by Carlos Martinez
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of NACLA
The mangrove trees surrounding El Salvador’s Jiquilisco Bay, with their sprawling, scraggly roots, have been described as botanical amphibians because they depend on both land and sea for their survival. In many ways, the communities surrounding the bay reflect the mangrove’s amphibious nature. Like the mangroves, their livelihoods are tied directly to the bay’s tremendous biodiversity through small-scale fishing, crabbing, and other aquatic ventures. Many fishers engage in blast fishing, using explosives constructed from locally available materials such as sulfur, sodium chlorate, and sugar. Blast fishing has been a lucrative practice for poor fisherpeople without access to proper equipment. But it is now illegal in El Salvador and is charged with being the greatest threat to the country’s coastal ecosystem, in particular to the endangered Hawksbill sea turtle.
Together with the ecological destruction inflicted by blast fishing, the damage it has wreaked upon humans seems to have been behind the creation of the Palacio de las Aves fishing cooperative, many of whose members are ex–bomb fishers. The cooperative was created with funding from a World Bank project aimed at strengthening El Salvador’s natural protected areas system, which ended in 2011—leaving the fisherpeople looking for more funding so they could continue to sustain themselves. The fishing co-op is one of many groups hoping that a new round of development aid from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) slated for El Salvador’s coastal zone benefits them. In fact, they see it as a matter of life or death. Eduardo Zapata, the cooperative’s president, summed it up succinctly:
“We need the MCC to help us. We have to succeed as a cooperative so that we don’t end up amputated.”
The cooperative members talk candidly about the scars that many fishers in their community have suffered from using homemade explosives. One of their fishermen lost a hand when an explosive intended to blow up in the water instead exploded mid-throw. “Some have lost both hands, their eyesight, and other body parts,” said Zapata. However, little has been revealed about how the $277 million in U.S. taxpayer money will be allotted, and many are becoming concerned that this is because it will not be in their benefit.
The MCC was established in 2004 to administer the Millennium Challenge Account, a bilateral development fund created under the Bush administration. President Bush’s announcement of the fund came only six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was originally conceived as a new tool for combating threats to U.S. security with economic growth. The MCC touts itself as the capitalist response to traditional foreign aid approaches for focusing its investments not on direct poverty relief but largely on infrastructure, agriculture, and reducing constraints on economic growth. It has been lauded by supporters for using a number of indicators to determine country eligibility that purportedly provide an objective measure of whether a country is supporting democracy and free markets. A number of these indicators have been adopted from the conservative think tanks Heritage Foundation and Freedom House.
El Salvador is currently completing implementation of a five-year, $461 million agreement with the MCC focusing on the country’s northern region. Over half of this funding was committed to highway construction, connecting the northern part of El Salvador to the rest of the country, as well as to Guatemala and Honduras. Having completed this first agreement successfully, El Salvador is now on a short list of countries awaiting the approval of a second, five-year MCC investment, this time including the Bajo Lempa and Jiquilisco Bay communities in the southeast department of Usulután.
The Bajo Lempa region has been a highly contested territory for decades. Before El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, two landholding families dominated the area, which is famous for its fertile soil. Their vast plantations were worked by thousands of laborers who lived in slave-like conditions. During the war, the Bajo Lempa came largely under the control of the FMLN guerrilla movement. Through the 1992 Peace Accords, the FMLN was able to negotiate a land-reform process, which prevented the original landholding families from retaking control of the region.
Since the end of the war, the communities of exiled Salvadorans that resettled the region have suffered from a mixture of neglect and threats of expulsion by the government. But in the face of constant threats, these communities, with the support of solidarity organizations in the Global North, have survived annual flooding, a lack of infrastructure, and grinding poverty with incredible resiliency. In 1996, local leaders formed La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa y Bahia de Jiquilisco, a grassroots organization now encompassing over 100 communities, to coordinate a variety of peace-building and disaster-prevention initiatives. A few years later, leaders from La Coordinadora established a nonprofit, the Mangrove Association, to develop locally led sustainable–development- projects and policies aimed at protecting the local ecology while generating employment opportunities, such as the Palacio de las Aves cooperative.
Investment in the Bajo Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco to reduce poverty once seemed like a distant dream. EcoViva, formerly known as the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America, a U.S.-based NGO supporting community-led development in the region since the end of the war, has played a crucial role in mobilizing resources for these initiatives through providing much-needed financial support and technical assistance to La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association.
“The majority of the territory was settled by ex-combatants of the FMLN, so it has always been treated as a territory with rebellious, belligerent people,” said Estela Hernández, a former leader of the Mangrove Association and currently the FMLN representative for Usulután in the Salvadoran legislature. She believes this historical neglect was politically motivated.
Thus, local communities have expressed excitement about the new funding, hoping that the MCC can offer real improvements through solutions that directly involve local people. While some indications have been made that this new round of MCC funding will prioritize the development of sustainable tourism, fisheries, and agriculture, little more has been revealed. La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association hope that the MCC will provide funding to enable the rural policies that they have already been pioneering for years. But the lack of transparency or inclusion in the MCC process thus far has created apprehension among many.
“We can make proposals if we are included in the project,” said Carmen Argueta, the Mangrove Association’s treasurer, “but if we are left outside, then private enterprises will be the only ones to benefit.”
As part of the conditions to receive an MCC compact, countries like El Salvador must negotiate a proposal that includes input from a broad range of public constituencies. Local governments across the coastal region have been targeted as key participants in this comment period. Like civil society groups, coastal municipalities have been confronting development challenges and wonder how a new MCC compact will contribute to their priorities in the region.
“Here in our area, farmers experience a lot of challenges with production,” explained Alfredo Hernández, mayor of the coastal province of Tecoluca in the Bajo Lempa. “Last year, we dealt with severe flooding. This year, we are in a drought. Any project like this must offer what we consider important adaptations to the vulnerabilities that we face.”
Offering quality education opportunities for youth is also foremost on Hernández’s mind. Though many area youth may be attending high school and university programs, he said, it remains a challenge to hone rural talent to meet the demands of El Salvador’s middle-income economy. Through a recent collaboration with the Salvadoran company Aeroman, an aircraft maintenance and service provider, only two applicants taken from a pool of 200 rural youth fit the criteria for placement in the company’s employment program. The MCC and Salvadoran government have said that expanding El Salvador’s Comalapa International Airport, and the services its provides, is a high priority for economic growth.
“This experience with Aeroman feeds our worries that the quality and type of education our youth are receiving is not of high quality,” said Hernández. “One of our great challenges is to generate the conditions so that our youth are well-prepared for employment.”
Whether or not the proposed MCC investments will take these sorts of concerns into account remains to be seen. For Rigoberto Cruz, a representative of the Jiquilisco province government, the big question remains as to whether the MCC and Salvadoran negotiating team will produce a second compact that strengthens ongoing local development efforts.
“All of the local governments, non-governmental organizations, everyone is focusing on this new MCC compact,” Cruz said. “It is our hope that all of our important initiatives in the region be strengthened and interlinked as an articulation of our vision for the MCC investments.”
While the MCC states that it is committed to community-led development and sustainable agriculture, its history in Africa, particularly its partnership with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), signals that this may be little more than green-washing. AGRA claims to be an African-led organization supporting homegrown solutions to hunger. However, AGRA’s primary founders and donors, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, have invested millions of dollars in the biotechnology industry and favor technological solutions for high-input industrial farming in Africa.
Most MCC compacts signed with African countries focus on agriculture, with a central land-privatization component supporting “market-based solutions to food security.” The MCC’s secrecy has caused many to worry that this new round of funding may be a cynical new attempt to return the Bajo Lempa’s land to El Salvador’s oligarchic landholding families under the guise of supporting sustainable development.
El Salvador’s Minister of the Environment, Hernán Rosa Chávez, believes that the country must move toward sustainable agriculture. He explains, “This is a country that took up the green revolution to the maximum with the intensive use of agrochemicals. We can’t continue doing things the way we’ve been doing them.” Asked if he is concerned about the potential for the MCC to cause environmental havoc in the Bajo Lempa and Jiquilisco Bay, the minister calmly stated, “In the end, it depends on us whether the MCC ends up creating major problems. The only responsible ones will be Salvadorans, not the United States. This is a dance between two.”
But for the local communities affected by the MCC’s decisions, this dance carries fatally high stakes. Community leaders are particularly concerned about the prospect of industrial-scale tourism in Jiquilisco Bay, considered Central America’s largest mangrove forest and pristine estuary. At a recent meeting with local leaders, top officials from the Salvadoran government said they would encourage all sources of investment in the Bajo Lempa. “Investment in this area is a good thing, and we will not turn anyone away,” said Alex Segovia, the lead Salvadoran government official in charge of negotiating with the MCC.
“Alex Segovia is seeing the potential for big tourism, but they also want to give us a hand,” said a hopeful Eduardo Zapata. But many local leaders do not agree with Segovia’s approach. “If [the MCC] is here to support large enterprises in building five-star hotels where the least favored are the community, we are not in agreement and will never be. We want our people to be protagonists, not just security guards,” said Walberto Gallegos, communications director of the Mangrove Association. “For us, the MCC is like an optical illusion where they want to implement some pretty projects, but we know what is at the depth of all of this.”
Gallegos poses the question that everybody in La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association is asking: “For whom are they going to promote economic growth? The same people who continue buying more and more land? Or are they going to support the processes that we have been supporting for years now?” Regardless of what decisions the MCC makes, local leaders are clear on what they want and don’t want, and they are ready to resist any attempts to undermine their goals. “We have projected how we want to live over the long term,” said Estela Hernández. “The experience that we have had in this country is that these mega-projects are often not done to serve local communities. What is left in these communities isn’t necessarily development.”
Carlos Martinez is co-author of Venezuela Speaks! Voices From the Grassroots (PM Press, 2010), a collection of interviews with members of Venezuela’s social movements.
 Nina Easton, “Foreign Aid, Capitalist Style,” Fortune Management Career Blog RSS, November 11, 2011, available at management.fortune.cnn.com
“Turning African Farmland Over to Big Business,” Grain, April 13, 2012. Available at grain.org
 Millenium Challenge Corporation, “MCC and the U.S. Global Development Policy,” available at mcc.org
by Marianella Aguirre, International Fellow
“Un pueblo mal informado es un pueblo desarmado,” “A misinformed community is an unarmed community, “ David Rivas, Secretary of Communications
On Friday, May 3, 2013 I had the privilege of joining the communities of La Coordinadora of the Bajo Lempa and Bahía de Jiquilisco in celebrating the 20th Anniversary of World Press Freedom Day with the Relaunching of Mangrove Community Radio at La Coordinadora Headquarters in Ciudad Romero.
This year’s WPFD theme was Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in all Media. According to UNESCO a precondition for press freedom is a free, independent and pluralistic media environment, absent of media monopolies and inclusive of community media, where pluralism means providing maximum choice and participation in news and views.
On my way to Ciudad Romero I had a conversation with an elderly community member from La Limonera who recalled a time during his youth when owning a radio was a privilege of the wealthy. “Before, there was only one family who owned a radio—the wealthiest family in our community. Now, everyone has a radio, even TV’s, and what an honor it is to be celebrating, in my 80s, the inauguration of our own community radio station.”
The celebration began with a small orientation of 100 community members lead by the Mangrove Association Board of Directors in the inner hallway, followed by a welcome video recorded speech given by Nathan Weller, EcoViva’s Program and Policy Director, all the way from D.C., played in the outdoor patio where the rest of the 300 community members who attended the inauguration congregated.
Leonel Herrera, Executive Director of ARPAS Radio and David Rivas, Secretary of Communications, were among the attendees. “Un pueblo mal informado es un pueblo desarmado,” “A misinformed community is an unarmed community, “ said David Rivas who has played a huge role in helping Mangrove Community Radio obtain a new frequency. He and Leonel Herrera both joined Carmen Argueta and Amilcar Cruz of the Mangrove Association Board of Directors and Magda Lanuza, Kenoli Foundation Latin America Coordinator at the table of honor.
“Owning our very own frequency has been a battle that the communities of the Bajo Lempa have persevered in winning for over a decade,” said Amilcar Cruz in his opening speech. He shared that after Hurricane Mitch devastated the region in 1998, the communities saw the need for an early ALERT communication strategy. Thus, thanks to an agreement signed in 2001, Radio Mangle was born as a segment of Radio Maya Visión on 106.9.
Since the beginning, youth have played an important role in the development of Mangle Community Radio. Between 2001 and 2002, 35 youth began a volunteer-based radio management training process. Fifteen youth completed the training, five of which ran the radio station on a volunteer basis for the next 8 years it was on the air.
In 2010, however, the radio transmission equipment suffered irreparable damages that left Radio Mangle off the air. By the time equipment was recovered, Maya Visión had decided to cancel Radio Mangle’s segment on the frequency. When Radio Mangle attempted to obtain a new frequency through the General Superintendence of Electricity and Telecommunications (SIGET), they were notified that they would have to participate in a public auction with a minimum quota of $7,000.00, a price that was way out of reach.
In 2011 they tried to obtain a frequency through Jiquilisco’s Mayor’s Office, since municipalities don’t have to pay for frequencies. However, SIGET once again requested outrageous requirements, and Radio Mangle was left off the air.
It was not until December of 2012 that Radio Mangle was able to obtain its new frequency, 106.1, with the support of the Association of Participatory Radios of El Salvador (ARPAS), and the Secretary of Communications through an agreement made by both organizations.
“The re-launching of Mangrove Radio represents the re-birth of our community radio station and thus, the rebirth of the voice of our communities,” voiced Tulio Moya Maravilla, youth leader and radio announcer for Mangrove Community Radio.
Youth are still the driving force behind Mangrove Community Radio in this new chapter of the station. Mario Martinez, Radio Program Director, was among the founding team of youth that ran the station from 2002 until 2010.
“ Working in programming has been a great learning experience and opportunity to gain new skills and work with the community,” said Ada Ortíz Ventura, Mangrove Community Radio announcer.
David Rivas, Secretary of Communications said that he felt excited for the future of community radio stations throughout the entire country and stressed the need for an official law that protected community radio stations. He shared that he is currently working on a bill with President Mauricio Funes to take a small step toward this goal. After Rivas declared Mangrove radio officially inaugurated the celebration ended with the table of honor and members of the community taking a tour of the radio cabin.
The following article appeared in El Salvador’s digital newspaper Contrapunto and the Spanish version of the InterPress Service. It chronicles the anxiety expressed by a coalition of local leadership, as well the broader environmental community, about the implications of proposed tourism and coastal development slated for areas like the Bay of Jiquilisco. With the participation of the United States government and the Millennium Challenge Corporation in these coastal strategies, it is important that these agencies consider El Salvador’s weak regulatory and compliance policies as a potential threat to long term, sustainable economic growth along the coast. EcoViva and its partners are working with civil society and government agencies to strengthen the “rules of the road” for smart growth in areas like the Bay of Jiquilisco, ensuring that the social and environmental safeguards are applied in El Salvador, and any publically-stimulated private investment.
By Edgardo Ayala
JIQUILISCO, EL SALVADOR, April. Even though the Salvadoran government has placed its bets on developing the Pacific coast region, community leaders understand that it brings a threat to the environment in the zone.
If private investments arrive to natural protected areas in the Salvadoran coast, as intended by the government as part of a second round of funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, under the U.S. Partnership for Growth (PFG), “the natural resources that we have protected for so long would be seriously affected,” said Amilcar García, secretary of the Mangrove Association, which is located in the Lower Lempa, in the southern part of the department of Usulután.
In December 2011, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the U.S. government agency that promotes the PFG announced that El Salvador was selected from 22 countries as eligible for a second non-refundable aid package, the so called “second compact”, of US$277 million.
MCC could give final approval by the end of the year after analyzing the projects presented by the country.
The MCC was created by the United States Congress in 2004 to help poor countries overcome poverty and has designated $8.4 billion dollars in assistance all over the world, according to their web page.
The first “compact” started in 2007 with an injection of US$461 million, to develop El Salvador’s Northern Zone.
The community members of the Lower Lempa are not completely convinced of the advantages that the second compact will bring.
“We agree that the funding brings good things like schools, roads, medical clinics, that’s fine, but we are concerned about the private investment in tourism,” added Garcia.
The Mangrove Association has worked in the area known as the Lower Lempa since those southern lands of the eastern department of Usulután were handed over to former guerrillas and former soldiers who had recently left the Salvadoran civil war, after the peace accords of January 1992.
The limits of these lands coexist with the nature reserve of the Bay of Jiquilisco, where Mangrove Association and other organizations have developed significant environmental and social projects that partner with local people to ensure the management and restoration of mangroves and other species that live in the Bay.
Together, the Bay of Jiquilisco and the Jaltepeque Estuary is the most important ecological corridor of the country, with an area of 112,454 hectares. The Bay is a fragile sanctuary and nesting site for endangered species, and was declared a protected Ramsar site in October 2005, while the Estuary was declared a Ramsar site in February 2011, under the International Convention on Wetlands, signed in Iran in 1971.
In 2007, UNESCO declared the Bay a Biosphere Reserve. It is calculated that 50% of the only 300 Hawksbill sea turtles that exist between Mexico and Peru nest in the bay’s 37 kilometers of beaches.
However, the protection of the bay requires fishing and the extraction of products, as well as infrastructure construction, that are congruent with the zoning and objectives of the area, explained Álvaro Moisés, executive director of the ecological foundation Salvanatura.
That could be the legal door through which big tourism investments enter.
For this second MCC compact, the Salvadoran government seeks to improve education and training of young people so that they can do the jobs created when private investors arrive, while the government, with the MCC’s money, builds basic infrastructure, such as roads, sanitation and electricity.
“We’re seeing [the second compact] as a threat, frankly,” said Mauricio Cruz, president of Sara and Ana, an aquaculture cooperative located in Salinas del Potrero, in Jiquilisco.
Cruz added that members of the seven cooperatives of his community fear that tourism projects installed in the zone would generate pollution that could reach the estuaries, whose waters fill the ponds where the cooperatives raise shrimp.
“We are well organized people, and we will not allow a huge hotel to rise next to our shrimp ponds,” said Cruz.
So far, the government has received 62 projects from private investors totaling US$450 million, which must be approved by the MCC. If they want to see their plans materialize, entrepreneurs will have to invest a similar amount or even higher than what the government will contribute to build public good like roads, electricity and drinking water systems, etc.
Among these business groups is the Association of Developers and Promoters of Marine Tourism (Promar), which has drawn up a package of projects of US$208 million, including resorts and even a regional airport in La Union.
Marco Guirola, president of Promar, believes it is understandable that people in coastal communities distrust the MCC initiative, because they have been historically marginalized.
But this vision of doing business damaging the environment and affecting the people “is no longer sustainable, nor even possible, even if someone wants to, because the level of organization in the area is sufficient to generate the necessary pressure,” he argued.
The businessman insists that it is possible to reconcile a huge tourism investment even in areas as fragile as a nature reserve.
“Let’s stop opposing for opposition sake,” he said critically.
Minister of Tourism, Jose Napoleon Duarte, declared he would not accept any tourism project that does not meet minimum environmental requirements.
But someone else should audit these investments, experts argued.
Moisés, of Salvanatura, regretted that neither the government nor the MCC have expressly stated that institutions outside the Salvadoran government and the MCC should certify investors’ projects. However, the latter might already include the certification in its internal procedures.
These certifications, he explained, are much broader than environmental impact studies required by Salvadoran law, and evaluate the project as a whole, environmentally and socially, under international standards.
Additionally, he lamented, they have not included a focus on preventing the impacts of climate change.
“The second MCC compact should be an opportunity for El Salvador, one of the most vulnerable countries in the region, to work in adaptation to climate change and its impacts,” said Moisés.
Every year, the Lower Lempa is particularly prone be hit by those effects, with flooding during the rainy season that cost lives, crops and infrastructure.
Salvadoran Environment Minister Herman Rosa Chávez declined to comment on that matter.
“The only guarantee that the investments are going to respect the environment and the social fabric of the community will not come from the government or the businessmen, but from the organization of the people,” Emilio Espín, Relationship Manager of the Cooperation and Community Development Association (Cordes), pointed out. This organization has been working in the area for 25 years.
Meanwhile, coastal organizations from the Lower Lempa regretted that they have not been given much information about how they can be inserted into the MCC initiative..
“It hasn’t been said how people can participate in this project nor do we see how this is linked to social and environmental community processes,” said Marvin Alberto Alvarado, president of the Coordinadora de Puerto Parada, Jiquilisco.
The people of the Lower Lempa have drawn up specific projects to be included in the MCC second compact, such as an irrigation district and the revitalization of aquaculture production.
But without financial resources, they cannot qualify as investors.
The following radio interview in Spanish is with Nathan Weller, EcoViva’s Program and Policy Director. It was produced by Radio ARPAS, a national community radio network that distributes news and programming among 20 local stations in El Salvador, including Mangrove Radio in the Lower Lempa. The interview discusses EcoViva’s work with local partners in the Lower Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco, and also perspectives on the proposed Public Private Partnership Law, and the second compact being proposed through the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The interview was also re-broadcast on MayaVisión, a national radio station outside of the ARPAS network.
Hola! My name is Marianella Aguirre and I am excited to start working as EcoViva’s new International Fellow!
I arrived in the Bajo Lempa April 1st, just in time to overlap with Tricia Johnson’s last two weeks as EcoViva’s Amigos Fellow. I was fortunate to see her in action, editing grant proposals for the youth program and giving photography lessons, all while passing down her acquired wisdom to me, from where to catch the mototaxi to important organizational skills she picked up over the last 10 months.
I am a Salvadoran-American from San Francisco, California. My dad is originally from Santa Tecla, La Libertad, El Salvador and my mom’s family is from Arcatao, Chalatenango, El Salvador, a rural town in El Salvador’s northwest, that borders Honduras, where I lived and attended school for a year, when my mom decided to return to El Salvador after spending many years outside of the country as a political refugee.
Although I had visited El Salvador before, it was during this stay that I fell in love with the countryside and its people. In San Francisco, my parents always worried about teaching me the importance of going to parks and taking advantage of our city’s natural environment, but in witnessing the connection my mom had with the land when I saw her working in my abuelita’s small organic farm, I understood the importance of conserving our natural resources and not abusing our agricultural systems.
In 2010, I graduated from the University of California, Riverside in southern California, where I majored in Political Science and International Affairs, with a concentration in Latin America. My interest for environmental issues in the region grew through the experience of living in a country that prides itself on the use of alternative fuel, during a semester in which I had the opportunity to study abroad for a semester in Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brasil.
Last summer, I worked as a long-term volunteer for Project Homecoming, a non-profit organization in New Orleans, Louisiana that focuses on the reconstruction of eco-efficient and hurricane resistant houses for families that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
This experience of living and working in New Orleans for two months allowed me to learn about the power of human resistance against natural disasters and the lack of economic resources. I learned that although Hurricane Katrina was destructive, the most catastrophic thing was the lack of administrative leadership on a local and national level. To this day, what’s missing isn’t engineers or environmental conservationists, what’s missing is a lack of governmental leadership.
Most recently I worked as a Spanish/English Interpreter for a school site council in San Francisco as well as volunteered as a writer and translator for the political section of Day Labor News, a bilingual newspaper of the San Francisco Day Laborer’s Program, a non-profit organization that helps its membership—many of whom are Central American immigrants—obtain just-paying work and social services.
I am very grateful for this opportunity to return to El Salvador, where I plan to enjoy plenty of hiking and swimming, dancing cumbias and chomping on lots of mangos. I am excited to be supporting EcoViva on the ground, working with the Mangrove Association and community organizations, in a region that is not only a leader in promoting environmental justice, but also a leader in identifying social issues that I have witnessed throughout my entire life- such as rural youth emigration- and confronting these issues through leadership training and sustainable economic initiatives. I look forward to sharing with you my pictures and stories of life hear in the Bajo Lempa and Bahía de Jiquilisco!
From my first days here in El Salvador, I started to notice a trend. People talked about initiatives and projects, but mostly they spoke about process. Everything was a process- from planning a meeting to running a program. I couldn’t escape the word.
The community organization process. The sustainable fishing process. The youth process. The sustainable agriculture process….
I’ve always been the type of person who likes results. I create check-list after check-list just to see the tasks crossed off and finished. I finish assignments, finish chores, and finish tasks, finding satisfaction in the results while forgetting or pushing aside the steps (and stress) it took to get there.
With my arrival in El Salvador last June, that desire for an end result clashed with the work culture. I quickly learned that I had to change that perspective. Sometimes tasks had an end, sometimes they didn’t but that wasn’t the most important part- the focus was on how you got there.
Without the community members working together to coordinate, meetings would never happen. Without the wetland rangers talking, training, and planning, patrols of the bay would never happen. Without community consultations, site visits, and numerous informal conversations, mangrove restoration would never happen.
It’s easy to plan a workshop, locked away in an office, on a topic you feel is relevant, but what kind of results does that bring? It gives you one morning to transfer your knowledge to the participants. If however, your focus is on the process, on building capacity in others to create community leaders who can carry out workshops on the issues they know affect the communities, the impact goes far beyond the few hours of the workshop. The change is lasting, the results become about more than just checking off your check-list.
What happens when projects fail? When initiatives become too big, too fast, or just not right? With the focus on process, you learn from those experiences, find the weaknesses, and build off of that new understanding to try again.
Many times community development becomes about check-lists. How many workshops were given? How many people were reached? How many communities? How many topics? While those indicators give us a tangible way to gauge impact, it’s not what our work in El Salvador is about. Our questions become how can we make this lasting? How can we include people to build capacity at every step of the way? How can we build off of past experience? How can we add value to the work on the ground?
These questions have come to guide my daily work, although sometimes I wander back to my checklists. After ten months living and working in the Bajo Lempa, I find myself explaining the process of soccer tournaments and the process of potable water to friends and family. As I prepare to transition back to life in the states, I take with me the knowledge and lessons I have learned here from my compañeros, and of course, my mind focused on the process of transitioning to a new International Fellow and a new adventure for me.
The time has come for me to say goodbye to the Bajo Lempa, but instead of goodbye I’ll say see you later. Thanks to EcoViva, the Mangrove Association, the communities, our allies, and our supporters- it has been a completely unforgettable experience.
Clean, reliable water flowing from the tap or kitchen sink is a luxury that many in El Salvador do not enjoy. Over 20% of all Salvadorans, or roughly 1.5 million people, do not have direct access to water in their households for drinking or bathing. Rural areas suffer disproportionally, with 60% of households that subsist amidst a heavily developed agriculture landscape relying primarily upon surface water for drinking. This surface water is highly contaminated with heavy metals, chemical pollutants from agricultural runoff, and human waste in untreated sewage discharge. Nearly two thirds of the country’s water supply comes from surface sources such as streams, rivers and lakes. Over 90% of these sources are severely contaminated, and considered undrinkable by U.S. standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In addressing this crisis, government officials, legislators and civil society have been making slow but steady progress on a water policy for El Salvador, an effort nearly 7 years in the making. In March 2012, after six years of pressure from a consortium of civil society groups and non-government organizations, the Ministry of the Environment proposed a General Water Law, with the explicit purpose of ensuring that every single Salvadoran enjoys the basic human right to clean, plentiful water. This law, if passed, would provide order to the nearly 25 government agencies that each deal with water resources. It would also establish a National Water Council, which alongside the Ministry of the Environment and others, is tasked with regulating consumption and oversee water treatment and pollution standards.
Exactly a year after this proposal was presented, and today to commemorate World Water Day, the General Water Law still faces an uphill battle in the legislature. Even after a broad-based, nationwide consultation process in 2012, the law faces pressure from industry groups who consider the privatization of El Salvador’s water resources a viable alternative to public management under the current National Water Council. These same interests contend that the “polluter pays” principle enshrined in the law, a common practice in punishing dirty operations with direct fines for polluting water sources, is unjust. Instead, many in the industry in El Salvador would rather be allowed to “grandfather in” current operations at factories that discharge waste into water sources, and be provided incentives to modernize water treatment capabilities.
Water is considered a public good, and should be managed as such for the interest of all. From a purely economic perspective, the “polluter pays” principle offers the most direct way to ensure that business pays for externalities, or the costs it forces on others. In this case, that cost is a contaminated water supply, borne by all Salvadorans, and often the poorest who rely on contaminated surface water for survival. Instead of supporting market-distorting subsidies that reward bad actors and free-riders, it is in the industry’s best interest overall to support a more efficient “polluter pays” scheme.
Likewise, until the industry can prove a positive track record in an improvement in service delivery through privatization, it is unlikely to be a viable alternative to public management of water as a public good. Privatization of water provision throughout the world has been marked with higher prices for users, and often few service improvements, while simultaneously complicating users’ rights to equitable access. It is highly unlikely that privatization in El Salvador would be any different.
In commemorating World Water Day, it is important to remember that we all have a responsibility to take care of finite water resources. In the Lower Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco, community leadership is working across 14 municipal areas to improve watershed management adjacent to El Salvador’s largest Wetland of International Importance. They are collaborating with local water boards to improve their administration and management of rural water systems, as well as provide solutions to rampant deforestation that exacerbates flooding damage and the spread of pollutants into surface water. Together with Engineers without Borders, EcoViva and the Mangrove Association are helping improve rural water systems that provide a clean, reliable source of water to over 500 families.
A responsible approach to integrated water management is required if El Salvador hopes to ensure clean water for all of its citizens, and local organizations like the Mangrove Association are taking the lead in highly vulnerable rural areas like the Bay of Jiquilisco. EcoViva supports the passage of a General Water Law that enables these efforts, by institutionalizing innovative efforts like those pioneered in the Bay of Jiquilisco which brings water users together to care for important water resources.
UPDATE: (April 16, 2013). This week, the Environment and Climate Change Commission were unable to meet, due to a lack of a quorum, requiring that a majority of participating representatives be present within 15 minutes of the start of the session. This lack of quorum was due to the absence of participating ARENA, PCN and an independent representatives, all of which are on the record as opposing the proposed General Water Law. The Commission was to discuss articles 70 and 71, which pertain to permit approval processes and penalizing polluters. The Minister and Vice Minister of the Environment were also slated to testify on these topics, and were asked to postpone their testimony for a later date.