Protecting the World’s Rivers Through Feminist Leadership

Monti Aguirre, Latin America Program Coordinator, International Rivers (Photo Credit: International Rivers)

In the early 1980s, armed government forces massacred hundred of members of the Maya Achi communities near the Rio Negro highlands of Guatemala. When the Maya Achi resisted eviction from their ancestral homes, the armed forces began a destructive campaign that spanned five massacres and ten communities, killing 441 women, children, and men. Ultimately, around 3,500 people were displaced from their homes, tortured, assaulted, or left without food or livelihood. Recent studies place the number of affected individuals around 11,000.

Why? To make room for a hydroelectric dam on the Chixoy River. 

The story behind the Chixoy dam, taking place during Guatemala’s own civil war, is nothing short of horrifying. However, the story that follows – the campaign to achieve reparations for the displaced families – marks an incredible intersection in grassroots activism and global philanthropy.

Based on the funding from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, as well as the actions of the Guatemalan government, protests and human rights campaigns grew out of the conflict. The affected communities worked tirelessly to achieve reparations, but progress was too slow. When community representative Carlos Chen approached Monti Aguirre for help, she did not hesitate. She just said yes – she would help the Maya Achi get the reparations they deserved.

“I had no idea how to do that,” Monti says. “But I knew we had to do it. We have to figure out how.”

Inspired by her childhood spent swimming in Colombia’s Magdalena River, Monti dedicated most of her career to protecting rivers in Latin America, challenging the construction projects and legislation that would do them harm, and advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples, and other populations affected by infrastructural projects in rivers. 

Today, Monti is the Latin America Program Coordinator at International Rivers, a nonprofit organization committed to the restoration and protection of the world’s rivers.

International Rivers accomplishes its mission by raising the voices of local movements, community activists, NGOs, and donors that seek to protect rivers to corporate and government decision-makers. The organization’s successes are largely tied to its ability to ensure the powerful heed these voices “on the ground,” so to speak. When communities can find support from global NGOs like International Rivers, they can use the organizations’ established channels and connections to make greater – and much faster – progress than they could on their own. 

Monti’s strategy is to get a full picture of an issue in order to best activate funds, legal support, scientific studies, and other NGOs’ efforts to serve a community.

“One of the best things the public at large, interested people, and funders can do is to support grassroots communities,” she explains. “It’s important to support projects that are looking at and addressing the issue in conjunction with the local people, such as indigenous communities that have long protected it.” 

In the case of the Maya Achi, Monti and her team found support from organizations like the Global Greengrants Fund (GGF), the Sigrid Rausing Trust, the Ford Foundation, Grassroots International, the Fund for Global Human Rights, the Moriah Fund, and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.

“I’ve been in a great position because of knowing the people, knowing the struggles,” says Monti. “I was able to connect GGF with communities, ensuring that communities received direct support for their activities in seeking reparations. With $5,000, dam-affected Maya Achi communities were able to meet for the first time to talk about what had happened and what they wanted to do about it. They could also make sure that what was being proposed makes sense for the purpose of protections, and human rights as well as the environment. Sometimes it was a thousand dollars, but with a thousand dollars, we could do many things.”

Two years ago, International Rivers committed to a five-year strategic plan that is shifting its focus, expanding its opportunities to achieve its mission. 

“Our mission is to protect rivers and the communities that depend on them,” says Margaret Zhou, International Rivers’ Partnerships Manager. “In the past, I think we became known by environmental movements around the world for being the people to go to when you wanted to have a campaign to resist a dam. And we still are authorities on those issues, but our new strategy and new direction is shifting towards a more proactive, positive, and solution-oriented approach.” 

Today, International Rivers is working toward building a global movement to create and ratify permanent legal protections for free-flowing rivers. 

“Rather than fighting a dam by dam battle, we are trying to proactively defend rivers by putting in long-term legal protections,” says Margaret. “We’re ensuring that the ways that rivers and land are managed and governed are actually more just and comprehensive in the long term.”

Margaret considers this new strategy to be International Rivers’ way of bringing their work to a higher level. “We can combine and unite all of these local struggles that we’re really involved in on the ground and bring them up into a higher-level global vision,” she says. 

“The global movement to protect rivers is raising based on the rights of nature, the rights of rivers,” said Monti. “We are working for permanent legal protections across the globe that ensure rivers’ critical ecosystem functions are preserved, and that recognize the rights of river communities.”

One way International Rivers has spread its new messaging is through the Women and Rivers Congress, a conference held in March of 2019. Women from around the world gathered in Nepal for three days of sharing stories, highlighting campaigns, and comparing notes on their successes and roadblocks. 

“It was a small team of International Rivers staff who did the coordinating, but we invited partners and some of our funders, who also invited their partners,” says Margaret. “We had almost a hundred women and almost none of them knew each other because they were from all different places around the world. And it was really interesting to hear that so many of the women had really similar stories and just wanted to learn from each other. They just wanted to hear more and more stories and tactics and strategies, and everyone was really hungry for information.” 

It became clear to Margaret and her team that the flood of communication wasn’t just because International Rivers had invited female leaders to participate – it was because these women represented women like themselves around the world, who had stepped up to lead their communities in the work for water protections. 

“So I wondered, why is that?” Margaret asks. “Why are women so often the only ones who are taking the lead on protecting and defending their environmental resources for their communities?” At the same time, these women are not often involved in high-level decision-making forums, like national governments and local leadership roles that are traditionally male-dominated. 

Monti has also noticed the difficulties some women have in finding a platform for their campaigns. 

“Women have to fight against machismo, sometimes coming from some of the male leaders,” she says. “Women have to not only fight the projects impacting their lives and communities, but they have to fight to have a voice and to inform the approaches being taken by men in campaigns.”

The recent boom in female-led conservation efforts, and contributions from feminist philanthropic organizations, have had a huge impact on campaigns for International Rivers. 

“It’s so great that the women’s movement is coming back again,” Monti adds. “The women’s movement is growing, and there are more organizations and funders supporting women, which is having a great impact on protecting human rights and the rights of nature.. The support is contributing to make it happen.”

Monti points out that often, people from communities like the Maya Achi do not have the funds to travel to places where their voices should be heard. Conferences like the Women and Rivers Congress are largely or fully donor-supported, which is where feminist philanthropic groups have one of the biggest opportunities to make a difference. 

“Without that support, it would have been very difficult,” she explains. “Travel expenses tend to be high to attend important meetings. Positioning statements and declarations can come out of those encounters. Women have an opportunity to exchange experiences and strategies.” 

This is exactly what happened for the Maya Achi. 

International Rivers’ infrastructure allowed Monti’s team to make the most out of donations from organizations like GGF. In 2014, the Maya Achi community finally achieved a massive victory: then-President Barack Obama signed an appropriations bill into law that included a section dedicated to the Chixoy dam conflict. Until the Guatemalan government and the banks in question began the process for reparations, the U.S. would stop its military aid to Guatemala. This, along with a few other stipulations, marked the tipping point for the battle. 

“I never figured this was going to happen this way,” says Monti. 

It took years of effort from Maya Achi communities, International Rivers, NGOs, academics and community organizers: endless trips to Washington to meet with U.S. senators, meetings with international conservation committees, lawyers, letter-writing campaigns, and grassroots organizations. After seventeen years of working together, and more than a decade of Maya Achi efforts before Monti joined the campaign, Monti’s team achieved their goal. 

“It was worth it,” she says. “And now being able to look back and say that, for the first time, a dam-affected community was able to obtain reparations and being able to say, ‘Never again, never do it again.’ As part of the reparations plan, the president of Guatemala went to the village and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ That was really a big moment, and a great victory for the Maya Achi. And I feel that I’m really proud and grateful to have been a part of this process.”

Today, Monti, Margaret, and the International Rivers team have set their sights on international legal protections for free-flowing rivers. 

“It’s not always a win or lose,” Monti says. “Sometimes we’ve been able to stop projects. But the thing is, they can come back.”

With this in mind, International Rivers is developing legal protections that will keep corporations and governments from exploiting rivers – for good. By working with female-led philanthropic organizations, feminist donors, and – most importantly – the women and men in communities that are directly impacted by water privatization, organizations like International Rivers look toward a future where the world’s rivers flow free from human disruption.

While the hydropower industry and corporations that stand to gain from hydropower market it as a clean source of energy, that claim is hard to back in the face of environmental damages associated with dams.  It is critical for organizations and governments to be aware of the negative impact dams and other projects have on the environment and the people who depend on free-flowing rivers for their survival. Without significant improvements in legislation, corporate accountability, and international awareness, human impact on rivers could have catastrophic implications for wildlife and mankind alike…and already is

But the future is not grim. By working together with teams like Monti, Margaret, International Rivers, and the women and men who give their lives and livelihoods to protect our rivers, philanthropic organizations have a massive opportunity to make a difference. 

The only way out is through – and the only way through is together. 


Monti Aguirre works as part of International Rivers’ Latin America program to support local movements for the protection of rivers; to identify new dam projects in Latin America and to examine their economic, social, and environmental impacts; and to design strategies to counteract their effects. Read her full bio here.

Margaret Zhou provides a wide range of core partner and donor relationship management and strategic support. Prior to joining International Rivers, she served as a Communications Consultant and Administrative Assistant in start-up and non-profit settings. Read her full bio here.


To learn more about the global fight to protect water and waterways as a public trust, read our introduction to the conflict surrounding our world’s freshwater resources

To learn more about non-profit organizations and foundations that are working at the crossroads of women’s rights and environmental protection, please utilize the following resources: 

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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist headquartered in Annapolis, MD and Philadelphia, PA. She has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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