Advocacy, annual report, education, Environment, Food Security, News Highlights, Voices Developments, Womens issues, Youth Development

Celebrating 30 years of Solidarity with the People of El Salvador – 2016 Annual Report

2016 was a dynamic year for Voices. We said goodbye to old friends and opened the door to new ones. We began an extensive education revitalization project in Bajo Lempa, started supporting women’s empowerment in Morazán and even joined in on environmental justice protests in the capital San Salvador.

This year is even more special because we turn 30! Since our inception in the refugee camps until now, we have never deserted our communities and are committed to being a critical source of support for them now, and in the future.


Read our report to find out what our partners have been up to, the large scales issues they are facing and how Voices has been working hard in collaboration with leaders to find solutions to issues and pathways to accomplishing goals.

Environment, Uncategorized

MARN Weak in Wake of Molasses Spill

DSC_0723Last week the Magdalena Sugar Mill in Santa Ana spilled 900,00 gallons of hot molasses into the Magdalena River, causing an environmental disaster. The spill is a reminder of how impotent the Ministry of the Environment is in protecting El Salvador’s natural resources.

In August 2015, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Ministry of the Environment cannot to impose fines against persons or corporations that violate environmental laws. The Environmental Court can find someone guilty of polluting, engaging in harmful activities without an environmental permit, or any other violation, but they cannot impose a fine.

The problem is Article 89 of the Environmental Law. When the Environmental Court finds someone guilty of violating the law, Article 89 says the Ministry should impose fines based on the daily salary for urban workers in San Salvador. Day fines are a common tool in Latin American countries for measuring appropriate penalties. If a person or business cuts down a forest without permission, or spills molasses into a river, the court can (in theory) fine them the equivalent of 2-100 or 101-5,000 days salary depending on the severity of the crime. The dollar amount of the day salary is based on the minimum wage for urban workers in San Salvador. Unfortunately, the minimum wage decree does not have a category for urban workers in San Salvador, therefore the Constitutional Court said the Ministry cannot levee any fines.

Following the molasses spill, the Environmental court ordered the Magdalena Mill to issue a public apology by taking an ad out in El Salvador’s two largest newspapers. They also have to come up with a cleanup plan. But the Ministry cannot impose a fine or otherwise punish the Mill. Their only real loss is the revenue that selling 900,000 gallons of molasses would have brought in had they not spilled it. At $150/ton, that would be a $789,500 loss. That is definitely a hit to the Mill, but it is not punitive nor does it compensate locals or the State for the damage to an important common resource and the clean up. El Salvador is in water crisis and damage to a river like the Magdalena is more serious than ever, especially to the 450 families that depend on it for their survival.

In December 2015 and again this week Environmental Minister Lina Pohl asked the Legislative Assembly to fix Article 89 so the Ministry can levee fines. It seems like this would be an easy one – they just need to change a couple words so that fines are based on an actual minimum wage or some other measure.

Unfortunately, the Legislative Assembly has a bad record on doing the right thing when it comes to the environment, food, and water. The current arrangement is ideal for powerful business interests – there is an environmental law but no real consequences for ignoring it. They can skip environmental permitting processes and pollute with impunity. These businesses have a lot of influence over the Legislature and are likely to oppose any effort to change Article 89, just as they have opposed the General Law on Water proposed in 2005 and efforts to amend the Constitution to recognize food sovereignty and access to water as basic human rights.

Residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután have seen the Ministry’s impotence in action (or inaction). In trying to stop sugarcane growers from planting crops near mangrove forests, community leaders asked Ministry officials to stop the project, arguing that the project did not have an environmental permit. The Ministry told the communities that they could only ask the growers to go through the permitting process but could not do anything to stop them.

The Ministry of the Environment is good at writing reports and declaring states of emergency, but their mandate is so much more than that. The Ministry is tasked with ensuring that Salvadorans enjoy their Constitutional right to a clean, healthy environment. The reports and states of emergency detail just how badly the Ministry has failed over the years.

This has to change if El Salvador is going to address the water crisis and other pending disasters. The Legislature must reform Article 89 to give the Ministry some teeth, but then the Ministry has to use those teeth to go after poluuters. Similarly, the Legislature has to pass the General Water Law as drafted by civil society organizations in 2005, and finally recognize that all Salvadorans have the right to food sovereignty and access to water.

El Salvador Government, Environment

The Legislative Assembly’s Environmental Debt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advocacy, Tourism

Urgent Appeal! Help Protect the Bay of Jiquilisco and Bajo Lempa!

Communities in the Jiquilisco Bay and Bajo Lempa region of Usulután need your help protecting their invaluable, irreplaceable coastal environment and agrarian way of life. Developers are planning to build resorts, golf courses, and shopping centers in the region, and our local partners fear it will destroy their agricultural land, mangrove forests and the other ecosystems upon which they depend.

A small town nestled into the mangrove forests, but threatened by tourism projects targeted for the region
A small town nestled into the mangrove forests, but threatened by tourism projects targeted for the region

We at Voices need to raise $7,600 by August 2nd so we can help our partners develop a legal and political strategy to protect their land, launch a national advocacy campaign, and organize a small, eco-tourism alternative.

Plan for Large-Scale Tourism – Developers are planning large-scale tourism projects for the Jiquilisco Bay and Bajo Lempa region of Usulután. With support from the Salvadoran government they recently completed Phase One – building a highway out the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and purchasing large tracts of land. They are now preparing to begin Phase Two – construction. The government is again supporting them by proposing that the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation provide financing. Yes, the Salvadoran government wants to give U.S. tax dollars to well-financed developers to build high-end resorts.

Protecting the Local Environment – Communities in the region have simple goals – food security and environmental sustainability. They celebrate their peaceful agrarian lifestyle and would rather have productive farmland and healthy environment than tourism. The government claims tourism will provide jobs and economic opportunities, but our partners want to farm, not clean bathrooms. They want healthy a healthy bay and mangrove forests, not manicured golf courses and jet skis. Government officials say they will require developers to meet “minimal environmental standards” but El Salvador lacks a positive record of enforcing its laws.

Please Help Protect the Region’s Environment and Agrarian Culture! – Our partners ask that we help them 1) organize a legal and political strategy, 2) fund a national advocacy campaign, and 3) support a small eco-tourism alternative.  But we simlply can’t do it without your help. Time is short and we need to raise $7,600 by Friday, August 2nd.  Help our partners’ VOICES be heard by making a generous donation today!


P.S. Lara Whyte recently published a piece in the Digital Journal about La Tirana and the Tourism threat. Als0, Justine Davidson, one our of Osgoode Hall Law School summer interns wrote an informative article on the Peninsula and the tourism issue.

Here is an overview of the projects/activities we need funding for:


Workshops to Develop Legal and Political Strategy



Voices’ volunteers and staff are helping our local partners develop a legal and political strategy to defend their land and way of life. By July 15th our partners will be ready to present their proposed strategy to their communities, and solicit their input and cooperation. They want to hold open meetings in key communities like Zamorano, La Tirana, El Chile, and Isla de Mendez. Our local partners will then host a weekend conference with 20 community leaders to organize a national advocacy campaign. Each of the open community meetings will cost $400 in transportation, printing, and refreshments. The weekend retreat will cost $1,000 in lodging, transportation, food, and printing.



National Advocacy Campaign



In August, after the workshops and weekend conference, our local partners will be ready to launch their National Advocacy Campaign. Organizers have asked Voices and partner organizations to help contribute funds to hire attorneys to file legal cases and monitor environmental permitting processes, arranging transport for rural community members to meet with policy makers in San Salvador, buying one-page advertisements in national newspapers and additional campaign opportunities. These activities will far exceed $3,000 but Voices is joining forces with several Salvadoran organizations that will also contribute to the campaign.





Project in

La Tirana


The community board of La Tirana has asked Voices and CESTA (a Salvadoran environmental organization) to help them develop an eco-tourism project as an alternative to the mega-projects.  Birdwatchers and naturalists already visit La Tirana but residents are unable to offer lodging or food. CESTA is willing to help build small, comfortable cabins and a community-run restaurant if Voices will help the board develop the infrastructure and capacity to manage the project in the long-term.
We are ready to begin in July, but need $2,000 to help the board develop a business plan and build their capacity in areas such as accounting and business management which will enable La Tirana residents to sustain their own eco-tourism initiative in the long-run.


Climate Change, El Salvador Government, Environment

Diputada Lourdes Palacios Speaks out about the Committee on the Environment and Climate Change

In a September 23 interview with Diario Co Latino, Lourdes Palacios, FMLN Diputada to the Legislative Assembly’s recently formed Committee on the Environment and Climate Change, spoke about the lack of legislative progress on the country’s environmental issues as well as the perceived ineffectualness of the Environmental Commission.

Until early May 2010, environmental issues belonged to the Committee on Health. Due to the daunting number of issues facing the committee, however, the FMLN proposed splitting the body to increase efficiency in tackling the issues. Back in March, Representative Palacios commented that the Committee on Health and the Environment’s agenda was so saturated with health issues that it did not “allow us to advance on the environmental agenda” (El Diario de Hoy, 29 March 2010). On May 11, 2010, the Legislative Assembly created the Committee on the Environment and Climate Change, and the former committee became the Health Committee.

Government officials hoped that the Environmental Committee would give politicians the legislative muscle required to focus on protecting, conserving and restoring the nation’s environmental integrity.  The administrative split resulted in the transfer of 101 issues (files) being from the old Health Committee to the new Environmental Committee. In addition, the Environmental Committee has taken on the environmental challenges that have received little attention (greenhouse gases, climate change, and protecting hydrographic basins) (ComUnica, 21 April 2010).  As a signatory of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the new Committee on the Environment and Climate Change is tasked in part with helping El Salvador fulfill its treaty obligations.

In her interview, Diputado Palacios expressed her disappointment that the Environmental Committee has been inactive and not accomplished anything of significance. She reports that since May 11, when the Legislative Assembly formed the committee, they have met only a few times and have failed to address important issues.

In reviewing the different issues before the Environmental Committee Diputada Palacios discussed the mining in depth, praising the members of the anti-mining movement for standing up for their rights and the environment. She believes that the anti-mining legislation before the committee is the most delayed and lacks consensus between the parties due to vested economic interests. Other issues still awaiting discussion despite numerous motions to bring them to the floor are the general water law, the Law of Civil Protection, Prevention and Protection Against Disasters, and reforms to the Law on the Environmental and Natural Resources, which Palacios feels needs strengthening and updating to reflect current realities. Diputado Palacios also said that one of the proposed reforms to the environmental law deals with solid waste, and focuses on strengthening recycling initiatives and preventative measures (e.g. bringing one’s own bags when shopping).

One important issue that has again taken a back seat to more prominent (but still stagnant) issues like the Mining Law is the General Water Law.  First proposed to the Assembly back in March 2006 by the Foro Nacional del Agua (National Water Forum), the General Water Law aims to regulate, protect, and restore water resources.  Over 80% of the country’s urban areas and only 44% of rural families have water service (News Millenium, 20 August 2010), and forecasters predict that El Salvador’s water supply will be catastrophically low within five years.  Areas with water service may have intermittent access, and those without municipal water supplies often rely on short-term fixes like community wells, which can have devastating effects on poor communities without the financial resources to maintain them.  A broken well pump in San Antonio del Monte, Sonsonate, for example, recently left 5,000 people without potable water in their homes for more than two months. The needed $6,000 to replace the pump or $3,000 to fix it; both prices were far beyond the reach of this impoverished community, forcing women to walk four miles to the nearest river (El Diario de Hoy, 4 August 2010).

The water issue in El Salvador also involves quality. There are no regulations concerning water quality in the country, and a recent study found that 43.25% of public schools in rural areas lack reliable access to potable water or plumbing systems. Rafael Callejas, executive director of Alianza del Milenio para el Agua (MWA), elaborated on the implications of the country’s unsatisfactory water system, saying that the act of ensuring potable water and indoor plumbing in schools helps achieve greater levels of student retention and reduces illnesses (La Prensa Gráfica, 29 September 2010).

FMLN Representative Lourdes Palacios stated in March, “It is necessary to have a regulation that guarantees access to potable water to the Salvadoran people” (El Diario de Hoy, 29 March 2010). Given El Salvador’s extremely high rate of pollution and water contamination, one might assume the water issue would receive somewhat immediate attention from the Committee.  Palacios notes, however, that the Environmental Committee has made surprisingly little process on this or any other issue.

Representative Palacios laments that many perceive the Environmental and Climate Change Committee as “a commission that exists only in name”; perceptions will not change if the new Committee on the Environment and Climate Change fails to act on key and urgent issues facing the country.


Villa El Rosario, Morazan

Today the Prensa Grafica had a two-page article about Villa El Rosario, a municipality located in Morazan, 22.2 kilometers north of San Francisco Gotera. The municipal is well known for being part of the Route of Peace, along with Perquin, Arambala, Joateca, Cacaopera and Corinto. The article assesses the recent environmental movement in the municipal.

Elí Abileo Díaz, the Judge of Peace, states how the environmental movement began, “We wanted to combat delinquency and started a project to establish an environmental school. In three years we were the cleanest town in El Salvador and in five years we succeeded in reducing local crime.”

Villa El Rosario is difficult to reach. From the main highway, CA-7, a dusty, rocky road leads to the town. It has a population of 1,500 people, a large percentage of whom work in agriculture and many in the ecological activity of the town. Despite it’s location, there are beautiful natural tourism sites. As the photo in the Prensa says, there are thermal waters, a waterfall, a look out point and the Araute River.

Díaz was a representative in the Legislative Assembly from 1994-1997 and was named Peace Judge in 1997. In 1997, group of community leaders, the National Civil Police (PNC) and other forces met to construct a “judicial co-communal plan” for El Rosario. That included a campaign of door to door visits. Díaz reports, “We told people that it was time for a change and people took it seriously. We held environmental meetings, as well as domestic violence and civic participation workshops. During the first years, some people didn’t want to assist in the project. But in time, the people became more aware of the possibilities and started coming to the meetings.”

The article reports that delinquency is “null, or almost null” in El Rosario. At the end of 2008, the community suffered a series of robberies, reportedly motivated for political reasons. The mayoral council went door to door and the crime stopped. In February 2009, the only crime in the municipal was the killing of a minor. The assassin committed suicide after and was not a member of the local community.

The environment is a transversal axis that has served to prevent crime and motivate civic participation. Contributors are those that take the time to complete the ecological workshops at the environmental school. A local resident stated, “ Here we know that people don’t kill deer or iguanas and we know that trees should not be wasted.” The mayor, Osiel Diaz noted that 2,000 trees have been planted in this green zone in reforestation efforts.

In El Rosario there are no local bars hangouts and the only alcohol, chaparro, is sold two communities away. Chaparro is illegal in Rosario and the town does not give permission for these types of sales. The desire for a safe environment is evident by the sign hanging in the town plaza that reads “We want a plaza where our children can play freely.”

With natural sites, clean environment and safety record, Villa El Rosario seems like a place prime for tourist development. However, there are 8 kilometers of dangerous, dirt roads in the municipal. Travelers need vehicles with four wheel drive to attempt the dangerous roads. The mayor says that better infrastructure is vital for people of the town to gain more economic opportunity needed to get out of poverty.

The primitive name of El Rosario was Araute, that in poton (the language of the Lencas) means Fallen Valley.  Later it was named Villa El Rosario in honor of it's patron the Virgin of the Rosary, whose fiest is celebrated the first Sunday of October every year.
The initial name of El Rosario was Araute, that in poton (the Lencan language) means Fallen Valley. Later, it was named Villa El Rosario in honor of it's patron, the Virgin of the Rosary, whose feast is celebrated on the first Sunday of October.

The tourist sector isn’t the only sector that needs support in El Rosario. There is an old painted white house that has a sign that reads “Foundation of the Rosario Development of Houston: 06/05/05.” Is the only that remains of the effort of compatriots of the United States that were helping community development in the zone. The article doesn’t say what the organization did for the community.

Also, the environmental school was closed in 2004 for economic reasons. Díaz called on the Supreme Court of Justice to help with the Environmental Unity sector of the institution while the school remained inactive for four years. In this year they wait to be reopened. The workers at the school confront difficulties as the costs are taken on by it’s employees. For Díaz, the ideal plan would be that the central government take up the expenses in Villa El Rosario and spread the project to other municipalities. He wants Villa El Rosario to receive support to be able to continue promoting environmental projects.

Environment, Mining

Mining in El Salvador – So what’s next?

On March 13, 2009, Pacific Rim posted their Fiscal 2009 Third Quarter Result, in which they state, “[i]n deference to [the] democratic process, Pacific Rim may elect to wait until after the election is decided and then evaluate the post-election climate for mining in El Salvador before initiating CAFTA arbitration proceedings.” 

Recall that on December 8, 2008, Pacific Rim filed a notice of intent to commence international arbitration proceedings against the Government of El Salvador under CAFTA-DR.  Their claim is that El Salvador violated international and Salvadoran law by failing to issue exploitation permits, resulting in significant loss.  Under CAFTA-DR rules, Pacific Rim could proceed with formal arbitration on or after March 9, 2009, which is when the three-month negotiation/cooling-off period ended.


So what is Pacific Rim’s next move? (Click here to read on)