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From the Villages of Jiquilisco to the Halls of Congress

May 24, 2012

Representative Estela Hernández of the FMLN and Walberto Gallegos of the Mangrove Association

Last week, FMLN Representative Estela Hernández and grassroots leader Walberto Gallegos from the Mangrove Association traveled to Capitol Hill to discuss the Obama administration’s new development experiment, the Partnership for Growth, and the ramifications of new U.S. aid investments in the Bay of Jiquilisco, Central America’s most extensive coastal resource.

Sponsored by Sam Farr (D-CA) the Congressional Briefing was part of a week-long stint in Washington to raise awareness about El Salvador, its largely unknown wealth of coastal biodiversity, and its importance to development in the region.  Together with EcoViva staff and Board Members, and organizations involved in the Washington Office on Latin America’s working group on Migration and Development, Walberto and Estela met with a cadre of Congressional staffers, U.S. agencies and multilateral donors, all of whom expressed interest in EcoViva’s partner communities, and their leadership in rural development and conservation.

Rep. Hernández & Assistant Secretary of State Jose W. Fernandez

Flanked by Assistant Secretary of State José Fernandez and Salvadoran investor Elmer Arias, Ms. Hernández spoke about the importance of acknowledging existing rural organizations and their work on economic growth and social inclusion, and the importance of foreign aid initiatives neither ignoring nor undermining current local efforts.  As a businessman and member of the Salvadoran community in the United States, Mr. Arias also echoed this sentiment, stressing the importance of involving all actors in El Salvador’s path to economic growth and sustainability.

Walberto Gallegos of the Mangrove Association also spoke about the importance of the community organizing experience in the Lower Lempa, as both a deterrent to migration, and as a successful strategy against violent crime.  He explicitly sited the establishment of the Local Zone of Peace, an initiative facilitated by La Coordinadora and supporters of EcoViva, known at that time as the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America.

The U.S.-El Salvador Partnership for Growth has to date involved a consultative process between both governments to define a set of “constraints” to economic growth, or barriers to broad-based improvements in El Salvador’s economic outlook.  This process identified violent crime and low productivity in the export sector as “constraints” that the U.S. aid agenda in El Salvador would reduce.  Asst. Secretary Fernandez himself acknowledged that although the Partnership for Growth does not represent new aid money, it does present unprecedented coordination between the 15 U.S. federal agencies working in the country.

One of the most prominent U.S. foreign aid agencies in the Partnership for Growth, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), is preparing to invest nearly $280 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars into the Bay of Jiquilisco other priority areas along El Salvador’s rural, coastal areas.

It’s also worth noting that amidst impending cuts to foreign aid throughout Latin America in the next 2-3 years, the U.S. has doubled down in El Salvador, re-focusing aid efforts being re-directed to Central America’s smallest country from embassies in Panama, Bolivia and Uruguay.  Along with Tanzania, the Philippines and Ghana, El Salvador has been chosen to showcase the Obama administration’s global development agenda.  In many ways, what happens in El Salvador could have ramifications across the U.S. presence worldwide.

From left: Walberto Gallegos from the Mangrove Association, Hal Baron (EcoViva’s Board Chair Emeritus), Representative Estela Hernández of the FMLN, Jeff Hass (EcoViva’s Board Chair), Yael Falicov (Executive Director) and Nathan Weller (Program and Policy Director)

As EcoViva reported previously, our nearly 100 local community partners in the Bay of Jiquilisco have been expressing apprehension about the Partnership for Growth, and particularly new aid investments like the MCC.  Thinking back to EcoViva’s inception over 16 years ago, any public or private investment in the Lower Lempa and the Bay of Jiquilisco to reduce poverty was a distant dream, and groups like La Coordinadora and its NGO the Mangrove Association came into being in part to fill this void in rural development.  Now, however, new investments in the coastal zone present challenges for local people and their leadership, particularly if their experience in working with the poorest of the poor is not taken into account.

Our recent activities in Washington highlight the positive impact that local leadership like La Coordinadora can have on both a national and international stage.  The meetings and presentations by Ms. Hernandez and our local partner organization have also helped EcoViva gauge the level of support for civil society participation in the U.S. development agenda, and El Salvador’s negotiation process with actors like the MCC.  While terminology like “country-led development” and “private sector engagement” may mean different things to different people, EcoViva and our local partners will continue to advocate for the acknowledgement of local community development efforts as a necessary part of this process in El Salvador.  Local leadership in the Bay of Jiquilisco offers important lessons, and indeed resources, that the MCC and Partnership for Growth should take into account.

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