livelihoods are put at risk by this lawsuit.”

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