Black and white photo, Elías Díaz Peña Echegure over looks a river as the lights of a city twinkle in the background.

By Monti Aguirre, Dana Clark and Deborah Moore

Last month we lost a river champion. We, at International Rivers, join the global river community in mourning the loss of activist, hydrologist, partner and friend Elías Díaz Peña Echeguren, who passed away in May at the age of 75. Known fondly as “Papo,” Elías was the coordinator of Sobrevivencia (Amigos de la Tierra Paraguay, Friends of the Earth-Paraguay), which he co-founded in 1986 with Oscar Rivas

A Commitment to the Cause: Human and Environmental Rights

Elías spent his 40 year career advocating for holistic and sustainable approaches to environmental and human rights problems, fighting tirelessly for the forest, rivers, wildlife, and communities of Paraguay. He understood that disenfranchised and marginalized people are the first to feel the effects of unethical and unsustainable environmental development, and he always prioritized the voices of people in his work. Whether it was educational street theatre, a weekly environmentalism radio show, or programs that trained youth to volunteer in their neighborhoods, Elías implemented creative strategies through Sobrevivencia to support the well-being of communities. 

Sobrevivencia was a core member to establish the international coalition Rios Vivos with more than 300 members, including International Rivers and other close partners in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and in Europe and the US, to fight against destructive development projects on Paraguay’s rivers, namely the Yacyretá Dam project and Hidrovía Paraguay-Paraná navigation project. Elías, Oscar, and the Rios Vivos coalition engaged in resistance against international financing of these projects by the UN Development Program, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank. In 2000, Elías and Oscar were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for their work protecting the ecosystems of the Paraná and Paraguay Rivers and defending the riverways of Indigenous and river-dependent communities from mass hydropower development. 

Deborah Moore, at the time a scientist at Environmental Defense Fund and a partner of the Rios Vivos coalition and now an International Rivers board member, remembers her work with Elías fondly. “Ultimately, we defeated the Hidrovía Paraguay-Paraná project at that time, showing how strong alliances and deep collaboration of grassroots groups, communities, indigenous peoples, advocacy organizations, and independent experts are effective at advancing environmental and human rights protections and accountability,” recalls Deborah.

A Positive Spirit

Dana Clark, Goldman Prize winner Ka Hsaw Wa, Elías, and Oscar smile at the camera at Goldman Prize ceremony in DC in the year 2000.
(From left) Dana Clark, Goldman Prize winner Ka Hsaw Wa, Elías, and Oscar at Goldman Prize ceremony in DC in the year 2000

Elías was kind, fun-loving, and dedicated to his causes. Those who knew him will remember his incredible knack for engaging others, and his ability to speak from the heart. “Elías and Oscar taught through example the deep meaning of working in solidarity. Elías was one of the purest souls to ever walk the Earth, and one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” says Dana Clark, friend of Elías and Oscar, founder and former director of the International Accountability Project, and a long-time ally of International Rivers. 

Elías was known to end thoughts and meetings with an enthusiastic “Bueno,” an indicator of his enduring positivity. “It was always the best one-word summary of all our work,” says Deborah, “Elías’ “¡Bueno!” would make us proud and excited about our plans, as well as laugh that all our complex ideas and hours of strategizing could be summarized so simply with one word. It became our joke, and our way of starting and ending our conversations.”

Elías will be greatly missed, and his legacy will endure in the work of Sobrevivencia, the Friends of the Earth family of organizations, the allies and coalitions he worked with, and the lives of those he touched with his passionate spirit and commitment to the causes to which he dedicated his life. The staff and Board of International Rivers share our deepest sympathies with Elías’ many friends, family members, and colleagues. In his honor, we rededicate ourselves to making “beautiful trouble” as we collaborate with people around the world to defend our rivers.

Elías, wearing a black shirt, is sitting and smiling into the camera. To his right, partner Oscar Rivas sits, wearing a white shirt, crossing his arms, and smiling off to the side.
Elías (right) with Oscar Rivas (left)

Featured image: Elias Diaz Pena in front of the Yacyretá Dam on the Paraná River in Argentina, a dam he fought against with his organization, Sobrevivencia (Friends of the Earth Paraguay).