Alex Salvador, a member of our Board, took time out of his home visit here in El Salvador to accompany various projects in the Bajo Lempa. These types of visits are an essential stimulant for us as staff and a way for our Salvadoran partners to share their incredible work.
The Voices’ Annual Board of Directors meeting is a space to evaluate our work and strategize what’s to come. It is also a wonderful occasion for us as staff to get to know our board members on a deeper level. After more than a year of exclusively connecting via everyone’s favorite video conferencing program, it was decided that the time had come to meet face to face.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit down with Sheryl, an ESL teacher at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in D.C., who for the past 23 years has been unflaggingly helping adult immigrants – many of them Salvadorans- to reach their potential here in the U.S.
I asked her about her decision to join the board, and she reminisced on her first delegation to El Salvador with VOICES back in 2017:
By that point, I already had so much affinity for my Salvadoran students and the Salvadoran people, and I had also been actively working to raise my own awareness around racism, classism, and immigration.
Then I went on a Voices’ delegation, which opened my eyes and helped to confront the Salvadoran narrative I had long held in my mind. You see, up until then, I had mainly only heard the testimonies of those who fled or left El Salvador for whatever reason, not of those who stayed behind.
I remember being so impacted by the young community leaders, who were fully committed to staying and vigorously working to improve societal conditions so that future generations don’t feel the need to migrate.
Even under “normal” circumstances, that type of dedication would’ve been admirable, but at that time, things were far from normal on the contrary things were downright toilsome. But Voices as an organization never faltered in their support.
I’m honored to be on the Board and in a position to learn more and offer more support to our students at Carlos Rosario.”
Last Sunday, November16, 2014, the 12 Northern Morazán communities that comprise Ciudad Segundo Montes (CSM) celebrated the 25th Anniversary of their repatriation from a refugee camp in Colomoncagua, Honduras where they lived for 10 years. They left El Salvador in 1980 to escape civil war and extreme repression from the Salvadoran military. Their November 1989 return coincided with the FMLN’s final offensive, the assassination of 6 Jesuit priests at the University of Central America, and the beginning of the end of a long, brutal civil war.
Though the main celebration took place on Sunday, residents of CSM held activities for more than two weeks beforehand. During the day local organizations such as the Pastoral Team at the San Luis Temple held historical memory events and in the evenings other groups organized dances and events that featured traditional folk music and other local artists.
(Here is a slideshow from Sunday’s event – photos taken by Ebony Pleasants)
Residents of CSM have been in high spirits all year, preparing for the celebrations and reflecting on all that they have accomplished over the past 25 years. When the refugees arrived in the Colomoncagua camp, they were poor and persecuted. Illiteracy rate was extremely high and people had nothing. Despite almost complete isolation and little support from foreign aid organizations, the refugees did more than survive – they thrived. They created an exemplary community based on cooperation, solidarity, and the common good. Refugees grew and made all of their food, made clothes and shoes, and took care of all of their basic needs.
When they repatriated their adult-literacy rate was 85%, 100% of children were in school, and people were empowered with a sense of community and liberation. In 1989 and 1990 the new communities in Northern Morazán were challenged with starting over. They have faced significant barriers over the past 25 years, but each community now has its own primary school and the region shares two technical high schools, two libraries, a youth center, and a community radio and television station. Currently 60 youth have scholarships to attend university. The local economy isn’t great, but it’s stronger than other rural communities in El Salvador. CSM also has a vibrant civil society, several strong youth organizations, museums, and crime rates remain relatively low. There is still work to do but people are proud of all that the have accomplished.
On Sunday morning, members of the Pastoral Team arrived early at the Temple in San Luis to clean and decorate the grounds, and prepare 1500 tamales and large vats of coffee and hot chocolate. The festivities began at 2 pm when 150 students from 10 escuelitas de fe (faith schools) marched from the Segundo Montes monument in San Luis to the Temple. The afternoon celebration was elaborate and included youth reading poems they’d written; interactive, community-building activities; and first communions. Father Miguel Ventura, who has been part of the liberation movement in Northern Morazán for more than 40 years, gave a stirring talk that covered much of the region’s history and recounted stories of hardship overcome by community, cooperation, and solidarity.
At 5 pm, people from all over Morazán as well as visitors from San Salvador and the international community gathered up the hill from San Luis for a candlelight procession to the Temple, where they joined the celebration. As people walked they chanted “Que Viva la Comunidad Segundo Montes, Que Vive!” People joined the procession as it made its way to the Temple, swelling to a group of more than 500 people.
Among the participants were a two hundred people from the Lower Lempa region of Usulután. In the early 1990s, as refugees repatriated and leftist militants demilitarized, many moved to the Lower Lempa to establish new communities along the coast on El Salvador’s most fertile agricultural land. Most families in the Lower Lempa have parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters and childhood friends in the Morazán, and they often gather to celebrate their common history. Sunday was no exception.
When the procession arrived at the Temple, the celebration turned into a vigil for the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter who were assassinated 25 years ago at the University of Central America (UCA). Father Segundo Montes, who was one of the Jesuit martyrs, had been an important advocate for the refugees in Colomoncagua. In the months leading up to the first wave of repatriation (there were four waves from November 1989 to March 1990), he visited the Colomoncagua camp on several occasions to negotiate their return with the Salvadoran and Honduran governments, and the United Nations. Father Segundo Montes’ encouragement and presence in the camps were what convinced the refugees that it was time to return.
Don Lorenzo, a community leader in San Luis, participated in the first wave of refugees to repatriate. He says the refugees didn’t learn about the UCA massacre and the loss of Father Segundo Montes until after they crossed back into El Salvador. It took several months to repatriate all 10,000 refugees, but by March 1990 they were all home. On March 25, 1990 the communities held an Inauguration Day Celebration in which they named their group of resettled communities Ciudad Segundo Montes.
Here is a translation of an Inauguration Day speech given by community representative, Juan Jose Rodriguez. The speech is an important accounting of the history of the refugees, as well as a vision for their future. The speech was given almost two years before the January 1992 Peace Accords ended El Salvador’s civil war, and reflects the hostile environment they came home to. This is just one of many documents from Voices’ archives that we are digitizing and sharing with the CSM.
For the past year, Voices field volunteer Ebony has been living in CSM and helping the Pastoral Team implement a historical memory project. Over the years, many outsiders have collected testimonies and written good accounts and even books about Colomoncagua and CSM, but the communities have never written their own history. The first phase of the historical memory project was to build the skills needed to take on such a large, complex initiative. Members of the Pastoral Team participated in numerous workshops to learn how to conduct interviews, and provide support for people who were recounting tragic events, some for the first time. They also learned how to organize information and materials, given oral presentations, and much more.
After the workshops, members of the Pastoral Team spent months conducting interviews, collecting documents and artifacts, and organizing their materials. Community members led this entire process, with no outside interference or influence. This is important because the target audience for the book, video, library, and other products are the future generations of Morazán. The generations that suffered extreme repression before the war, lived liberation theology, organized themselves in a refugee camp, and established a new kind of community want their children, grandchildren and future generations to know their story – much of which remains untold. Though the Pastoral Team is not finished with the historical memory project, they put together a powerful exhibit of their work to date. They presented photographs, testimonies, and materials they have collected over the past year.
The celebration on Sunday went well past 11 pm. There were speeches, hymns, live music, stories, and even a baptism. After the last songs were over, speeches concluded, and the 1500 tamales and vats of coffee and chocolate consumed, the celebration came to a close. Members of the Pastoral Team agreed that it was a great success.
Like the historical memory project, the 25th Anniversary Celebration of repatriation was more than looking back. It was an opportunity for people who experienced the worst kids of repression and hardship to assess how much they have accomplished and all that they now have. Perhaps most importantly it was an opportunity to give future generations a since of identity and root them in an ongoing struggle for social justice and liberation.
Voices on the Border is forever grateful for the ongoing support of our friends at St. Peters Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC for their ongoing support. Their friendship and financial support over the years has allowed Voices on the Border to maintain a constant presence in Northern Morazán, and fund numerous activities such as the Pastoral Team’s historical Memory project. It is impossible to quantify the impact that St. Peters has had in the region, or fully express our gratitude.
Friday was International Day of the Mangroves. Voices’ partner communities and other friends from the Bajo Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco marked the day by meeting in Comunidad Octavio Ortiz to discuss Climate Change and the tourism projects that the Salvadoran Government and private investors are planning for the region – issues that affect the health of the mangrove forests in the region.
They concluded the meeting by drafting a Declaration: “In Order to Have Life and Hope: The Bajo Lempa Continues to Resist” – We’ve posted below in English and Spanish (the original).
We at Voices are in the middle of a fundraising campaign to raise $7,600 by this Friday (Aug. 2). The funds are to support the communities that drafted this Declaration in their efforts to protect their environment, including the mangrove forests, and preserve their simple, agrarian way of life. Here is a link to our original appeal posted last week. If have donated already, THANK YOU! If you haven’t, there is still time and every dollar helps (you can donate by clicking here). This is an urgent appeal – the government and private investors have huge resources and institutions backing them.
There is a slideshow at the bottom of the post with photos from the mangroves and coastal area, and the communities that are asking for you support.
IN ORDER TO HAVE LIFE AND HOPE,
THE BAJO LEMPA CONTINUES TO RESIST
Accompanied by the revolutionary spirit of Father Octavio Ortiz Luna, we the residents of the Bajo Lempa met again in the community of La Canoa to analyze the issue of climate change, which we experience in the form of floods and at times as prolonged droughts. These affects of climate change are becoming more intense and more frequent, and are the product of a political economic model that is leading us to destruction.
We also met to consider that we live in the region of El Salvador with the greatest biodiversity. We are located in one of the most pristine mangrove forests on the planet.
Species such as crocodiles, fish, crabs, migratory birds like the roseate spoonbill and many others make up an ecosystem that is vital for the survival of our communities. In addition, the mangrove forests are a natural barrier that protect the region from the rising sea waters and reduce the impacts of flooding.
The mangrove forests are an ecological treasure that communities have used, maintained and improved for many years, because we look to them for the sustainence and hope for the present and future generations.
However, the tranquility inspired by the mangroves, the simple lifestyle of the communities, and the hope of life for future generations, are being threatened by domestic and international corporations, and their insatiable thirst for profit through tourism development, with complete disregard for the impacts on the region’s biodiversity and the human rights of our population.
The construction of a modern road through the heart of the Bay of Jiquilisco, land speculation, the government’s tourism development plan, approval of the Public Private Partnership Act, and the the Second Millennium Challenge Compact, indicate that there are serious efforts to turn our region of El Salvador into another Cancun, Mexico, where the beaches are private and exclusive to foreign tourists.
But our communities have a history of struggle and organization. This land and its resources belong to us, and our children and grandchildren, and we have the strength, courage, and moral duty to defend our lives and territory until the end.
So, on this day marking the INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE MANGROVES, the communities of the Bajo Lempa and in the mangrove forests of the Peninsula of San Juan del Gozo, DECLARE:
1 – We strongly reject all mega tourism and we are ready to mobilize and use all legal remedies against companies seeking to destroy our natural resources.
2 – The communities that live in the mangroves are the only guarantee of the forests’ preservation, and therefore we are organizing and strongly linking with these mangrove communities.
3 – The Communities of the Bajo Lempa, and especially Community Octavio Ortiz are in the process of adaptating to climate change with intense focus on food sovereignty based on agro-ecological production that protects biodiversity, soil, and water. Nature is our source of knowledge and every day we learn more about her.
4 – We demand the government promptly complete and maintain the public works projects meant to protect the region from flooding. We also demand government agencies regulate discharge from the September 15 dam.
We demand respect for our right to life and our right to a healthy environment. We want that forests remain an inexhaustible source of life. We want to have clean and sufficient water supplies, and we want to produce our own food and eat well. We want health and education for our children. We want to remain free …
We want to have life and hope.
Community Octavio Ortiz, July 26, 2013
PARA TENER VIDA Y ESPERANZA,
EL BAJO LEMPA SIGUE EN RESISTENCIA
Acompañados por el espíritu revolucionario del Padre Octavio Ortiz Luna, nuevamente nos reunimos en la comunidad La Canoa para analizar el tema de cambio climático que vivimos en forma de inundaciones y otras veces en forma de sequías prolongadas. Hemos visto que estos fenómenos se presentan cada vez más intensos y con mayor frecuencia y que son producto de un modelo económico político que nos está llevando a la destrucción.
Pero también nos hemos reunido para analizar que vivimos en la región de El Salvador de mayor riqueza biológica. En nuestro territorio se ubica uno de los bosques de manglar más desarrollados del planeta.
Especies como cocodrilos, peces, cangrejos, aves migratorias como la espátula rosada y otras muchas conforman una red vital para la sobrevivencia de las comunidades. El bosque de manglar también constituye una barrera natural que detiene el avance del mar y reduce los impactos de inundaciones.
Este bosque de manglar constituye una riqueza ecológica que las comunidades han aprovechado, mantenido y mejorado durante muchos años, porque en el encuentran el sustento y son la esperanza para las presentes y futuras generaciones.
Sin embargo, la tranquilidad que inspira el manglar, la forma de vida sencilla de las comunidades y la esperanza de vida para las futuras generaciones, hoy se ve amenazada por la sed de lucro insaciable de empresarios nacionales y de corporaciones trasnacionales que pretenden impulsar un desarrollo turístico sin importarles la conservación de la biodiversidad ni los derechos humanos de la población.
La construcción de una moderna carretera que cruza el corazón de la Bahía de Jiquilisco, el acaparamiento y especulación con la tierra, el plan gubernamental de desarrollo turístico, la aprobación de la Ley de Asociaciones Público Privadas y un interés sospechoso de la empresa privada por que se apruebe el Segundo FOMILENIO, son los principales indicadores de que existen serias pretensiones de convertir este territorio en una región similar a Cancún, en México, en donde las playas son privadas y exclusivas para turistas extranjeros.
Pero nuestras comunidades tienen una historia de lucha y de organización, este territorio y sus recursos nos pertenece y le pertenece a nuestros hijos y nietos, tenemos la fuerza, el coraje y el deber moral de defender la vida y el territorio hasta las últimas consecuencias.
Por eso, en este día que se celebra el DIA MUNDIAL DE LOS MANGLARES, las comunidades del Bajo Lempa y las comunidades habitantes de los bosques de manglar de la Península de San Juan del Gozo, DECLARAMOS:
1- Que rechazamos enérgicamente todo megaproyecto de turismo y que estamos dispuestos a movilizarnos y a demandar judicialmente a cualquier empresa que pretendan destruir nuestros recursos naturales.
2- Que las comunidades que vivimos en los bosques de manglar somos la única garantía de su conservación, para ello nos estamos organizando y vinculando fuertemente entre comunidades del manglar.
3- Que las comunidades del Bajo Lempa y en especial la comunidad Octavio Ortiz estamos llevando a cabo un proceso de adaptación al cambio climático con un intenso trabajo por la soberanía alimentaria, en base a la producción agroecológica que protege la biodiversidad, el suelo y el agua. La naturaleza es nuestra fuente de conocimiento y cada día aprendemos más de ella.
4- Demandamos del gobierno la pronta ejecución de obras de protección ante inundaciones, así como su permanente mantenimiento y la regulación de las descargas de la presa 15 de Septiembre.
Exigimos que se respete nuestro derecho a la vida, nuestro derecho a un medio ambiente saludable. Queremos que los bosques sigan siendo fuente inagotable de vida. Queremos tener agua limpia y suficiente, queremos producir y comer bien. Queremos salud y educación para nuestros hijos. Queremos seguir siendo libres…
Queremos tener vida y esperanzas.
Comunidad Octavio Ortiz, 26 de Julio de 2013
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.
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.
|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.
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.
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.”
By: Voices on the Border
Originally from Southeast Asia, sugarcane arrived in the Caribbean Islands on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in 1494 and its cultivation expanded rapidly throughout much of the continent. Sugarcane is now one of the main export products from tropical countries like El Salvador, where it accounts for 2.8% of the gross national product and almost 20% of agricultural production.
Mario Salvverria, president of the Salvadoran Association of Sugar Producers and former Minister of Agriculture said that sugarcane is not only resistant to the impacts of climate change, the last sugarcane harvest (2011-2012) actually grew by 10% over the previous harvest, reaching 15 million quintals. With that, El Salvador has gone from being a major industrial sugarcane producing country in Central America to being in the ninth largest exporter of raw sugar in the world.
The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is one factor that has stimulated the increase in production. CAFTA assigns export quotas that increase annually. For example, the sugarcane quota for the 2011-2012 harvest was set at 645,217.38 quintals (142,246 pounds), but for the 2012-2013 harvest it will be 673,913.03 quintals (148,572 pounds).
But the economic growth enjoyed by the sugarcane sector must be contrasted with the tragedy lived out by the communities located in regions where production has expanded. One of the regions most affected by mono-cultivation of sugar is the Lower Lempa region of Usultuan. The local population has denounced the destruction of biodiversity, consumption of water sources, depletion of agricultural land, destruction of traditional campesino agricultural traditions, and the health of the people exposed to agrochemicals and the methods used to spray them.
The Confederation of Federations of Salvadoran Agrarian Reform (CONFRAS) recently completed a study that included the Lower Lempa that determined that the cultivation of sugarcane uses at least eight different pesticides. Among them are Glyphosate, which is a controversial herbicide that environmentalist around the world would like to see banned.
This is one of the reasons that the Lower Lempa reports high rates of kidney disease, a problem evidenced by the results of a 2009 study completed by doctors from the Kidney Institute of Havana, Cuba. Their investigation revealed that 11 of every 100 residents of the Lower Lempa were suffering from kidney disease, and that in the Community of Ciudad Romero 30 people had already died within the past three years. The large majority of cases are reported in men – 25.7% of men tested were positive for kidney problems, while only 11.8% of women tested were positive. Cuban nephrologist Carlos Orantes led the study explained at the time that the problem is associated with a variety of factors, among them is agrochemicals.
The real problem for the communities is the burning of the sugarcane fields, the objective of which is to increase production of the workers who cut the cane by reducing the end product to the cane by burning off the unnecessary green leaves so they are not shipped to the plant. Ricardo Navarro from CESTA/Friends of the Earth stresses that the burning process has the highest environmental costs in that it destroys the soil and biodiversity, alters the local microclimate, contaminates the air, and generates greenhouse gases. The Sugarcane Producers Association of El Salvador, however, has said that the environmental impact of sugarcane production is positive. He says on the Association’s website that “planting a hectacre of sugarcane is the same as planting two hectacres of native forest.”
While few enjoy the sweet economic benefits of sugar, many suffer the bitter impacts of its production without the Salvadoran State institutions acting to take meaningful action to prevent damage.
**This article was first published in Spanish on Tuesday as an opinion piece by the Diario C0-Latino.
On January 8, 2013, Salvadoran police clashed with military veterans who had blockaded several of El Salvador’s busiest highways in protest over pensions and benefits.
For more than a year, veterans groups have been negotiating with the Funes Administration to secure benefits they believe they were due for their service during the civil war. Some veterans groups are demanding that the government pay each veteran $10,000 for indemnification and begin disbursing $700 per month pension. These groups said that if the government did not start making payments by the end of 2012 they would start protesting, which they did on January 8 and have promised to continue doing.
Among the busiest roads protestors blocked was the Comalapa Highway that runs between the Comalapa International Airport and San Salvador. After protestors had blocked the highway for a couple hours causing major disruptions the police used their batons and teargas to break them up. They arrested 37 protestors in the process.
Seven of the protestors arrested at the Comalapa Highway blockade are from Nuevo Amanecer, a small community in the Lower Lempa of Usulután that was settled in 1991 by demobilized armed forces veterans. After being detained for 72 hours, the protestors were released on probation. The Nuevo Amanecer veterans are not new to protests and blockades. In 2011, the same group blocked the coastal highway that runs through San Maros de Lempa in protest of the government’s mis-management of dams on the Lempa River and their weak response to flooding caused by Tropical Storm 12-E.
Voices staff spoke with several of the Nuevo Amanecer veterans arrested during the protests. Daniel Benavides Martinez said he is a veteran of the Armed Forces and was demobilized in February 1992 after the Peace Accords were signed. He says he never received any of the benefits promised to veterans following the war. His father, who is also a veteran, received a piece of land in the Lower Lempa, but none in the family have received any other pension payments or benefits. Mr. Benavides Martinez also recalled that towards the end of the war military leaders mistreated soldiers in an effort to get them to desert the Armed Forces without collecting salaries, pensions, or other benefits.
Another of the Nueveo Amanecer veterans arrested during the protests spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal. He said “there were funds assigned to us (veterans) after the Peace Accords, and [former Presidents] Cristiani and Calderon Sol and other members of the Tandona (military leadership) split it up amongst themselves.”
We also spoke with Pedro Martinez, a former FMLN militant and friend of those arrested. He explained that many veterans were cheated after the war, but are just now learning how to organize and advocate for their rights. Martinez, who is part of a veteran’s association that represents both armed forces and guerilla veterans, is working to distribute resources to veterans in need through the War Wounded Fund. However Martinez says that people try to take advantage of the limited fund. He said, “now someone who maybe just got bit by a horse is out on the street saying they were wounded from the war.”
Not all of the veterans are on board with the protests. José Amaya heads a veteran’s association that has been negotiating with the Funes Administration since November 2011. He disagrees that the administration has not done anything and apologized to Salvadorans for the protests, ensuring that they were not involved.
The day after the protests, Alex Segovia, the President’s Technical Secretary, emphasized that the government had never promised the veterans monetary compensation. “They say the government has made a commitment and this is false. We are never going to accept the amount [of pension] that they are proposing because it would break the State and we are not going to bend to pressure from anyone who makes demands.”
Retired Army Colonel Ochoa Perez, who is now serving as a legislative representative, disputes Alex Segovia’s claim that the administration has not made any promises. He said that in the past few months the Funes Administration has made promises of an indemnification package (the $10,000), a pension fund, land grants, and agricultural packages, but they have not followed through on any of them. In an interview just after the protests, he told La Pagina that he has documentation that proves they made promises. Perez unabashedly supports the protests, stating that he is a soldier before he is a politician. He even visited the veterans who were arrested while they were in jail, and gave them $160 to buy food while they were detained.
In January 2012, President Funes and Segovia promised a law that would provide more benefits to FLMN and Armed Forces veterans. And the general consensus seems to be that the FMLN and Armed Forces Associations agree that since the Funes Administration took office, they have begun to receive more pensions and social and economic support, especially for the war wounds, who are represented by ALGES. The Instituto de Previsión Social de la Fuerza Armada (IPSFA) has provided pensions and services for Armed Forces veterans for over 30 years, but getting benefits can be a long and tedious process, and the resources available are quite limited. In October of 2012, IPSFA announced that they were running a $4 million a month deficit and would be selling off a lot of their assets, which include beach resorts, hotels, and other properties. (The comment sections at the end of these articles are full of interesting comments and accusations of corruption within IPFSA).
In his response to the protests, Alex Segovia alleged that the protests were an effort by other political parties to destabilize the government and the FMLN party in what is essentially an election year (presidential elections are scheduled for January 2014). This would not be the first time that the military and veterans have been used for political gains. Even Ochoa Perez said after the protests that “they have used veterans and thrown them in the trash like sugarcane pulp.”
Pedro Martinez says that anger and protests targeting the current administration are a little misplaced considering that there were four conservative ARENA governments that failed to adequately address the needs of military veterans.
Reality: it’s easier to raise money during emergencies (like floods and droughts) when the damage already is done.
Reality: It’s much more difficult to raise money between emergencies when preventative measures can be taken to mitigate damage.
Your support during past emergencies has helped Voices on the Border provide aid in shelters and assist with recovery efforts. But it’s what we (you and I) do between emergencies that has the greatest impact.
Everyday we work side-by-side with communities in Morazán and Usulután to mitigate the risks of disaster. As climate change results in even more extreme weather, these efforts become more and more important.
Mitigating risks, however, is not just making sure the local rescue squad is trained and equipped – we have done that. It is also ensuring that our community partners are able to achieve economic sustainability and preserve their natural resources so that people are more resilient and extreme weather has less of an impact.
After a lot of dialogue about how we can best serve our partner communities in Usulután and Morazán achieve their goals of achieving economic sustainability and protecting their natural resources, we decided to re-focus our efforts on building local capacity.
In January 2013, Voices will launch a Grassroots Resource Center that will help empower our community partners to achieve economic sustainability and better protect their natural resources. We will do so by implementing two programs – a Civil Society Training Center and a Research Institute.
The Training Center will offer local leaders workshops and other opportunities to local leaders to increase their capacity in strategic planning, project management, and others. We will also provide workshops on land use, public health, education, and sustainable agricultural.
The Research Institute will gather and disseminate information and analysis about issues that impact economic sustainability and mitigating risks associated with climate change and other issues. The information will allow citizens and local leaders to have a stronger voice in the policy decisions that affect them.
With your support, Voices has been engaged in this kind of empowerment for over 20 years. But as free trade agreements, tourism, and aid programs like the Millennium Challenge Corporation create new barriers to economic sustainability and threaten natural resources, we have to be more efficient in our response.
To launch the Resource Center in January, we need to raise $12,000 by December 31st. We have a generous donor willing to match donations up to $6,000, meaning that if you donate $100 today, we receive $200.
It’s just a matter of time before our partners experience more extreme weather. Your contribution today will help us ensure that it does not become another tragedy.
So please click on the Donate Button at the top of the page and contribute to Voices’ important work! Thank you and Happy Holidays
Last week the Royal Decameron Hotel Group announced plans to invest $60 million in three El Salvador projects – an expansion of their high-end beach resort in Sonsonate, construction of a four-star hotel in San Salvador, and a beachfront resort in Usulután. The new Usulután facility, which will cost $12 million, will be modeled after their Sonsonate resort with 300 individual cabins, an office center, spas, and a conference room.
Royal Decameron’s announcement wasn’t completely unexpected. Investors have been working to develop tourism in the Lower Lempa for many years, and there are likely several other projects being planned. Though tourism may seem like a great boost for the local economy, it’s a complicated issue and Royal Decameron is likely to face some stiff opposition from Lower Lempa residents.
Usulután is centrally located along El Salvador’s coast. One of the local treasures is the Bay of Jiquilisco, a large inlet known for its fishing, mangrove forests, and beautiful beaches. The stretch of land between the bay and the ocean is the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula. The only things out on the peninsula right now are mangrove forests, a few fishing and crabbing villages, and a nesting ground for endangered sea turtles… and a very fancy highway.
In 2004, the Ministry of Tourism hosted an event for potential investors at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Salvador. An Argentinean architect presented plans for the Espino Resort, as well as other infrastructure development plans. His presentation included draft plans for “El Pueblo,” a high-end shopping center on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula for tourists that included grocery stores, ATMs, and other amenities. It was all part of a 25-year plan that outlined specific stages of development – land acquisition, construction of a highway to the end of the peninsula, and a dyke that would supply water. Eight years into the plan, investors have acquired land, the highway through the peninsula is complete, and the government announced plans last year to install a water system.
Three people are reported own much of the real estate between La Tirana and Isla de Mendez. Angel Velasquez owns two sections of land totaling 2.5 miles of waterfront property. Eduard Quiroz owns 1 mile of beachfront property, and the Tesak family owns another 3 miles along the coast. CESTA, a Salvadoran nonprofit environmental organization, owns 872 feet of beachfront that they preserve. Sources also claim that ex-president Alfredo Cristiani owns property in the region, as does FMLN politician Facundo Guardado, who has a consortium of investors that includes possible FMLN VP candidate Oscar Ortiz. Royal Decameron is rumored to own 103 acres in the region though it is unclear whether this is the property they plan to develop.
Land acquisition on the peninsula has been quiet, but not free of controversy. Locals report that Quiroz and Velazquez regularly violate land-use and easement requirements. For example, environmental regulations allow landowners to own property up to 50 meters above the highest tide. Quiroz and Velazquez, however, fenced their property at the high-tide point, ignoring the 50-meter boundary. Similarly, in 2006 ISTA (the Salvadoran Land Reform Institute) distributed plots of land to landless families in La Tirana. The families moved in, but lacking roads and utilities, seven of them sold their plots to Velazquez. Ignoring ISTA regulations that require passage between the plots and access to the mangroves, Velazquez fenced off the plots and blocked access to the forests. The president of La Tirana, Nahum Diaz, has spoken out about the violations but to no end. The 23 families in La Tirana have to survive on crabbing and shellfish, while Velazquez controls access to all of the farmland, which he uses to graze his several hundred head of cattle. Residents are also upset because in addition to blocking access to agricultural fields, Velazquez cleared large areas of forest to expand his cattle operation.
As investors were starting to buy up land along the Peninsula, Gustavo Guerrero arrived in the Lower Lempa. He introduced himself as the charity manager for the Tesak family, which owns Bocadeli, a Salvadoran food company. In 2007, Guerrero created the San Juan del Gozo and Jiquilisco Bay Integral Development Association and illegally listed local community leaders as members of the board without their knowledge. The new organization published a full-page add in a Salvadoran paper listing its priorities – building a levee for irrigation, constructing a National University campus in the Lower Lempa, and other investments to build the tourism infrastructure. He is still handing out checks and has financed several projects in the region including hiring the Linares Company to repave of the road in La Canoa. In 2009, one of our local partners said “Gustavo Guerrero is the person that made it possible for the rich to buy land,” which they often did at prices far below-market value.
But land acquisition also included making room for the new highway through the Peninsula, primarily convincing landowners to allow builders to cut across their property. Linares, the company that repaved the road in La Canoa won the contract to build the road. If you’ve been in the Lower Lempa at all over the past few years you’ve seen large dump trucks tearing up and down the main road – that was Linares hauling sand and backfill for the highway.
Few people or groups are currently protesting tourism in the Lower Lempa. Many locals, however, oppose development projects that threaten their fragile environment. The community of Amando López, for example, released a statement in May 2012 stating: “This land is our life and our life is this land, we will never stop resisting any project that threatens our natural resources and our organized communities.” They also said, “we know that so-called development means more problems for poor communities, and we are not interested in the development they are offering, because in the end the only thing they develop are transnational businesses. We care about our livelihoods and our children’s lives, and we want proposals to come from our communities, that respond to our interests, to our livelihoods, our needs, and our own worldview.
While Amando López residents were specifically referring to the Millennium Challenge Corporation in their address, they assure us that these sentiments apply to a wide array of initiatives being imposed on the region, including tourism. Amando López was the only community in the region to reject funding offered by Gustavo Guerrero.
The Jiquilisco Bay is one of El Salvador’s few remaining treasures, and residents know that once it’s gone – it’s gone. The mangrove forests protect the region from flooding, which is happening with greater frequency, and the Bay provides residents with food and a livlihood. Communities are very aware of how fragile their ecosystem is and are unlikely to let outsiders exploit it.
The argument for allowing tourism is that it will provide jobs and economic growth, but local residents understand that most jobs will go to people with degrees in tourism and hotel management. They also know that profits will be distributed to investors in San Salvador and beyond and not stay local. Residents of the Lower Lempa also know better than to count on the government to enforce the environmental laws that are supposed to protect their natural resources.
But as pointed out by our friends in Amando López, there is a bigger issue at play. Many in the Lower Lempa are not interested in the kinds of development that wealthy investors from San Salvador are selling. Communities prioritize food security over tourism, and a healthy environment for their kids over a larger income for themselves. Amando López residents said “this land is ours and we will defend it with the same courage with which we won it.”
Royal Decameron says that they still have to work out some land acquisition issues, so this is a story that will likely play out over the next several years. Along the way they will likely face a healthy opposition to their ideas of development.