Colomoncagua to CSM – Former Refugees Celebrate 25 Years Since Repatriation

Last Sunday, November16, 2014, the 12 Northern Morazán communities that comprise Ciudad Segundo Montes (CSM) celebrated the 25th Anniversary of their repatriation from a refugee camp in Colomoncagua, Honduras where they lived for 10 years. They left El Salvador in 1980 to escape civil war and extreme repression from the Salvadoran military. Their November 1989 return coincided with the FMLN’s final offensive, the assassination of 6 Jesuit priests at the University of Central America, and the beginning of the end of a long, brutal civil war.

Though the main celebration took place on Sunday, residents of CSM held activities for more than two weeks beforehand. During the day local organizations such as the Pastoral Team at the San Luis Temple held historical memory events and in the evenings other groups organized dances and events that featured traditional folk music and other local artists.

(Here is a slideshow from Sunday’s event – photos taken by Ebony Pleasants)

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Residents of CSM have been in high spirits all year, preparing for the celebrations and reflecting on all that they have accomplished over the past 25 years. When the refugees arrived in the Colomoncagua camp, they were poor and persecuted. Illiteracy rate was extremely high and people had nothing. Despite almost complete isolation and little support from foreign aid organizations, the refugees did more than survive – they thrived. They created an exemplary community based on cooperation, solidarity, and the common good. Refugees grew and made all of their food, made clothes and shoes, and took care of all of their basic needs.

When they repatriated their adult-literacy rate was 85%, 100% of children were in school, and people were empowered with a sense of community and liberation. In 1989 and 1990 the new communities in Northern Morazán were challenged with starting over. They have faced significant barriers over the past 25 years, but each community now has its own primary school and the region shares two technical high schools, two libraries, a youth center, and a community radio and television station. Currently 60 youth have scholarships to attend university. The local economy isn’t great, but it’s stronger than other rural communities in El Salvador. CSM also has a vibrant civil society, several strong youth organizations, museums, and crime rates remain relatively low. There is still work to do but people are proud of all that the have accomplished.

On Sunday morning, members of the Pastoral Team arrived early at the Temple in San Luis to clean and decorate the grounds, and prepare 1500 tamales and large vats of coffee and hot chocolate. The festivities began at 2 pm when 150 students from 10 escuelitas de fe (faith schools) marched from the Segundo Montes monument in San Luis to the Temple. The afternoon celebration was elaborate and included youth reading poems they’d written; interactive, community-building activities; and first communions. Father Miguel Ventura, who has been part of the liberation movement in Northern Morazán for more than 40 years, gave a stirring talk that covered much of the region’s history and recounted stories of hardship overcome by community, cooperation, and solidarity.

At 5 pm, people from all over Morazán as well as visitors from San Salvador and the international community gathered up the hill from San Luis for a candlelight procession to the Temple, where they joined the celebration. As people walked they chanted “Que Viva la Comunidad Segundo Montes, Que Vive!” People joined the procession as it made its way to the Temple, swelling to a group of more than 500 people.

Among the participants were a two hundred people from the Lower Lempa region of Usulután. In the early 1990s, as refugees repatriated and leftist militants demilitarized, many moved to the Lower Lempa to establish new communities along the coast on El Salvador’s most fertile agricultural land. Most families in the Lower Lempa have parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters and childhood friends in the Morazán, and they often gather to celebrate their common history. Sunday was no exception.

When the procession arrived at the Temple, the celebration turned into a vigil for the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter who were assassinated 25 years ago at the University of Central America (UCA). Father Segundo Montes, who was one of the Jesuit martyrs, had been an important advocate for the refugees in Colomoncagua. In the months leading up to the first wave of repatriation (there were four waves from November 1989 to March 1990), he visited the Colomoncagua camp on several occasions to negotiate their return with the Salvadoran and Honduran governments, and the United Nations. Father Segundo Montes’ encouragement and presence in the camps were what convinced the refugees that it was time to return.

Don Lorenzo, a community leader in San Luis, participated in the first wave of refugees to repatriate. He says the refugees didn’t learn about the UCA massacre and the loss of Father Segundo Montes until after they crossed back into El Salvador. It took several months to repatriate all 10,000 refugees, but by March 1990 they were all home. On March 25, 1990 the communities held an Inauguration Day Celebration in which they named their group of resettled communities Ciudad Segundo Montes.

IMAG0005Here is a translation of an Inauguration Day speech given by community representative, Juan Jose Rodriguez. The speech is an important accounting of the history of the refugees, as well as a vision for their future. The speech was given almost two years before the January 1992 Peace Accords ended El Salvador’s civil war, and reflects the hostile environment they came home to. This is just one of many documents from Voices’ archives that we are digitizing and sharing with the CSM.

For the past year, Voices field volunteer Ebony has been living in CSM and helping the Pastoral Team implement a historical memory project. Over the years, many outsiders have collected testimonies and written good accounts and even books about Colomoncagua and CSM, but the communities have never written their own history. The first phase of the historical memory project was to build the skills needed to take on such a large, complex initiative. Members of the Pastoral Team participated in numerous workshops to learn how to conduct interviews, and provide support for people who were recounting tragic events, some for the first time. They also learned how to organize information and materials, given oral presentations, and much more.

After the workshops, members of the Pastoral Team spent months conducting interviews, collecting documents and artifacts, and organizing their materials. Community members led this entire process, with no outside interference or influence. This is important because the target audience for the book, video, library, and other products are the future generations of Morazán. The generations that suffered extreme repression before the war, lived liberation theology, organized themselves in a refugee camp, and established a new kind of community want their children, grandchildren and future generations to know their story – much of which remains untold. Though the Pastoral Team is not finished with the historical memory project, they put together a powerful exhibit of their work to date. They presented photographs, testimonies, and materials they have collected over the past year.

The celebration on Sunday went well past 11 pm. There were speeches, hymns, live music, stories, and even a baptism. After the last songs were over, speeches concluded, and the 1500 tamales and vats of coffee and chocolate consumed, the celebration came to a close. Members of the Pastoral Team agreed that it was a great success.

Like the historical memory project, the 25th Anniversary Celebration of repatriation was more than looking back. It was an opportunity for people who experienced the worst kids of repression and hardship to assess how much they have accomplished and all that they now have. Perhaps most importantly it was an opportunity to give future generations a since of identity and root them in an ongoing struggle for social justice and liberation.

Voices on the Border is forever grateful for the ongoing support of our friends at St. Peters Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC for their ongoing support. Their friendship and financial support over the years has allowed Voices on the Border to maintain a constant presence in Northern Morazán, and fund numerous activities such as the Pastoral Team’s historical Memory project. It is impossible to quantify the impact that St. Peters has had in the region, or fully express our gratitude.

The Sugarcane Standoff in La Tirana

Wednesday morning tensions on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula peaked when 60 people from eight communities gathered on farmland outside La Tirana to stop tractors from plowing 680 acres for sugarcane production.

MontecristoWorkers had already begun plowing when the communities arrived, so they surrounded the tractors and made them stop. The men plowing were not interested in a confrontation so they shut down their equipment and tried to call their boss. The boss was unavailable so they left the site. Naún Diaz, a community leader from La Tirana, said they were hoping the owner would come talk to them, but he never arrived.

As mentioned in two earlier posts this week (click here and here), residents oppose sugarcane production due to the impact on the environment. Don Jorge, a resident of La Tirana told Voices’ staff “it’s their land and they can’t plant about anything they want, just not sugarcane. They can raise potatoes, cattle, corn… anything but sugarcane.”

While there is a break in plowing, community leaders continue their efforts to get the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of the Environment to intervene. Both have jurisdiction, but so far, no one has responded to calls or letters. Voices staff learned today that a mid-level employee from the Ministry of the Environment failed to pass on a letter the communities wrote to Environmental Minister Lina Pohl asking for help. In the coming days Voices and other civil society organizations will be following up with the Ministry to determine what happened to the letter and ensure a copy finally reaches Minister Pohl. Don Jorge from La Tirana calls on Minister Pohl “to give the vulnerable people in the region and Bajo Lempa priority.”

Mr. Diaz said that on Monday, fifteen community leaders visited City Hall in Jiquilisco with the hopes that “the Municipal Environmental Unit or the Mayor [David Barahona] would promote a municipal ordinance against sugarcane cultivation. He added, “it’s our hope that [Mayor Barahona] will support us in this way. We are in his municipality and he has to do something positive that benefits the communities.

La Tirana has been quiet since Wednesday, but the issue is far from over. The investor who signed a 15-year lease for the land is unlikely to just walk away from it or the idea that he can plant sugarcane. And the communities are emphatic that they will not allow sugarcane production near the mangroves.

Mr. Diaz said the communities are “ready to stop the cultivation of sugarcane [so close to their natural resources], but the Ministry of the Environment or Ministry of Agriculture should help [resolve the situation].” Voices and other civil society organizations are also working to find legal and political ways to protect the region from sugarcane production.

Another Day of Protest on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula

Tensions are rising on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula this morning. Tuesday, workers arrived in La Tirana with tractors to start preparing more than 680 acres for planting sugarcane. On Monday residents of La Tirana and other communities blocked access to the region and met with the David Barahona, the Mayor of Jiquilisco in an effort to prevent direct confrontation with the sugarcane grower.

La CanoaAs the tractors rolled in yesterday, community members gathered along the road to protest. They are engaging in a much larger action this morning in order to stop workers from breaking ground. Local leaders have called the police, the Ministry of the Environment, and members of the press. Representatives from Voices, ACUDESBAL, ADIBAL, CESTA and other civil society organizations are also present.

The Law on the Environment requires that agricultural projects like large-scale sugarcane production should receive an environmental permit before they begin. The process for getting a permit requires an environmental impact statement, public hearings and other steps that are to ensure an activity does not harm the environment or surrounding communities. The Law on Protected Areas also requires that most if not all of the 680 acres should be designated a buffer zone due to its proximity to the mangrove forests and turtle nesting grounds.

Community leaders were hoping to stop the sugarcane production using the law and political process. Unfortunately, those systems still don’t work for peasant communities and residents are having to take more direct action, such as cutting off access to the region.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, communities oppose sugarcane production because the adverse affects that agrochemicals and burning fields will have on the region’s mangrove forest and undeveloped beaches where at least four variety of sea turtles nest. The land targeted for sugarcane production is adjacent to some of the most pristine mangrove forests in Central America. Any agrochemicals sprayed or used on the sugarcane will immediately drift or leach into mangroves via a tidal estuary that comes within 100 feet of the field. The leaching agrochemicals will carry the toxic agrochemicals through the forest, killing vegetation and the wildlife.

The two communities that will be most affected are La Tirana and Monte Cristo, both of which are located in the mangroves and depend on crab (punches in Spanish), clams, and fish for their survival. The town of San Juan del Gozo will also be adversely affected as the sugarcane production will contaminate the pond, rivers, and forests where residents life and work.

Naún Diaz, a community leader from La Tirana says the forests sustain them – if the mangroves are healthy, the people are healthy. But if the mangroves are weak the people cannot survive. So when residents go out to block the road this morning, they will be defending their very existence.

(we will most an update later today or tomorrow with news on this mornings activities)

San Juan del Gozo Peninsula Communities Take Action Against Sugarcane Production

(Versión en español de abajo)

Yesterday, Monday November 10, communities on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula took two separate actions against plans to plant 680 acres of sugarcane on a large stretch of empty fields between the communities of La Tirana and San Juan del Gozo.

At the end of September, community leaders learned that landowner Angel Velasquez had leased part of his land to a sugarcane producer. A source familiar with the deal told communities that the lease was for 15 years and planting would begin right away.

Burning sugarcane crop...

Burning sugarcane in the Bajo Lempa just before harvest.

Communities oppose sugarcane production on the Peninsula due to the adverse affects it can have on the local environment. Growers use large quantities of agrochemicals including the herbicide glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup), which ensures crops ripen at the same time. Sugarcane growers also burn their fields just before harvest to remove all of the leaves making the cane cheaper to cut and transport.

The 680 acres leased for sugarcane is adjacent to mangrove forests to the west and north, and a long stretch of undeveloped beach to the south. The mangroves are fragile ecosystems that support thousands of species of wildlife, as well as dozens of small communities that sustainably harvest crabs and clams, and fish the rich estuaries that weave through the forests. The beaches are equally as important, serving as a nesting ground for at least four species of sea turtle, including the Hawksbill, which is critically endangered. Spraying agrochemicals and burning fields would quickly kill off the mangrove forests and poison the turtle nesting grounds.

Over the weekend community members heard  the sugarcane grower was planning to start plowing on Monday (yesterday). They quickly organized two actions. The first was a blockade. More than one hundred residents from several communities gathered and blocked the road leading down to the property, in order to deny tractors access to the land. The grower likely heard about the planned action beforehand and decided to avoid a confrontation. The communities remain on watch and are ready to mobilize again if anyone tries to bring machinery to the region.

The second action was also substantial. Board presidents and other representatives from five communities traveled to the city of Jiquilisco, the municipal seat, to meet with Mayor David Barahona. The delegation, which was accompanied by a member of Voices’ staff, went into City Hall and asked to meet with and members of the Municipal Council. At first, mid-level staff told the Peninsula delegation that no one was available to meet with them. After a few tense minutes the community leaders went outside and began protesting in front of the main entrance to City Hall.

Shortly after they began protesting, members of the Mayor’s staff came out and invited them to meet with the Mayor and Municipal Council. The delegation had elected five people to participate in the meeting, but the Mayor permitted all fifteen representatives to participate.

The community leaders went inside and had a productive three-hour meeting with Mayor Barahona and members of the Municipal Council. The Mayor and Municipal Council agreed to support the communities in opposing the sugarcane production. During the meeting the Mayor even tried to call the Minister of the Environment (MARN) and several other offices in San Salvador to try to get action. Community leaders had tried to call MARN officials in the weeks prior but were unsuccessful in getting any support.

The Mayor promised that if a team from the MARN did not in the region investigating by the end of the week, he would travel with community leaders to San Salvador to protest outside the Ministry until someone meets with them.

Mayor Barahona also agreed to create a committee to consider municipal policies that would prevent sugarcane production in the future. The commission will be comprised of community leaders, civil society organizations, and officials within the Mayor’s office.

The actions Monday were important for many reasons. It was the first time that communities from the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula united to protest. It was also the first time that communities demanded that the municipal government take action to stop large-scale production of sugarcane, which is causing serious environmental damage throughout the Jiquilisco Bay. The actions were also important because earlier in the year the communities had formed an association to defend the mangrove forests, and successful actions will motivate the residents to continue organizing. This is especially important if tourism developers are serious about their plans to turn the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America.” The people who live on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula have stated clearly that when they work together they can accomplish anything.

Leaving the meeting in Jiquilisco, Naun Diaz, a leader from La Tirana, said “ we feel satisfied with what we accomplished today. We accomplished our objectives and we hope the mayor will honor his word. If he doesn’t we will come back as many times as is necessary to demand our right to a healthy environment.

Español:

El pasado lunes 10 de noviembre, las comunidades de la Península San Juan del Gozo, en el municipio de Jiquilisco, realizaron dos acciones simultáneas en contra de los planes para cultivar 400 hectáreas de caña de azúcar en una gran extensión de campos de pastizales, entre La Tirana y la comunidad San Juan del Gozo.

A finales de septiembre, los líderes de estas comunidades se enteraron que el dueño del terreno había alquilado parte de su tierra a un productor de caña de azúcar. Una fuente cercana al acuerdo dijo a las comunidades que el contrato es por 15 años y la plantación comenzaría de inmediato.

Las comunidades se oponen a la producción de caña de azúcar en la península debido a los efectos adversos que puede tener sobre el medio ambiente local. Los cultivadores utilizan grandes cantidades de agroquímicos incluyendo glifosato (Roundup, de Monsanto), que se aplica para asegurar que los cultivos maduren al mismo tiempo. Los sembradores de caña de azúcar también queman sus campos antes de la cosecha para reducir costos en la corta y el transporte.

Las 400 hectáreas arrendadas para la caña de azúcar se encuentran junto a los bosques de manglares al oeste y al norte, y frente a un largo tramo de playa. Los manglares son ecosistemas frágiles que albergan cientos de especies de fauna silvestre, así como docenas de pequeñas comunidades que viven de lo que el bosque les provee. Las playas son tan importantes, que sirve como lugar de anidación de cuatro especies de tortugas marinas, incluida la carey, que está en peligro crítico. La aplicación aérea de agroquímicos y la quema de campos de caña matarían rápidamente los bosques de manglares y envenenarían los sitios de desove de tortugas.

El fin de semana pasado miembros de la comunidad se enteraron que el productor de caña de azúcar tenía previsto iniciar a preparar la tierra el lunes. Ellos organizaron rápidamente dos acciones. Lo primero fue una gran protesta que bloqueó el acceso al terreno, con el objetivo de evitar el paso de tractores. Temprano unas 100 personas residentes de varias comunidades se reunieron a lo largo de la carretera. Al parecer, los productores se enteraron de la acción planificada de antemano y decidieron evitar una confrontación. Las comunidades se mantienen en guardia y están dispuestas a movilizarse nuevamente.

La segunda acción de la comunidad también fue sustancial. Presidentes y otros dirigentes de 5 comunidades, viajaron a la ciudad de Jiquilisco, la cabecera municipal, para reunirse con el Alcalde David Barahona. La delegación, que estuvo acompañada por un miembro del personal de Voces, entró en la Alcaldía y pidió reunirse con miembros del Consejo Municipal.

Al principio, el personal de nivel medio dijo a la delegación que el Alcalde no estaba disponible para atenderles. Después de unos tensos minutos, los líderes de las comunidades mostraron carteles con mensajes en contra del monocultivo de caña de azúcar y se situaron a ambos lados de la entrada principal del edificio municipal.

Poco después de que comenzaron a protestar, los miembros del personal de la Alcaldía salieron y los invitaron a reunirse con el Alcalde Municipal. Inicialmente la delegación había elegido a 5 personas para entrar a la reunión; sin embargo, el Alcalde permitió pasar a toda la delegación, unas 15 personas en total.

Los 15 representantes de las comunidades sostuvieron una reunión de tres horas con el Alcalde y parte del Concejo Municipal. El Alcalde dijo que apoyaría a las comunidades en su oposición a la producción de caña de azúcar. Incluso durante la reunión el Alcalde trató de llamar a la Ministra de Medio Ambiente (MARN) y otras oficinas en San Salvador. Los líderes comunitarios habían enviado una carta a los funcionarios del MARN, en las semanas anteriores, pero no tuvieron éxito en conseguir ningún apoyo.

El Alcalde prometió que si un equipo del MARN no visita la región esta misma semana, para realizar una inspección, el mismo viajaría con los líderes de la comunidad a San Salvador para protestar frente al Ministerio hasta que alguien se reúna con ellos.

También se acordó la creación de una comisión para considerar las medidas municipales que impidan la producción de caña de azúcar en el futuro. La comisión estará formada por líderes de las comunidades, organizaciones de la sociedad civil que acompañan a las comunidades en su lucha, y funcionarios de la oficina de la municipalidad.

Las acciones llevadas a cabo el lunes, son importantes en varios sentidos, en primer lugar porque es la primera vez que las comunidades de la Península de San Juan del Gozo se unen para protestar y exigir a su gobierno municipal que tome medidas para evitar el monocultivo de caña de azúcar que ya está provocando graves afectaciones en otras regiones de Jiquilisco. También porque las comunidades están iniciando la conformación de una asociación para la defensa de los bosques de manglar, este tipo de acciones le da un impulso favorable a este trabajo organizativo, sobre todo teniendo en cuenta que los desarrolladores turísticos quieren convertir la Bahía de Jiquilisco en el “Cancún de Centroamérica.” Pero la población se ha dado cuenta que cuando trabajan juntos, pueden lograr mucho.

Al salir de la reunión, Naún Díaz, líder de la comunidad La Tirana expresó: Nos sentimos satisfechos de lo que hemos conseguido este día. El objetivo de la visita se ha conseguido, esperamos que el señor Alcalde cumpla su palabra, y si no cumple, aquí estaremos, las veces que sea necesario, para exigir nuestro derecho a un medio ambiente saludable.

¿Desarrollo para el país o el país por el desarrollo?

The University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador just ran a program on the recent signing of the second Millennium Challenge Corporation compact between the United States and El Salvador. The program looks at the benefits proposed by the Salvadoran Government and the fears expressed by communities in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo.

The program features Voices’ Field Director Jose Acosta, and many of our friends and partners in the Jiquilisco Bay region of El Salvador.

The 25-minute video is in Spanish only right now, but we will be working with AudiovisualesUCA to add subtitles and we will post it as soon as its ready.

We are writing up an analysis of the second MCC-FOMELINIO Compact that we’ll post soon.

Marching for Food Sovereignty

Last Wednesday, October 15th hundreds of people stepped out into a soft rain in San Salvador to celebrate Food Sovereignty Day and World Food Day. Perhaps more than celebrating, marchers were demanding that the Salvadoran government take specific actions so the population can achieve food sovereignty.

Food sovereignty is a fairly straightforward concept articulated first by La Via Campesina in 1996. It simply asserts the right of people to define their own food systems, placing the individuals who produce, distribute, and consume food at the center of the decisions on food systems and policies.

Marchers had some very specific policy points they want their government to address. (If this post and these demands sound familiar, they held a similar march last year making many of the same demands.)

First, marchers want the current Legislative Assembly to ratify an amendment to article 69 of the Constitution recognizing food sovereignty as a basic right enjoyed by all Salvadorans. The previous Legislative Assembly passed the amendment but to complete the process the current Assembly has to ratify it. Similarly, over the past two years, civil society has also lobbied the Legislative Assembly to pass a Law on Food Sovereignty, which would promote the sustainable production of food production and regulate other activities that affect food sovereignty.

The marchers also want the Legislative Assembly and President Sanchez Cerén to ban a long list of toxic agrochemicals. Last year the Legislative Assembly passed a bill banning fifty-three agro-chemicals (the bill amended an existing law that regulates agrochemicals). Instead of signing the bill, President Funes (2009-2014) took out the eleven most common (and harmful) agrochemicals, including Glyphosate, and sent the bill back to the Assembly. When the Legislative Assembly received the Funes’ changes, its members could have ignored them and signed the original bill into Law, or accepted them and signed it into law. Instead, they did nothing. This all occurred during the campaign for the March presidential elections, and the business sector was pressuring on the Funes Administration not to sign the ban. They argued that coffee plantations were combating leaf rust and a ban on agrochemicals would result in a loss of agricultural jobs and harm the economy. Marchers and civil society organizations, however, reject the dependence on agrochemicals and demand that the Legislative Assembly finally ban the use of all harmful agrochemicals in El Salvador.

Another important issue is the Water Law. Eight years ago civil society organizations drafted a law that guarantees all Salvadorans have a right to water. If passed, the Water Law would also ensure that the government could not privatize water resources. Instead of approving the draft law proposed by civil society, the Legislative Assembly began a long process of drafting its own. Unfortunately private interests such as ANEP (National Association of Private Business), and conservative political parties (ARENA and PCN) have been able to stall the process.

Another obstacle to achieving food sovereignty is sugarcane production. In regions like the Bajo Lempa of Usulután, sugarcane producers are buying and leasing large amounts of farmland. For example, two weeks ago Voices’ partners in La Tirana learned that a wealthy landowner that owns the land adjacent to their mangrove forests is leasing 400 manzanas (691 acres) of farmland to a sugarcane producer. United States economic policies are driving  the demand for sugarcane. The Central American Free Trade agreement is allowing the U.S. to import more sugarcane at lower prices, and Partnership for Growth is providing incentives for El Salvador to increase exports rather than grow food for local consumption.

While sugarcane will make landowners wealthy, sugarcane production has a large, negative impact on the environment. Sugarcane producers use a lot of chemicals on their crops – fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Just before a crop is ready to harvest, producers apply the herbicide Glyphosate (sugarcane is “Roundup Ready”) in order to ensure all the cane is ready to harvest at the same time. These agrochemicals, which are generally sprayed using a crop-duster, contaminate local water sources and nearby farmland, as well as villages, schools, soccer fields and homes. These chemicals are believed to be contributing to the extremely high rates of renal failure that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in recent years.

Sugarcane production affects food sovereignty in a few ways. First, farmland that could be used to grow food for local consumption is being used to grow sugarcane for export. This means that El Salvador’s dependence on food imports will continue to rise. The environmental impact of sugarcane also makes it harder for small farmers to produce food. Farmers complain that the spraying of agrochemicals contaminates their fields and destroys their crops. The herbicide Glysophate is one of the worst offenders. Upon contact it kills foliage, flowers, fruits, and vegetables that farmers cultivate. And large monoculture crops upset the ecosystems where farmers grow, diminishing bee populations, disrupting forests and animal life, and harming soil structures.

Marchers also demand that the government do more to protect the country’s fragile ecosystems, especially the mangrove forests along the coast. Families in and around the forests often sustain themselves by harvesting the crabs, clams, and fish that live in the mangroves. And an estimated 75% of all commercialized fish in the Pacific off the coast of El Salvador are hatched in the mangrove forests. If developers and sugarcane farmers are allowed to destroy these forests, they will also be destroying the livelihood and food source of tens of thousands of people.

Another threat to food sovereignty is mining. El Salvador currently has a de facto ban on mining. But there is nothing in place to prevent government officials from granting the extraction permits that allow mining companies to mine for gold, silver, uranium, and other minerals. Salvadoran civil society has argued for years that if the government allowed mining it would result in the contamination of the country’s farmland and water resources, greatly diminishing El Salvador’s capacity for food production.

In February 2014, then presidential candidate Sanchez Cerén spoke at an event hosted by MOVIAC to discuss environmental issues. During his comments, Sanchez Cerén said that as president he would sign legislation to ban mining. But five months into his presidency the Legislative Assembly and President Sanchez Cerén have yet to pass a ban. One reason given for the delay is that the legislatures don’t have enough votes. But some annalists say (behind closed doors) that politicians from all political parties give the impression they don’t want to ban mining, and use the lack of votes as an excuse to do nothing.

Again, none of these issues or demands is new, but people are protesting because there has been little to no action. While many celebrate the Sanchez Cerén administration as the second consecutive leftist government elected into power in El Salvador, many in the FMLN’s base are grumbling because they have not seen the kinds of changes they expected. Some have been reluctant to protest against the government officials they voted into power, believing the alternative to be far worse. But others are tired of the perceived inaction on issues related to basic rights such as food sovereignty and access to water, and are speaking up.

Sugarcane Production Threatens Mangrove Forests in La Tirana

For the past few years, residents of the small, coastal community of La Tirana have spoken out against plans to develop large-scale tourism in and around the region’s mangrove forests. Tourism remains a serious threat, especially with the recent signing of the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant, but as of last week the most immediate concern is sugarcane.

Residents learned a couple weeks ago that don Angel Velasquez, a wealthy landowner on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, is leasing 400 manzanas (989 acres) in La Tirana to a sugarcane producer, who has been out preparing the land for planting. A contact in the neighboring town of San Juan del Gozo confirmed that don Angel, as he is known, is leasing the land out for 15 years.

The estuary, somewhere between La Tirana and Monte Cristo

Estuary, somewhere between La Tirana and Monte Cristo

The 400 manzanas they want to plant is adjacent to one of El Salvador’s most pristine mangrove forests. Locals who live in and take care of the forest say it would be impossible to grow sugarcane in the region without destroying the fragile ecosystem. The estuary that flows through the forest comes very close the fields where they want to plant. Any agrochemicals applied to the area would certainly leach into the estuary and quickly contaminate large sections of the forests. One of the biggest threats would be Glyphosate, or Roundup, which growers spray on sugarcane to ensure that all the plants are ripe or ready to harvest at the same time. Roundup is a very effective herbicide (the sugarcane is genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready”) and would kill the plants and animals exposed.

The land don Angel is leasing should be zoned a buffer zone due to its proximity to the mangrove forests. That means that it should be illegal to use the land in a way that would harm the mangroves, which are a protected natural area. For many years don Angel has used the land for grazing a few head of cattle, but mostly it has lain fallow. Before civil war broke out in 1980 the stretch of land was used for growing cotton. But the environmental laws and regulations passed since the end of the war should protect the region. Recognizing the destructive practices associated with sugarcane production, Lina Pohl, the Minister of the Environment said during a July visit to the neighboring Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, that she would not permit any new growing operations.

(In the Satellite image above, the fields visible along the coast are those planned for sugarcane production, all the way up to the mangrove forests, which are the dark green sections)

On Wednesday of this week community leaders from La Tirana and Monte Cristo, another community in the mangrove forests, met to discuss the sugarcane issue. The discussion focused not on whether they should oppose the plan – the consensus was that sugarcane production would be catastrophic – but how to stop it.

Recalling Environmental Minister Pohl’s statement during a July meeting that the Ministry would not allow for expansion of sugarcane production, leaders from Monte Cristo and La Tirana decided to write a letter asking her to intervene. Voices’ Field Director was at the meeting on Wednesday and on the spot he helped them type up a letter, which they printed and signed. Actually, it was a little more complicated than that. Our field director just happened to have a laptop and small printer with him. Typing the letter was easy but the community is not connected to the power grid, so they had to go to the one house in the community with electricity, which is generated by a small solar panel.

Residents of La Tirana and Monte Cristo are also organizing a watchdog group that will monitor Mr. Velasquez’s property. At the first sign that sugarcane growers are arriving with their tractors and machinery to plow, the communities will block the only road in and out of the region. They are also planning a to ensure everyone in the region knows they will do anything necessary to protect the mangrove forests.

While La Tirana, Monte Cristo, and Voices were the only communities and organizations at the meeting, community leaders will also tap into a much larger network for support. In May, fourteen communities along the peninsula created the Association of Mangrove Communities in Defense of Land (ACOMADET) to ensure proper management of their forests and defend against threats such as tourism, sugarcane, and other development activities. ACOMADET also has the backing of civil society organizations like CESTA, ACUDESBAL, ADIBAL, Voices on the Border, and others. So they have support in taking on this issue.

One other action proposed on Wednesday was that local leaders should go talk to don Angel about how destructive his leasing the land to sugarcane growers would be. Meeting participants pointed out that in addition to contaminating the mangroves in and around La Tirana and Monte Cristo, it would affect a lagoon in San Juan del Gozo, of which he owns a large section. The idea of talking to don Angel was dismissed, however. Residents believe that El Salvador’s wealthy landowners are only interested in money, and that they don’t care about the environment or the impact of their actions on other people. They decided that negotiating with him would be fruitless.

One meeting participant pointed out that pressure to grow sugarcane in El Salvador is one of the many negative products of the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Under the agreement, the United States has increased the amount of sugarcane it will buy from El Salvador making it one of the only ways to make money in agriculture. Small Salvadoran farmers cannot compete with large US farms that produce large quantities of beans, rice, corn and other products, but they can make money selling or leasing their land to sugarcane growers.

After the meeting on Wednesday, Voices field director took the letter signed by community members and will hand deliver it to the Minister of the Environment this morning. Community leaders hope she meant what she said in July about no new sugarcane operations. But they also know that money has a way of trumping regulations and that La Tirana, Monte Cristo, ACOMADET, and others will find other ways to protect the mangroves.