May’s Storm Surges Disrupt Coastal Water Tables

Since May 2-3, Salvadoran coastal communities have experienced a series of large waves, or storm surges, that roar over the shoreline and inland. La Libertad, Majahual, and other communities have suffered significant loss, including at least one death. The surges have been reported from Mexico to Chile and are believed to be the result of storms far out in the Pacific Ocean.

Dramatic videos show large waves flooding houses, swimming pools, restaurants, and seaside villages, but they don’t show the long-term affect on water tables in coastal communities.

MontecristoMontecristo in the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulután reports that since the surges began earlier in the month, their well water has been contaminated with seawater. There is no freshwater available in the community. This would be a serious issue in any community, but for Montecristo it is especially serious because the community is located in dense mangrove forests and is only accessible by foot or boat. There is no way that a water truck could get to Montecristo and supply them with fresh water.

Voices on the Border met with the community leaders and the Bajo Lempa Water Cooperative and have begun the process of getting them tapped into the region’s water system, but this will take time and a relatively large financial investment. And the community wants to be sure that they do not disturb the mangrove forests they are charged with protecting. In the meantime, the community has to bring in 5-gallon jugs of water by boat – an expense that no one can afford. Voices will meet with the community again next week to continue planning how to best address the issue.

There are reports that many small communities along the coast are reporting the same issue – salinization of their well water.

Storm surges are not random occurrences. They are a product of hurricanes and cyclones, and can travel for thousands of miles, affecting regions far from the storm. Scientists predict that as ambient and ocean temperatures rise with climate change, and cause larger more powerful storms, coastal regions will be subject to larger and more devastating surges. The National Center for Atmospheric Research predicts that “the greatest threats from sea level rise and future storm-surge effects will likely occur along the Pacific Coast,” which is where the latest storm surges landed.

In 2009, the Center for Global Development published a paper titled, “Climate Change and the Future of Storm-Surge Disasters in Developing Countries.” It identifies El Salvador as among the top five low-income countries vulnerable to storm surges. They estimate that more than 50% of El Salvador’s coastal agricultural economy and nearly 100% of wetlands are at risk of flooding caused by storm surges. “For the majority of indicators used in this research, we observe the most consistently-severe exposure to risks for El Salvador, Yemen, Djibouti, Mozambique, and Togo.”

Even more specific, however, in a paper published in 2007 titled “Vulnerability and Adaption to Climate Change of Rural Populations in the Coastal Plain of El Salvador,” experts predicted that water tables in the Bajo Lempa would be salinized by 2020. The report says there is a medium to high level of threat that by 2020 there will be “salinization of aquifers due to the combined effects of floods and tides in the coastal fringe.”

This month’s storm surges are just another reminder that climate change is a reality and is happening now, and it is the impoverished communities around the world are suffering the consequences. Even if we are able to get Montecristo tapped into the Bajo Lempa water system, it won’t decrease the emissions of green house gases or decrease the risks of future storm surges, hurricanes, floods, and other disasters.

Environmental, Cultural, and Economic Costs of Sugarcane Cultivation too High for Amando Lopez Community

Residents of Amando Lopez, a Canton of Jiquilisco, Usulután, and local civil society organizations, want to stop large-scale cultivation of sugarcane in their community. On one level, theirs is an environmental struggle. On another, it’s a struggle against globalization and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies of private investment and consumerism.

A 2013 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that “higher yielding sugarcane varieties, diversification of the industry into the production of energy and alcohol/ethanol, investment in milling equipment to improve sugar yields, and additional access to the U.S. market due to CAFTA-DR will all benefit El Salvador’s sugar industry over the next 3 to 5 years.” What investors want and need is more land.

In the final months of 2014, more than 10% of the population of Amando Lopez fled the community, many overnight, to escape death threats from violent gangs. They left behind their possessions, homes, businesses, and farmland. Some relocated to other regions of El Salvador. Others fled north to the United States and were detained on the border (a topic for another post). When they left, sugarcane producers wasted no time acquiring abandoned farmland. Families that would have never considered leasing land to sugarcane farmers were all of a sudden unable to say no because they needed the income to rebuild their lives.

Those who fled did so because they were in serious danger. Political scientists identify a nexus between globalization and the violence Amando Lopez and other communities are experiencing (good reads here and here). They argue that economically impoverished communities exposed to market forces and consumerism are unable to participate in the globalized economy in a meaningful, healthy, or satisfying way. This produces strong feelings of inequality, and a breakdown in family structures and social networks that allow for gangs and violence. Residents of Amando Lopez have largely protected themselves from market forces and consumerism, but last year gangs from other regions moved in and recruited local youth with phones, clothing, shoes, and money. As the threats and violence commenced, the community became even more vulnerable to globalized interests seeking land for sugarcane production.

Sugarcane is not new to Amando Lopez; farmers have grown small, organic crops for years to feed livestock and make sugar for local consumption. While these small crops are ok, the community is opposed to large-scale production that negatively affect their environment and public health, and further expose them to market forces. Their main concern is the use of toxic agrochemicals – insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and ripeners. When sprayed these agrochemicals drift to nearby farms, forests, water resources, homes, and schools. Post-application they leach into the soil and water.

For example, the community is concerned about is Glyphosate (Monsanto’s Round Up), which is used as an herbicide and a ripener (ensures that a crop is ripe and ready to harvest all at once). In March, the World Health Organization released a report concluding that Glyphosate is a “likely carcinogenic” and associated with spontaneous abortions, birth defects, skin defects, respiratory illness, and neurological disease. Russia, Mexico, and the Netherlands have banned the use of Glyphosate, and last month 30,000 doctors and health professionals in Argentina demanded that their government also ban it. Colombia recently prohibited the use of Glyphosate in national parks, citing environmental impacts.

In addition to the use of agrochemicals, residents oppose the practice of burning fields before harvesting a crop – growers do so to remove foliage, making cane easier and less expensive to cut, load, and transport. Burning, however, sends chemical-laden smoke and ash throughout the region, contaminating soil, farmland, water, and communities, causing high rates of respiratory illness.

Residents of Amando Lopez are also concerned that once one sugarcane producer starts growing and contaminates neighboring farmland, other farmers will be forced to lease their land just to survive. Others might be tempted by short-term financial gains. Once exposure to these market forces and investors begins, it will disrupt the entire economic and social structure that community leaders have tried to preserve.

Amando Lopez is not the first community in the Bajo Lempa to be faced with large-scale sugarcane production. Jose “Mario” Santos Guevara, the President of ACUDESBAL, a local organization recently said, “Sugarcane cultivation is growing at an exponential rate in the Bajo Lempa. It is being planted all the way up to the yards of houses, and the damage caused is serious. We have to put an end to these abuses. We are poor people, but we have dignity and we are not going to permit these types of violations of our right to live in a healthy environment.”

Last October/November the community of La Tirana, a small coastal community to the south of Amando Lopez, stood up to an investor who wanted to plant several hundred acres of sugarcane in a field adjacent to fragile mangrove forests. La Tirana residents, accompanied by civil society organizations, were successful, at least for the short term, and continue working to prevent future efforts to plant sugarcane.

La Tirana, Amando Lopez and civil society organizations are trying to get the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN, in Spanish) and the municipal government to intervene. Lic. Lina Pohl, Minster of the Environment, acknowledges that the law prohibits actions that harm mangroves. She also said that MARN will approve a plan that, in part, will reduce the use of agrochemicals and burning sugarcane in and around those protected regions. That is positive for La Tirana, but offers little protection for Amando Lopez.

Min. Pohl recognizes that there are lands subject to change of use, indicating that they would be appropriate for sugarcane production. She also indicated that MARN would have to approve changes, perhaps meaning that new sugarcane crops would be subject to environmental permitting. The law requires a permit for new agricultural projects, but MARN has never enforced it. Sugarcane growers in Amando Lopez have already begun plowing and clearing trees, and are likely to plant later this month when the rainy season begins in earnest. But there is no indication that the grower has applied for or received an environmental permit, or that MARN officials will require them to do so.

La Tirana and civil society organizations have also been pressuring the municipal government of Jiquilisco to stop destructive large-scale sugarcane production. The municipal council is considering a new ordinance that would regulate the use of agrochemicals and prohibit new sugarcane projects. The ordinance has not passed yet, and would do little to stop the new project in Amando Lopez.

Residents of Amando Lopez have worked hard for many years to protect their environment and natural resources in order to provide their youth a healthy place to grow up. Even though the community has been struggling and lost 10% of its population, they are not going to stand by and allow private investors to contaminate their land and water, and make their children sick with agrochemicals, just so they can make money. And they are not going to allow globalization and market forces to deconstruct the campesino culture and local economy.

Israel Quintanilla, President of ALGES, and his son Alberto Zavala Found Dead

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Voices on the Border is sad to report that officials have found the bodies Mr. Ismael Quintanilla, the President of the Salvadoran Association of War Wounded (ALGES) and his son Alberto Zavala. They were disappeared Friday Afternoon, and their bodies found Monday.

ALGES, has been a historic partner of Voices on the Border and this tragic news causes us great sadness. We express our solidarity with the family and ALGES.

We also express our great concern for the growing violence in El Salvador, and the danger that citizens and social organizations experience daily.

Voices on the Border testifies to Mr. Quintanilla and ALGES’s tireless and courageous work over the decades, advocating for the rights of all people with disabilities from El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. Their work has put ALGES leaders at great risk over the years.

We would like to rule out that Mr. Quintanilla and his son were killed for the political advocacy work that ALGES has been involved in over the years, and demand that the Salvadoran Government take immediate action to find those responsible for their deaths.

Urgent! President of ALGES (Association of War Wounded) and Son Kidnapped

On Friday afternoon, the President of ALGES (Association of War Wounded) and his son were disappeared between Zacatecaluca and San Vicente. His family, friends, and compas at ALGES are very concerned for their safety and this morning published this Press Release: This is a serious issue and we call on the Salvadoran Diaspora and members of the international community to call for his release, or contact ALGES with any information about their whereabouts. We will post more information as it becomes available.

ALGES Press Release

The Association of War Wounded of El Salvador, Heroes of November 1989, ALGES publicly denounces the disappearance of our president, Mr. Israel Quintanilla and his son Carlos Alberto Zavala.

Click here for Spanish and Photos

Click here for Spanish and Photos

Mr. Israel Antonio Quintanilla and his son Carlos Alberto Zavala disappeared on Friday May 1, 2015 around 3:30 pm while driving near the Litoral Highway between San Carlos Lempa (where they live) and capital of the province of San Vicente. They were traveling in a grey 4×4 Double Cabin Toyota Hilux, license plate 129950-2011.

Related to the acts related to the disappearance of the President of our Association and his son, we demand the following:

  1. The competent security authorities open an exhaustive investigation to resolve the situation that has left the family, friends, and workmates worried about the President of the Association.
  2. That they increase the area in which they are searching to include the entire country and search until they have determined the whereabouts of the President of their Association and his son.
  3. That they use all the resources available in order to guarantee the physical wellbeing of our friend and his son.
  4. To the persons that have custody of them, we ask that they please respect his physical integrity of our friend and his son, and that you communicate with the family or with our Association at these numbers: (503) 2225-5726 or (503) 2226-7217.
  5. To the social organizations, unite with us in solidarity and have helped us disseminate information of the disappearance at all your contacts at the national level.
  6. To the general population, be aware that this event occurred and share any information related to this case.

Mr. Israel Quintanilla is a disabled person due to the armed conflict, and who since the signing of the Peace Accords has dedicated his life to the defense of human rights of this population and all disabled people. His son Carlos Zavala recently graduated in Agriculture from the National School of Agriculture and is studying agricultural engineering at the University of Monsignor Romero in Chaletenango. “They took them alive; we want them alive.” Please share any information by calling: (503) 2225-5726 or (503) 2226-7217.

For our right to work, the struggle continues!

ALGES, Unity, Solidarity, and Struggle

 

 

2014 Annual Report and 2015 Priorities

Last year was a very productive year for Voices on the Border, empowering communities and organizations in El Salvador to achieve their priorities and goals. Voices Grassroots Resource Center has struck an important balance between building local capacity and ensuring our Salvadoran partners have access to information and analysis about issues that affect them. Along with our small grants program, these activities make a real difference!

But Voices’ goal is that at the end of the day the communities and organizations we work with sit back and say “look what we did!” 2014 Annual Report

I invite you to take a few minutes and flip through our 2014 Annual Report/2105 Priorities (click on image to the right) – it details a lot of the successes we have had over the past year and what we have planned for this year.

If you like what we’re up to, please click on the Donate Now Button at the top of the column on the right. Everything we do is because people like you still believe peace and justice is possible in El Salvador.

The Legislative Assembly’s Environmental Debt

MontecristoThe current term of the Legislative Assembly comes to an end in a couple weeks and their inaction on environmental issues has left a huge debt to the people the were elected to serve.

When the Legislative Assembly began its 2012-2015 term, the body’s President Sigfrido Reyes said, “the debate in the current legislature requires a dignified position of the Parliament. As the Assembly begins, it is faced with some formidable challenges among them is reducing the environmental vulnerabilities.” A month later, Representative Francisco Zablath, President of the Assembly’s Environmental and Climate Change Commission, said, “What the Legislators do or fail to do affects millions of Salvadorans, and for that reason our task is to legislate responsibly and focus on the common good. So I promise to address water issues in a holistic manner and with the benefit of the population being the center focus.”

But three years later, the Legislative Assembly has accomplished little in protecting El Salvador’s environment and natural resources. Legislators managed to pass a ban on circus animals, extend an environmental emergency declaration in Sitio del Niño, and removed toxic chemicals from San Luis Talpa. These are important and necessary actions, but there are so many other big environmental issues the Legislature failed to act on.

The most emblematic is the General Water Law, which was first presented to the Legislative Assembly in 2006. It is incredibly irresponsible that in 9 years legislators have yet to approve a law that regulates the use of water. El Salvador is on the brink of a water crisis, and the government must take action, but the legislature seems paralyzed.

Carolina Amaya, an environmental activist at the Salvadoran Ecological Unit argues that the reason they have not passed the General Water Law is that business leaders have close ties to right-wing legislators. These private, for-profit interests want to control water resources through privatization, and their representatives in the Legislature have been holding up the bill on the their behalf. Ms. Amaya says that giving private businesses control over water management would be like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

The Legislature has also failed to ratify an amendment to Article 69 of the Constitution, which would recognize food and water as a basic human right. The amendment was passed in April 2012 just before the last legislative term ended. But to become binding, the Legislature had to ratify it in this term with at least 56 votes, which they were unable to do. It seems like a pretty non-controversial bill giving people the right to adequate nutrition and water, and requiring the State to manage water resources in a way that provides people with adequate access to each.

Twice, legislators have tried to ratify the amendment, but the two conservative parties have voted against it without making any good policy arguments as to why. The Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, recently asked the Assembly, “the right [to food and water] is nothing you can deny, and will all due respect, and with all the respect I can communicate to the honorable legislators, I want to ask that you not reject the amendment and give this your vote, because if you reject it, you deny Salvadorans of their most important and fundamental rights.”

The reality is, however, the Legislative term will end in a couple weeks and with it the opportunity to make a substantial contribution to the country – elevating the right to food and water to a constitutional right.

The legislature also continues to ignore the proposed ban on metallic mining. In a conversation with the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change and Corporations (MOVIAC), Representative Lourdes Palacios, the Secretary of the Environmental and Climate Change Committee, recognized that the ban on mining has not been on the Commissions agenda and that they have not looked at the issue.

There are several other environmental issues that are important to Salvadorans and the natural resources they depend on but that the Legislative Assembly has ignored this term. These include the prohibition of toxic agrochemicals, passage of a food sovereignty law, and needed reforms to the Risk Management Law.

The current legislature is leaving a lot of unfinished business for the next term, as well as a big debt to Salvadorans whose health and wellbeing hang in the balance. Water, food and nutrition, mining, toxic agro-chemicals, and risk management are all issues that the Legislature has to address. The next legislative body cannot be irresponsible as their predecessors were – they have a moral and ethical obligation to the people that elected them to office.

Abuses in Textile Maquilas and Hotels

Last Friday we posted that Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are proposing more neoliberal economic policies in order to create jobs and thereby address the emigration crisis and high levels of violence. Their plan, in part, is to attract more textile maquilas, agro-industries, manufacturing, and tourism. We think it’s a bad idea and will result in even greater inequalities and more emigration.

Over the past couple of days we came across a couple new articles that demonstrate why more sub-poverty minimum wage jobs in textiles, manufacturing, and tourism won’t address the serious issues that El Salvador and other Northern Triangle face.

Gangs and Maquilas

On Monday, the Inter Press Service (IPS) reported that employees of LD El Salvador, a Korean textile maquila that operates in San Marcos, just south of San Salvador, is using gangs and death threats to break up an employee union. One employee told IPS “They would call me on the phone and tell me to quit the union, to stop being a trouble-maker.” Another employee says, “they told me they were homeboys (gang members) and that if I didn’t quit the union my body would show up hanging from one of the trees outside the company.”

These are probably not empty threats. In January 2014 Juan Carlos Sánchez Luna, a member of SITS from the LD El Salvador maquila was assassinated. He began receiving threats at the end of 2013 after he participated in a press conference denouncing threats made against organizers at the LD El Salvador maquila. Less than a month later was gunned down in what officials classified as a “common crime.

Of the 780 employees at LD El Salvador, 155 used to belong to the Salvadoran Textile Industry Union (SITS, in Spanish). Since the threats began the number of union members has dropped to 60.

LD El Salvador is not the only company using gangs to prevent their workers from organizing. The IPS article references a report published in January 2015 by the Center for Global Worker’s Rights and the Worker Rights Consortium titled Unholy Alliances: How Employers in El Salvador’s Garment Industry Collude with a Corrupt Labor Federation, Company Unions, and Violent Gangs to Suppress Worker’s Rights. The report contains several accounts of maquilas using gangs to threaten and intimidate workers, and documents many other abuses.

As we pointed out last week, there is nothing in the Northern Alliance Plan that will protect workers rights and ensure that the very employers that are supposed to be part of the “solution” aren’t abusing workers and colluding with criminal organizations.

Tourism and Hotels

On Sunday, the Center for the Study and Support of Labor (CEAL, in Spanish) wrote an update on two hotels in Acajutla, Sonsonate. Both have long histories of abusing worker’s rights and the environment. The two hotels are the Vernaneros Hotel and Resort and the Decameron Salinas Hotel. Both tourism facilities have long histories of abusing workers rights and the environment.

Over the past several years, Vernaneros has faced several legal issues regarding the violations of El Salvador’s labor laws and the destruction of a valuable coral reef. In 2013, the Ministry of Labor found that Vernaneros owner Larry Alberto Zedán owed his workers $17,000 in compensation for not paying overtime, holidays, and overtime and other wages. Inspectors found that employees “worked most of the day, and in some cases 60 hours a week, but did not receive the minimum wage, did not have written contracts, and that [the hotel] operated informally with total disregard for labor standards.”

As a result of the abuses group of workers formed the Food, Restaurant, Hotel and Tourism Industry Union (SITIGHRA) with employees of The Decameron Hotel and other facilities. After they formed the union representatives wrote to the owners of several hotels and asked for a meeting. Larry Zedán responded by firing the 15 of his employees who had joined the union.

The Verdaderos has also received a lot of attention over the years for their destruction of a large reef off the coast from their resort. They destroyed the reef by installing a seawall to make their beach more pleasant for their guests. The reef, located in a region called Los Cóbanos, was the only place between Mexico and South America on the Pacific side, where coral grew.

The Decameron Hotel has its own share of labor disputes. In September 2013, the Decameron fired 145 workers for supporting the SITIGHR union, the same union that the Verdaderos employees had been fired for joining. One worker told Contrapunto in 2013 that they formed the union because “a lot of the bosses and supervisors treated us really poorly.”

These are just a couple of real examples in the news this week of what the globalized race to the bottom looks like. El Salvador needs solutions – economic inequality, emigration, and violence are all serious problems. But selling off the labor force and environment to the lowest bidder won’t resolve anything.

Related to these issues:

With regard to tourism, we came across a short peice on Cancun and what tourism development has done to local Mayan populations and environment. This is relevant for a lot of reasons, including that developers in El Salvador have proposed turning the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America. Here is a link:

Our friends at CISPES are hosting an event in the DC area this week – Estela Ramirez, the General Secretary of the Salvadoran garment workers’ will be in DC this week to talk about their work. This will be a good opportunity to hear from on-the-ground organizers.