U.S. Embassy and foreign aid agency condition assistance on questionable reforms that could worsen rule-of-law issues in El Salvador. Click here for more articles on our advocacy work.
Last Wednesday afternoon, representatives in El Salvador’s national assembly were scheduled to convene an ad-hoc legislative commission to discuss specific reforms to El Salvador’s Public-Private Partnership law, or PPP law. Proposed by members of the conservative ARENA party, these reforms seek to consolidate the decision-making process regarding how the government concessions public property to business interests. ARENA’s reforms would also limit the National Legislative Assembly from the approval process, and open up parts of the water and sanitation sector to business interests.
Prodded by the U.S. Embassy and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government agency, El Salvador’s debate over these reforms is too important to be rammed through by external actors. In a country where a concerted sector of private business has, for decades, exerted overwhelming influence over public policy–enabling corruption and limiting democratic rule of law–the reforms being proposed by ARENA shouldn’t be taken lightly. What’s at stake is whether or not outside interests, including the United States, continue to engender bad behavior, and what this means for the long-term potential in El Salvador for sustainable, inclusive economic growth.
Earlier this month, President Funes became very outspoken about a previously unspoken truth: without specific economic reforms, the U.S. government would not provide El Salvador with $277 million in aid money through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). This was re-enforced by the U.S. Ambassador, Mari Carmen Aponte, who stated bluntly that without changes to El Salvador’s current PPP law, this $277 aid package would not be signed, nor allowed to be ratified by the National Assembly. This latest rhetoric displayed a sharp shift from her message just several months prior, in which she had congratulated the National Assembly in the passage of the PPP law, and stated that it was a decent step in the right direction.
It’s not exactly a secret that the U.S. seeks to spur economic growth in El Salvador through a set of policy reforms guided by Washington. The Partnership for Growth and the “MCC Effect” are very clear and open about this agenda. What is puzzling, however, is just what sort of changes Ambassador Aponte is alluding to, and what these changes mean for El Salvador and its already significant challenges to rule-of-law.
Last June, EcoViva learned that powerful Salvadoran business interests sitting on President Funes’ Council for Economic Growth were unhappy with the current PPP law, passed by overwhelming bi-partisan support with not a single vote in opposition. Their concerns, first expressed publically at an event held at the Council of the Americas in Washington, included what they interpreted as limitations on which public goods and services should be eligible for PPPs, including water and higher education. They also expressed their alarm that El Salvador’s National Assembly would continue to exert influence over aspects of these PPPs.
Meanwhile, the MCC has also expressed the need to help El Salvador manage a public grant facility to spur private sector investment through the Salvadoran agency PROESA. This includes public-private projects related to tourism, public land acquisition, agriculture, and water management. Though details of individual projects are not currently public, EcoViva and its partners understand that a large percentage of the funding slated for these public-private deals is being positioned toward private investments in water treatment and sanitation.
True to form, the PPP law reforms being proposed by members of the ARENA caucus include language that enables water treatment and sanitation, and continues to exclude “the distribution of potable water” from PPPs. This reflects broad public sentiment in El Salvador against the privatization of water, and is also likely a reflection of pressures felt by the ARENA party during a nail-biter of an election cycle.
The ARENA proposal also seeks to dissolve the PPP policy and oversight arm established in the original law, the DAPP. Instead, ARENA seeks to empower an existing agency, PROESA, which currently oversees the MCC’s public-private grant facility, “Apuesto para InversionES.” PROESA was created by executive decree in 2011, under the watchful eye of the U.S. Partnership for Growth initiative. It was never designed to operate as the sole proponent of PPPs in El Salvador. PROESA’s job is to promote El Salvador as a place to do business, and as a producer of goods and services to be purchased in other countries—nothing more.
PROESA is not structured to be accountable to the National Assembly, nor to the Salvadoran people. If the United States is backing ARENA’s agenda on PROESA, and not just water sector reforms, then it may be tacitly enabling greater corruption through less transparency and weakened oversight. And, currently, clear oversight and rule of law seems to be a real problem for El Salvador’s previous public officials, their business partners, and even the MCC itself.
Twenty-one former government officials and Salvadoran businessmen are currently charged with embezzlement and falsifying documents stemming from a 2002 public-private partnership, awarding takeover of the state owned geothermal company, CEL, to Italian energy company Enel Green Power. In authorizing the contracting process to a private foreign company, the former CEL executives illegally bypassed the powers of the Legislative Assembly, the only state entity with the authority to award such concessions. The Attorney General charges that government functionaries manipulated the proceeding to ensure the Italian company Enel won the concession to be the private partner of CEL. The contracting process should have been regulated by Entity of Institutional Acquisitions and Contracts to enforce the Law of Acquisitions and Contracts of the Public Administration (LACAP). However, the bidding process required by the LACAP was not followed in what is now being called covert privatization of El Salvador’s geothermal resources. The case is one of the largest corruption investigations in Salvadoran history, with the Attorney General estimating the losses for the country of El Salvador in the billions of dollars.
Coincidently, the MCC itself is being probed by the U.S. Congress and the foreign policy press on its policies regarding corruption in emerging market economies. As signaled by Senator Patrick Leahy in September with the example of El Salvador, the MCC may be providing aid to countries that exhibit challenging “rule-of-law” circumstances. For Senator Leahy, this also includes environmental and development compliance measures, highlighted by EcoViva, the Mangrove Association, and a coalition of local actors working to improve governance along sensitive coastal areas like the Bay of Jiquilisco.
When oversight and public participation in PPPs is sacrificed to accommodate business interests, the immediate question becomes: which business interests in particular are being accommodated? It goes without saying that if transparency becomes less straight-forward, not only does society lose, but so too does the broader business community. How, for example, could one tourism developer be able to compete with another if the state’s cost benefit analysis and feasibility study for a project is kept under wraps? What signal are we sending to the business class if only those who made it to the front of the line for a public-private grant, those who had an insider track, are the ones eligible to engage the public sector?
For local communities and civil society, being confronted by even more barriers to participation and input limits buy-in to these projects. It also hinders the long-term sustainability required for real, measurable economic growth. If El Salvador and the U.S. want to strengthen the Salvadoran economy, they will need to rely on the kind of inclusive, participatory governance that only an engaged and informed civil society can foster. Clear, accessible “rules of the road” benefit everyone, and a shared vision for development can raise all boats.
This past September, the MCC Board of Directors approved El Salvador’s second compact. The congressional comment period in Washington came and went. Nevertheless, the MCC and U.S. government seems to be conditioning aid on a set of economic reforms that appear contrary to the democratic system, contrary to transparent, rule-of-law required to oversee complex public-private concessions, and contrary to sustainable, inclusive economic growth.
Dear Beloved EcoViva Community,
This December will mark the end of my 5th year as Executive Director of EcoViva. In that time, I have learned a tremendous amount about effective community organizing from our local partners in Central America, and I have had the joy and privilege to personally get to know hundreds of our wonderful supporters all over the United States.
Early next year I will be stepping down as Executive Director. 2013 has been a great year for us: our local partners in El Salvador expanded their work from two to 14 municipalities, and we have seen many of their projects adopted as national policy – native corn seed production, mangrove forest restoration, school gardens, community management of protected areas and more. Internally, we consolidated a terrific team, adopted an exciting five-year vision plan, and moved to a great new office. Our Board has become stronger and more engaged than ever before. I am happy that our organization is on such solid footing, and I feel it is a good time for me to change roles.
When I joined our team in January 2009, my son was two years old. Striving for work-family balance, I negotiated with the Board to keep my official staff time to 80% and my travel requirements to a minimum. The Board has been tremendously supportive of me as a working parent, and I am grateful. But over the last five years I have found myself in a continual personal conflict between what the organization needs and my own needs as a mother.
The reality is that to be effective, our Executive Director needs to travel at least once per month, as well as participate in evening and weekend events regularly. We have supporters and allies in at least 29 states, and I’ve found that meeting with people in person has been key to strengthening those relationships. And we have a mostly untapped opportunity to grow our base here in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place full of potential allies.
In order to avoid missing out on my son’s childhood, and for our outreach to be effective, I feel it is time for me to make way for new leadership. We will be launching the official search for a new Executive Director next week. I am committed to ensuring this transition goes well, and as such I’ll be staying on our team through next March or whenever the new director gets settled, whichever comes sooner. After that, I will be on call as a volunteer as needed.
This has been a hard decision for me. I truly love this work, and I’m proud of how far we’ve come in the last five years. But my son’s childhood will only happen once, and I don’t want to miss out on it.
As a long-time resident of Oakland (California), I see so many of the same challenges I’ve seen in El Salvador reflected in my local community: tremendous inequality, environmental vulnerability, abundant creativity, incredible resilience. I am not sure yet what I’ll be doing next, but I am looking forward to getting more deeply involved in local social movements here at home. And I know that, no matter what, I’ll always be part of the wonderful community that is EcoViva.
On Tuesday, November 26, EcoViva and the Mangrove Association will participate in a national forum on the “Inclusive Conservation and Restoration of Mangroves in El Salvador.” The forum will highlight our work to pioneer the adoption of Ecological Mangrove Restoration and the Mangrove Association’s model of community conservation, identified as a Local Sustainable Use Plan. 150 people are invited to this national event in San Salvador.
This innovation in coastal resource management presents opportunities, as well as challenges, for government and non-government actors to confront together, as the Salvadoran Ministry of the Environment seeks to replicate the Mangrove Association’s framework on a national scale. Tomorrow’s event will serve to discuss these opportunities and challenges, and will feature both EcoViva and the Mangrove Association as main contributors.
The fact sheet below, written in Spanish, contains important information about the Local Sustainable Use Plan (PLAS) and will be distributed at the forum.
The following article came out in El Salvador’s national newspaper, “La Prensa Gráfica“, and discusses how EcoViva and its partner communities have participated in the negotiation process leading up to the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation’s 5-year, $277 million investment, which prioritizes coastal areas like the Bay of Jiquilisco. Local communities and municipalities are organizing to ensure that upcoming coastal development be sustainable and inclusive so that the Bay of Jiquilisco, and its iconic endangered sea turtle populations and internationally significant mangrove and fishery resources, remain a viable engine for rural growth in the region. Communities will continue to promote local and regional frameworks that help set the “rules of the road” to enable sustainable, long-term growth in the Bay of Jiquilisco.
MCC heeds the recommendations of environmentalists
By Hector Rivas
The MCC will include actions proposed by organizations in [the MCC's coming investment in El Salvador]
Various organizations dedicated to the protection of the environment confirmed that the board of directors for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) included in the compact a series of recommendations to ensure that development projects in the Bay of Jiquilisco don’t affect the natural resources of the region.
Nathan Weller, director of environmental policy for the organization EcoViva, expressed that weeks ago they sent a letter to the board of directors of the MCC expressing their concerns and that they received notification that these have been included in writing.
For his part, Mike Liles, of the organization ICAPO, noted that part of the support received is the creation of committees formed by NGOs and local actors in the region of the Bay of Jiquilisco to review projects that will take place in the sector.
“We will give some technical opinions so that a given project won’t have a negative impact. We hope that they will listen to our opinions, the MCC’s decision to involve local actors is important,” said the representative from ICAPO. Liles expressed that there are four big projects that would be developed in the bay, and that civil society opinions will be taken into account in the creation of the projects is considered “a victory for the conservation of natural resources.”
Marvin Alvarado, a representative for various communities of Puerto Parada (Usulután), said that the measure is the result of the efforts of people who take the protection of the environment very seriously, in contrast to [people in] the past.
He pointed out that blast fishing and other practices that were damaging to natural resources have diminished.
He noted that 120 former blast fishermen have stopped the practice.
“It is all part of a process that has been developing develop within various communities,” he affirmed.
Read the original article on National Geographic; This post is the last in a series of three posts about the Jiquilisco region of El Salvador written by Brad Nahill, co-founder of SEETurtles. Read the other two articles here: Seeds of Change and Starting from Scratch.
Four imposing volcanoes watched over us as we ate dinner on a covered dock which doubles as a dining area in the town of La Pirraya on an island in Jiquilisco Bay, El Salvador’s largest wetland. Our tour group sat admiring the sunset and the returning fishing boats with the day’s catch. Bolts of lighting streaked across the sky after dinner providing a dramatic counterpoint to the soft waves slapping against the wooden posts of the dock.
Jiquilisco Bay is idyllic in many ways. This bay, which includes mangroves, seagrass beds, and several islands is not only a place of great natural beauty; it’s a working landscape, providing sustenance and income for thousands of local residents. Industries that reap from the bay and its forests include fishing, transportation, firewood collection, and tourism. Managing the natural resources and ensuring that there is enough for everyone is a complicated job- too big for any single government agency or community organization.
During a recent week-long tour I led for SEE Turtles to explore El Salvador’s culture and nature, our group saw first hand how community development and wildlife groups are helping manage Jiquilisco Bay, conserving its wild animals, and reducing the negative environmental impact that fishing can have. We learned about threats to the bay’s ecosystem and visited local projects to ensure that the riches of the bay can sustain its human and wild inhabitants.
One morning, our group boarded two “pangas” (fiberglass boats) and headed out to explore the mangroves that are critical to the health of the bay by providing habitat for birds and wildlife and a place for fish to reproduce. After years of degradation from fishing, agricultural pollution, and aquaculture projects, the mangrove is now growing again due to restoration efforts.
The main focus of our visit was to see and learn about sea turtles, of which 4 species live in and around this area, the hawksbill, green, leatherback, and olive ridley. After our boat ride, we visited a sea turtle hatchery where eggs of olive ridley turtles are protected by Asociacion Mangle (a local community-based development group). Unfortunately while hearing about this inspiring program, we received some bad news.
Chema, our genial guide who works with our host organization EcoViva, shared the news with me. He got a call from a fishermen who spotted a dead hawksbill turtle in the mangrove wetlands. A small group of us headed out by boat to retrieve the turtle and take it with us to hand it off to the staff of the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (known by its acronym ICAPO), a conservation organization that is a partner of SEE Turtles.
Though the turtle was too decomposed to determine the cause of death, our partners were pretty sure the culprit was blast fishing (the biggest threat to the hawksbills in the bay) where a combination of household chemicals are combined into a homemade bomb that kills everything in its wake. More than 20 hawksbills have died from blast fishing in the past five years (out of less than 500 adult female hawksbills estimated to live in the entire region).
One of the primary areas of focus for Asociacion Mangle and EcoViva is promoting “pesca limpia” (“clean fishing” in English) which helps to reduce the number of animals that are accidentally caught. This program helps set up artificial reefs for fishermen that are managed to ensure a more sustainable supply of fish. Many former blast fishermen now participate in this program, which has helped to reduce the impact of explosives on certain areas of the bay.
Fishing is just one of the threats to sea turtles in this area. ICAPO, EcoViva, and Asociacion Mangle also work to protect sea turtle nests by purchasing the eggs from local residents who formerly sold the eggs for consumption. Since consuming eggs (and other turtle products) was banned in 2009, a network of hatcheries across the country has grown to receive the eggs, where they are protected until hatching until being released to the ocean. More than 1 million hatchlings have been released to the ocean to date in the country since the ban and our Billion Baby Turtles program has helped to save more than 30,000 hatchlings the past two years.
We visited one of these beaches at sunrise one morning in the town of La Pirraya. A knock came early on our door, alerting us that a hawksbill had been found by one of the local tortugueros (egg collectors). We quickly dressed and hopped in the boat to head to other side of the bay. With the orange sunrise behind the volcanoes providing the entertainment, we arrived at the beach as the research team collected tissue samples and basic info such as length and width of the turtle’s shell. The researchers sent the female hawksbill on its way with shiny new tags on its front flippers.
Our main course of turtle watching came later that day as we looked for black turtles (a sub-species of green turtle) that forage on the bay’s seagrass. Heading to a calm area near the peninsula that encloses most of the bay, our group fell quiet as we looked for the small reptilian heads popping out of the water to take a breath.
It wasn’t long before the first turtle was spotted and ICAPO’s field staff sprung into action, encircling the turtle with a large fishing net so the research team could bring it into the boat. Once the turtle was enclosed, we motored the boat around the edge of the net until we found the big male. Neftali, the cheerful local coordinator for ICAPO hopped in the water and I followed, helping free the turtle from the net and passing it to our colleagues waiting in the boat.
These black turtles are a bit of a mystery here in Jiquilisco; few nest locally and researchers don’t yet know how many forage here. Though most of the turtles they find are untagged juveniles and adults, once a turtle was found with tags from the Galapagos, so ICAPO staff suspect they migrate from the Ecuadorean islands here to feed and grow. The male we found was the first of several we would spot that day. Several of our group had the opportunity to help collect the data and release the turtles back into the water, a highlight of the trip for several people.
The following day, as our group took its final boat ride across Jiquilisco Bay to the port town of Puerto Parada, we enjoyed in the tranquil views and the calm that comes after unplugging for several days. At more than 150,000 acres, the bay seems immense but with tens of thousands of people using it every day and depending on it for survival, grassroots efforts to protect its resources are more important than ever.
“Tortuga! Tortuga!” a choir of excited young adults shouted from a boat patrolling Bay of Jiquilisco. A head was just spotted popping out of the water, and within minutes three spry bodies had hit the water and were hoisting the well-over 100 lbs. green sea turtle over the side of the boat for a closer look. For the youth, who come from the communities that surround the Bay of Jiquilisco, it is the first time many have been on the Bay and first time any have ever seen a sea turtle. An anxious chatter fills the bay-air as the boat rocks back and forth with the enthusiasm of eager, young citizen scientists jostling to get a closer look at the amazing creature. Alongside the skilled staff of the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO), the youth collect data, measuring the length and width and helping to tag and collect a tissue sample of the awe-inspiring specimen.
In partnership with ICAPO and SEE Turtles, over the past two weeks more than 20 youth leaders from the communities of Puerto Parada and the Bajo Lempa visited the island community of La Pirraya in the Bay of Jiquilisco to conduct hands-on research, visit hatcheries, and explore the ecosystem of the four species of sea turtles found in the Bay, including the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle. Interacting with biologists, conservationists, local fishermen, and community members, participants discussed the threats facing the sea turtle population and their ecosystem in the Bay of Jiquilisco, how community-led initiatives are protecting the turtles and their environment while sustaining livelihoods, and what they can do to help.
The visits are part of a larger curriculum for the Mangrove Association youth group designed to provide opportunities for youth to build relationships and with one another, organize around environmental conservation, and learn about community-led projects in different parts of the region, all while developing leadership skills that will benefit themselves and the communities. The curriculum began with environmental education workshops where youth created and presented natural resource maps of their communities illustrating their relationship to the ecological attributes that make their home a UN Biosphere and Ramsar site, and what those international designations mean. The youth group has since written, recorded, and edited several public service announcements that raise awareness about environmental issues affecting their communities including pollution, deforestation, harmful agricultural practices, and blast fishing, among others. The PSAs, broadcast to over 200 communities on Radio Mangle, advocate for the protection of water, mangrove forests, sea turtles, soil, and other natural resources.
There are also plans to visit various community-led initiatives that are confronting these threats to the natural resources and livelihoods of communities. In the coming months, members of the youth group will visit the coastal communities of Montecristo and Isla de Méndez to learn about local natural resource management projects such as a crab hatchery that is repopulating the historically over exploited species while also providing a sustainable source of sustenance and income for the cooperative of community members that run it. They will also tour sites of ecological mangrove restoration to speak with local engineers and wildlife rangers about the importance of wetlands to the environment and their communities.
On the boat ride back from La Pirraya, as the sun set over the volcanoes that surround the Bay of Jiquilisco, the youth spoke of how they couldn’t wait to share their experience and new found knowledge with their friends and family. They shared their curiosity to learn more about the natural resources of and their desire to do more to protect them. They questioned harmful practices they had seen at work in their communities and collaborated on what they could do to change them. They sounded like young community leaders ready to make a difference.