agriculture, Economy, Equality, Food Security

More Neoliberal Economic Policies Will Not Stop Unaccompanied Minors From Seeking Refuge

DSCF0020March 2-3, Vice President Joe Biden was in Guatemala with leaders from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). Their agenda was to “accelerate the implementation of the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle (the Plan).” The meeting came just a month after Vice President Biden announced that the Obama Administration would ask Congress for $1 billion in aid for the region.

The purpose of the Alliance’s Plan, $1 billion fund, and the March meeting is to address the surge of unaccompanied minors leaving the Northern Triangle for the U.S. It’s an important goal. In FY2014, more than 60,000 youth were caught trying to enter the U.S. and government officials expect more than twice that in FY2015.

While the Plan arguably contains some constructive approaches towards decreasing violence, the emphasis is on implementing neoliberal economic policies. The proposal reads more like CAFTA-DR 2.0 or a World Bank structural adjustment plan, than an effort to stem the flow of emigration. The Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are proposing that foreign investment, more integrated economies, and free trade – and a gas pipeline – will provide the jobs and opportunities necessary to keep youth from seeking refuge in the U.S.

Income inequality and violence are the driving forces behind youth seeking refuge in the U.S., but its hard to imagine how more neoliberal economic policies, which many cite as the reason for inequality over the past 25 years, will do anything except ensure the region’s rich will remain so. A skeptic might even argue that the U.S. and Northern Triangle governments are using the “crisis” of violence and emigration in order to implement policies that further their own economic interests.

Increasing Foreign Investment and Investing in Our People

The Alliance Plan and other related documents emphasize that the solution to emigration, violence and inequality has to be economic – attracting foreign investment, unifying regional economies, increasing competitiveness in global markets, and training the workforce. The Plan, which was first published in September 2014, offers four Strategic Lines of Action. The first, and most detailed, is to stimulate the productive sector. The second is to develop opportunities for our people. Of the $1 billion grant from the U.S., $400 million will support these two lines of action.

Stimulating the productive sector means “attracting investment and promoting strategic sectors capable of stimulating growth and creating jobs… we will make more efficient use of our regional platform to reduce energy costs that stifle our industries and the national treasury, overcome infrastructural and logistical problems that curb growth and prevent better use of the regional market, and harmonize our quality standards to put them on par with what the global market requires.”

The Plan identifies four productive sectors: textiles, agro-industry, light manufacturing, and tourism, none of which are new to the Northern Triangle. Textile maquiladoras, sugarcane producers, factories, and tourism have exploited the region’s labor force and natural resources for years. They have created jobs, but ones in which workers are paid a sub-poverty minimum wage and endure a myriad of human rights abuses. Saskia Sassen wrote in 1998, and other since then report that so far the global economy has produced “a growing supply of poorly paid, semi-skilled or unskilled production jobs.” That has not changed in the past 17 years. When unions and workers try to negotiate better wages or working conditions, manufactures and investors simply leave. The environmental impacts of these sectors have been equally devastating, and will get exponentially worse if large-scale tourism, a gas-pipeline, and other industries are allowed to move forward.

While CAFTA-DR pretends to address labor and environment, and the “race to the bottom”, Northern Alliance governments provide detail about the concessions they will give to foreign investors. These include lower energy costs, infrastructure, and “harmonization” of standards, which some believe means an agreement on a very low bottom.

The U.S. and Northern Alliance countries have been implementing neo-liberal economic policies since the early 1990s; the same period that crime and gang violence began to proliferate. Privatization, dollarization, free trade agreements, maquiladoras, Millennium Challenge Corporation grants, Partnership for Growth, Public-Private Partnerships, and more have all been implemented over the past 25 years. The same period that crime and violence has skyrocketed.

As academics (good articles here and here) and campesino leaders in rural El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have articulated for years – globalization and neoliberal economic policies are the reason for the high rates of inequality that has resulted in the high levels of crime and violence, and lack of opportunities that have forced youth to flee. Poverty and inequality are nothing new in the Northern Triangle, but Globalization and neoliberalism is simply the latest tools the elite use to maintain and grow their wealth.

Just this week, El Faro published an article titled “The Neoliberal Trap: Violent Individuals or Violent Situations ” that is based on 2013 study in El Salvador. The authors found that communities that are more isolated from the global community and depend sustenance agriculture were less likely to experience social isolation, gangs, crime and violence. Communities that have a greater market mentality are more socially isolated and prone to crime. The article argues, “The neoliberal reconstruction has renewed and amplified the conditions of alienation. Meanwhile, some elites embrace neoliberal reconstruction as a means of assuring their position in the new “transnational capital class of global capitalism, while a large part of the population is left out and has to fend for themselves.”

Colette Hellenkamp drew a similar conclusion in her piece War and Peace in El Salvador. She concludes, “The wealthy few in [the El Salvador] do whatever is necessary to maintain their riches and quench their thirst for comfort and power. Their status and wealth will not be threatened as long as they ensure that the masses remain uneducated and in chaos.” The crime and violence in El Salvador has certainly caused such chaos that instead of opening small shops and providing services the region’s otherwise hard-working and industrious workforce is leaving en masse.

Academics also point out that proponents of neo-liberal ideologies believe their model is perfect – “everyone benefits, not just some, all.” Those that don’t are referred to as the “underserving poor or the underclass that demonstrate two characteristics – they are underserving and predisposed to unlawful behavior. Proponents argue that free market, neoliberalism is perfect and if people don’t benefit, its not the market’s fault, it’s because people are lazy and prone to violence.

The Northern Alliance Plan is to double down on the neoliberal policies that sustain the same economic inequalities they say they are want to correct. Bur more sub-poverty, minimum wages will only serve to further stratify the economic and social classes.

Albert Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” But that’s what the Northern Triangle Plan seems to want to try and do.

Violence and Security

Instead of focusing on more neoliberal economic policies, the Plan must focus on putting an end to the high rates of crime and violence.

Analysts agree that most of the youth detained on the U.S. border were fleeing violence. A report published by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that 58% of the minors interviewed “were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” The report identified two sources of violence – “organized armed criminal actors and violence at home.” A report written by Fulbright Fellow Elizabeth Kennedy found, “59 percent of Salvadoran boys and 61 percent of Salvadoran girls list crime, gang threats, or violence as a reason for their emigration. Whereas males most feared assault or death for not joining gangs or interacting with corrupt government officials, females most feared rape or disappearance at the hands of the same groups.” Other reasons for leaving included the lack of economic opportunities and reunification with family members in the U.S. But of those youth, “most referenced crime and violence (the chaos) as the underlying motive for their decision to reunify with family now rather than two years in the past or two years in the future.”

The proposal for decreasing violence in the Northern Triangle is a mixed bag at best. The Plan wants to invest more money into the same heavy-handed, militarized, law enforcement policies that have been failing for 25 years. Alexander Main provides a good critic of these policies in his Truthout article, Will Biden’s Billion-Dollar Plan Help Central America.

But its not all bad. There are some proposals in the Plan that focus on alternative conflict resolution, safe schools, trustworthy community policing, modernizing the justice system, and giving civil society and churches a greater role in prevention and rehabilitation. There are also needed reforms for ensuring better governance and addressing organized crime. One of the more positive ideas is to “improve prison systems, including infrastructure based on prisoner risk profiles, the capacity of prison staffs, and rehabilitation programs, including those focused on juvenile offenders and their prison conditions.”

El Salvador has even proposed an ambitious $2 billion plan that proposes similarly progressive policies for ending violence at the national level. The plan “promises parks, sports facilities, education and training programs for the country’s 50 most violent municipalities, as well as improvements to the worst prisons where the country’s biggest gangs – Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and Calle 18 – have proliferated over the past decade.”

If implemented, these projects could help decrease levels of crime and violence, and calming the chaos that helps maintain high levels of inequality. But if academics and campesino leaders are right, and globalization is the cause of the inequality, these positive steps are unlikely to have any lasting impact. The undeserving poor will still be limited to working sub-poverty wages and have little if any social and economic mobility.

If Not More Neoliberal Economic Policies…

Stemming the flow of emigration is a complex task, and the Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are right to consider a multi-faceted approach that aims to provide economic opportunities, end violence, and address other deficiencies.

Instead of more neoliberal economic policies, the Northern Triangle and U.S. governments, and the IADB should focus their plan on making the region safe from crime and violence. There are very smart, informed civil society leaders who have put forth some very reasonable proposals. The governments should do more to work with them to implement their ideas and proposals on a large scale. The plan articulates some of these ideas, but instead of taking second place to more neoliberalism, they should be at the heart of the proposal.

The solution should include creating economic opportunities, but that does not require foreign investors or selling out the region’s workforce and environment. Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans are known as hardworking and industrious. Instead of building infrastructure and providing incentives to multinational corporations, the governments should focus those investments on supporting and incentivizing local, small businesses. That does not mean small business loans, but it might mean making it more difficult for international corporations like Walmart to run all the mom-and-pop shops out of business. Family businesses do more than provide jobs; they build neighborhoods and social networks.

Instead of promoting agro-industry and exports, as proposed by the Plan and Partnership for Growth, governments should support communities in their efforts to promote food security and sovereignty. El Salvador’s family seed program, for example is an example of a relatively low cost government action that supports small family farmers that are trying to feed their family and contribute to their local economy. In 2013, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development called for a “rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”

There are solutions. The only question is motive and whether policy makers are really interested in addressing emigration, violence, and economic inequality, or using the chaos and “crises” as means to further their own economic interests. This month, President Sanchez Cerén and the Legislative Assembly declared March 26 as the National Day of Peace, Life and Justice – a day in which all Salvadorans will unite and demand an end to the violence and chaos. But even this simple idea of bringing people together was too much for the business class. ANEP (El Salvador’s Chamber of Commerce) came out against the Day of Peace, Life, and Justice, argues that celebrating a National Day of Peace would cost El Salvador $56 million in lost economic opportunities. ANEP representatives argue, “the suspension of just one day of work will cost Salvadorans more that 56 million dollars, and could result in the loss of contracts from export businesses, and thus the employment of workers.”

Their position could be one of pure practicality. More likely it is a true reflection of their priorities – money and profits over peace, life, and justice.

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agriculture, Environment

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.

agriculture, Environment

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)

Advocacy, agriculture, Environment

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.

agriculture, Environment, Tourism

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.

Advocacy, agriculture, El Salvador Government, U.S. Relations

Jiquilisco Bay Communities Oppose U.S. Embassy Threats AND the MCC Grant

This week, U.S.-based organizations working in El Salvador published a letter opposing the U.S. State Department’s threats to withhold a $277 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant over a possible violation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Sixteen U.S. Congressmen signed onto the letter and sent it to the U.S. Department of State, sharing their concern over the controversy.

At issue is a seed distribution program for which the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG) purchases seed corn and beans from Salvadoran cooperatives and distributes to more than 400,000 small farmers. The program is a huge benefit to rural families and the 17 agricultural cooperatives that supply the seeds. The U.S. Embassy argues that the MAG violates CAFTA by not allowing international seed producers participate in the procurement process, buying seeds only from Salvadoran producers. The Embassy will not release the $277 million grant until El Salvador is in compliance with CAFTA.

Jose Santos Guevarra (aka Mario) in a community meeting to discuss MCC and tourism issues
Jose Santos Guevarra (aka Mario) in a community meeting to discuss MCC and tourism issues

Voices on the Border, at the advice of our Salvadoran partners, did not sign the letter published by the other solidarity organizations for one simple reason. Communities and organizations in the Jiquilisco Bay oppose the $277 million MCC grant and believe the outrage over the seed program, while justified, fails to address a much bigger issue – the MCC fund will destroy El Salvador’s coastal environment and agrarian way of life.

Yes, the Embassy’s complaint about the seed program is wrong. But the impacts of the $277 million MCC grant will be worse. Here’s why:

1. FOMELINIO will fund large-scale tourism development in the Jiquilisco Bay, causing irreparable harm to the region’s fragile mangrove forests, beaches, and agricultural lands, and drain the El Salvador’s scarce water resources.

2. MCC and FOMELINIO (the Salvadoran counterpart to the MCC) have never considered how the projects they are funding will affect the targeted communities. Jose Santos Guevara, resident of La Canoa and President of MOVIAC, makes this point well. “During the design phase of the FOMELINIO [proposal], they did not consult [the communities] with respect to the type of projects needed for the development of the communities. We have a series of proposals aimed at reactivating production in the region – the construction of levees, improving roads and drainage systems. However, none of these were incorporated into the proposal that the Government of El Salvador sent to the MCC.” The only people consulted were private investors and others with financial or political interests in the outcome of the proposal.

3. In order to have a project proposal considered for MCC funds, an applicant must be able to invest at least $100,000. There are no communities or community-based organizations that are able to front those kinds of funds meaning the only people who can develop projects are outside investors.

4. There has never been a public discussion or debate about the content, objectives, and impacts of FOMELIO projects. State institutions control the information about plans and projects, releasing only vague statements to the media when it is politically expedient.

Over the past couple of years the U.S. Embassy has used the $277 million MCC grant to get El Salvador to adopt several laws and policies that promote corporate interests. Just last year the Legislative Assembly passed the Public Private Partnership Law, which the U.S. Embassy had made a prerequisite for approval of the MCC funds. The Embassy, however, did not like a couple provisions in the final draft of the law and are requiring reforms before they will release the MCC funds. The U.S. Embassy also made reforms to the Law on Money Laundering a requirement for receiving MCC funds. And of course, the Embassy is requiring the MAG to reform the seed program so that international seed producers like Monsanto can compete for contracts alongside Salvadoran agricultural cooperatives.

Just this week, Medardo Gonzàles, the Secretary General of the FMLN, said the government has done everything the Embassy wants, but it seems they will never be able to satisfy their demands. Yesterday, Danilo Perez, the Director of the Center for Consumer Protection, recommended that the Government of El Salvador reconsider signing the second MCC Compact because of all the U.S. Embassy’s conditions.

Communities and organizations in the Jiquilisco Bay see the reforms and MCC funds as a really bad deal – adopt pro-development economic policies so wealthy developers can receive financial support to take their land and destroy the region’s mangrove forests, beaches, and agrarian culture. They prefer that the Salvadoran government just say no to the MCC; maintain the seed program the way it is; and start pushing back on the pro-corporation economic policies being pushed through the Legislative Assembly.

Yes, folks in the Jiquilisco Bay are angry that the U.S. is trying to get El Salvador to change a seed program that provides so many benefits for so many families. But they are even more concerned about the long-term negative impacts that the $277 million will have on the region.

 

Advocacy, agriculture, Climate Change, Corruption, Economy, Environment, International Relations, Public Health, Tourism, transparency, U.S. Relations, Uncategorized

The Case of Privatizing Happiness

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Dozens of reporters, spent an entire day, braving the heat to cover a story concerning one of the major issues Voices is currently working on. The story is about the implementation of mega-tourism, sponsored by the Millennium Challenge Corporation in the Lower Lempa Region of El Salvador. The main theme is it’s negative impacts on the communities living in and around the Jiquilisco Bay.

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IMG_0040 IMG_0055  IMG_0031 An article published by the Foreign Policy Journal said: “U.S. foreign aid is expected to promote poverty alleviation and facilitate developmental growth in impoverished countries. Yet, corporations and special interest groups have permeated even the most well-intended of U.S. policies.”

The United States has $277million in aid money to grant El Salvador and much of it will promote tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay by funding infrastructure projects like wharfs ans marinas in order to encourage private investment.

IMG_0116 IMG_0108 IMG_0092 IMG_0134Voices has been working extensively with communities and NGO’s in the Lower Lempa region to ensure that residents are bring represented, rights are being protected and those in charge are being held accountable for non-ethical practices. La Tirana and El Chile are two communities most affected by the plans and have expressed concerns about the potential threats to the land, the water, the culture and the economy of their communities. Voices even collaborated with them to create a detailed report on the situation.                >> Read the report here                                                                                                        >> Read the article here

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IMG_0149  IMG_0009“They are privatizing our happiness. They are stealing our smiles.”  La Tirana’s community leader said as he looked over the bay where kids were playing. Thanks to the efforts of leaders like him, many of these people here know what’s going on. They know that this isn’t free money coming into their communities and they are banding together to demand that their lives and rights be taken into consideration.

The day’s event was a great opportunity for exposure. Many diverse, national and international journalists were able to experience the reality these communities face. These communities have been taking good care of the natural resources through climate change, contamination and even flooding with little to no help from the government. To them, these resources are their lifeline. This is something that tourists who are primed to vacation here will never understand.

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