El Salvador and Water: Chaos Reigns

 

El Salvador is facing a water crisis. Government officials say it’s due to a climate change-induced drought. We recently argued on this blog that the crisis is the result of unregulated development on fragile aquifer recharge zones. While these are serious problems, the bigger issue for the water crisis is that no one entity is responsible for managing water resources and ensuring they are used in a sustainable manner.

In the absence of water management, chaos reigns. The National Association of Aqueducts and Sewage (ANDA) provides water to 40% of the population. Another 40% of the population depends on no fewer than 2,366 local water boards (that’s 2,366 water boards in just 262 municipalities). The rest rely on private for-profit companies, wells, and other sources. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture is supposed to regulate irrigation; while the Ministry of the Environment protects recharge zones, rivers and lakes; and the Ministry of Health makes sure water is clean. This patchwork system fails because government agencies do not fulfill their roles and no single entity is responsible.

The ensuing chaos and lack of oversight allows golf courses, bottling companies, sugarcane growers, and other private interests to use all the water they want, no matter how it affects local communities. One golf course mentioned in the news a couple weeks ago has all the water it needs while 75% of the nearby populations struggle to satisfy their daily needs. Similarly, residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután report that sugarcane growers use so much ground water for irrigation that their wells are no longer deep enough and they don’t have enough water for their small farms.

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The right to water as a common good

Since the early 1990s and the implementation of neoliberal economic policies, Salvadorans have struggled over two competing visions for water management. Civil society organizations and communities argue that water is a common good and access is a basic human right. Accordingly, the government should protect water resources and ensure that all people have what they need to live healthy, productive lives. Business interests and conservative politicians argue that water is a commodity to be bought and sold, and the only way to satisfy demand to privatize and let the markets take over. These competing visions are not unique to El Salvador. The United States, Bolivia, India, and other countries around the world have struggled, at times violently, over whether water is a right or a commodity.

Civil society organizations have organized protests and marches, created an advocacy coalition (the Water Forum), and drafted legislation that recognizes water as a basic human right and regulates its use. The government and private actors have taken loans from the Inter-American Development Bank to facilitate privatized use of water, and drafted a law of their own. So far, the government has done nothing, forcing communities to take care of their own needs and allowing private interests to use all the water they want.

The one positive development is the 2,366 local water boards that provide services to communities that would otherwise go without. One example of a local board is the Association of Water Users in the Rural Areas of Tonacatepeque (ABAZORTO), which serves 1,700 families on the outskirts of San Salvador. In addition to providing water, ABAZORTO protects aquifer recharge areas with reforestation and conservation activities, and promotes sustainable agriculture. ABAZORTO has a model garden with 150 varieties of fruits and vegetables where they teach local farmers how to grow without using harmful agrochemicals that pollute rivers, streams, and groundwater. They also have a team of promoters that goes door-to-door and holds workshops in schools to teach the community about water management. ABAZORTO and other water boards are doing what the Legislative Assembly and Central Government are failing to do – managing water resources in a sustainable manner. But they cannot do it alone.

This week the President of ANDA and a block of FMLN legislators requested that the Legislative Assembly declare local water boards to be a social interest and exempt them from State fees leveed for water use. They also asked the Assembly to forgive outstanding debts water boards have for past use. This kind of support is an important part of water management, but it does nothing to stop private interests from exploiting the country’s water resources. The only way to accomplish that is by passing the General Water Law that the Water Forum proposed in 2005. The law would recognize water as a right, require sustainable management of water resources and recharge zones, and regulate private, for-profit use of water.

Environmental activist Carolina Amaya says the Legislative Assembly has not passed the Water Forum’s proposed law because business interests represented by conservative politicians want control over water resources. Their inaction and ongoing lack of water management is defacto privatization, in that private interests continue to use what they want with no oversight or regulation. Until that changes, El Salvador will continue to experience water crisis, no matter how many new pumps or miles of pipes that ANDA adds to the current system.

Extrajudicial Killings in El Salvador

This week, El Salvador’s Ombudsman for Human Rights, David Morales, reported that police and military forces likely committed extrajudicial executions on at least two separate occasions last year. One was the March 2015 massacre at the San Blas Finca in which security forces killed at least eight alleged gang members. The other was an August 2015 massacre at Los Pajales in Panchimalco in which security forces killed five alleged gang members.

The Ombudsman announced that, “in both cases we concluded that there were extrajudicial executions.” They reached their findings based on evidence that police moved bodies to make the scene appear like a shootout. In addition, some of the bodies showed signs of being beaten prior to being shot. Of the 13 killed in these two incidents, 4 were minors under the age of 18.

The Ombudsman also said that his office is reviewing 30 other incidents involving 100 deaths that they suspect to be cases of extrajudicial killings.

The allegations are not new. Experts have long suspected f that many of the shootouts reported in the papers are actually extrajudicial killings committed by police and military. Because the victims are reported to be gang members, few citizens or government officials ask questions or demand more information.

The Ombudsman’s announcement comes just over a year after President Sánchez Cerén’s administration said publicly that the police should use their weapons in defending against gangs without fearing that they will “suffer consequences.”

The question of extrajudicial killings of alleged gang members goes beyond on-duty police and military forces. In January 2016, the Ombudsman for Human Rights said, “in this country we see that there exists a pattern of violence concerning death squads. According to our observations as the Ombudsman’s Office, I presume the existence of these groups, it is very likely that they are in operation.” Just in the past year and a half, extermination groups have taken to social media to claim responsibility for many homicides of alleged gang members, but they are not investigated and the perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity.

As the Ombudsman announces their findings of extrajudicial killings, the government is doubling down on the use of force to combat gangs. The government recently deployed a special combat force to attack gangs in rural areas. It is comprised of 600 elite military soldiers and 400 members of the police, and will start by focusing on hard to reach rural areas where they believe that gangs are operating. Vice President Oscar Ortiz said, “This is a firm action that says to the gangs that the State is stronger.”

In addition, last week the Legislative Assembly passed reforms to the Penal Code and other laws making it illegal to provide aid to or act as a intermediary for gangs. It also makes it a crime for government officials to agree not to prosecute gangs or in any way negotiate with gang members. The penalty for being found guilty of violating these laws is up to 15 years in prison. Raul Mejango said the reforms “burn all boats that could somehow afford to find other solutions to this problem [of violence], betting solely on repression as the solution, and historically this has proven not to resolve the problem.”

What is especially terrible about extrajudicial killings, extermination groups, use of Special Forces, and the new laws is that repression and force this is the only approach the government is taking to addressing insecurity in El Salvador. Salvadorans need more. El Salvador is among the most violent countries in the world, and instead of moving towards long-term solutions, or even identifying the roots of the violence, the government is responding with even more violence and more repression.

The gang issue is complicated, and the violence and extortion perpetrated by these groups destroy communities around the country. Voices on the Border staff has seen this first hand. But reverting to wartime tactics will only lead to more violence and more violence. Gangs exist, at least in part, because there is a void created by socio-economic and political inequalities. Even if a militarized solution led to the destruction of the gangs, something else less than positive would take their place. And even in war, extrajudicial killings like those being reported by the Ombudsman for Human Rights would be a war crime and should be punished.

Earth Day Celebration in Parque Cuzcatlán

On Sunday, hundreds of Salvadorans gathered in Parque Cuzcatlán in San Salvador to celebrate Earth Day. The theme was food sovereignty, and groups from around the country came to share heirloom seeds and farming techniques, and talk about stopping multinationals like Monsanto that want to control of all aspects of food production.

Our good friend Ebony Pleasants put together a very nice video of the event:

One quote from the woman interviewed in the video… “How is it possible that the transnational corporations are now saying that we can only use one type of seed? Monsanto has made many farmers [in El Salvador] dependent on their agro-business and the agrochemicals that they sell.  For us, agro-ecology is the alternative.”

One of the biggest threats to biodiversity and food sovereignty right now is large-scale sugarcane production. In the next few weeks, Voices will publish a report on sugarcane production in El Salvador, followed by a series of workshops and community meetings to discuss alternatives… and how to achieve food sovereignty.

The organizations and communities present at the event on Sunday was a demonstration of what is possible when communities are organized and united.

The Water Crisis is not a Surprise

This week, El Salvador declared a State of Emergency in response to a major water shortage. ANDA says it is unable to extract the water it needs to satisfy the needs of the population. The most affected area is San Salvador.

water jugs - Roddy HughesThe lack of potable water is not a new issue for most Salvadorans. Impoverished communities in and around urban centers, as well as rural regions have struggled with limited access to water for many years. The issue has been so serious that ten years ago a coalition of El Salvador’s most prominent civil society organizations introduced a water law that, in part, recognized that all Salvadorans have the right to water. The proposed law was a response to years of reckless development, deforestation, unregulated dumping of solid and industrial waste, and poor management of water resources. The Legislative Assembly never approved the law.

In the 1990s and 2000s, activists tried to stop development projects in the El Espino Finca, an important forest at the base of the San Salvador Volcano. El Espino was a recharge zone for the largest aquifer in El Salvador, and one of the reasons for protecting it was to protect the country’s most important water resource. Activists lost and developers replaced the forests with high-end shopping centers, housing developments, golf courses, and highways. Activists also tried to stop development projects on the Cordillera del Balsamo. Government officials and developers ignored them and cut down trees, built homes, and paved roads. The La Prensa Grafica article about the State of Emergency cited the Altavista subdivision in Soyapango, a dense development of 38,000 homes, as an example of how bad development practices have diminished water supplies. As activists have argued for more than 20 years, if the government allows developers to cover recharge zones with buildings and roads, the ground will not absorb rainwater, and instead it will run off into the Pacific Ocean.

The current state of emergency is the price that Salvadorans are paying for many years of short-sited decisions that have generated wealth for a few, but put the greater population at risk of disaster.

In an interview this week, Lina Pohl said, “climate change is affecting water resources in El Salvador, so water levels in wells are falling.” There is no question that climate change is affecting El Salvador – at times there is no rain, at times there is too much. And climate-related storm surges have already caused salt water to contaminate wells in communities along the coast.

But the current crisis is more about reckless development and the mismanagement of water resources. Government agencies are responsible because they allowed developers to destroy the country’s natural resources. The Legislative Assembly is responsible for ignoring civil society organizations and their proposed General Water Law. Developers are responsible for putting their own economic interests over the wellbeing of the Salvadoran people. If these actors had not been so short-sited all these years, El Salvador would not be quite as vulnerable to the droughts and storms that climate change is bringing.

This crisis, however, is not just about sins of the past. The Ministry of the Environment still permits sugarcane growers to burn their fields before harvest. This bakes the soil, leaving it hard and unable to absorb rainwater and recharge aquifers along the coast. Government agencies still refuse to regulate the use of agrochemicals or stop illegal dumping of industrial waste, which pollute surface and ground water. And as El Faro pointed out this week, government agencies allow golf courses unlimited use of water supplies, while nearby populations go without.

It is good that the government has recognized the problem, though the solutions offered (some new pipes and pumps) are grossly insufficient, and will only allow for the more efficient depletion of groundwaters. Rain still won’t be able to soak into the ground and refill the aquifers, and surface waters will still be too polluted to use. It is time that the Legislative Assembly and Central Government take steps to undo twenty years of bad development; enforce environmental laws against agro-industry, factories, and all other large-scale development; begin managing water resources equitably; and pass the General Water Law proposed by civil society in 2005.

Bosque Encantador – Tourism Development in Jiquilisco

The Salvadoran government has made tourism a pillar of the country’s future economic development. The Ministry of Tourism and private investors have developed several tourism plans and strategies, purchased land, and begun infrastructure projects, all with the idea that tourism will create jobs and boost El Salvador’s economy.

The Ministry of Tourism recently announced that El Salvador has taken a $25 million loan from the International Development Bank to develop tourism along the coast. This year, $5.5 million of the loan will be available for projects related to infrastructural development and feasibility studies. In discussing the loan, the Minister of Tourism said, “2016 will be an important year for tourism. We will lay the foundation for the mega tourism projects to develop the coastal region of our country, benefiting residents of the eleven participating municipalities.”

Among other things, the funds will support Bosque Ecantador in Jiquilisco, Usulután, an initiative led by the Ministry of Tourism and Mayor David Barahona. The plan is to convert 12 manzanas (20 acres) of forest “near Jiquilisco” into an ecological park with swimming pools, hotel rooms, and other facilities. In November 2015, Mayor Barahona said visitors would be able to tour the “55 kilometers of Jiquilisco Bay, mangroves, forests, and have a place to stay.” Bosque Ecantador, which is still in the planning stage, will accommodate 200 people a night and generate 60 jobs.

In 2013/2014, residents of the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula (both regions of Jiquilisco, Usulután) emphatically opposed the idea of mega-tourism projects like the proposed Bosque Encantador. Their opposition is driven by a fear that large-scale tourism will destroy local forests, wetlands, and mangroves; deplete water resources; and disturb the habitats of endangered sea turtles and other species. Residents also want to preserve their agrarian-based, campesino culture and economy, and fear that tourism will promote a consumer-based society.

Mayor Barahona presents Bosque Encantador as an ecotourism project. And if it were the only mega-tourism project planned for the Jiquilisco Bay, perhaps it would not be too bad for the region. But several years ago tourism developers presented a plan to turn the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America,” meaning they would convert the region into one long strip of high-end resorts, golf courses, shopping centers, and other facilities. Since the plan was presented, investors have bought up the beachfront properties on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and land throughout the Jiquilisco Bay region. News of the planned Bosque Encantador and that 2016 will be the year that El Salvador lays the foundation for mega-tourism may cause concern for communities in the targeted areas.

Voices on the Border recently  asked community leaders and development organizations in the Bajo Lempa if they new about the project. We spoke with leaders from La Canoa, Amando Lopez, Nueva Esperanza, and La Tirana, as well as local civil society organizations – all people that should know about development projects in the region. None of them had heard of Bosque Encantador. Only one person we asked had heard of the project, but he did not know much – the only detail he had hear was  that it is being planned for the Nancuchiname Forest.

Nancuchiname

Voices on the Border called the mayor’s office in Jiquilisco to confirm that they were going to build Bosque Ecantador in the Nancuchiname Forest, and to inquire about project funding and when they would be organizing public hearings about the project, but no one has responded to our requests for information or returned our calls. In our calls, an administrative assistant said that she understood that Bosque Encantador is an urban project, meaning that it will be closer to the city of Jiquilisco, but that the Mayor has something else planned for Nancuchiname.

The Nancuchiname Forest is a natural protected area in the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco. The 797-hectacre (1,969 acres) forest runs alongside the Lempa River near Zamoran. Nancuchiname is an important riparian forest, home to la wide variety of species, including spider monkeys, crocodiles, and some of the last remaining old growth forest in the region.

Namcuchiname has hosted tourists for many years, so the idea of an ecotourism project related to the forest is not new. While it would be inappropriate to build swimming pools and hotels in the forests, Mayor Barahona may have identified land outside the protected area that is more suitable for development.

No matter where the Mayor is planning to develop Bosque Encantador, he has to give people in the region a voice in the process – all people, not just people who support him or mega-tourism projects. Community leaders and residents throughout the Bajo Lempa and Jiquilisco should have a voice in how their natural resources are used. The mayor has held planning sessions and meetings with the Ministry of the Environment, but so far he has excluded other local leaders.

Voices will continue reaching out to the Mayor’s office for information, and will post more on this project in the coming weeks.

Honduran Indigenous Leader, Berta Cáceres Assassinated

Berta Caceres 2015 Goldman Environmental Award Recipient

2015 Goldman Prize photo of Berta Cáceres in front of COPINH in La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras

Last night, assassins gunned down Honduran indigenous leader and environmental activist Berta Cáceres. Her family said that she had been receiving death threats for leading an ongoing struggle against a hydroelectric dams and defending the rights of indigenous communities.In 2015, Berta won the Goldman Prize for her work, and the InterAmerican Commission for Human rights had called on the Honduran government to protect her  in light of recent threats.

This afternoon, the Movement of Victims of Climate Change and Corporations (MOVIAC), of which Voices on the Border is a member, released the following statement:

The Assassination of our Compañera de la Lucha Berta Cáceres Fills Us with Profound Feelings of Sadness and Indignation

More than 100 communities in five countries in Mesoamerica organized as the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change and Corporations (MOVIAC), faced with the cowardly assassination of our compañera de la lucha and leader of the Lenca people declare:

Berta Cáceres was a tireless fighter in the defense of human rights of her people, as well as a prominent environmentalist that defended the land of indigenous communities against the voracity of corporations.

We have no doubt that this murder is part of a strategy of repression against environmental activists, carried out on a global scale and motivated by powerful transnational corporations and powerful economic interests in Honduras, that are accustomed to violating human rights and plundering the region with impunity.

Berta’s assassination is not an isolated event, rather one of many in the region. Activists in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, and Gatemala have been subject to brutal repression and killed for their legitimate struggle to defend their territory against aggressive mining, oil, energy companies, land speculators, and the like.

We declare from Mesoamerica we will be vigilant and demand that this cruel and cowardly murder does not go unpunished.

May Berta Cáceres’ example endure forever as an inexhaustible source of inspiration and indignation for all people, organizations and movements, and that her work serve as an example of the courage, commitment, and determination of struggle with marginalized people of the world.

BERTA CACERES, HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE

 

Youth in La Tirana (El Salvador)  need your help to stay in school!

In 2014, violence in the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulutan made it too dangerous for youth in La Tirana to make the 1.5 hour trek to middle school, a perilous journey through gang-controlled areas. In early 2015, Voices on the Border  met with parents, local leaders, and the Ministry of Education to figure out how to keep the youth safe and in school.

Click here to make an online contribution 

The Ministry said that if Voices paid for a teacher and parents enrolled their students, they would certify grades 7-9 at the elementary school in La Tirana. Voices immediately hired a teacher, and by the time classes started 12 youth had signed up. Enrollment then grew to  16… then 18!!!

It was a hugely successful year. The youth went to class in the mornings, and in the afternoons led a literacy program for adults. In December 2015, the Ministry certified that the youth were ready for the 8th grade… and almost all adults in the community were able to read. Voices hosted another meeting with parents, local leaders, and the Ministry, and the consensus was that we have to continue the program in 2016. Voices’ challenge is to find funding for the teachers’ salary ($4,800) and classroom materials ($1,800) – a total of $6,000. Classes have already begun and we are committed to another year, but we need your help to make it happen.

More than investing in the future of La Tirana, which this program does, the community’s needs are more immediate – to keep youth in school so they are busy and productive, and not get caught up in violence.

Voices on the Border is a  nonprofit organization that promotes “just and sustainable development in El Salvador.” Specifically, Voices accompanies communities in two regions of El Salvador, the mountaneous region of Northern Morazan, and the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulutan, along the coast. In 1987, concerned U.S. citizens launched Voices as a way to provide material and political support to refugees that had escaped civil war and were living in a refugee camp in Colomacagua, Honduras.

La Tirana is a special community of 25 families nestled in the mangrove forests in the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulutan. Though it is one of the most isolated and economically challenged communities in the region, La Tirana takes pride in its sustainable relationship with the natural resources they are blessed with.

In addition to education Voices on the Border is accompanying La Tirana as they take on threats such as large-scale sugarcane production , mega-tourism projects , and security. Voices  is also engaged in other education initiatives in the Bajo Lempa. Last year we began a pilot project called LEER with the middle school in Amando Lopez. The project has three objectives: 1) create a local board of Education to oversee the local school and advocate for more appropriate resources; 2) refrom parts of the curriculum so that it reflects the realities of living in rural El Salvador; and 3) train teachers to identify and work with special needs students in their classes.

*Your contribution is tax-deductible, and 100% of the funds we raise are for education in La Tirana!