Advocacy, agriculture, Climate Change, Environment

Earth Day, the Bajo Lempa in Resistance

Today, residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulutan are marking International Earth Day with a large event in Amando Lopez. Event organizers have made it clear that this is not so much a celebration, but a call to action.

Communities throughout the region have identified food sovereignty and protection of the region’s natural resources as their top priorities. They reject mega-development projects and large monoculture-based economies as a threat to their existence. For more on the mega-projects, click here. For more on mono-culture-based economies (i.e sugarcane) click here. For more on climate change, click here).

Today, organizers of the Bajo Lempa Earth Day event released this declaration stating their positions (we’re posting the declaration in English and Spanish).

ON INTERNATIONAL EARTH DAY, THE BAJO LEMPA IN RESISTANCE – More than a celebration, a cry of alarm and indignation!

Gathered in the community of Amando Lopez to commemorate International Earth Day, we are more than 1,500 people, community leaders, members of grassroots organizations, social groups, and movements, and we declare that we will defend our constitutional right to life.

Our Mother Earth is suffering the consequences of capitalism, which has plundered natural resources and caused serious problems such as destruction of biodiversity, the pollution of the oceans, depletion of water resources, and climate change. This indefensible destruction infringes upon the rights of the poor by making them even more vulnerable.

The main threats to the Bajo Lempa are the profit-driven national and multinational entities that are eager to invade and plunder the region without regard for the rights and dignity of the communities, or the rights of the population. They are doing so in the form of mega-tourism projects that are already underway with the appropriateion of land and the construction of a highway through the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC, known in El Salvador as FOMILENIO) is a mechanism for implementing these megaprojects. If passed it will stimulate private investment for mega-tourism projects whose main goal is generating profits and not the wellfare of the communities.

The consequence of MCC/FOMILENIO and related investment projects will be the predation and contamination of the coastal region of El Salvador, as well as the eviction of the peasant communities that have traditionally lived sustainably in the region.

It is sad that these types of mega-projects are possible because stakeholders employ strategies that dismantle the social fabric of communities, and  discourage and deter the organized struggle of hope.

Faced with this reality, there are two possible paths for residents of the Bajo Lempa: tolerate the domination and irrational exploitation of Mother Earth, which will generate disastrous consequences for the poorest, or deploy a strategy of resistance based on sovereignty, sustainability and solidarity with nature and individuals.

For this reason, we, the social organizations and rural communities of the Bajo Lempa, commit ourselves to strengthening the economic struggle in an organized, persistent and brave manner, which involves:

  • Defending our region to the end against all those that threaten to deprive us of our scarce resources, especially our land;
  • Promoting and maintaining a strong mobilization and advocacy campaign to prevent the passage of the Law on Public-Private Partnerships to protect against the privatization of water and health;
  • Strengthening atonomous ways of life and reject the establishment of monoculture economies such a sugarcane production;
  • Creating alliances with all organizations and social movements that reject the Millennium Challenge Corporation;
  • Developing a process to achieve food sovereignty with a focus on agro-ecology that includes the protection of heirloom seeds, the defense of the earth, and the conservation of sources of water;
  • Promoting awareness and disseminating information on the FOMILENIO megaprojects, including tourism, to increase and maintain strength.

    IN DEFENSE OF LIFE AND TERRITORY
    Bajo Lempa in resistance.

    Community Amando Lopez, April 21, 2013

EN EL DÍA INTERNACIONAL DE LA TIERRA – EL BAJO LEMPA EN RESISTENCIA: Más que una celebración, un grito de alerta e indignación.

Reunidos en la comunidad Amando López para conmemorar el Día Internacional de nuestra Madre Tierra, más de 1500 personas, entre líderes comunitarios, miembros de organizaciones de base, de grupos y movimientos sociales, declaramos que defendemos nuestro derecho constitucional a la vida.

La Madre Tierra sufre las consecuencias del capitalismo que ha depredado los recursos naturales y ocasionado graves problemas como la pérdida de  biodiversidad, la contaminación de los océanos, el agotamiento de fuentes de agua  y el cambio climático. Esta destrucción injustificada atenta principalmente contra las poblaciones empobrecidas incrementando su vulnerabilidad.

En lo local la principal amenaza es el afán de lucro de grandes empresas nacionales y trasnacionales que invaden y saquean los territorios sin importarles la dignidad de las comunidades, ni los derechos de la población que se ve afectada. El Bajo Lempa vive esta realidad producto de un megaproyecto turístico que ha iniciado con la concentración de tierras y la construcción de una carretera que cruza de norte a sur  la Península de San Juan del Gozo.

La Corporación Cuenta del Milenio (conocida en El Salvador como FOMILENIO), es un mecanismo para impulsar este tipo de megaproyectos. De aprobarse el segundo FOMILENIO, se realizarán grandes proyectos de turismo cuyo fin será la generación de ganancias y en ningún momento el bienestar de las comunidades.

Las consecuencias del segundo FOMILENIO, serán el incremento en la depredación y contaminación de los ecosistemas costeros del país; además el desalojo de comunidades campesinas que tradicionalmente han pertenecido a estos territorios, quienes han convivido y aprovechado sosteniblemente los recursos naturales.

Es de lamentar que este tipo de megaproyectos se hacen posibles porque los sectores interesados emplean estrategias que desarticulan el tejido social de las comunidades,  desaniman la lucha organizada y desalientan la esperanza.

Frente a este nuevo escenario hay dos caminos posibles para los habitantes del Bajo Lempa, uno tolerar el proceso de dominación y explotación irracional de la Madre Tierra,  ó plantearse una estrategia de resistencia, basada en la soberanía, la sustentabilidad y solidaridad con la naturaleza y las personas.

Por esta razón, organizaciones sociales y comunidades campesinas del Bajo Lempa, nos  comprometemos a trabajar para que se fortalezca la lucha reivindicativa de forma organizada, perseverante y valiente, que comprenderá lo siguiente:

  • Defender nuestro territorio, hasta las últimas consecuencias, de  aquellos intereses que amenacen con despojarnos de nuestros escasos bienes, principalmente la tierra.
  •  Impulsar y mantener una fuerte campaña de movilización para evitar la aprobación de la Ley de Asocios Público – Privados, por el riesgo de privatización de bienes como el agua y la salud.
  • Fortalecer los medios de vida autóctonos y rechazar el establecimiento de monocultivos, como la caña de azúcar.
  • Articular alianzas con grupos, organizaciones y movimientos sociales que rechazan el segundo FOMILENIO.
  • Desarrollar un proceso de Soberanía Alimentaria, con enfoque agroecológico que incluya la protección de nuestras semillas, la defensa de la tierra y la conservación de las fuentes de agua.
  • Impulsar procesos de sensibilización y difusión de información sobre el segundo FOMILENIO y megaproyectos de turismo, para incrementar el conocimiento sobre estos temas y mantener la resistencia.

POR LA DEFENSA DE LA VIDA Y EL TERRITORIO,

EL BAJO LEMPA EN RESISTENCIA.

Comunidad  Amando López, 21 de Abril de 2013.

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Environment

Earth Day and Climate Change in the Bajo Lempa

This weekend residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután are celebrating Earth Day in Amando Lopez. The events will focus on climate change and its extreme impacts on the communities, as well as the possible impacts of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and associated tourism projects. Voices posted a blog last week regarding the MCC in El Salvador, and another today about the effect of climate change. We will post more over the weekend about the Earth Day activities and future efforts in the fight to protect communities and the environment in the Bajo Lempa.

This article was written by Jose Acosta, Voices’ new field director, and first published in Contrapunto (El Bajo Lempa con Tenacidad y Esperanza), an online journal in El Salvador.

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The Bajo Lempa, with Tenacity and Hope

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says human actions are directly changing our global climate, and environmental changes will affect all people and ecosystems. The panel also shows that those who live below the poverty line will suffer the greatest impacts.

Residents of El Salvador have already felt the disastrous effects of climate change. The Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES, in Spanish) reports that the country’s average temperature has increased 1.2 degrees over the past 40 years. As a consequence, there has been an increase in the occurrence and strength of storms and hurricanes. A recent government study found that El Salvador has suffered five large-magnitude, climate-related events in just the past three years. These events resulted in 244 deaths and affected more than 500,000 people, 86,000 of which live in shelters. In addition, these events have caused considerable material damage. Three storms – hurricanes Ida and Agatha, and stropical storm 12-E – resulted in $1.3 billion in damage.

Poorer populations are even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and these storms exacerbate poverty by further reducing the ability of impoverished families to respond to crises. During and after disasters, households are forced to use or sell their few resources just to survive, limiting their long-term resilience and further diminishing their food security. Their way of life and capacity to cope with their poverty are weakened with each disaster, forcing many into chronic poverty. CESTA/Friends of the Earth demonstrated this cycle in a study carried out  in the communities of Amando Lopez and Comunidad Octavio Ortiz, located in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután.

The study reports that the main problem for communities in the Bajo Lempa is flooding. According to the Confederations of Federations for Agrarian Reform (CONFRAS) flooding is partly due to the mismanagement of the 15 of September dam located a few kilometers up the Lempa River. During Tropical Storm 12E (October 2011), the discharge from the dam reached 9,000 cubic meters per second, resulting in record flooding throughout the communities downstream from the dam. The CEL, the government institution that manages the dam, was supposed to send information about flow rates to the communities downstream to warn them when the Lempa River may rise. Unfortunately, the CEL did not communicate with the communities and the most extreme flooding happened with little warning.

Organizaitons in the Bajo Lempa, however, came together and formed the Inter-Institutional Roundtable, and issued a press release on November 11, 2011 stating, “We demand to know the CEL’s plan for managing the release of water from the dam and the environmental impact study in order to coordinate the agricultural production cycles and manage risks, and to prioritize life and the protection of the inhabitants of the communities.”

In addition to the flooding, the local population reports several other impacts of climate change, including higher temperatures, droughts, extinction of species, increase of disease, and salinzation of soil and water sources due to increased sea levels. The Association of the United Communities for Economic and Social Development of the Bajo Lempa (ACUDESBAL) declared that communities in the Bajo Lempa are strongly feeling the affects of climate change, and that it has increased food insecurity and made poverty worse.

These problems increase as the levels of consumption and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise. The IPCC says that if CO2 in the atmosphere reaches 450 ppm, average temperatures will rise 2 degrees. Such a rise in temperatures will cause catastrophic climate events.

For El Salvador projections indicate an increase in the temperature between 0.8 and 1.1 degrees by the year 2020. Some of the expected impacts in the Bjao Lempa are:

–       Public health problems

–       Shortage of potable water and species of plants and animals

–       Contamination of wells and salinization of bodies of water,

–       Degradation of agricultural lands and decrease in their productivity

–       Loss of domestic animals and livestock

–       Local drainage systems will fill with sediment and collapse

–       Failure of other existing flood prevention systems, among them roads, paths, and bridges

The affected communities are already taking steps to prevent these impacts before they happen. Concepción Martínez, a historic leader of Comunidad Octavio Ortiz, recently stated, “We believe that in confronting climate change, the only viable option is to fight for our survival.”

A resolution adopted by various communities states, “we meet under the heat in La Canoa (another name for Comunidad Octavio Ortiz), to analyze the impacts of climate change that we are experiencing in the form of floods and droughts, but also in the form of the voracity of the transnational businesses and governments that do not respect the cycles of life.

In this occasion we (communities in the Bajo Lempa) express:

“We commit to watch and demand that government policies confront climate change, and we demand they listen and include the opinions and proposals from the communities and civic organizations when forming these policies… to survive and maintain hope that another Bajo Lempa is possible.”

 

Advocacy, Public Health, Womens issues

Please Help to Save Beatriz’s Life – Sign on to the Amnesty International Letter

Amnesty International is asking people to sign on to a letter supporting Beatriz – a 22 year-old Salvadoran women who is 4 ½ months pregnant. Her doctors have diagnosed her with kidney disease and Lupis, and said the fetus doesn’t have a large part of its brain. Beatriz’s life is at risk if she does not terminate her pregnancy. The hospital treating Beatriz has asked the Ministry of Health for permission to provide Beatriz an abortion, but officials have ignored their request.

El Salvador has a constitutional ban against abortion, which has resulted in several serious issues for poor women throughout the country. There are too many cases in which doctors and police have accused Salvadoran women of trying to terminate their pregnancies when they were really having a miscarriage. There are many other cases in which women have died trying to terminate pregnancies that they didn’t want, either because they were raped or their impoverished situation made it impossible for them to care for another life.

To be clear – this is an issue that affects poor women. Salvadorans who need to terminate a pregnancy and have money can go to private doctors and have an abortion without the risk of being arrested. They also have access to information and contraception that is not readily available in public schools or health clinics.

Poor women who can’t pay for a private doctor and have to rely on state facilities do not have any options available to them, other than trying to terminate their pregnancy at home. On March 16, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held a hearing on the impacts of the strict abortion laws in El Salvador.

Unfortunately, abortions are sometimes necessary to save the life of the mother, as it the case with Beatriz.

Please help Beatriz by sending the letter to the Ministry of Health – here is a link to the Amnesty Letter. The letter and instructions are in Spanish – if you fill out the fields under the email, Amnesty will send you an email with the letter and email addresses. All you have to do is reply to the letter (make sure to delete the instructions, leaving the letter in the body of the email). If the email addresses don’t automatically fill in, you can cut and past them.

Thank you!

El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes

President Funes Visit to the U.S.

The president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, will be in Washington DC this week to meet with U.S. officials, business interests, and the International Development Bank (IDB). His agenda includes discussions about regional security issues, the gang truce and reduction of the murder-rate in El Salvador, as well as the temporary protective status (TPS) for Salvadorans. President Funes also said he would be meeting with business interests regarding the possibility of new investments in El Salvador.

Funes will meet with Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss, in part, security and the gang truce. Last month marked the one-year anniversary of the truce, which seems to have resulted in steep declines in the official homicide rate – the official murder rate in 2011 was 4,371 and in 2012 it dropped to 2,582. While gang leaders credit the reduction in homicides to their commitment in transitioning to a more peaceful society, the Salvadoran government has attributed the decrease to improvements in their security efforts. Funes will also meet with officials from the IDP and participate in a meeting on regional security issues.

Discussions with US officials about temporary protective status (TPS) for Salvadorans in the US are timely, as the US Congress is trying to pass comprehensive immigration reform. TPS allows many Salvadorans to live and work in the U.S., but they have limited rights and no clear path to residency or citizenship. Immigration reform is an opportunity to create mechanisms for Salvadorans to convert their TPS to a more permanent status, which will afford them more rights.

On Thursday, President Funes will meet with business interests that have “an important announcement about a multi-million dollar investment that they want to make in El Salvador.” Salvadoran officials said the meeting would be with “businesses that are willing to make important investments in the area of new technology.” The announcement comes during a time when the U.S. is encouraging the Salvadoran Legislature to pass a Law on Public-Private Partnerships (P3 Law) as a prerequisite to signing a second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact. The P3 Law and the MCC are fairly controversial issues in El Salvador. While Funes is in favor of both, there is disagreement in his party over support of these new initiatives.

This trip is an opportunity for President Funes to convince U.S. officials that his administration is making the kind of progress (lower murder rates and more foreign investment) and reforms (P3 Law) they want before approving more aid or giving the Salvadoran Diaspora more rights.

agriculture, Economy, El Salvador Government, Environment, Mining, U.S. Relations

The Debate Over Public-Private Partnership Law and MCC Funding in El Salvador

Last week Pacific Rim Mining Company announced it is seeking $315 million dollars in damages from El Salvador. It was a stark reminder that the 8-year old mining debate, which included several years of threats and violence between mining supporters and opponents, has yet to been resolved and could still result in a devastating economic blow to El Salvador.

As the mining issue continues, another debate with the potential to become just as volatile is brewing. In March the Funes Administration provided some details about its proposal for a second round of funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a US aid program started by President Bush in 2004. The proposal is worth $413 million dollars, half of which will likely go towards an infrastructure project like improving the Litoral Highway that runs along El Salvador’s southern coast. The other half is likely to help finance public-private partnerships and improve human capital, which seems to mean education.

As details of the proposal emerge, opposition to a second round of MCC funding is growing. So far, opposition has opened on two fronts. The Salvadoran labor movement has been the most outspoken opponent, denouncing the proposed Law on Public Private Partnerships (P3 Law) since last year. Environmentalists and communities in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután have been less outspoken, but oppose the MCC proposal because the public-private partnerships will support tourism, which they strongly oppose. In 2011, members of the anti-mining movement also spoke out against the P3 Law fearing it would result in mining activities.

Mangrove Forests near La Tirana, a community targeted for a large tourism project
Mangrove Forests near La Tirana, a community targeted for a large tourism project

Because politicians within the FMLN are supporting the MCC, the politics of opposing the P3 Law and tourism are a little more complicated than opposition to mining was. Other than a protest outside the US Embassy in March and other small activities organized by the labor movement, opposition has remained largely behind closed doors, which may change soon.

            The Public Private Partnership Law

US Ambassador Maria Carmen Aponte said in October 2012 that approval of a second round of MCC funds relies on the passage of the P3 Law. The labor movement and their international supporters, argue that the P3 Law will privatize government operations including the airport, seaports, health care facilities, and other important services. They fear it will result in the loss of thousands of jobs, increasing the country’s already high rates of unemployment and driving wages down even further.

The labor movement and other opponents also do not want the private sector to control important resources and services like water, education, and health controlled. For example, Salvadoran civil society has fought against privatization of water for many years, making it such a toxic issue that politicians are unable to advocate for it publicly. Just like the government has not been able to privatize water, civil society organizations have not been able to pass a water law they have been promoting for over 8 years. Among other things, the law would protect water resources from privatization. Similarly, in 2002 then President Francisco Flores tried to privatize part of the health care system, but health care workers and many others took to the streets and forced the government to back off. Opponents of the P3 law fear it will make it easier for the government to accomplish what it has failed to do in the past – privatizing water and health care.

Supporters of the P3 Law, including President Funes, counter that public-private partnerships are not privatization, and the government will not privatize any important services, like health and education. They argue, instead, that public-private partnerships will result in more foreign direct investments, injecting capital into services and industries that are lagging behind.

The labor movement and other activists fear, however, that while not called privatization, the P3s are a way to accomplish the same goals. Concessions could last as long as 40 years, which means the state is essentially relinquishing control of an asset. Similarly, while capital investments are needed, the P3 Law will allow private, international investors to generate profits from basic services in El Salvador and take the profits overseas instead of re-investing in El Salvador.

Public-private partnerships are not new in El Salvador – they government has contracted out many operations to private companies over the years. One regular criticism is that these relationships prioritize profits over the well being of Salvadorans. For example, in the aftermath of the October 2011 floods, communities and organizations in the Lower Lempa blamed the CEL for washing them out. The CEL is the state-owned agency that manages the dam, generating electricity that private power companies sell for profit. The more electricity produced, the more money the companies make. In the months after the 2011 floods CEL representatives responded frankly, stating they operate the dams to make electricity and generate profits, not protect the people downstream.

FESPAD and Voices on the Borders 2012 legal interns recently published a full analysis of the P3 Law.

Tourism and other Investments

One of the public-private partnerships being proposed in the second MCC compact is tourismhotels and resorts being built along El Salvador’s Pacific coast. In December the government solicited proposals from the private sector and received 49 responses, 27 of which are tourism projects in Usulután, La Paz, and La Libertad.

Tourism is not inherently bad, but communities in the Lower Lempa of Usulután fear that building hotels and resorts in and around their important and fragile ecosystems will cause irreparable harm. One Lower Lempa community targeted for a tourism project is La Tirana, an isolated and economically poor community located at the edge of one of the most pristine mangrove forest in Central America. In addition to its immense natural beauty, the forest supports thousands of species of flora and fauna. The nearby beaches are protected as a nesting ground for several species of endangered sea turtles. Residents of La Tirana fear tourists would damage the fragile mangroves with construction of houses and resorts, jet skis and motorboats, and solid waste and sewage, while displacing local residents and their farms.

Proponents of tourism argue that resorts and hotels in places like Tirana would provide jobs and spur the local economy. They believe this to be especially important in communities, such as those in the Lower Lempa, that have had their agricultural economy diminished by free trade. But locals doubt resorts will help the local economy. They know that hotels are much more likely to hire bilingual youth from San Salvador who have degrees in hotel management than poor campesinos who barely have a sixth grade education.

Voices staff recently met with community members in La Tirana, and they are very much against outside investors building resorts in their region. Recognizing that they live in a special place, the community board is proposing that the community build a series of small, humble cabanas that would have a small ecological footprint, but provide comfortable housing for a small number of guests. They are also proposing that the community build a small community kitchen that could feed guests. The community wants to develop its own small eco-tourism industry that it can regulate and ensure does not harm the forest or turtle nesting ground. It would also mean that the money from tourism would benefit the community, and not just make wealthy investors in San Salvador or abroad even richer.

Other communities in the region are even more vulnerable than La Tirana. In El Chile and other small communities, many residents still do not have title to their land. They fear that if a private investor wants to build a hotel or resort the State could take their land and they would have no legal recourse.

Our staff also met with other communities in the Lower Lempa – Comunidad Octavio Ortiz, Amando Lopez, Nueva Esperanza – and several local organizations. They are also completely opposed to tourism projects in the region. They fear that hotels and resorts will further destroy agricultural land, use up limited water resources, and destroy local culture. The community of Octavio Ortiz even wrote in their strategic plan that they see tourism as a large threat to farming and their peaceful way of life.

While most of the public-private partnership proposals involve tourism, there are quite a few agricultural projects. According to PRESA, the government agency managing the project proposals, they received 14 requests to support production of exports in dairy, mangoes, limes, and honey. In order to be considered for a public-private partnership, investors have to have $100,000 in capital and be producing export crops. The capital requirement means local farmers will not be able to participate. And the requirement that products be grown for export means even more land will be dedicated to products that do not contribute to food sovereignty, which is a top priority for the region.

There are also civil society leaders and academics in El Salvador who oppose the MCC because they see it as the latest phase in implementing a neoliberal economic agenda in their country. They hold it in the same regard as the privatization of state assets (1990s), dollarization (1995-2001), Central American Free Trade Agreement (2006), the first MCC compact (2007-2012), and Partnership for Growth (2011). Similarly, Gilberto Garcia from Center for Labor Studies (CEAL, in Spanish) believes the

highway projects, including the northern highway funded by the first MCC compact and the Litoral Highway project planned for the second compact, are part of an effort to build a land bridge in Guatemala. The “Inter-Oceanic Corridor” will connect ports on the Pacific coasts of Guatemala and El Salvador with Caribbean or Atlantic ports in Guatemala. ODEPAL is managing the project in what they call a public-private partnership. The land bridge is located in Guatemala, but it is right on the borders with El Salvador and Honduras, giving both countries easy access.

Politics of Opposing the MCC and P3 Law

Building a strong national movement around opposition to the second MCC compact and the P3 Law may be more difficult than organizing Salvadorans against mining. While the anti-mining movement was able to reduce the debate to a single issue that all Salvadorans could understand – i.e. gold mining will destroy water resources for 60% of the country – most people believe that tourism, better highways, and other capital investments are always good. Similarly, the P3 Law is fairly abstract and difficult to reduce into a simple message that the majority of Salvadorans can relate to their everyday lives.

The politics around the MCC and P3 Law will make it more difficult to achieve the kind of nation-wide opposition that the anti-mining movement was able to garner. During the mining debate, the FMLN (leftist political party) was the opposition party and had the political freedom to take an anti-mining position. The FMLN is now in power and has to consider the economic and political interests that helped them get there. President Funes and FMLN presidential candidate Sanchez Cerén support the P3 Law and MCC compact, arguing the investments will be good for the economy. According to anonymous sources, many of the same business interests that helped Mauricio Funes with the 2009 presidential elections will benefit from the P3 Law and MCC funds. FMLN legislators have been a slower to sign on to the P3 Law. At times FMLN legislators have said it was not their top priority, and more recently they have tried to negotiate amendments to exclude certain sectors such as health and education from public-private partnerships. Officials from the conservative ARENA party have accused the FMLN legislators of not supporting the law because they want to implement a socialist economy agenda.

But the civil society organizations, communities, and labor unions that are opposed to the P3 Law and the MCC funding generally make up much of the FMLN’s base. If Sanchez Cerén and his supporters continue to embrace the P3 law and the MCC funding, while many in their base protest against it, it could exacerbate an existing split within the party in the months leading up to the February 2014 presidential elections. Many former FMLN militants and supporters, especially in the Lower Lempa, already believe the movement they once fought for no longer represents their interests and values.

Though the US and Salvadoran governments want to pass the P3 Law and sign the MCC compact before the elections, many opponents are gearing up for a long struggle. Even if the P3 Law passes, when the government wants to enter into a public-private partnership the Legislative Assembly will have to approve it. They are likely to face great scrutiny and opposition. Similarly, developers wanting to break ground on tourism projects in La Tirana and other communities are likely to face some rather significant legal and social barriers – much like Pacific Rim faced in Cabañas.

violence, Voices Developments

Salvadoran Youth: Gangs and Immigration are only Part of the Story

Media coverage about youth in El Salvador often presents a pretty bleak picture. Youth, especially males, are portrayed as either belonging to the gangs alleged to be responsible for the country’s violence and insecurity, or as migrants leaving in droves for the United States.

Right now the media in El Salvador is focusing heavily on the gang truce and the assassination of Giovanni Morales, a 33 year-old rehabilitated gang member who worked with Padre Toño in Mejicanos, a Spanish priest who has been working with youth involved in gangs. Media has also been talking a lot about the growing link between MS-13 and the Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel.

These are very important issues that affect all Salvadorans, but focusing only on the violence or immigration presents a very skewed reality of Salvadoran youth.

According to the CIA Factbook, there are 1.27 million youth in El Salvador between the ages of 15 and 24, and there are approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Salvadoran gang members. Even if all those involved in gangs fall between the ages of 15 and 24, they would still only account for between 1.2 and 1.6% of that demographic.Similarly, if El Salvador’s net rate of migration (-8.78 migrants/1,000 population) holds for those between the ages of 15-24, a total of 11,150 youth would have left the country in 2012. If these numbers are considered accurate, there are approximately 1.24 million youth who are neither involved in gangs nor migrating.

That does not mean that gangs and migration are not issues for these 1.24 million youth. It means that a lot of youth are making the most of being in El Salvador and finding more productive ways to channel their energy and talent.

For instance, in Northern Morazán, where Voices on the Border has worked since 1987, there is network of well-organized youth groups that are trying hard to improve conditions in their communities.

These groups, which are all non-profit and not affiliated with any political party, are comprised of youth between the ages of 13 and 30, with an equal ratio of male and female members. Most of the youth come from families with extremely limited economic resources, yet they share many commonalities with their peer age group from around the world. When possible, they like to attend school, play soccer, and hang out at the cyber (internet) café where they check Facebook and chat with friends. Most aspire to find work that will allow them to stay in their own communities. Some want to be artists, others want to be psychologists or doctors, and a few want to maintain their ancestral ties by farming like their parents and grandparents.

Jose, a member of OSMIJ discussing the significance of the colors in the Kakawira flag
Jose, a member of OSMIJ discussing the significance of the colors in the Kakawira flag

In Cacaopera, a rural indigenous community in the mountains of Morazán, youth formed the Youth Mission Social Organizations (OSMIJ, in Spanish). The 40 members of OSMIJ strive for integration and development within Cacaopera through community service. They are engaged in a variety of activities related to local, economic, social, and political issues. Last month, for example, the OSMIJ held a workshop for all youth in Morazán to discuss their rights under the Salvadoran Law on Youth. In February they also set up an obstacle course in Cacaopera and held a well-attended community race, providing an opportunity for all ages to have well-deserved fun.

Members of OSMIJ recently gave Voices and a delegation from Georgetown University a tour of the community and a local indigenous museum. A 13 year-old member of OSMIJ named Ah tzict Amaya Martinez was our guide through the museum. With the confidence and knowledge of someone three times his age, Ah tzict spoke in depth about the community’s indigenous history, culture, and religious traditions.  His knowledge of the native, and virtually extinct, language, Kakawira, was a testament to his dedication and intimate connection to his heritage. Many other youth in OSMIJ share his passion and commitment.

In Ciudad Segundo Montes, also in Northern Morazán, youth have formed the Open House of Segundo Montes (OSCA, in Spanish) to promote youth leadership, development, sports, and culture. They offer a wide variety of workshops and trainings on an array of topics that impact local youth. During the municipal elections in 2012, OSCA hosted a series of debates between the mayoral candidates in Cacaopera, Jocoaitique, and Meanguera. The debates were well attended and offered an opportunity for youth to voice their priorities and concerns.

Sulma, a member of OSCA, during a planning workshop
Sulma, a member of OSCA, during a planning workshop

OSMIJ and OSCA both operate with almost no financial support from outside their community. They raise a little money from local organizations and residents, and often reach into their own often-empty pockets to fund activities. The lack of money has never prevented either organization from having a clear vision of what they want for their community and organizing activities to achieve that vision. In just a few years OSMIJ has become an important player in Cacaopera’s development.

These are just two of the many strong youth groups in Morazán, which is one of the poorest of El Salvador’s 14 departments and one of the most affected by the civil war. The region’s residents struggle with immigration, machismo, and many other issues, but the members of OSMIJ, OSCA, and other organizations are an inspiring example of how some Salvadoran youth are responding to their economic and social conditions.

It is important to understand and discuss gang violence and immigration in El Salvador – they are very serious issues. But these issues should not define all Salvadoran youth or overshadow the important role that groups like OSMIJ and OSCA play in their communities.

We at Voices on the Border have partnered with members of OSCA, OSMIJ, and other groups in Morazán on a number of activities in recent years, and have several activities planned for the coming year. If you’d like to support or be involved in these activities, please contact us at voices@votb.org.

Equality, Womens issues

International Women’s Day in Morazán – More of a Rally than a Celebration

This week Voices on the Border has been hosting a delegation from Georgetown University, a group of students getting their Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution. They are exploring issues of conflict and peace in the country, beginning with several meetings in San Salvador to get a general overview of issues at the national levels, followed by several days in the mountains of Morazán, where Voices has worked since 1987.

DSCF0154
2013 Celebration of International Women’s Day at the Temple in San Luis

 

Yesterday the delegation attended a Celebration for International Women’s Day at the Temple in San Luis in Community Segundo Montes, where a few hundred women gathered to discuss issues that impact their every day lives. Even before the delegates arrived in Morazán, gender issues came up in several of our meetings in the Capital. At CONFRAS (Confederación de Federaciones de la Reforma Agraria Salvadoreña), we learned that only 1% of Salvadoran women own land! Maria Silvia Guillén, the Director of FESPAD (Foundation for the Study of Application of Law) told us of a recent case in which a woman who worked at the Legislative Assembly filed a sexual harassment case against her boss, only to be arrested for defamation. We also heard horror stories of pregnant women going to the hospital with a miscarriage, only to be arrested for supposedly trying to terminate their pregnancy. Several women have been sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. During our meetings we heard of several law reform efforts in 2012 to improve conditions for women, but few passed the Legislative Assembly, which is still controlled by men.

The celebration held at the Temple of Martyrs and Heroes in San Luis was as much a rally and call to action as it was a celebration. During the event we spoke with Father Miguel Ventura, who has been working in the region since the early 1970s. He told us that while Morazán doesn’t suffer the high rates of femicide that other regions have, they do have the highest rates of domestic violence in El Salvador. The number of men who attended the event at the Temple, approximately 5, is evidence of the persistence machismo culture. We were told that if men attended the event their male friends would ridicule them.

Speakers at the event stressed the need for women in the region to continue fighting for equality, stressing greater awareness of rights and the need to report domestic violence. While highlighting some of the successes over the years, they said that women had to keep fighting.

Traditionally men give women flowers. Perhaps next year the best gift that Salvadoran women could get would be reduction in the rates of domestic violence, femicide, and inequality.

2014 Elections, U.S. Relations, violence

USAID and SolucionES to Invest $42 Million in Gang Prevention Programs

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it will contribute $20 million to SolucionES, a public-private partnership led by the Foundation of Businesses for Economic Development (FEPADE, in Spanish). The program’s goal is to decrease youth violence and crime in El Salvador.

The program, which was first reported by the Miami Herald and elsalvador.com, will begin this month with a focus on youth development and in 50 communities across five municipalities. SolucionES has identified San Martin and Cuidad Arce as the first two municipalities where they will start.

The program will last five years and an alliance of Salvadoran businesses and non-governmental organizations will match the USAID funds with $22 million they will raise from “foundations, businesses, municipalities, and civil society.”

A USAID press release announcing the project focused as much on the funding and organizations involved as the projects themselves. It describes SolucionES as a new and innovative focus on prevention of youth crime and violence in Salvadoran communities through a partnership between the private organizations and municipal governments.

The Alliance of NGOs includes the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE, in Spanish), the Salvadoran Foundation for Health and Development (FUSAL, in Spanish), Glasswing International, the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES, in Spanish), and FEPADE. All five organizations have strong ties to the Salvadoran business community and the right-wing ARENA party.

The Alliance will work alongside local government to provide workshops on prevention of violence, youth leadership, entrepreneurship training, and extracurricular clubs. The program will also work with businesses on violence prevention programs for their employees, and finance studies that will inform policy makers on effective strategies for crime prevention.

The USAID contribution is part of the Partnership for Growth initiative that has identified security (i.e. crime and violence) as one of the two main barriers to economic growth. The other barrier identified is low production of tradable goods.

Partnership for Growth and SolucionES are not the only ones to link economic growth to security issues. Last year, leaders of El Salvador’s gangs signed a truce to reduce violence. In doing so, they said that economic disparities and lack of jobs are main factors that drive youth to gangs in the first place. In order for the truce to hold, gang leaders called for support programs by the government for ex-gang members.

In an interview published yesterday in La Pagina, Viejo Lin, the leader of the Mara 18, said, “if we want our brothers to stop robbing and extorting, you have to create the right conditions.  The conditions that permit them to get dignified jobs.” Later in the interview he says, “our companions are not asking for thousands of dollars a month, they ask for a job that lets them work based on their strengths. It’s a right.”

USAID and SolucionES are steering clear of rehabilitation of gang members, focusing entirely on prevention – keeping youth from joining gangs.

A statement made by Haydée Díaz, the Director of the Strengthening Education Program for USAID said that “this initiative [SolucionES] is not related to the truce between the gangs, and the objective is not to eradicate the gang problem, but to prevent it.” Voices staff spoke with a USAID official who said the same thing – this is not about working with gang members, it is about preventing violence among youth not already involved in gangs.

Prevention is certainly important and a $42 million investment in youth, depending how the programs are implemented, can yield real benefits. It seems shortsighted, however, to believe that a prevention-only program will dramatically decrease rates of crime and violence in El Salvador. There will still be roughly 50,000 gang members in El Salvador who are marginalized and unable to participate in the formal economy, which will leave them few options other than crime and violence.

Gang prevention projects are pretty safe. All involved can feel good about investing in youth and sho that they are committed to helping El Salvador. Businesses look good for giving back to the communities. NGOs and their benefactors look like good, productive citizens. Politicians get to say they are taking action without worrying about looking like they are giving into the gangs. And USAID gets to report back to the American taxpayers that their money is being used to address one of the two barriers to economic development in El Salvador.

With less than a year before the 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador, these appearances matter. But we’ll see if prevention-only will actually improve the security situation.

El Salvador Government

Salvadoran Legislature Reforms the Law on Access to Public Information

At 2:30 in the morning last Friday, the Salvadoran Legislature approved reforms to the Law on Public Access to Information (LAIP). Civil society representatives have reacted by calling the changes unconstitutional and a violation of basic human rights. The reforms take out any teeth the LAIP had to force government agencies to provide information requested. President Funes said he will take his time to review the provisions and decide whether to sign Friday’s bill into law or veto it.

A block of 46 representatives from the FMLN, GANA, and PCN parties voted for the reforms, while 29 representatives from the ARENA, CD, PDC, and 4 other independents voted against them.

Norman Guevara, one of the FMLN representatives who voted for the reforms, said the Legislative Assembly hadn’t approved the Bible when they created the Law [on Access to Public Information] and that it could be reformed. Monday an FMLN spokesman said that they were open to reviewing the reforms and that their only obligation is to transparency.

The Legislative Assembly passed the LAIP in 2011 with 55 votes after civil society organizations, led by Grupo Promotor de LAIP, advocated for years for greater transparency and the right to access public information. The LAIP covers most aspects of information management by government agencies – classification of information, release of information, and promoting a culture of transparency. The LAIP also creates an administrative infrastructure to facilitate citizen access to public information.

Friday’s reforms weaken the LAIP in many ways, according to Grupo Promotor. The Institute charged with implementing the LAIP no longer has the authority to resolve conflicts over what information should or should not be restricted – they can only make recommendations that government agencies can ignore.  The reforms also remove the sanctions that were to be imposed if a government agency withheld information. These reforms mean that the Institute will no longer be able to implement the law and guarantee free access of public information.

Over the weekend, Grupo Promotor said the reforms give government entities the privilege of secrecy and silence.

An article posted by La Prensa Grafica hints at a possible back-story behind the reforms. FUNDE, an organization that belongs to Grupo Promotor and has supported the LAIP, recently requested information from the Legislative Assembly about their costs related to Christmas gifts. They also requested information related to how much art the Legislative Assembly had purchased. The Legislature denied the request pertaining to the Christmas gifts and they said that a list of works of art purchased did not exist. The La Prensa Grafica article seems to indicate that the reforms were in response to FUNDE’s requests and that perhaps the FMLN was trying to hide information regarding these expenditures.

Yesterday, Voices spoke with Cristina, an environmentalists who researches and writes investigative reports about issues that affect the Lower Lempa. She told Voices that the LAIP and its implementation have been a success. As an example, she told us that for two years she tried to obtain the National Program for the Reduction of Risks. Government agencies, including the Ministry of the Environment, which she says is the most secretive, never provided her access to the document. Once the LAIP was passed she consulted with the information officials and received everything she needed.

Cristina said, “with regard to investigations, the LAIP has allowed me access to detailed information about industrial and artisan fishing, shrimping, trawlers operating along the coast, mining concessions and licenses, protocols for hydro-electric dam discharges, lists of properties greater than 100 manzanas, and more.”

Since Friday, many civil society representatives have responded to news of the reforms. The Ombudsman for Human Rights, Oscar Luna, said, “as public officials we are obliged to be transparent in our work. The reforms should not be able to affect the right to information that all citizens have.”

The Archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor José Luis Escobar said, “the reforms are a violation of the Constitution of the Republic and the freedom of information.” He added, “I have heard that President [Funes] is going to study the issue, and is reflecting on it, and I as the President not to sanction these reforms and that the law should remain as it is, and that the diputados also reconsider their position.”

Javier Castro, who is the director of legal studies of FUSADES and a representative of the Grupo Promotor, said that group is thinking about legal actions. “We are already evaluating… the resources that we will be able to use at the moment. What we are clear about is that there is a clear violation of the constitution, and that a claim for unconstitutionality is viable.

If Funes signs these reforms into law, it will become much more difficult for activists like Cristina and communities like our partners in the Lower Lempa of Usulután and the mountains of Morazán to access information about the issues that affect them.

The reforms of the LAIP seem to be on par with the constitutional crises that El Salvador has experienced over the past couple years.Democracy is not always easy and sometimes those in power do not like the inconveniences of being transparent or not having control of courts. But it is promising to see civil society stand up to politicians and demand they do the right thing. As Funes reviews the reforms, he will surely consider the outcry from Salvadorans calling for him to veto the bill. And if for some reason he signs the bill into law, Grupo Promotor or other activists like Cristina will have recourse in the Constitutional Court. El Salvador faces a lot of complicated issues – drug trafficking, gangs, economic disparity, and so on. But each time Salvadorans go through one of these democratic growing pains, they come out stronger and better equipped to take on their more complicated problems.

Not to downplay the seriousness of this issue. Salvadorans have worked hard to secure the right to access public information and have a greater voices in their government, and they have the right to be outraged. But this is also an opportunity to solidify the country’s demand for and participation in a transparent and open government.

Voices will be following this story over the coming days/weeks so stay tuned. If you speak Spanish and are on Facebook, Grupo Promotor has a very informative page that we follow.

News Highlights

U.S. Federal Judge Considers Testimony of War Crimes in Immigration Case Against Col. Montano

Col. Montano
Col. Montano

This week, El Faro posted an article about Col. Orlando Montano who is being sentenced in a U.S. Federal Court in Massachusetts on immigration fraud and perjury. The court could sentence Montano to more than 40 years in prison and a million dollars in fines. He could also be deported back to El Salvador and possibly extradited to Spain, where a court indicted him and 19 others, for their role in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter.

Before the sentencing phase got underway, the federal judge hearing the case agreed to consider Montano’s alleged war crimes before sentencing him on the immigration fraud charges. The Daily journal quoted the judge, “my view is that, if proved, the allegations concerning Mr. Montano’s acts with the military are matters that would cause me to consider upward departure or variance,” meaning that he would consider an even greater sentence.

In January, prosecutors submitted a report from Stanford Professor Terry Karl that provides details about Montano’s military career, including his involvement in over 1,000 human rights abuses. Professor Karl is an expert witness in the case against the 20 defendants in the Spanish Court and has documented many of the war crimes that took place during the war.

Montano’s attorneys argue that by asking the judge to consider a more severe sentence, prosecutors violated the terms of the plea agreement the defendant signed in September 2012. Montano is due back in court sometime in March 2013.

Photo credit: AP
Photo credit: AP

Montano has been living in the United States since 2001 and worked as a human resource administrator for a candy factory in Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), which filed the case against Montano and 19 others in the Spanish court, reports that Montano lied about his past military service and weapons training on his Temporary Protective Status (TPS) immigration form. He also lied about his date of entry into the U.S. in order to qualify for the TPS program. He was arrested on August 23, 2011 and indicted in February 2012. He plead guilty to six counts of federal criminal immigration fraud and perjury on September 11, 2012.

The Spanish Court names Montano, who was Vice Minister of Defense of Public Security, as one of the four top commanders of the Salvadoran Military in November 1989, when soldiers massacred the Jesuit priests. Following their in-absentia indictment in 2011, the court issued formal extradition requests for Montano and the 19 others.

In her report submitted to the Federal Court, Professor Karl testified that Montano had a 30-year military career, contrary to the information he gave on his TPS forms, and that he was involved in numerous human rights abuses. The Daily Journal article quotes Montano’s attorney as admitting that Professor Karl’s report paints him “as a war criminal of epic proportions.”

El Faro quotes a summary of the allegations detailed in Professor Karl’s report. She wrote, “during his 30-year military career, Coronel Montano ordered, incited, and assisted or commanded troops that participated in a strategy of terror by the State against civilians. This included: extra-judicial executions, torture, disappearances and arbitrary detentions, rural massacres of non-combatant civilians, forced disappearance of children, and the permitting of death squads led by the military and that operated within units under his command.”

The report also linked Montano to 65 summary executions, 51 forced disappearances, 520 cases of torture, and 533 arbitrary detentions. Professor Karl’s testimony includes the names of the victims, the dates of the human rights abuse, the place and battalion or unit involved.

More than 20 years after the Peace Accords were signed, Salvadorans continue the process of healing from twelve years of civil war and decades of oppression and human rights abuses. The country’s Amnesty Law has stymied this process by forcing victims and human rights activists to seek justice outside of their own legal system. While leaders within the right-wing ARENA party, which was in power in 1989 when the Jesuit priests were killed, has condemned the Spanish indictments for dredging up painful memories, it is important for that criminals be brought to justice, even if it’s in a courtroom in Boston or Madrid.