agriculture, Agua/Aqua, Climate Change, Corruption, Economy, Environment

The Water Crisis in El Salvador

Versión Español

On 28 July 2010, through resolution 64/292, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognized the human right to water and sanitation, reaffirming that water is essential for the realization of all human rights; however, for a significant proportion of humanity this is not true. The Friends of the Earth International Federation (FoEI) says that over 1 billion people lack clean water and more than 5 million die each year from water-related diseases.

El Salvador is one of the countries in the world facing a profound water crisis. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reports that El Salvador has 1,752 cubic meters per capita per year, which almost qualifies as “water stress.” This serious lack of water is related to deforestation and to the contamination of surface water bodies. According to the Salvadoran Ministry of Environment: more than 90% of surface waters are contaminated and only 10% are suitable for drinking by conventional methods.

In the opinion of the Office of the Procurator for the Defense of Human Rights, this situation of pollution and environmental degradation represents an accumulated evil throughout history that was deepened by the lack of diligence of the authorities, relegating the environmental issue of all State policies. For this reason, in 2006, a group of social organizations submitted a proposal for a General Water Law, which explained that the existing legal framework was obsolete and fragmented and couldn’t provide the population with resolutions. The law was based on principles such as: participation, full access, a focus on basins, sustainability and decentralization.

According to Carolina Amaya, environmental activist with the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES), the main reason for not approving the General Water Law is because the right-wing business leaders represented in the Legislative Assembly, intend to control the water issue, they want to control the institutions that privatize water. This breaking point is the main motive that has interrupted the discussion of the law. In Amaya’s words, “allowing large private enterprises to have control over water management is like putting the coyote in the care of hens.”

This lack of regulation allows golf course owners, bottling companies, sugarcane producers, and other private interests to use as much water as they want, no matter how it affects local communities. One media outlet reported that a golf course has all the water it needs while nearby towns struggle to meet their daily needs. Likewise, residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Usulutan argue that sugarcane producers are depleting their water sources.

These social sectors that hold economic and political power say that water is a commodity that is bought and sold, and the only way to manage it efficiently is to let the market take over. This neoliberal thinking is rejected by various civil society organizations arguing that water is a common good and its access is a basic human right.

Conflicting visions often manifested in street closures for protests of lack of water, while companies engaged in the production of carbonated and alcoholic beverages using millions of liters a day, equally large shopping malls and exclusive residences use excessive amounts of water without any restriction. The bottom line; unequal access to potable water is a clear indicator of social injustice in El Salvador.

Crisis de Agua en El Salvador

El 28 de julio de 2010, a través de la Resolución 64/292, la Asamblea General de las Naciones Unidas reconoció el derecho humano al agua y al saneamiento, reafirmando que el agua es esencial para la realización de todos los derechos humanos; sin embargo, para una importante proporción de la humanidad este derecho no se cumple. La Federación Amigos de la Tierra Internacional afirma que más de mil millones de personas carecen de agua limpia y que más de 5 millones fallecen cada año por enfermedades relacionadas con el agua.

El Salvador es uno de los países del mundo que enfrenta una profunda crisis hídrica, la CEPAL reporta que el país cuenta con 1,752 metros cúbicos per cápita por año, y lo califica en una situación cercana a lo que se conoce como stress hídrico. Esta escasez tiene que ver con la deforestación y con la contaminación de los cuerpos superficiales de agua, el Ministerio de Medio Ambiente salvadoreño afirma que más del 90% de las aguas superficiales se encuentran contaminadas y que únicamente el 10% son aptas para potabilizar por métodos convencionales.

En opinión de la Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, esta situación de contaminación y degradación ambiental representa un mal acumulado a lo largo de la historia que se fue profundizando por la falta de diligencia de las autoridades, relegando el tema ambiental de todas las políticas estatales. Por esta razón fue que en 2006 un grupo de organizaciones sociales presentaron una propuesta de Ley General de Aguas, explicando que el marco legal existente es obsoleto y fragmentado y no da respuestas a la población, por lo que se requiere una ley basada en principios como: la participación, el pleno acceso, el enfoque de cuenca, la sustentabilidad y la descentralización.

Once años más tarde aún no se cuenta con la referida ley, Para Carolina Amaya, activista ambiental de la Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña, la razón de fondo por la cual no se aprueba la Ley General de Aguas es porque las cúpulas empresariales representadas en la Asamblea Legislativa por los partidos de derecha, pretenden tener el control de la institución rectora del agua, quieren controlar la institucionalidad para luego privatizar el agua, este es el punto de quiebre y principal motivo que ha entrampado la discusión de la ley. En palabras de Amaya, permitir que la gran empresa privada tenga el control en la gestión del agua, es como poner al coyote a cuidar a las gallinas.

Esta falta de regulación permite a los propietarios de campos de golf, compañías embotelladoras, productores de caña de azúcar, y otros intereses privados utilizar toda el agua que quieran, sin importar la forma en que afecta a las comunidades locales. Un medio de comunicación publicó que un campo de golf tiene toda el agua que necesita mientras que las poblaciones cercanas luchan para satisfacer sus necesidades diarias. Del mismo modo, los residentes de la región del Bajo Lempa en Usulután sostienen que los productores de caña de azúcar están agotando las fuentes de agua.

Estos sectores sociales que ostentan poder económico y político sostienen que el agua es una mercancía que se compra y se vende, y la única manera de administrarla eficientemente es dejando que sea el mercado quien se hace cargo. Este pensamiento neoliberal es rechazado por diversas organizaciones de la sociedad civil argumentando que el agua es un bien común y su acceso es un derecho humano básico.

Visiones enfrentadas que se manifiestan con frecuencia en cierres de calles en protesta por la falta de agua, al mismo tiempo las empresas dedicadas a producir bebidas carbonatadas y alcohólicas gastan millones de litros al día, igualmente grandes centros comerciales y residencias exclusivas usan cantidades excesivas de agua sin ninguna restricción. El acceso desigual al agua potable es un indicador claro de la injusticia social en El Salvador.

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Climate Change, Disasters

May’s Storm Surges Disrupt Coastal Water Tables

Since May 2-3, Salvadoran coastal communities have experienced a series of large waves, or storm surges, that roar over the shoreline and inland. La Libertad, Majahual, and other communities have suffered significant loss, including at least one death. The surges have been reported from Mexico to Chile and are believed to be the result of storms far out in the Pacific Ocean.

Dramatic videos show large waves flooding houses, swimming pools, restaurants, and seaside villages, but they don’t show the long-term affect on water tables in coastal communities.

MontecristoMontecristo in the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulután reports that since the surges began earlier in the month, their well water has been contaminated with seawater. There is no freshwater available in the community. This would be a serious issue in any community, but for Montecristo it is especially serious because the community is located in dense mangrove forests and is only accessible by foot or boat. There is no way that a water truck could get to Montecristo and supply them with fresh water.

Voices on the Border met with the community leaders and the Bajo Lempa Water Cooperative and have begun the process of getting them tapped into the region’s water system, but this will take time and a relatively large financial investment. And the community wants to be sure that they do not disturb the mangrove forests they are charged with protecting. In the meantime, the community has to bring in 5-gallon jugs of water by boat – an expense that no one can afford. Voices will meet with the community again next week to continue planning how to best address the issue.

There are reports that many small communities along the coast are reporting the same issue – salinization of their well water.

Storm surges are not random occurrences. They are a product of hurricanes and cyclones, and can travel for thousands of miles, affecting regions far from the storm. Scientists predict that as ambient and ocean temperatures rise with climate change, and cause larger more powerful storms, coastal regions will be subject to larger and more devastating surges. The National Center for Atmospheric Research predicts that “the greatest threats from sea level rise and future storm-surge effects will likely occur along the Pacific Coast,” which is where the latest storm surges landed.

In 2009, the Center for Global Development published a paper titled, “Climate Change and the Future of Storm-Surge Disasters in Developing Countries.” It identifies El Salvador as among the top five low-income countries vulnerable to storm surges. They estimate that more than 50% of El Salvador’s coastal agricultural economy and nearly 100% of wetlands are at risk of flooding caused by storm surges. “For the majority of indicators used in this research, we observe the most consistently-severe exposure to risks for El Salvador, Yemen, Djibouti, Mozambique, and Togo.”

Even more specific, however, in a paper published in 2007 titled “Vulnerability and Adaption to Climate Change of Rural Populations in the Coastal Plain of El Salvador,” experts predicted that water tables in the Bajo Lempa would be salinized by 2020. The report says there is a medium to high level of threat that by 2020 there will be “salinization of aquifers due to the combined effects of floods and tides in the coastal fringe.”

This month’s storm surges are just another reminder that climate change is a reality and is happening now, and it is the impoverished communities around the world are suffering the consequences. Even if we are able to get Montecristo tapped into the Bajo Lempa water system, it won’t decrease the emissions of green house gases or decrease the risks of future storm surges, hurricanes, floods, and other disasters.

Economy, Environment

Environmental, Cultural, and Economic Costs of Sugarcane Cultivation too High for Amando Lopez Community

Residents of Amando Lopez, a Canton of Jiquilisco, Usulután, and local civil society organizations, want to stop large-scale cultivation of sugarcane in their community. On one level, theirs is an environmental struggle. On another, it’s a struggle against globalization and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies of private investment and consumerism.

A 2013 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that “higher yielding sugarcane varieties, diversification of the industry into the production of energy and alcohol/ethanol, investment in milling equipment to improve sugar yields, and additional access to the U.S. market due to CAFTA-DR will all benefit El Salvador’s sugar industry over the next 3 to 5 years.” What investors want and need is more land.

In the final months of 2014, more than 10% of the population of Amando Lopez fled the community, many overnight, to escape death threats from violent gangs. They left behind their possessions, homes, businesses, and farmland. Some relocated to other regions of El Salvador. Others fled north to the United States and were detained on the border (a topic for another post). When they left, sugarcane producers wasted no time acquiring abandoned farmland. Families that would have never considered leasing land to sugarcane farmers were all of a sudden unable to say no because they needed the income to rebuild their lives.

Those who fled did so because they were in serious danger. Political scientists identify a nexus between globalization and the violence Amando Lopez and other communities are experiencing (good reads here and here). They argue that economically impoverished communities exposed to market forces and consumerism are unable to participate in the globalized economy in a meaningful, healthy, or satisfying way. This produces strong feelings of inequality, and a breakdown in family structures and social networks that allow for gangs and violence. Residents of Amando Lopez have largely protected themselves from market forces and consumerism, but last year gangs from other regions moved in and recruited local youth with phones, clothing, shoes, and money. As the threats and violence commenced, the community became even more vulnerable to globalized interests seeking land for sugarcane production.

Sugarcane is not new to Amando Lopez; farmers have grown small, organic crops for years to feed livestock and make sugar for local consumption. While these small crops are ok, the community is opposed to large-scale production that negatively affect their environment and public health, and further expose them to market forces. Their main concern is the use of toxic agrochemicals – insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and ripeners. When sprayed these agrochemicals drift to nearby farms, forests, water resources, homes, and schools. Post-application they leach into the soil and water.

For example, the community is concerned about is Glyphosate (Monsanto’s Round Up), which is used as an herbicide and a ripener (ensures that a crop is ripe and ready to harvest all at once). In March, the World Health Organization released a report concluding that Glyphosate is a “likely carcinogenic” and associated with spontaneous abortions, birth defects, skin defects, respiratory illness, and neurological disease. Russia, Mexico, and the Netherlands have banned the use of Glyphosate, and last month 30,000 doctors and health professionals in Argentina demanded that their government also ban it. Colombia recently prohibited the use of Glyphosate in national parks, citing environmental impacts.

In addition to the use of agrochemicals, residents oppose the practice of burning fields before harvesting a crop – growers do so to remove foliage, making cane easier and less expensive to cut, load, and transport. Burning, however, sends chemical-laden smoke and ash throughout the region, contaminating soil, farmland, water, and communities, causing high rates of respiratory illness.

Residents of Amando Lopez are also concerned that once one sugarcane producer starts growing and contaminates neighboring farmland, other farmers will be forced to lease their land just to survive. Others might be tempted by short-term financial gains. Once exposure to these market forces and investors begins, it will disrupt the entire economic and social structure that community leaders have tried to preserve.

Amando Lopez is not the first community in the Bajo Lempa to be faced with large-scale sugarcane production. Jose “Mario” Santos Guevara, the President of ACUDESBAL, a local organization recently said, “Sugarcane cultivation is growing at an exponential rate in the Bajo Lempa. It is being planted all the way up to the yards of houses, and the damage caused is serious. We have to put an end to these abuses. We are poor people, but we have dignity and we are not going to permit these types of violations of our right to live in a healthy environment.”

Last October/November the community of La Tirana, a small coastal community to the south of Amando Lopez, stood up to an investor who wanted to plant several hundred acres of sugarcane in a field adjacent to fragile mangrove forests. La Tirana residents, accompanied by civil society organizations, were successful, at least for the short term, and continue working to prevent future efforts to plant sugarcane.

La Tirana, Amando Lopez and civil society organizations are trying to get the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN, in Spanish) and the municipal government to intervene. Lic. Lina Pohl, Minster of the Environment, acknowledges that the law prohibits actions that harm mangroves. She also said that MARN will approve a plan that, in part, will reduce the use of agrochemicals and burning sugarcane in and around those protected regions. That is positive for La Tirana, but offers little protection for Amando Lopez.

Min. Pohl recognizes that there are lands subject to change of use, indicating that they would be appropriate for sugarcane production. She also indicated that MARN would have to approve changes, perhaps meaning that new sugarcane crops would be subject to environmental permitting. The law requires a permit for new agricultural projects, but MARN has never enforced it. Sugarcane growers in Amando Lopez have already begun plowing and clearing trees, and are likely to plant later this month when the rainy season begins in earnest. But there is no indication that the grower has applied for or received an environmental permit, or that MARN officials will require them to do so.

La Tirana and civil society organizations have also been pressuring the municipal government of Jiquilisco to stop destructive large-scale sugarcane production. The municipal council is considering a new ordinance that would regulate the use of agrochemicals and prohibit new sugarcane projects. The ordinance has not passed yet, and would do little to stop the new project in Amando Lopez.

Residents of Amando Lopez have worked hard for many years to protect their environment and natural resources in order to provide their youth a healthy place to grow up. Even though the community has been struggling and lost 10% of its population, they are not going to stand by and allow private investors to contaminate their land and water, and make their children sick with agrochemicals, just so they can make money. And they are not going to allow globalization and market forces to deconstruct the campesino culture and local economy.

Voices Developments

Voices’ Fall 2014 Newsletter (Eng & Spa)

Voices’ staff just finished up a newsletter reporting on our work and the important issues going on in Ciudad Segundo Montes (CSM) in the Mountains of Morazán, as well as the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula regions in the Bay of Jiquilisco, Usulután.

Voices Newsletter Sept. 2014 (spa)Vocies Newsletter Sept. 2014 (Eng)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to information about the 25th Anniversary Celebrations in CSM, and the November Fact-Finding Delegation to the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, our newsletter provides details on the workshops and trainings we’ve been holding, our small grants program, and the delegations we’ve led so far this year.

Enjoy!

agriculture, Economy, El Salvador Government, Food Security, U.S. Relations

Free Trade Threatens El Salvador’s Seed Distribution Program

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Agricultural workers in the Bajo Lempa harvesting seed corn for the MAG’s distribution program

In recent months conservative groups and the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador have criticized a popular seed distribution program run by the Salvadoran Ministry of Agriculture (MAG). They allege the Ministry’s procurement of seeds violates section 9.2 of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and lacks transparency.

Salvadoran farmers, however, argue that the seed distribution program provides real benefits to farmers and farming cooperatives, and that if there is a problem it is rooted in CAFTA and free trade.

Since 2004, the Salvadoran Ministry of Agriculture (MAG, in Spanish) has provided seed packages to small farmers in one form or another. The latest incarnation of the program is part of the Family Farming Program. In 2012, Vice-Minister Hugo Flores told the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that “after 20 years of neo-liberalism – a model that has neglected subsistence farmers, which total some 325,000 in the country, and left them in a situation of extreme poverty – a targeted approach had to be put into action given the lack of technical assistance for these sectors.”

Every year MAG buys beans and white corn seed, primarily from Salvadoran producers, and distributes them along with 100 pounds of fertilizer to peasant farmers. The seeds program amounts to a small agricultural subsidy of less than $100 per family, covering only part of the cost of producing corn and beans.

The program is very popular with the cooperatives that produce the seed and the small farmers who receive them. Will Hernandez, a member of the Nueva Esperanza Model Cooperative, told Voices on the Border, “the seed program has strengthened our cooperative, both economically and technically. Before it was just transnational corporations that had the capacity to produce seeds [on a large scale], now we also have the technical capacity.” In addition, the seed program generates employment in rural areas. Mr. Hernandez said that in 2013 the seed program resulted in $1.5 million in wages in rural communities, which is particularly important for thousands of peasant families.

MAG officials say the seed distribution program promotes domestic production of basic grains and food security for the population. They report the program resulted in a record 22.6 million bushels of corn and 2.7 million bushels of beans at harvest in 2013.

In April, MAG distributed more than 188,000 seed packages to small farmers throughout El Salvador. MAG officials plan to distribute more than twice that amount the first week of May to reach of total of 400,000 packages for the year, almost all small farmers in El Salvador.

In January, Vice-Minister Flores said that MAG will “prioritize domestic seeds and the importation of seeds will depend on the offers that we have. Last year we imported 8% of the seeds, because the cooperatives were unable to satisfy demand.” In fact, last year 17 Salvadoran Agricultural Cooperatives, three of which are located in the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulután, supplied more than 91% of all the seed used in the MAG packages. The remaining 9% was from Guatemala and purchased on the Bolsa de Productos y Servicios de El Salvador (BOLPROS, in Spanish) market. The domestically produced seed cost the MAG $124 per quintal while the imported seed bought at the BOLPROS seed cost $132 per quintal. The domestic seeds used in the program are a specific hybrid and the MAG carefully monitors its quality.

The decision to buy domestic seeds was not just MAG’s. In December 2012 the Legislative Assembly passed Law No. 198, entitled the “Temporary Special Provisions for the Promotion of Certified Production of Corn and Bean Seed.” The law required that all seed used in the agricultural packages be purchased from Salvadoran farmers. Law No. 198 expired in December 2013, at which time the Legislature passed the Temporary Special Provisions to Promote the Production of Basic Grains, which governs the seed program this year. The new law allowed the MAG to purchase seed directly from Salvadoran farmers without going through an open bidding process or purchasing on the BOLPROS. The justification was that the Ministry did not have time to go through the procurement process and still have the seeds ready to distribute by April and May.

There are several reasons why it is more beneficial for the MAG to purchase seeds for the distribution program from Salvadoran cooperatives. As Vice-Minister Flores and Mr. Hernandez pointed out, the program invests in the technical capacity of farming cooperatives. Similarly, the money invested in the seed distribution program, $25 million in 2013, remains in the Salvadoran economy and generates jobs rural communities where they are needed most. Another benefit is that the domestic seeds in 2013 were $8/quintal less than the seed from Guatemala bought off the BOLPROS. This is likely due in part of the cost of transporting seeds from Guatemala to El Salvador. Another reason for contracting with Salvadoran growers is that the MAG can more easily monitor the quality of seed they are buying. The government works directly with farmers on producing hybrid seeds that are able to better withstand El Salvador’s increasingly extreme climate, which can present drought and floods in the same growing season.

Despite the economic and social benefits, John Barrett, an Economic Advisor for the U.S. Embassy, and Amy Angel, an agricultural economist with FUSADES, argue that requiring MAG to buy seed from domestic producers violates CAFTA. Section 9.2 of CAFTA requires the Salvadoran government to give domestic and international providers equal consideration and treatment when procuring goods and services. If the government wants to buy seeds or any other goods or services, Section 9.2 requires that it treat all interested vendors the same, without giving preference based nationality or country of origin.

Amy Angel and members of the ARENA political party also argue that the procurement process this year violated the Law on Acquisitions and Contracts for Public Administration (LACAP, in Spanish) and lacks transparency. Ms. Angel argues that Article 72 of LACAP requires specific conditions to be in place in order for the MAG to directly purchase seeds from the Salvadoran cooperatives, and that the seed purchases did not meet any of the conditions. She rejects the argument that the MAG did not have time to go through a formal bidding process. Ms. Angle says that even if they did not have time they could have gotten a third party to contract with buyers or just bought seeds off the BOLPROS, which would have made the procurement process transparent and CAFTA-compliant.

In January when the Legislative Assembly passed the Temporary Special Provisions to Promote the Production of Basic Grains bill, the rightwing ARENA political party accused MAG of ignoring LACAP and transparency norms in order to give “benefits to one of the FMLN businesses, Alba Alimentos.” Members of the leftwing FMLN party created ALBA in 2006 as a framework for working with the Bloivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas, an economic trade alternative created by Venezuela. In April,Minister of Agriculture Pablo Ochoa reiterated that the reason for bypassing the formal procurement process was a time issue, and the claim that ALBA is at all involved in the seed program was a politically motivated claim that is untrue.

The seed program’s apparent violation of CAFTA is one of several issues that is currently holding up the release if the Millennium Challenge Corporation funds – a $284 million grant from the U.S. government to help develop El Salvador’s economy. While there is no indication that the U.S. government is planning to file a complaint against El Salvador over the program, John Barrett said “the seed issue is very important because it is an example of where the Salvadoran Government has to give confidence in how it will respect their obligations to free trade.”

According to Jose Santos Guevara, Coordinator of the Movement of Victims of Climate Change, the problem is not the seed program – it’s CAFTA. He believes the U.S. Government is using free trade to allow giant transnational organizations like Monsanto take even more control over El Salvador’s agricultural sector. Monsanto is the largest seed company in the word, controlling more than a forth of the global seed market. A few years ago Monsanto bought Semillas Cristiani Bunkard, the largest seed company in Central America, for more than $100 million, taking control of the regional seed market.

The United States, Central American countries, and the Dominican Republic all signed and ratified CAFTA in 2006. By 2011 U.S. exports to El Salvador had risen more than a billion dollars, a number the U.S. government says was low due to a spike in fuel prices. During the same period Salvadoran imports to the U.S. rose half that amount, resulting in a significant trade deficit that did not exist pre-CAFTA. More relevant to Salvadoran peasant farmers, in the seven-years between 2006 and 2013 U.S. agricultural exports to El Salvador doubled to $467 million. The US claims that under free trade they have increased its agricultural exports around the world by $4 billion. The U.S. maintains a trade surplus in agricultural products in part by ensuring that U.S. farmers, which receive large agricultural subsidies, have access to foreign markets and can compete in the kind of procurement opportunities like the MAG’s seed distribution program. While free trade has been good in allowing U.S. farmers to access to Salvadoran markets, it has been bad for the Salvadoran economy and the peasant farmers who are trying to survive and feed their families.

Every dollar (and it is dollars because in 2001 El Salvador traded the Colon for the U.S. dollar) that El Salvador spends on agricultural imports is a dollar that leaves the local economy and not invested in local farmers and agricultural workers. If MAG officials are forced to allow international producers to bid on contracts for the seed distribution program, it is likely to increase the trade deficit with the U.S even more. It will mean the 17 cooperatives that have been providing the seeds will lose their most stable source of income, and agricultural workers will loose their jobs.

Perhaps the MAG’s seed distribution program violates the Central American Free Trade Agreement, but that does not make it a bad program. It is just another reason why CAFTA and free trade are bad policies.