Mural — Phase I

About a month ago, the youth committee made the invitation to all artists in Guajoyo to participate in a contest to select the drawing to be painted en grande on a mural on the outside wall of the cyber café.  On Monday, the four drawings were turned in, and on Tuesday – following the take-over of the clinic – 150 community members placed their vote for the drawing they wanted to see permanently in this public space.  Here’s the drawings:

Symbols of a rural community and Salvadoran icons.

Symbols of a rural community and Salvadoran icons.

Organizational structures, agriculture, and patriarchy behind the youth of Guajoyo.  (This one is my drawing!)

Organizational structures, agriculture, and patriarchy behind the youth of Guajoyo. (This one is my drawing!)

Salvadoran landscape and wildlife

Salvadoran landscape and wildlife

Oscar Romero and Farabundo Marti -- two of the martyrs and important icons of the lucha in El Salvador.

Oscar Romero and Farabundo Marti — two of the martyrs and important icons of the lucha in El Salvador.

This mini project was funded in part by my church, Vox Veniae, which is a community of artists as well, and by Catie’s Special Fund – the money I don’t spend every month of the amount budgeted to me.  The Austin Sistering Committee supports me as a volunteer, and I see their donation as funds that belong to Guajoyo, so whatever I do not spend on food, bus rides, and phone calls, I set aside for little things that come up in the community.  When the suggestion of painting a mural came up among the youth as a way to create a space for young artists, I jumped on it.

In the end, my drawing won, some say in part because people wanted something left behind of me when I leave in 3 weeks.  Others liked it because it represents all the different organizational structures of the community.  Still others, because they were part of making the drawing.  In the midst of the excitement of the coup de clinic, I was rushing to finish the drawing, and several people young and old helped to create the finished drawing.

We’re scheduled to start painting on Saturday, with the support of a young man from a neighboring community who has some experience painting murals.  More pictures to come, showing the progress of the mural, so stay tuned!

Collaborative effort to finish the winning drawing in time for the vote!

Collaborative effort to finish the winning drawing in time for the vote!

Took the Clinic

Exif_JPEG_PICTURETuesday morning at 7:30 the doctor at the Eco Familiar in Guajoyo was scheduled to arrive to see patients.  As per usual, he showed up over 2 hours late, only to find a crowd awaiting him at the entrance, the gates chained closed, and a sign that read: “In agreement with the four communities, we will not let the doctor pass due to mistreatment of his patients and irresponsibility.  We deserve to be treated with dignity!”

Don Pablo explains the community's perspective to Dr Cabelleros

Don Pablo explains the community’s perspective to Dr Cabelleros

This was not the angry kind of protest where people yell things and badmouth; it was calm and dignified, with a selected delegation of people to discourse concisely the concerns and demands of the communities.  The demand was simple: that he turn in his key to the clinic and not return.  With the support of the head doctor for our region, the now-ousted Dr. Caballeros turned in his key, gathered his things, and rode away in the Ministry of Health’s pickup truck.  Unfortunately, I believe he will simply be transferred to another community, even though in the viewpoint of these four communities he is not suit to work as a doctor in any clinic in any community.

Nina Blanca was among the first women who showed up to demand dignified treatment at the EcoFamiliar

Nina Blanca was among the first women who showed up to demand dignified treatment at the EcoFamiliar

In a country where corruption is widespread, favoritism in well paid positions is rampant, and classism that places professionals above the normal person, these kinds of collective actions are often necessary.  It is simply part of the way things work that a strike is more effective than a well thought-out letter, or problem-solving meetings. But that doesn’t mean in a different context the same kind of actions aren’t necessary.  In the US, there are certainly public employees who don’t do their job well, doctors who mistreat their patients, and other functionaries who overstep their power and lack respect toward the general population.

The difference is that we in the US have great faith in the bureaucratic process, that process of “I’ll pass this along to the appropriate powers.”  And sometimes that’s really great, and our bureaucratic processes function a lot better than many of them here in El Salvador do, but that same faith can also blind us to the civic duty to react, to do something ourselves and not wait for someone else.

Dr. Cordoba, who is the regional head doctor and boss of Dr Caballeros, showed up to resolve the situation.

Dr. Cordoba, who is the regional head doctor and boss of Dr Caballeros, showed up to resolve the situation.

The same thing happens here, and although the activity on Tuesday morning was a success in many ways, it was also disappointing.  The four communities served by the EcoFamiliar are made up of over 200 families, each family usually consisting of 6-9 individuals.  Yet at the strike, only about 50 showed up to take the clinic and demand dignified treatment.  Community leaders face this frustration more and more as people get comfortable, and as their needs feel less and less urgent.

When El Salvador was in the throes of the armed conflict, people often could not get food and would go a week without eating.  People’s homes were bombarded and they were left with only the clothes on their backs.  Family members disappeared, children were kidnapped, sons left to serve in the guerrilla, and other forms of loss and familial disintegration.  People felt the need to demand their rights, they felt the need to show up to meetings, to work together.

Now, many of those families live in houses that keep rain and animals out; they do not fear bombs being dropped on them at any moment; they are able to do normal things like send their children to school, do the laundry, and make tamales.  Mostly, these things are thanks to the hard work and organization of community leaders.  But sometimes, these things come as handouts.  And these handouts create a culture of “assistance-ism”, the disappearance of motivation to work for the common good, the expectance for things to be given freely without a counterpart of work and commitment.

It’s complex, because on the one hand there are basic needs that are being met by these ‘handouts’ – houses, shoes, basic grains – but on the other hand, without the involvement of the people being benefitted, they can actually become very disempowering.

That’s why Sister Cities works through CRIPDES, whose focus actually isn’t projects, it’s community organization.  So when a funder shows up to do some sort of project – whether it be building houses, installing a community bakery, or giving out agricultural supplies – we go through the community structures in order to find out what the community’s needs are, and to figure out what will be the community’s counterpart.  Will people volunteer their labor to build the houses with donated supplies?  Will individuals dedicate themselves to the maintenance of the donated equipment?  Is the project something that the community itself has solicited?  Because that way the community becomes the owner of the project, of its success or failure, and it is clear from the beginning that without continual hard work, the project will not thrive.

It’s not perfect, and we don’t always do solidarity well, but it is the model we follow, the goal for which we aim.  Because it is the organization and the active participation of community members that will carry communities like Guajoyo into the future.  And that is the tireless work of the community leaders to inspire, to encourage, to educate, and to reach out to an increasingly comfortable population in an effort to never forget that a healthy community is built by active participation of each of its members.

Taking the Clinic

The new government implemented a program in El Salvador called Eco Familiar, which is essentially theidea of bringing preventative medicine to remote areas to keep disease from reaching emergency state, at which point overcrowded, underfunded hospitals are usually the only option.  It´s simple, it´s genius, and it´s working.

Except in Guajoyo, where the doctor assigned to our EcoFamiliar no sirve — he doesn´t work.  It began with complaints that he wasn´t respecting his schedule and would show up or leave whenever he wanted.  Then the complaints about disrespect or refusal to see patients started to surface.  Now, 9 months later, this doctor faces a community of enraged peasant families who tomorrow morning at 7:30 will take the clinic and refuse to let him enter.

When the situation first began to prove problematic, the community council called a meeting with the doctor and his boss to let them know what the complaints were so he could improve.  When he didn´t improve, we talked to his boss´s boss, whose response was to instal a log-in book in the home of one of the community leaders for the doctor to sign every day when he arrived and when he left the community, for accountability of his working hours.  The doctor signed the book, but habitually falsified the hour.  He would show up at 11:30am and leave at 1, but according to the book he was there from 7:28 to 3:32.  The boss´s boss reverted to the beaurocratic process in order to not deal with this uncomfortable situation.

But meanwhile people in Guajoyo and the neighboring communities were getting sick, and most refused to go to the clinic because of the behavior of the doctor.  Some patients were given incorrect medicine.  Some patients came to the clinic at the crack of dawn to wait to be attended, only to be denied service and badmouthed by the man whothey came to see.  There was one woman last week who gave birth in the hospital and when she came back home, realized the hospital had left something inside her, and she was at risk of infection and tons of other complications.  The doctor refused to go visit her, saying bruskly to the nurse who informed him of the situation “You´re not my boss to be telling me where to go”.

The stories are countless of his mistreatment of the people, but the important part is that this community, an organized community, won´t stand for this kind o f mistreatment.  Which is why tomorrow morning I will proudly  be standing by my friends blocking the entrance to the EcoFamiliar to demand dignified treatment.  Just because this community is poor does not deny them the right to be treated with dignity, and that is a lesson that we should all learn — that we should never stand for anyone for whatever reason to be denied dignity.

Photos to come soon, and an update on how the strike went!

Niña Marta

There are certain routines that define the passing of time in different places.  When I am in Guajoyo, the passing of the tarp-covered pickup truck marks the passing of the hours.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays the young boys´soccer team practices.  At 4 in the afternoon every day everybody is in the street — some are waiting for the pickup truck, the students are getting out of class, and the women young and old are walking with bowls of corn balanced on their heads to the community mill, while men who recently finished working in the fields come out with renewed energy to play soccer on the muddy field.

Now I have a new routine that marks the passing of each of the last 5 weeks of my stay in Guajoyo: at 2 I walk next door to the house of Niña Marta, one of the historic leaders and a force to be reckoned with in Guajoyo.  She is organizing groups of women in 4 different communitites to get together and talk about how to create the El Salvador we — and they — want.  Last week was the first meeting, and a huge storm came in at 1:45 in the afternoon.  Nevertheless, women trickled in under the pouring rain with an eagerness to learn that was energizing to me.

In view of the presidential elections coming up in February of next year, we reflected on the achievements and shortcomings of the current government — the first left wing President in El Salvador.  The women piped up energetically about the huge  benefit that the “school packets” program has been, which gives uniforms, shoes, and school supplies to every student, so that no child has to miss out on education due to financial limitations.  They talked about the support to small agriculture, and the new institutions that serve and empower women.  They also chimed in about the work still to be done — that high schools should provide meals to their students, that envirnomental measures need to be taken and made into law, that the wealthy of this country should be held accountable to pay their taxes, and that legal action must be carried out against public figures who steal — or “divert” — money.  They were full of ideas, and by the time 4:00 rolled around and the meeting ended with a snack of bread and juice, the conversations were still rolling.  I was awed by the maternal power that filled that space on a dreary Wednesday afternoon, and it filled me with hope for this country that is working seriously hard to listen to that maternal voice and create spaces for maternal power where the patriarchy has historically reigned.

Then at 4:30 comes the hour of Niña Marta´s granddaughter, another example of a powerful woman in this community.

Wendy is 17 going on 18, a scholarship recipient in her second to last year of high school, and she is leading a litteracy group with older women in the community.  This is one of the requirements of scholarship recipients through CRIPDES, and Wendy has started up with gusto.  About half of the group of women who come to Niña Marta´s group stick around after bread and juice to make up for the opportunities they didn´t have in a childhood that demanded work and submission instead of offering opportunities to learn.  Some learned a bit through the radio-transmitted educational programs that the guerrilla radio stations would broadcast during the armed conflict.  These groups understood that this was not a war to be won with arms alone, but also by educating and empowering the population.

The current government has made literacy a priority, and dozens of municipalities have already been declared “illiteracy-free” thanks to the efforts of people like Wendy, and with the support of the government.  Wendy gives each woman a workbook, and they laugh their way through the hour-and-a-half of copying sentences, drawing pictures, and sounding out written words.  The themes of the lectures they study include reproductive rights, parenting, agriculture, and citizen-centered democracy.  These women have vast knowledge to share on the subjects, and the literacy groups are a horizontal exchange of knowledge.

I love this routine of Wednesdays, of learning with these women who are the arteries of this community, who are thirsty for knowledge and eager to share the profound knowledge and wisdom they have collected through their decades of living.  And I am proud to be a neighbor to Wendy and Niña Marta, who take an active role in the growth and improvement of their country.

Don Tacho

José Anastasio Ayala Molina

José Anastasio Ayala Molina

I remember that day, the 5th of November 1995, when we arrived with 21 families – some from the coast and others from a community called Tres de Enero near Comalapa.  I came from the coast, where we began preparing the trucks the day before with the wood half-ruined sheet metal that people had, and the few other belongings we had.  That day, the day that we celebrate still, the people from the coast waited for the group coming from Tres de Enero in San Nicolas so we could all venture up the hill together, making the road as we went because everything had grown over during the war

We dumped out our things we had brought right there where Nina Mercedita lives today, and everyone started to make their little hut.  We spent that first night under a huge conacaste tree that used to be here where my house is today, and that night under the conacaste tree I felt security that I hadn’t felt for a long time.

On the morning of November 6th, we had a meeting with all the people that had come, with Marina – who was the CRIPDES coordinator at that time – and with the other people who had come to accompany us.  People came from other communities, from cooperatives, and from the church to be with us, and we felt very good that they were there.  There was still lots of activity of the armed forces in these hills, but we decided to have a dance the second night we were in Guajoyo; everyone was so happy.  We played the music and everybody was dancing.  We were so content in that dance that we didn’t even care when a helicopter passed overhead to drop a bomb.  It passed by looking for the guerrillas and dropped a bomb on the hill called La Campana, just up the road from where we were.  The next day all the people from nearby came to see if we were alive, because they heard the helicopter and thought they had killed us.

We were no longer afraid, and that’s why we kept dancing.  We had lost our fear of the imperialism of the armed forces.

The first work

Well, after that was when the real work started in this community, since when we got here on the 5th there weren’t trees or houses or streets or anything.  Shortly after our arrival, organizations started to send building materials – wood and sheet metal – to make huts.  We formed work groups of 8 to 10 people, and they would make one hut and then another.  We started here where I live and worked our way up the road making huts for each of the families, and after we had made huts for all the 21 families, we went back and helped build homes for the families that came after.

We formed a cooperative, because in those days they still hadn’t given out land to the people.  The cooperative here in Guajoyo was called La Venadera, and it lasted 4 years.  In the coop we would work the land, everybody together, so that everybody in the community had food to eat.  I remember the first year we worked the fields the corn was huge, and practically without fertilizer.  And all these trees that are here now – coconuts, mangos, oranges, avocado, jocote, eucalyptus, papaya – we planted all of them, and some of them came through projects to benefit the community.

Another important job we had in the first months was making the street, because the street that was there before the conflict, and which was in the same place where the main road passes now, had been lost.  It was really hard work, especially making the road that goes into Guajoyito now, but all of us worked together and we felt very content in our new community and proud of our work.

But the most important thing in those first months was the formation of the first directiva, or community council.  In 1992 we had a directiva with a president and everything.  I was the president when the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, and I remember going out on foot to La Florida  and Las Pampas for meetings, since there wasn’t any transportation still.  We were organized by CRIPDES, and they did a lot of work with the people in the communities here.  People would always seek me out as a leader here, but of course there were also always envious men.  They never let me become legalized as president of the directiva when it was legalized.  But at the same time, lots of projects came our way and they always sought me out to work with them.  There were grand projects that came to Guajoyo in those first years.

I had worked with CRIPDES and in community organizing quite a bit; I came to this place with a long history.

Before the repopulation

I was born in San Juan Buena Vista, a small village, in 1927, but I grew up in Honduras.  After my grandmother died we went to Honduras – I was 7 and my 3 sisters went with us.  We went by foot all that distance because there were no cars.

After the war in Honduras, I came here in 1971. I was 44 years old.  In Honduras I had a wife and kids, but I had to flee because there were people who wanted to kill me for being a campesino and because I was poor.  Some members of my family stayed to be with our family, but they killed them.

In 1972 I met the woman who I am still with today, and we spent the whole war together together and today we’re here still together.  Only with the FPL – one of the organizations of guerrillas – sent me to the north of San Vicente to work with the boys there did I leave her side, but I came back quickly to be with my family.  We were always moving from here to there because of the violence, and sometimes in the guinda we would have to flee very far and hide in the wilderness.

It was around that time, when everybody was running all over the place, that they tricked us and brought us to the coast.  There were 60 families that they told there was a place of refuge there on the coast, but on the way there we got lost in the wilderness for 3 days, and when we finally got there there was no refuge.  They sent the people to various different places.  But for better or for worse, we stayed there, and they put me in charge of forming a PPL – that’s what we called the community councils back then – but hardly anyone showed up at first.

The thing is that there was lots of division between the different groups that made up the FMLN.  We were part of the FPL, the organization that had the most people, but there were others, like the ERP – which had lots of fighters but very few people from the regular population – the PC, the PRTC, and the RN.  But there was a great level of organization in the coastal zone, and that’s where I learned how to organize and lead.

The FMLN wanted to send me away to work with them, but I didn’t want to go, so they left me there working as the coordinator of the church.  The church coordinated with CRIPDES, and that’s how I started working with them and was named as member of the departamental team of CRIPDES.  I was in charge of finances, and there were lots of development projects like the cultivation of shrimp and tilapia.  From there on the coast I eventually moved to San Carlos Lempa, where I got involved in the cooperative there, called El Coyol.  But I quit that work to come here to Guajoyo.

Our sister cities and projects

In 1992 and 1993 was when the sister relationships started.  We were invited to a meeting in the national university in San Salvador.  They asked me a ton of questions about how things were in Guajoyo.  There were three sister cities: Buffalo, McAllen, and then later Austin.  The group in Buffalo was rich – they had lots of money – although it didn’t last that long.  All three helped so much, and I admired these people who would arrive by foot to the community to support us and to get to know our community.

One day I went to one of the meetings in La Florida, and an organization called Fe Alegria was there and was offering a project to build schools.  I had to really put myself out there in that moment, because we really had a great need and lots of children who needed a school.  They were receiving classes from the popular educators in the community under a tree, but they got wet when it rained.  The schools had already all been given away when I got to that meeting, but one was given to a community called El Porvenir, and they ended up not wanting it, so it was given to Guajoyo.  In order to build that school we all worked hard.  From Sunday to Sunday we would hold assemblies to encourage the people who were working until it was completed.

Then came the water system project, in which the sister cities were extremely supportive.  We searched and searched for a good water source, because the springs near where people lived produce very little water.  Finally we found the vein up in the hills, so we went to search for the owner of the land to tell him we wanted to buy it from him.  In those days we were always tromping around all over the place like crazy, all over these hills and then in town to do all the paperwork, looking for good water for our community.

When we contacted the man who owned the land, he told us that he wasn’t willing to sell just the part of land that had the spring on it, that we would have to buy all of it – and it was huge.  He asked for 370,000 colones, and we ended up paying 300,000 colones.  A big portion came from the sister cities, which had given $60,000 to buy some oxen and carts for the cooperative.  But we wrote them a letter and together decided to use that money to help buy the land.  By a miracle and with lots of support we managed to buy all the land.  Then we sold parts of it, and 14 acres stayed in the hands of the community.  That land is still there, and we haven’t used it for anything else but where the water tank is.

All these cement block houses you see here are also from various projects.  My house was from a Swiss organization after the earthquake in 2001. The house of my sister, Marta, is from a project that was called San Vicente Productivo.  And sometimes the projects weren’t that good, and the houses were easily destroyed.  There in my plot of land you can see a cement foundation, which was the foundation of a house that was given to me, but a year later the walls fell.

Everything here has been achieved through the organization of the people, and with lots of support from people from the other communities and organizations here and in other countries.  I feel content now in my little home with my land and my wife.  Community organization today isn’t the same as it used to be, because now people expect just a handful of people to do everything, but that’s not what it’s about.  But I maintain hope that this community will continue to move forward, and that these youth can overcome all the difficulties that they are living today.

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?

Independence Day

Exif_JPEG_PICTURESeptember 15th is Central American Independence Day, the day that the Republic of Central America declared independence from Spain in 1821.  Over the course of the next several decades, the Republic began breaking up into different countries.  There was a group of people who were proponents of a single Central American republic, and many of those people were concentrated in the area now known as El Salvador.  But the forces of division were stronger, and by 1859 El Salvador was the last chunk of Central America that hadn’t broken off – hence its tiny size – and that year El Salvador declared itself an independent, free, and sovereign nation.

Students at the school in Guajoyo from 4th through 9th grade participate in traditional folk dance at this year's Independence Day Celebration.

Students at the school in Guajoyo from 4th through 9th grade participate in traditional folk dance at this year’s Independence Day Celebration.

Independence Day is an ironic holiday though, because many of us argue that El Salvador never really achieved independence, and certainly is not functioning as a sovereign nation today.  Ever since its independence in the 19th century, El Salvador has been at the mercy of the economic whims of the world’s super powers.  In the 1870s, Central America saw the construction of the first railroads, which made it possible for agricultural products to be easily transported to the Atlantic coast and exported to Europe, where the thirst for coffee was insatiable.  These railroads were built with money mostly from England, a project that made millions for English investors in coffee and the handful of Salvadoran coffee plantation owners, while stripping the population of lands and indigenous identity.

Then in the 19th century the United States emerged as a superpower, and took on the role (which we still maintain today) as international police and powerhouse of all the Americas.  The US built the Panama Canal – another major project of economic interest – and needed to protect their dominance in the Central American region so they could keep getting richer off the exportation and transportation that their new canal enabled.

Students dressed in traditional attire and donning symbolic items that represent the heritage of El Salvador paraded through the community on Saturday.

Students dressed in traditional attire and donning symbolic items that represent the heritage of El Salvador paraded through the community on Saturday.

The US dug its hands deeper into the pockets of El Salvador by giving loans to the government that were paid by the country’s import and export tariffs, and began buying off the railroad and mining companies that formed the backbone of trade and wealth in El Salvador.  In that way, the gringos managed to get their hands on great power in El Salvador, and with the support of the Salvadoran government.

See, it’s been the same story for centuries now: the people who control business and most of the land in the country are those who are in political power, and it is in their favor to maintain strong ties with the United States because their businesses and products benefit from the US market or the loans given by the gringo government or institutions.  But the problem is that this kind of relationship has historically only been beneficial to that small group of people who maintain political, social, and economic power.   In theory, the way international politics works is that each country is looking out for its own best interest, and will make policies and agreements that favor their national interest.  But the flaw in that theory is that countries with less power – like El Salvador – are often handed over by their own leaders to the whims of the global superpowers so that a few can benefit.

So, according to theory, can you really blame the US for looking out for its own best interest?  But in practice, can you really expect countries with a weaker economy and less development to stand up to an economic power like the US?

Here are some of the examples of how El Salvador is not operating as a sovereign nation today:

  • Even though El Salvador is a country of agricultural production with capacity to produce all the basic grains consumed within the country, increasing percentages of basic grains (including corn and beans) are imported, and mostly from the US.
  • Infrastructural development – like roads, electricity, and water – depends on projects funded by organizations in other countries.  The Salvadoran government is easily manipulated by the governments of those countries, who might say something like  “if you want the $$ to build these roads, you should probably pass ____ law…”
  • Most of the major products consumed by this increasingly consumerist society are made by mega international companies that dominate the market and make the emergence of Salvadoran companies for Salvadoran (and international) consumption impossible
  • Free Trade policies that enable more powerful countries to benefit from cheap labor in El Salvador – which perpetrates poverty instead of ending it – while making it easier for already wealthy international companies to dominate the Central American market as well.
  • A Canadian mining company is trying to sue the country of El Salvador for refusing to allow them to mine gold in El Salvador, due to the detrimental environmental and humanitarian effects.  El Salvador should have the right to deny foreign companies from getting rich at the expense of Salvadoran wellbeing.
Kilmar, one of the youth who participated in the Peace Band, bears the heat of the midday sun.

Kilmar, one of the youth who participated in the Peace Band, bears the heat of the midday sun.

So this Independence Day perhaps what we are celebrating is the struggle for independence, the struggle that began long before 1840 and continues today.

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!!!!

Mercedita

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

I lived on the other side of the river in Valle Nuevo when the war began.  We had always lived in those parts, but when the armed conflict started we had to guindar, flee to the mountains leaving everything behind.  There are people today who don’t believe me when I tell them that there were times when we would go 15 days without eating anything more than the few leaves we could find.  The father of my children died in the guinda; he got a terrible fever and because we were hiding without shelter in the mountain, he never got better.  We buried him in sandy earth, and now that the land has been redistributed I don’t even know where his remains are.

In those times before the war there was poverty just like there is now, but the main difference was that in those days our currency was the colon.  If you had 5 or 10 colones you had some money – 5 colones is equivalent to about 2 quarters today, and you can’t buy anything with that.  Anyhow, in those days people would walk to San Marcos to buy the things they needed; sometimes we would sell a chicken for 12 reales and we were able to buy everything we needed with that.  But we never really had money, just in that brief moment when it passed through our hands when we would sell some animal, but then we would buy salt, lime, oil, and things like that with the little bit of money we earned.

But still, the poverty then was horrible, and it was because of that very poverty that the war had to happen.  The owner of the hacienda where we lived was named Julio Grimalde, and he gave us a little piece of land to live on and to grow our crops, but we had to pay for that land with corn.  Nobody used fertilizer or anything back then, and if you didn’t grow corn you had to find some way to buy the corn to pay the patron; or if something happened to the crop the same, we had to scrape by to buy corn for the patron.  Only rich people ate corn; we poor people ate millet, food suit for the animals.

Some men from San Salvador started to come out to organize the people; they told us that all of this that was happening to us – the poverty, the mistreatment – didn’t have to be that way.  The guerrilla groups had already started to form throughout the country, so they were organizing people in the communities so that some would join the guerrilla – as my sons did – or to stay informed about news of what was happening.  But when the guinda came, we had to run with only the clothes on our backs and our children held tight by the hand.  The armed forces would arrive at any given moment, and for that reason we lived all those years in constant fear day and night.

Thankfully there were some good people that lived in the towns that weren’t so affected by the conflict, and sometimes the guerrillas would steal away to the town to bring back corn for us to eat when we were on the run or in hiding, and with those small bits we sustained ourselves.  There were also some places where they would send children to seek refuge, and people with small children could go with them.  I didn’t send my children there because my older children were fighting in the guerrilla and I had to be close so I would know if they lived or died.  They killed my son Manuel in 1984, and my other son, who was named Juan Antonio, was in the national police and they killed him too in 1991.

And so that’s what it was like when we were living in San Carlos Lempa when the people form CRIPDES came and told us we could come to stay in Guajoyo, that we wouldn’t have to keep fleeing.  Since we were fed up with all the mosquitoes there, we told them yes, and that’s how we decided to come here.  They looked for people who lived in the area before the conflict to come repopulate, and supposedly there wasn’t going to be any fighting with the people who came.  I think that all of us who came were full of fear, because this hill was full of the armed forces.  It was a miracle of God that they never attacked us.

We were 22 families that came on November 5, 1991, and we had to make the road as we went along, because this road that had existed since before couldn’t even be seen any more.  We arrived in trucks and they dropped us of right here where I have my house today.  Each family started to make their little hut, and those people who helped us would bring food because we didn’t have anything and there were no crops in the fields.  The first day we brought nothing, but a few days later they brought us some sheet metal to put roofs on our huts.  We were always afraid, because the armed forces passed close by, and sometimes search lights would pass overhead looking for people in the guerrilla, but the presence of organizations like CRIPDES and our sister cities gave me faith that we would be ok.

When they announced the Peace Accords in 1992, it was a huge celebration, because we didn’t have to live in fear anymore.  I was mostly happy because I knew we wouldn’t have to move anymore.  I remember feeling so much freedom because we didn’t have to live with that fear.  There were 7 of us who had arrived here for the resettlement: my husband and me, two daughters, two grandsons, and my son who was in the police, but he was killed shortly after we arrived.

This struggle that we suffered through had to happen, and for me I believe we were able to achieve what we wanted.  Now we have land, and it’s not that we didn’t pay for it, because we paid for it in the blood of our children and brothers and sisters.  The dream we had was simple: just to be able to work, have a house and a few animals, and live our lives in peace in one place.  And look at us now – I feel like a rich person, because we have a house, some animals, and we eat good food.  We don’t eat millet anymore, we grow and eat corn.  I feel like my generation that lives here and that has suffered to be here has achieved what we wanted, and we can spend our last days in peace.

But I feel sad for the youth who fight so much among themselves and for no reason.  We had a reason to fight, but they fight just because one belongs to a certain group and another belongs to a different group.  I hang onto the hope that someday they’ll stop fighting, and that this young generation can someday live well in their little piece of land with their house, caring for their animals and their crops, and living their lives with their families.