Thoughts from the Air

First of all, I have not posted in such a long time because I am now working full time as Co-Coordinator of US El Salvador Sister Cities, and I don’t seem to find as much writing time as I did last year as a volunteer. So, for what it’s worth, that’s why.

IMG_5549As I write this, I am sitting in a plane crammed to the brim on its way to El Salvador after spending just over 2 weeks popping all over the US – New Jersey, Philly, Annapolis, and Texas.  People often ask me what I think about the US when I come back to visit, if it seems totally bonkers, if I seethe with judgment at the excesses that abound in my home country.  The truth is yes, it does seem pretty bonkers, but no to the seething part.

I start out by telling people that there are things I find absolutely insane in both countries, and assure them that I am not “anti-American” (a common concern among family members who read my blog).  Have I learned things that make me critical of many US foreign policies and parts of our culture that the more my eyes are opened the more I see that they are killing us a slow death of depersonalization? – Certainly. But I also think that being critical of my nation and its policies, practices, and peculiarities is one of the most American things I can do. I love my country, and I feel a deepening sense of belonging to it (especially to the beautiful state of Texas), but the worst thing I could do as an American is blindly accept and approve of it all.

The first thing that always hits me when I come back is how depersonalized things are – at the Houston and Dallas airports, there is an ongoing effort to reduce all human interaction as much as possible. You step off the plane and follow arrows pointing you to where to go, push buttons on machines to pass through different checkpoints, and even food court restaurant menus are increasingly electronic.  But it doesn’t stop when I finally self-direct my way out of the airport – people get directions and recommendations on their electronic devices, grocery store check-outs are self-service, and we do not know our neighbors.  I have little doubt that this kind of isolation and dehumanization has something to do with the kind of mental health disasters that make the news all-too frequently these days.

Another thing that is always shocking is how much we feel we need to be in control – it makes us feel safe, and by all means we must feel safe. We plan everything down to the last minute, and we like to know what is coming.  We make our living environments as sterile as possible, and we depend on technology to tell us what is coming – with the weather, driving directions, and social events – so that we will never be surprised and we’ll never have to not know what’s going on.  We even control the temperature around us, losing touch with the seasons and the movement of the sun across the sky. I feel disoriented by these things, not perhaps because they are bad or good, but because they are in stark contrast to what I am used to in El Salvador and how I connect to each moment and my surroundings.

It is difficult to see the excesses that people have, but not because I am angry at people for having too much while so many other have so little.  Actually, the excess stuff that fills the lives of so many Americans makes me profoundly sad for them. I see a desperate search for security, belonging, self-value, and acceptance that will never be satisfied by the things people seek to fill them with.  I wish they could experience instead that the practice of generosity and the ways that giving away more than you have can be filling and life-giving.  Studies show over and over again that the more people have, the less they give. I see this in El Salvador where friends, neighbors, and strangers who have very little are so extremely willing to give of themselves and their belongings. But we have been taught that our stuff equates to our security, that we must have a thing for each possible need, want, or whim. Meanwhile we’re talking to machines and rolling around in air conditioned hamster balls and wondering why we still haven’t gotten there yet.
IMG_1020These are the things that being away help me see about my home, about my culture, much like the way that when you’re baking you don’t notice the smell until you step outside and come back in. But just like the baking smells, there are rich, delicious things I notice as well. First of course is family, and the fact that I will never be loved and belong like I do here by my own family. I also love the cultural diversity and open-mindedness that is the result of living in a country of immigrants, a country that has absorbed the rejected, the innovators, the ahead-of-their-timers for over 400 years. I love being able to have tacos for breakfast, curry for lunch, and General Tso’s for dinner. I love that nearly all kids learn art and sports, and that schools are becoming increasingly holistic and work year by year to become more fertile ground for growth, creativity, and imagination. I love that we have public libraries, and I love bike lanes. I love that there are places and people who work to instill a love for nature and dirt and clean skies.

So please, don’t read my blog and believe that I am anti-American.  Read my criticisms and observations as affection for my home and for my people, as the practice of hoping that we can and must make our world a better place each day. And join me in trying to do so.

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Eco Tourism

On Sunday I went with Alex, Estela, and Cori, the other Sister Cities volunteer, to Cinquera, a quiet town tucked into the folds of the mountains at the end of an extremely bumpy dirt road.  It was one of the historic areas during the armed conflict in the 80s, as the mountains surrounding the town were filled with guerrilleros and suffered countless bombardments by the armed forces.

“If they had a bomb and couldn’t find where to drop it, they would just come drop it on these mountains,” we were told by Rafael, a former guerrillero and current park ranger in the municipality’s 1,600 acre Eco Park.

In front of Cinquera's church, where the bell tower shows visible damage from gunfire and bombs.  These bomb shells now serve as the church bells.

In front of Cinquera’s church, where the bell tower shows visible damage from gunfire and bombs. These bomb shells now serve as the church bells.

Eco Tourism is one of those trendy words these days, right up there with “Organic” and “Fair Trade” and “Farm Grown” and “All Natural”.  It’s been picked up by the marketing genius that puts leaves and brown writing on a label and in so doing convinces the people that it’s healthy and environmentally friendly.  Costa Rica is a great example of a country famous for offering tourism that both preserves and offers access to natural treasures like forests, beaches, and rivers.  It makes us feel good about ourselves and our vacations when we feel like we’re enjoying nature and helping to preserve it.  From a lounge chair under massive banana leaves and screeching monkeys, it’s easy to feel far away from the capitalist machine that we all know deep down is eating our souls and our environment.

But a visit to Cinquera’s rapidly growing Eco Park — which saw 13,000 visitors just last year — made me think about what is at the heart of this whole Eco Tourism thing.  There are those who argue that the term is an oxymoron, that the high-traffic and structural development intrinsic of tourism does not fit within the scope of ecological preservation.  And a lot of the time, those people are right.

Rafael guides us through the historic and ecologic tour of the park.

Rafael guides us through the historic and ecologic tour of the park.

I think it is important to think about what motivates these kinds of projects, and that determines a lot about the nature of such initiatives.  Eco Tourism projects that are started with the vision of a BUSINESS opportunity to MAKE MONEY are doomed to lose sight of the principles of preservation and natural integrity.  They become assets to be used to maximize profit.  But if you’re doing Eco Tourism because you want to protect the important resource of a natural area and people’s ability to remain connected to it.

The Cinquera Forest Eco Park was created because the former guerrilla fighters felt indebted to the trees that protected them from bombardments and provided shelter and food during the 12 years of armed conflict.  It was because they knew that the cycles of water, land erosion, and growth depend on a healthy forest.  All tourism development is secondary to those motivating factors.

Sister Cities staff and community leaders hike the trail in the Eco Park

Sister Cities staff and community leaders hike the trail in the Eco Park

The hostel is simple, and there’s nothing flashy about the tourism there.  Some people would rather not learn about the history of the conflict in that forest, but the team that manages the park insist that history is a part of the park that cannot be left out.  According to some tourism experts, they are not doing all they could.

But what is definitely true is that this forest has given life to the community of Cinquera and to the people who have rebuilt their lives and their community in the 21 years since the armed conflict ended.  And I think we have a lot to learn from them.

No means NO!

Gold mining is bad — it’s as simple as that.  In industrial quantities it requires the use of toxic chemicals and irrational quantities of water, and inevitably results in illness and suffering for the population, and environmental effects that are lasting and non-erasable.  And thanks to the insistence of the Salvadoran people, El Salvador is uniquely gold mining-free.

The Mesa, or the National Round Table Against Metallic Mining, presented the text of the proposed law before media and representatives of various organizations on Tuesday of this week.

The Mesa, or the National Round Table Against Metallic Mining, presented the text of the proposed law before media and representatives of various organizations on Tuesday of this week.

There used to be active gold mines around the 1880s to 1970s, but the fad waned and it didn’t seem to be that profitable of a prospect in El Salvador.  The sites of those mines are still plagued by contaminated water and devastating levels of disease in the population. But then in the ’90s as gold prices began to rise and interest was renewed, transnational mining companies began wanting to poke around in El Salvador again.  In 1995 a law passed in El Salvador allowing mining exploration, which gave companies permission to do studies in areas where it was thought that mining was viable and then request permission from the government to get digging.  Luckily, the noise made by the people ensured that no permits were actually granted, but these greedy companies were not deterred.

There is definitely current exploration, but no current extraction in El Salvador.  The Canadian company Pacific-Rim has even gone so far as trying to sue the country of El Salvador for denying their request for a mining permit (which was denied on environmental grounds), citing Free Trade agreements made in the mid 2000’s as grounds for the denouncement.  The current government has stood firm against such pressure, but elections are coming up in February, and who’s to say how the next government will respond?

That’s why the National Round Table Against Metallic Mining presented their new proposed law on Tuesday of this week, which will be presented in the legislative assembly on October 1st by a mass of people who are planning on marching the decree right up to the front door of the legislature.   I like this law, because it’s simple.  In 8 articles the law says:

There will be no metallic mining (exploration or extraction) in El Salvador.

There will be no exceptions made that might allow metallic mining in El Salvador.

Any further laws — past or present — that might seem to make it seem like mining is ok are overruled by this law.

No means NO!

Plain and simple, just like that.  Mining is bad, and it doesn’t have any benefits for El Salvador, so why would we want to allow it?  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we approached other issues with this attitude?  The pueblo has a capacity for seeing things with this kind of clarity that perhaps lawmakers and businessmen do not have.  And that is why it is eternally and extremely important for people to be aware of what is going on around them, and to stand up when something is wrong.  We can’t expect lawmakers and businessmen to make right decisions on their own, and that is what the United States needs to learn from El Salvador.

When we will say No means NO?

Agrochemicals — Part III

I posted less than a week ago about the deaths and illnesses being caused by the uncontrolled use of toxic agrochemicals throughout El Salvador, only to find out a day later that they had just approved a law in the legislative assembly that addresses just that.  The decree is awaiting approval by the President, Funes, but all signs seem to point to his approval.  I’ll try to give an overview of the decree in layman’s terms, and if at all possible, NOT be boring in the process.

In essence, the decree is actually just a modification of an existing law that was not being complied with and that was severely lacking.  The modifications prohibit the use of 53 agrochemicals, the names of which might as well be in Chinese for me, but in a recent press conference, it was explained that many of these chemicals are among those found in people suffering kidney failure.  The goal is to have these 53 checmicals 100% eliminated from the country over the course of the next 2 years.

Another main component of the decree is that it requires that all agrochemical containers have instructions and description of contents in Spanish.  What?  You mean they didn’t before?  Yes, that’s right.  Granted, a large percentage of the farmers using and buying these chemicals are illiterate, but even for those who do know how to read, they had no way of educating themselves on safe dosage and use of these toxic chemicals.

A third principal component of the decree is the restriction of areas where crop dusting from airplanes is permitted, and outlines severe monetary punishment for anyone that breaks this law.  Currently, planes drop huge amounts of agrochemicals on crops — large proportions of which are applied to sugarcane — that are often directly next to where people live.  This new decree creates a boundary of 100 meters from any residences, and also prohibits the use of crop dusting where basic grains are grown, which includes corn, rice, and beans.  The challenge now will be for the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock to force compliance.

The discussions inside the assembly where this decree was being discussed were interesting as well, and help shed light on the different political lenses through which this issue can be seen.  Representatives of the right wing argued that these agrochemicals are necessary to combat plagues that drastically affect crops and that, as a result, small farmers will be the most affected by this law.

However, Estela Hernandez, a representative of the Environmental Commission who spoke as representative at the assembly, responded by asserting that small farmers will actually benefit the most, since they are the ones currently in closest contact with the chemicals and forced to use them in order to compete and participate in the larger market that is drived by mega agro producers. Plus, there are actually lots of biological alternatives that have already been explored and implemented.  Hernandez emphasized that the people who will be hurt the most by this law will be the business people who make their millions on importing these chemicals.

In summary, this law is a really positive step in the right direction for environmental and health protection, but will depend on the continued participation of the Salvadoran people and responsibility in its government.  But let’s give it a fist pump for a step in the right direction!

Que viva el medio ambiente!!!!

Kidneys

I posted several months ago about the terrible contamination coming from sugar cane cultivation in the area where I’m living, and the dramatic effects these toxic agrochemicals have on people’s health and livelihood.  In the past couple of weeks, one of the major newspapers has published a series of stories about the truly shocking scope of kidney failure in this country and its ties to toxic agrochemicals.

Have you ever had a moment where you find out about something really terrible that is being done and that could be stopped, but then you — and everybody else around you — doesn’t do anything about it?  Well, it’s like that.

Here’s some of the stats just to make your jaw drop:

Kidney disease is the number one cause of death in El Salvador’s hospitals.

50 new diagnoses daily of renal failure (kidney disease)

18% of workers in the Bajo Lempa region (where I live) have chronic kidney disease

Alfredo Cristiani, president of the right wing political party ARENA, is one of El Salvador’s main pesticide importers.

The “Dirty Dozen” refers to twelve toxic agrochemicals banned from use in most countries, and which are used without any kind of control in El Salvador.  Many of these chemicals are produced by USA companies (where they are prohibited) and exported to El Salvador

And the best part? Despite strong correlational evidence, authorities continue to say that we just don’t have enough proof that kidney disease is caused by exposure to these chemicals.  Because in the real world laboratory you can’t have a true control group, and you can’t isolate contributing factors, and so nobody will probably ever be able to say “We have done our research, and we have determined that these thousands of people’s kidney disease was caused by exposure to this chemical,” because sometimes kidney disease is caused by diet or genetic predisposition or by other freak accidents.

It’s the same story all over the world in all manner of circumstances: we can’t prove that it was Syria’s government that killed hundreds of civilians with chemicals; we can’t prove that the earthquakes in Texas and Arkansas and other states are direct results of fracking for natural gas; we can’t prove that hundreds of people with leukemia were made sick by toxic chemicals used in the extraction process by Exxon…

But people are sick and lives are lost and the earth we depend on is being mindlessly abused, and for lack of “definitive proof” we simply watch it happen. Because in the end, isn’t there always somebody who is benefiting from these abuses?

Culture Shock

IMG_5215A week ago I boarded a plane and came to the United States to visit friends and family, and to be a part of my niece’s first birthday, my best friend’s baby shower, a band mate’s moving away, and my grandfather’s surgery.  I was so excited to be back among all the people and places I’ve known as home and to recharge, but was also preparing myself mentally for the culture shock I knew was coming. And it did come.

I was in the Houston airport, a frightening place where people move without walking, a cup of yogurt costs $6, and the terminals are so far apart you have to take a shuttle to get from A to B.  I followed the arrows and the neatly groomed carpet hallways and finally climbed aboard the shuttle — a glass train with no conductor, where icy air was blasted on me despite the summer heat, full of obese people speaking English, and a robot woman warning me without emotion that the door was closing.  As the train darted towards Terminal B, I stood with one hand on my suitcase and the other hanging on for balance and I cried.

I should clarify that I’m not really a crier, I probably have about 5 real cries a year. But standing in that train, having already spent 15 minutes back on US ground without the necessity of speaking to or interacting with any human being, and having not felt the warmth or humidity or movement of the air outside, I was shocked by the ways that in this place we live isolated, out of touch lives.  It didn’t feel real, yet I knew it was a reality, and perhaps the most frightening part of a reality like this is that it is one that we have CHOSEN and CREATED — on purpose.

There are shocking realities wherever I go, but it is especially shocking when a place that once felt like home — once felt kind of normal — suddenly seems so absurd it is hard to believe.  And I guess that’s what this reverse culture shock we all talk about is based on: it’s coming back to a place that felt steady and good and realizing how desperately far it is from the reality of most or from what is good and healthy.

Air conditioning is also shocking, at the same time that it is wonderful.  I Just can’t seem to re-get used to the fact that it can be high afternoon on a summer day and I can feel cold — not just cool, but cold.  On my second day at my parents’ house, I felt an anxious, almost desperate need to get out of the house.  I had spent most of my time inside, and felt so out of touch with the passing of the day and the movement of weather that it was like I was alive without breathing, or sleepwalking or something.  We don’t feel the heaviness of air right before it rains, and we don’t sweat when the sun climaxes to the highest point of the sky, and it is very strange and disorienting.  Do we know what space we occupy?

But of course, culture shock comes in small zaps, and overall I am having a wonderful experience and grateful to re-connect with so many people and places I love. Everybody gets used to their ‘normal’, absurd as it may be, and at the end of the day, we all hope for the same thing: to love and be loved.  And I do love these places and these people.

Milpa

The milpa is the umbilical cord that connects the hijos del maiz to their mamapacha; it is the stretch of land where families’ hope and faith are planted in the form of neon pink-painted kernels of corn, praying that the rain falls at the opportune moment and that the caterpillars don’t eat the plants before eeking out a single – or, if they’re lucky, double – ear of corn.  It is where they continue to cultivate corn even though the price of corn has fallen and the cost of planting and fertilizing has risen and so the harvest is almost wholly for their own consumption without possibility of selling.  It is also where boys become young men, working with little more than a machete and their own wiry arms that turn into solid trunks.

Marcelo, 10 years old, taking a break after working all morning clearing the milpa

Marcelo, 10 years old, taking a break after working all morning clearing the milpa

The rainy season began in full at the beginning of June, which means the ground is generally maintained damp by 3-6 rains per week.  After the first good rain storm the difference in Guajoyo was tangible; before the sun makes it over the mountains men in boots and sun-bleached work shirts fill the street and footpaths that lead to the surrounding areas where each man makes his milpa, armed with a machete and the occasional sprayer strapped to their backs.  A few hours later, once the kids have been sent off to school, the women – accompanied by a troupe of dogs – follow the same path to bring breakfast to the men.

Until the rains come is a time of rest between the harvest and the planting, when there’s plenty of time for things like soccer games and fishing for river shrimp.  But now everyone has their work to do, and the day not spent working their own field is a day to possibly be hired as a mozo to help in someone else’s field. Mozos are paid $5 to work approximately a 6 hour work day, so for my family to plant approximately an acre of corn, they paid $25 for the 5 mozos and $15 to the man who lent his oxen and plow to break the earth.  $40 is about as much as a man can hope to earn in a good week of hired work, which is hard to come by and hard to hold onto.

Father, son, and the hired mozos drop seed into the ground

Father, son, and the hired mozos drop seed into the ground

And because of this and because of the large amount of work that has to be done with no pay until the harvest some 6 months later, money is even harder to come by these days, and in my family we refer to this as “the time of the beans,” because most of the time there is only beans and tortillas to eat.  Even eggs are a commodity, because with the change of seasons comes a virus that attacks the chickens and the majority of people in Guajoyo lost most if not all of their chickens by the end of May.

A few weeks have passed since the planting, and plants ranging in size from 6 inches t 2 feet tall fill the milpas in curvy rows that are planted according to the dips and slant of the earth.  The time of the beans is passing, because as the plants get more established the workload is less heavy and the possibility of seeking paid work is slightly improved. Now is the time for fertilizing and mending fences and for going fishing in Rio Lempa, which is swollen and muddy with the rains. MILPA with ox

I have a new appreciation for the farmers’ faith, the incredible amount of faith it takes to leave a tiny seed buried in the ground and hope that the right combination of rain, sunshine, and control of insects work in your favor.  There was a 4 day stretch when it did not rain after the rains had supposedly started, and many who had planted were fearful that the seed would dry up in the ground or be eaten by insects before the rains came and the tiny kernel miraculously sprouted roots.  There is little certainty in farming, and there is a deep understanding that much of the outcome is far beyond man’s control.  It makes sense that many agricultural societies have a very mystical outlook on life; the mystery of the combination of a man’s faith in a small seed and the combined input of weather, wildlife, timing, and soil cannot be explained by logic or science alone.

About 2 weeks after planting, the corn is a sturdy 8 inches tall

About 2 weeks after planting, the corn is a sturdy 8 inches tall

When it was time for planting, I spent several mornings with Candida, the mom of the family I’m living with, hauling water from the river to fill the sprayers that her husband and son used to spread weed-killing poison on the milpa to make room for the corn to grow.  As we walked from the house to the field, then multiple trips to the river and back with large canteens of river water perched on our shoulders, we would talk about all sorts of things.   Candid has an extensive knowledge of native plants and their medicinal, nutritional, and spiritual properties.  Anywhere we go, she casually points out plants that to my untrained eye blend into one undistinguishable landscape, describing how it can be boiled or shredded or rubbed on one’s skin or smoked to heal illnesses of the body and of the heart.

One tree that overlooks the now happily sprouted corn in our milpa is, according to Candida, good for keeping secrets.  She explained that if when you have a newborn baby and they have stomach pains and cry a lot, you have to take the umbilical cord nub when it falls out, and without telling anyone where you’re going, go into the woods and find one of these trees.  Then you make a hole precisely the size and shape of the umbilical nub in the trunk of the tree, and deposit it in the hole.  With the umbilical cord tucked neatly inside, you whisper to the tree about what is ailing your baby, and ask it to heal him.  They did this for their third child, she tells me, and that is how he was rid of terrible stomach pains as a baby.MILPA jalar agua

The whole business of planting and growing and eating of what comes out of the earth makes me realize the vulnerability of these communities, but also the resiliency that familiarity of the earth and its plant and animal inhabitants gives them.  Here people have survived for hundreds of years not only on corn, but on knowing what plants are edible in times when the crops fail or war makes harvesting impossible.  Knowledge of their medicinal properties are how they survived illness before hospitals, and the milpa was school to generations of kids before the Ministry of Education built buildings and called them schools.  And I see what a profound loss it is that the momentum of the current time in history is taking us away from such knowledge; that sees crops as little more than yet another marketable good to be produced at the lowest possible expense.  And it makes me realize that the direction we’re going in makes us more and more vulnerable, even while it’s security we’re seeking.

The beast and the giant

In 2005, the people of San Jose Las Flores realized that workers from some company had arrived in their community and were opening fences between pastures and even cutting barbed wire, and generally snooping around on their land.  So they went to ask them what they were up to.

“We’re looking for mines,” they told them.

“Those were all disarmed after the war, years ago” responded the people from the community.

“No, we’re looking for gold mines.”

Felipe, mayor of San Jose Las Flores looks out on the site of a massacre that occurred over 25 years ago

Felipe, mayor of San Jose Las Flores looks out on the site of a massacre that occurred over 25 years ago

The community immediately reached out to ask other communities where gold mining had taken place whether it was a good or bad thing, and a neighboring community vehemently warned them against it, sending them videos and short documentaries about the harmful effects on the environment.  They quickly began the work of educating the rest of the community so they could stand united in saying that gold mining was not something they were interested in having in their community.

In the meanwhile, the workers had begun to bring in the huge machines that dig massive holes in the earth and were getting set up to go to work without any permits or anything.  Some of the community leaders invited them to come visit with them in the city hall.  These leaders explained to the man the hazards involved with gold mining until the man was convinced, and he asked their permission to get his equipment so he could pack up his team and leave.  The community leaders, glad for the communication, accompanied the man to load up his things and leave.

But the company continued to be stubborn, sending renewed forces of workers, and even showing up at the next community over to tell them that the city council of San Jose Las Flores had given them permission to continue work (much to their disappointment, the constant flow of information between communities kept that lie from going undiscovered).  It came to a climax when one day the jefe showed up with three carloads of workers and some very important-looking United Statesian and Canadian men in the neighboring town of Guarjila, and much to their surprise, a crowd of over 500 people were there to meet them at 6 in the morning, blocking the road.  The people surrounded the cars and told the men they had to get out of their vehicles and come talk to them.

“We tried negotiating with you people, but we realized that force is the only way you will listen to us.  So you and your workers get out of our community, and if you’re ever seen in our hills again I will not be responsible to what our people will do to you!” said the mayor.

And sure enough, the jubilant crowd led the procession and walked the 4 kilometers to escort the caravan out of town.  Although the struggle continued, the workers never stepped foot in the community again.

mineriaPeople prayed and fought to keep gold mining out of their community, and as a homage to their faith that God and the virgin had listened to their prayers and would continue to do so, the community carried on their backs a 500 pound porcelain virgin to set atop the hill where the men had been working, so that every year on September 14th the entire community has a huge celebration at the chapel built around her to remember the fact that their prayers were heard, and when the community told the gold miners to get out, they left.

The thing about this community is that they suffered hugely during the war, during resettlement, and in the years following.  They suffered for that land, they weren’t about to let some outsider in a nice suit destroy it.

I follow the Keystone XL Pipeline news with a heavy heart, I am so proud of all of those who are on the front lines or in the offices of TransCanada, but still the pipeline creeps forward.  The forces opposing the construction of this monstrosity of an economic endeavor are no small beast, but their numbers scarcely reflect the magnitude of the number of those whose lives would be negatively affected by the pipeline’s completion.  What would have happened if communities had the kind of ferocity and unanimity to stand up to this invader and say “No! We’ve struggled this land and love it as our mother, we will not let you destroy it!”

Instead, we hope the few will speak for us all.

I was inspired by this story that the mayor of San Jose Las Flores shared with us, given hope by the fact that a group of people saying “No!” were heeded.  But at the same time, with a heavy heart I wonder if our passivity and lack of a sense of ‘we’ might lose the battle for us.

for more information about the Keystone XL Pipeline, visit http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/

You are not alone.

I posted several weeks ago a brief report based on an interview with one of the thousands of men that work in the sugar can fields of El Salvador, and about how these workers are forced to poison themselves, their families, and the land in order to produce the cash crop for absent land owners.  Since then I have found more and more articles about issues with sugar cane in El Salvador and in other parts of Central America, problems with kidney failure, flooding, poor labor conditions, and so much more.

Artwork by a Haitian artist through Project Esperanza in the Dominican Republic. http://esperanzameanshope.org/

Artwork by a Haitian artist through Project Esperanza in the Dominican Republic. http://esperanzameanshope.org/

Being here, watching the ash of burning sugar cane falling around me, sharing a meal with the men who spend their days spraying pesticides on fields that are not their own, I am enraged.  I am pissed off.  I cannot believe we can be letting this happen.

But I imagine someone far away where sugar looks more like fairy dust than an agricultural product, and all it takes to add some sweet to ones diet is a stroll down the aisle at the grocery store.  I imagine this person saying “What do you expect us to do instead? It seems that everything is an environmental threat these days.”

And the thing is, that person in my imagination is right.  Everything is an environmental threat these days, and that’s not just because certain industries ignore environmental impacts, it is because we are digging ourselves deeper and deeper into confused tunnels where we can neither see the impacts of our actions nor find our way out when we want to.  And we´re so, so afraid to say anything.

It´s not just that these sugar cane farmers are spraying pesticides, but there is also nutritional issues and overly-sugary foods that predispose their kidneys to be affected by the harsh work in the sugar cane fields.  And it´s about a pre-existing poverty that makes it so people would rather get paid $5 a day to poison everything that is home to them than to refuse to do so, which would mean more immediate suffering.  It´s about a political structure that is based on the god of the 21st century more commonly referrred to as The Market.  It´s about a world in which the earth is seen as a commodity rather than as a mother.  It´s about all these things, and we can´t talk about health or human rights or development or sustainable agriculture or youth or violence without recognizing that they are all related to each other.

I know I say it all the time, but it all comes back to the whole solidarity thing.  I´ve been in the Sister Cities office here in San Salvador for a few days this week, and I can´t help but being impressed by the interconnectedness of the lucha here even just in the office.  While Estela works on a report about human rights in Honduras, Alex is talking with Alejandro from the Roundtable Against Metallic Mining, and I´m working with youth popular education organizers about doing trainings with high school students in the Lower Lempa region, where a big chunk of the sugar cane farming happens.

And you, reader, wherever you are, I hope you are fully metido — involved in — some fight for some cause, and I hope that you read this and you know that we are connected to me, to the sugar cane farmers, and to everyone else who refuses to be silent.

One of my best friends who I´ve known so long I can´t remember a time when I didn´t know her is metida in the fight against the TarSands pipeline in the US, and today I have the huge honor of reading her beautiful writing on the Huffington Post here.  We periodically get to skype with each other, and share stories about the luchas that life has put us in, or that we have put ourselves in.

I hope that for those of you reading my blog, it is not just one more hopeless story about our messed up world.  Things here in El Salvador can be very ugly, and there is a lot that we don´t even know about.  But I hope that if there is one take away from these stories, it is that each of us can — no, each of us MUST do something.  The fact that each issue is connected to a thousand others is not something to dispair, but a source of hope, because I think that in the massive web of it all there is a place for each of us.

You are not alone.

 

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