A river’s journey not only sustains life, it also symbolizes the flow of people, cultures, and traditions. The protection of these precious waterways often requires the dedication of individuals who go above and beyond to advocate for their rights. One such individual is Monti Aguirre, whose remarkable 25-year journey at International Rivers has been nothing short of inspiring. As we celebrate her unwavering commitment, let’s take a deep dive into her accomplishments and the lasting impact she has made for rivers, communities that depend on them, and the countless people and networks she has helped support.
Championing Rivers and Communities
Monti Aguirre’s journey with International Rivers began in 1998 in Berkeley, California. Driven by a passion for protecting the lifelines that rivers provide to countless communities around the world, she has emerged as a champion of both the environment and the people who rely on these rivers for their sustenance and livelihoods.
Monti’s work has transcended geographical boundaries, focusing on diverse regions like Latin America, where she has been at the forefront of campaigns to protect the watersheds and communities of Mesoamerica, Patagonia, the Andes, and the Amazon rainforest. Her efforts extend to the rest of the world, where she has worked to raise awareness about the worldwide threats posed by large dams and the importance of a global approach to permanent river protection.
History and Highlights
Reflecting on her work over the years, Monti shared some of the most memorable successes and challenges within Latin America and the global movement for rivers.
Chixoy Dam, Guatemala. For more than twenty years, communities affected by the Chixoy Dam demanded reparations for the damages caused by the project, which was built during Guatemala’s repressive military dictatorship. The project, financed by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, was built on the Chixoy River in the early 1980s and forcibly displaced more than 3,500 Maya Achi community members and affected more than 11,000 people in total. In 2010, a reparations plan was finally agreed. This was a huge victory for the communities.
La Parota Dam, Mexico. Working alongside communities on the Papagayo River, International Rivers exposed the technical aspects and impacts of the planned project. The dam was officially canceled in 2012.
Berta Cáceres and the Agua Zarca Dam, Honduras. Working with Berta Carceres, and the Indigenous Lenca community was an inspiring and life-changing experience for Monti. Berta was a leader not just for her community, but river defenders around the world. She co-founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and in 2015, she won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her fearless work to defend the Gualcarque River (listen to her speech) and halt the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam. In 2016, the horrific and coordinated murder of Berta Carceres by a dam company worker, woke the world up to the brutality of destructive development projects being forced upon local populations and financed by international funders. Monti reminisced, “Berta was passionate about her work, she loved her community and where they lived. She was a good friend and I will miss sharing stories of our families and our work.”
El Quimbo Dam and Magdalena River, Colombia. International Rivers campaigned with communities to stop dams on the Magdalena River and against the El Quimbo Dam. In 2014, Colombia’s Constitutional Court put dam builders on notice with a wide-ranging ruling that ordered stricter standards for defining dam-affected peoples, compensating for losses, and for building dams.
Atrato River, Colombia. Our work in Colombia resulted in an incredible victory in 2016. The Constitutional Court found that the heavy pollution of the Atrato River didn’t just violate the rights of the many Indigenous and Afro-American communities that depend upon it, but the rights of the river itself. “[T]he land does not belong to man…man is the one who belongs to the earth, like any other species” the ruling noted. The ruling granted rights to the Atrato River and ordered the government to clean up its waters.
Pacuare River, Costa Rica. International Rivers supported a movement to stop a dam and protect the Pacuare River with local communities, whitewater rafters, and global partners. In 2005, the citizens of Turrialba held a constitutional vote for the future of their community – 97% voted to not dam the Pacuare.
Dulcepamba River, Ecuador. After supporting communities for close to twenty years, 2023 saw the historic triumph for the 140 communities of the Dulcepamba River basin. After years of campaigning, Ecuador reversed the water authorization granted to the Hidrotambo Dam
Financing dams, global. We continue to call out financiers of destructive dams and expose violations of international human rights and environmental standards. Around the world, our work has pushed decision-makers to see the true costs of hydropower and consider alternative projects and pathways. Our staff and partners around the world continue to ensure environmental and social due diligence is being followed and is robust and improving. Globally, we campaign with partners when investors, financiers, companies and governments fall short on accountability and lack of compliance with these standards.
Marañón River, Peru. Supporting the Huaynakana Kamatahuara Kana Federation, an Indigenous Kukama women’s group, a ground-breaking case calling for rivers’ rights was filed in 2022. The Marañón River is one of the source rivers for the Amazon basin. Mariluz Canaquiri Murayari, president of the Huaynakana Federation, joined Monti at the United Nations Water Conference in NYC in March.
Rights of Rivers, global. Monti has been a leading voice for the permanent protection of rivers. In 2019, partners in Chile joined her in writing a New York Times opinion piece, “Our Cherished Rivers Are Under Threat.” She has helped lead the development of the Universal Declaration of Rights of Rivers and supported the growth of the Rights of Nature movement. In March, Monti spoke at various official sessions at the United Nations Water Conference in New York City on the importance of human rights and the Rights of Rivers. In 2020, International Rivers released the first Rights of Rivers report with partners Earth Law Center and Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice.
Environmental Stewardship and Community Support
Monti has helped lead International Rivers’ Latin America river conservation program, which also emphasizes collaboration with local communities, governments, and organizations. Her ability to bridge gaps and bring stakeholders together has been instrumental in creating a united front against projects that could jeopardize the health of rivers and the communities they sustain.
Raising Global Awareness
Beyond her remarkable work at the grassroots level, Monti Aguirre’s influence has resonated on a global scale. Through international meetings, conferences, and media appearances, she has consistently highlighted the urgent need for river protection and the implications of unchecked and unsustainable development. Her powerful voice has compelled decision-makers to reconsider policies that could harm rivers and the communities that depend on them.
Legacy and Future Endeavors
As we celebrate Monti Aguirre’s 25th anniversary at International Rivers, it’s important to reflect on the legacy she has helped create. Her tireless efforts have not only protected rivers but have also empowered communities to assert their rights and demand a say in decisions that affect their lives. Her legacy serves as a reminder that change is possible when individuals with passion and determination rally for a common cause.
Looking ahead, Monti’s journey continues as she remains committed to the ongoing challenges facing rivers and their ecosystems. Her unwavering spirit and dedication will undoubtedly inspire future generations to step up and take action for the betterment of our planet.
Monti Aguirre’s journey at International Rivers is a celebration of passion, dedication, and the profound impact one individual can make in the world. Through her advocacy, rivers have found a powerful advocate, and communities have discovered a voice and ally to protect their right of life. As we honor her achievements, let us also renew our commitment to the preservation of rivers, recognizing that their health is intertwined with the well-being of our health, the planet and the generations that follow.
Hear from Colleagues and Partners
“As one of the more remarkable effective activists on behalf of Rivers and the people who live in connection with Earth, Monti’s early years living by rivers in the forest with indigenous people prepped her well. With her deep connection, remarkable talent and impeccability, she has engaged, empowered, inspired indigenous voices and women–those who live in connection with their rivers–to share their rich wisdom and become some of the most articulate voices waking our modern world to the beauty, magic and sacredness of rivers, thus inspiring policies change and our modern world to wake up. Monti’s work and leadership, like the essence of the river, is graceful, unstoppable, powerful, fierce, and unending. She epitomizes Lao Tzu’s definition of ‘leadership’: ‘When all this is done, the people will say: we have done a good job.’ Mont is a remarkable hidden sheroes of our time. With her deep connection to rivers, Indigenous peoples & women, she has woven their voices together and powerfully helped grow massive awareness around living with the arteries of our planet. She is unparalleled in her advocacy and empowerment of Indigenous peoples, working in ways that uplift and shine lights upon their own courage and creative activism. Tireless in her work At this time when our modern world is so vastly out of sync with Rivers and Natures, Monti is one of Earth’s most powerful voices the bridging humanities awaken towards a vibrant future.”Mark Dubois, founder of International Rivers
“This is Monti Aguirre’, I recall Patrick McCully saying, as he introduced me to the newest member of our staff His brief introduction, for me, was truly a life changer. Monti Aguirre has come to the aid of so many, many folks – myself included – again and again over the years. She listens, contemplates, and with savvy advice and calm demeanor, supports those in need. Again and again, she shares her life experiences and advice in ways that enable me – and countless others – to recognize the intersecting factors and forces that precipitate environmental crises and social injustices. And in this reckoning, we all have learned that rivers truly are the life blood of the planet.”Barbara Rose Johnston
“I humbly believe, from my experience, that International Rivers is the first organization and network of organizations dedicated to the defense, protection and preservation of the rivers. In this context, I met Monti many years ago, decades, during the Biobio River campaign. Monti then was a pioneer, and quite courageous, accompanying us with other colleagues. What impresses me is that she has continued, and has continued and persevered. She works with rivers, but also with the communities. I like to say that Monti is a socio-environmental activist. She defends rivers but in a social context that is very important. In all countries where she has been able to help, Monti was there”Goldman Prize Winner’s Juan Pablo Orrego, Ecosistemas
“Monti has been a cherished partner of Earth Law Center towards our shared goal of protecting the intrinsic rights and interests of rivers and their guardians across Latin America and globally. We have worked together in locations such as Chile, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico, amongst others. She is incredibly well-respected by communities, civil society groups, institutions, and many others. Her strong reputation, ingenuity, diplomacy, and unwavering commitment to protecting rivers are essential attributes for advancing projects rooted in mutual trust and a desire to change paradigms. Monti is also endlessly gracious, humble, and kind. Monti is a legend amongst river protectors. She doesn’t always seek the spotlight, instead putting the focus on rivers and communities, but her commitment and impact is as great as anyone I’ve ever known. I have seen firsthand her unwavering defense of the rights of rivers and community rights. I am certain that she has helped tens of thousands of people over the years.”Grant Wilson, Earth Law Center
“Monti’s vision in our working group for river protections in Chile is always a contribution that, from her vast experience, adds an integral and conciliatory perspective. I am deeply grateful for her wise presence and constant support and I am sure that so many communities and ecosystems throughout Latin America are equally grateful for her tireless work for 25 years!”Nicole Mansuy from Fundación Ngenko.
“On behalf of Huaynakana, we want to thank International Rivers, especially Monti Aguirre for helping us defend our Maranon River and other activities that we have been doing. We are truly grateful.”Mariluz Canaquiri Murayari, Federation of Kukama Indigenous Women Huaynakana Kamatahuara
“Working with Monti has been a wonderful and educational experience. Her knowledge on environmental legislation helps us in the process of permanent river protections in Brasil. Monti has a fundamental role in protecting rivers and expanding the protagonism of Indigenous, traditional and riverine communities.”Flávio Montiel, Brasil Program Manager at International Rivers
“I had the privilege to meet Monti Aguirre many years ago. The work that Monti did in the Anchicayá River has achieved important results. We now have unifying judgements with full legitimacy of the constitutional court in the defense of the Anchicayá river. As well as other types of judgements that made us see there is a way forward that is possible. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to meet her.”German Ospina, Anchicayá lawyer case
“With my work with Kukama women and the Federation of Kukama Indigenous Women Huaynakana Kamatahuara in Peru’s northern region, we were doing a lot of work to help protect their rivers in terms of communications and raising awareness. We knew we wanted to do some legal work, but we weren’t really sure how. And then Monti magically appeared. She told us all about the international movement for Rights of Rivers and Rights of Nature, sent us information, got us involved in webinars and put us into contact with lawyers at Earth Law Center, who helped our legal efforts in Peru. With this support, the Kukama Women Federation could file the groundbreaking lawsuit to have their river declared a legal person, with rights. Monti was not just the person who gave us the contacts and information, she stuck with us during the entire process. Devising the lawsuit, participating in meetings… Monti was always there. In zoom, at 5am for her time, letting people know that they weren’t alone, that they was part of an international movement and that International Rivers was there for us.”Stephanie Boyd, from Qisca Productions.
“We want to congratulate Monti for your commitment to defend the waters, for the defense of the rivers, in which you have played a fundamental role, not only for Censat Agua Viva, but for the communities with which we work, for whom your support has meant the opportunity to talk, meet, and reflect on our common struggle. I also want to highlight that Monti are a person who is willing to listen, willing to open channels, and create spaces for people to find the mechanisms to get together and talk. We also appreciate the support in these 25 years that Monti have been fighting and defending the rivers around the world. In our case, the communities, especially those of Santander river, which are fundamentally made up of women, and which International Rivers supported”CENSAT Água Vida
“As director of Forum Solidaridad de Peru, and on behalf of this institution as well as personally, I want to salute Monti Aguirre’s 25 years of effort and work at International Rivers. Here we call her Guardiana de Los Rios because she, with immense love and admirable persistence, has always been in defense, protection and promotion of rivers. We owe Monti our immense gratitude because she has always accompanied us in all our struggles and efforts, bringing us exchanges with groups and communities from all over the world. We have many moments with Monti. Among the many moments together, I would like to mention three. Firstly, the river defense initiative at the Panamazon Social Forum (FOSPA), which is an effort by river defenders from the 9 Amazonian countries and where Monti has always given her knowledge and reflections, which are so rich. I couldn’t fail to mention the great international campaign that she is part of, and that she has also taken us along on, so that the United Nations system incorporates a new instrument that recognizes rivers as subjects of law. And finally, about the struggles over many years to defend and protect the Morona and Santiago rivers in the Peruvian Amazon, and currently the defense of the Marañon and Nanay river.”Ricardo Jimenez, director of Fórum Solidaridad Perú.
“Monti Aguirre is a friend, an ally and an expert in water issues. At the beginning [of our work] we did not understand the importance of issues affecting our waters and, with time, we have ended up agreeing with her, so much so that now we have a line of work in defense of water, with 15 judicial processes running in Peruvian courts, defending water sources.his would not have been possible without this friendship, support, and guidance from Monti, who is an outstanding expert on the subject of water. We appreciate, recognize and value her very much”.Juan Carlos Ruiza Molleda, lawyer from IDL
“Congratulations to Monti on twenty-five years of supporting local and Indigenous river protectors in Latin America.”Isabella Winkler, International Rivers
“I knew Monti in 2018, when we started working together when I was a volunteer in the Earth Law Center in two contexts: for the production of the Universal Declaration of Rights of Rivers and when we did an Amicus Curiae for the Anchicayá River in Colombia. Monti is a very important person in the Protection of Rivers globally, but in my context in Latin America, her role is just integral in involving all kinds of levels of community and knowledge to protect rivers. When I started my program, I didn’t have too many contacts in river protection, but Monti is very generous and wanted to link all the people from the small communities to the IUCN. She is always trying to create these networks of people working together for the same purposes, and she is very open to new ideas. She is just more young than the younger people because she is just open to listening and bringing resources and knowledge. I feel like, without Monti, my program wouldn’t exist and the projects and ideas of many people wouldn’t exist because she facilitates them. She did in a way to make everything easier for everyone”Constanza Prieto, Earth Law Center
“Oh, there’s so much to say about Monti! Monti has this ability to connect with people and develop relationships and she stays calm and is always able to see the big picture.ecause she has experience in so many countries around the world, she brings these experiences with her to the table with the communities, to help offer new ways of thinking about the problems that dawn affected communities are facing and she is just…always there. She’s always there! Even if it’s from far away, she’s always present and people know she’s supporting them and I think that means a lot to the people who are living daily with threats of dams or impacts of dams. I’ve known her since 2001, when we started a group called Amigos de Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica. She is so inspiring and motivating and actually for me, as a young women, entering into the field of river conservation, when I was in my early 20s, she was someone who inspired me to do the work that I do.”Denielle Perry, Global River Protection Coalition
“A fraternal embrace with all the admiration for the dedication and all that Monti Aguirre and International Rivers do to strengthen the community and territorial work of the various organizations working for the protection of rivers in Latin America. Her global vision and strategic thinking bring greater perspective to our work. Undoubtedly, her concern for trust and values based on respect have been key to strengthening a bond based on healthy relationships, not only with the rivers, but also among those of us who strive to protect them.”Paulo Urrutia, from Bestias del Sur Salvaje
“I met Monti in 2017, finding in her the representation of a leader, tireless and unstoppable woman, who has a profound love for rivers, indigenous and peasant communities, and nature. Monti is an example for environmental activists who are just starting out, as well as for those with experience, and she undoubtedly paved the way for many. She knows the complexity of the region better than anyone, facing many ‘Goliaths’ in her career, never giving up. In my particular case, I am grateful for all her support and the trust she placed in me when we met. Her support has been decisive for me. Monti, happy 25th and here’s to many more!”Liliana Guerrero, Bocas de Ceniza Waterkeeper
Monti at International Rivers meetings over the years