Happy International Women’s Day! At EcoViva we work with many strong, intelligent, and resilient women who we celebrate today and throughout the year. This is the story of Carmen Argueta, President of the Mangrove Association. It originally appeared in our Fall 2013 Newsletter. For more stories about the women we work with, please visit our Facebook page.
Congratulations to Carmen Argueta, new President of the Mangrove Association!
Carmen Argueta has been a close ally and friend of EcoViva for many years. She became directly involved with La Coordinadora, the social movement associated with the Mangrove Association, in 1998 when they declared the Lower Lempa region a Local Zone of Peace. She initially worked as a member of a women’s group, managing an elevated house project to decrease flood vulnerability. In 2004, she joined the Mangrove Association’s Board of Directors. As EcoViva’s flagship partner organization in El Salvador, the Mangrove Association (known locally as Asociación Mangle) implements all the projects we fund in country. The Board of Directors takes on a critical role, acting as a full-time, 5-member executive team.
Carmen follows in the footsteps of Estela Hernández, the President prior to Carmen. In 2012, Estela was voted into the National Legislature of El Salvador, becoming the first female representative from her department of Usulután.
When asked about her achievements, Carmen is quick to point to her role in advocating for women’s leadership.
“It is an achievement that as a woman, I am President. When one woman left the position, another women came in as the President of the organization….In the beginning, only the men knew how to manage projects…It was a difficult struggle. There were men that didn’t want their wives to participate. It was our job to explain to the men that…they needed to recognize the basic human rights of women.”
Motivated by the strong local connections and the leadership, knowledge, and capacity that everyone involved has gained, Carmen looks forward to working with fellow board members to lead the Mangrove Association.
Congratulations, and ¡adelante!
Today marks the United Nations Ramsar Convention’s 18th annual World Wetlands Day. From the Everglades in Florida to the Okavanga Delta in Botsawana, people are celebrating wetlands as one of the most biodiverse and productive ecosystems in the world. Wetlands help support a clean water supply, flood regulation, fisheries, agriculture, wildlife resources, and many other ecosystem services that benefit human health and well-being.
Here in El Salvador, the mangrove forests of the Bay of Jiquilisco have been recognized by the U.N. Ramsar Convention as a Wetland of International Importance. Mangrove forests, often found in estuaries and coastlines where freshwater and saltwater tidal flows converge, are central to the country’s strategy to combat global warming for their unique ability to sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Due to their capacity to absorb and disperse tidal surges, the mangroves of the Bay bring resilience to a coastal zone prone to natural disasters and flooding. Rich in natural resources including wood, fish, crab, shellfish, and birds, the mangroves provide livelihoods to thousands of families and hundreds of rural cooperatives that farm, fish and steward Central America’s most prominent coastal ecosystem.
However, increased global demand for land, water, and other natural resources, as well as the effects of global warming, have intensified pressure on these vulnerable ecosystems and increased the rate of loss and deterioration of wetlands worldwide. This is particularly true in El Salvador, where the country has lost 60% of its mangrove cover since 1950. To exacerbate matters, according to the Global Climate Risk Index, El Salvador suffered most of any country from extreme weather events in 2009, and fourth most in 2011.
In the Bajo Lempa and the Bay of Jiquilisco, local wetlands rangers are at the forefront of efforts to stop the degradation and exploitation of mangrove forests and promote the sustainable use of its natural resources. José Horacio Soreano was elected by his community to be a wetlands ranger in 2010, volunteering as an apprentice, without pay, for more than a year before joining the team of five rangers that works in the western zone of the Bay of Jiquilisco. “I feel a love for the mangrove forest,” he explains, “so I feel obligated to look after it, so it will be here for my children and future generations.”
José Santos Lisandro Hernandez is also a wetlands ranger. He remembers, “In these communities when I came here 20 years ago, they were communities rich in flora and fauna. Before, there were many animals and natural resources, but since that time the number of species and amount of mangroves has continued to decline. Floods keep getting worse and it’s harder to live off the land. It makes you ask the question, why don’t we do something to change the situation?”
Mangrove forests face many threats, including commercial pressures from salt and shrimp farms, agricultural expansion, contamination from agro and industrial chemicals, unsustainable extraction practices, and overexploitation of resources by both outsiders and local communities. Together with local communities, community organizations, and government agencies, the wetlands rangers work to educate and raise awareness about the importance of the mangroves, support research and restoration projects, and patrol the mangrove forests daily.
Lionel Antonio Rivas Ruiz, a wetlands ranger from the community of San Juan del Gozo, enthusiastically elaborates, “The role of the wetlands rangers is the protection and restoration of the mangrove forests. But at the same time it is to encourage community participation, to raise awareness about what is happening because of global warming and overexploitation, and to inspire action.” Lisandro adds, “Our most important task is environmental education. We must talk about the services that the environment gives us to help people understand that without these natural resources we couldn’t live.”
The efforts of the wetlands rangers and local communities are beginning to come to fruition. Thanks to sound local organization and their ability to engage international expertise from practitioners at the Mangrove Action Project, EcoViva and the Mangrove Association have instituted a new way to conduct mangrove restoration in El Salvador, now adopted by government authorities and prominent environmental donors. Communities have lead the way in restoring over 70 acres of degraded mangrove forest and priority crab habitat, while implementing the country’s first legally-backed, community-based forest regulations, protecting approximately 4,735 acres of wetlands from unfettered development and overexploitation. Wetlands rangers are also forging priorities for community policing and violence prevention programs, working with EcoViva, the national police and environmental officials to enforce local rules against timber poaching, blast fishing, and unsustainable resource extraction practices throughout the Bay.
Recently, these efforts culminated in a national forum hosted by the Ministry of the Environment, EcoViva, and the Mangrove Association, in which government officials met with over 200 coastal community leaders from across El Salvador’s coastline to discuss successes and challenges to the inclusive conservation and restoration of mangrove ecosystems. Though much has been achieved by local communities and wetlands rangers to protect and restore the mangrove forests, they recognize there is still a long way to go. Sitting in the watchtower overlooking the expansive swaths of mangrove forest that surround his community, Lionel concludes, “Taking care of our natural resources is a big job, but our lives depend on it. I’m making a call to everyone to collaborate to protect and restore wetlands.”
There is no shortage of environmental policy in the Lower Lempa and the Bay of Jiquilisco. Between multiple international environmental designations, landmark national environmental laws, progressive municipal ordinances, and unprecedented local community plans, Central America’s largest mangrove estuary has come a long way since the signing of land reform in the 1992 Peace Accords. Nevertheless, bridging the distance between political discourse and the actual rules we live by requires much more than the political will to simply do the right thing. It requires the capacity to convene a broad cross-section of stakeholders to examine problems, educate the public and decision makers, and forge alliances to enforce specific rules and regulations.
In El Salvador, and particularly the Bay of Jiquilisco, this capacity has been growing from the bottom-up. Central government agencies, under-resourced and over-burdened, simply cannot take on every aspect of the rule-making process. Someone has to bridge the gap between the rhetoric and reality on environmental and rural policy. El Salvador’s national government is ill-equipped to solve these immense problems alone.
In the Bay of Jiquilisco, local community leadership is working hard to fill this void in order to preserve the livelihoods of thousands of families and hundreds of rural cooperatives that farm, fish and steward Central America’s most prominent coastal ecosystem. One example is the small-scale fishing sector. Five sustainable fishing cooperatives and over 200 fishers from the bay-side communities of Puerto Parada have taken it upon themselves to patrol the Bay of Jiquilisco and its mangrove forests, to prevent the exploitation and degradation of the country’s most prominent inshore fishery and shellfish grounds. These cooperatives are composed of fishermen and women, many of whom used to employ explosives to fish and understand well the ecological destruction and personal risk of sometimes fatal injury that blast fishing inflicted on them and their communities.
As an alternative, they decided to provide a sustainable solution for their livelihoods and the natural resources on which they depend. Beginning in 2008, cooperatives began institutionalizing sustainable practices of hand line fishing adjacent to artificial reefs that have been strategically constructed in various parts of the Bay. These practices mutually enhance livelihoods and the environment, providing bountiful catch for the fishers while affording species a refuge to spawn, mature, and repopulate –mimicking the role of the mangrove forests that continue to disappear, leaving fisheries vulnerable and compromised.
The life-giving resources of the Bay of Jiquilisco continue to be subjected to logging, blast fishing, and other illegal resource extraction practices. In order to protect their environment and preserve their way of life, the sustainable fishing cooperatives of Puerto Parada provide 24/7 enforcement, stationed at 4 different outposts throughout the Bay. Each member of the cooperatives spends one day and night at the outposts every two weeks, often sacrificing a much needed day’s pay, enduring plagues of mosquitoes and sleeping on the floor of the huts to ensure laws against blast fishing, regulations on the size of fishing nets, and policies about the protection of mangroves are enforced. While they are unable to make arrests or even detain violators, they have been the first on the scene to catch and stop a wide range of harmful practices, and have been instrumental in saving distressed wildlife, like endangered sea turtles. Working in tandem with local wetland rangers, fishers focus on educating the people who committed the infraction and raising awareness about alternative, more sustainable ways to make a livelihood.
Local efforts have not gone unnoticed by the authorities. With the help of EcoViva and the Mangrove Association, fishers and communities have begun a dialogue with the Ministry of the Environment, the National Police and the fishing authority CENDEPESCA to clarify the legal framework for the cooperatives’ patrols and community policing, bolster communication and cooperation, and coordinate enforcement efforts between wetland rangers and police officers. Sharing resources, expertise, and authority, this coalition in the Bay of Jiquilisco provides the enforcement backbone for current and future regulations as effective tools to sustain livelihoods and protect the environment along the Salvadoran coastline.
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.