Strong Interest in Local Organic Foods in El Salvador

Summer 2015
Delegates from the MOFGA-El Salvador sistering committee met with our sistering organizations, CCR and CORDES, this winter. Mining – a direct threat to agricultural land and water – was a prominent topic of discussion.

By the MOFGA-El Salvador Sistering Committee

Interest in organic farming and gardening and in permaculture is strong in El Salvador. That was one of the principal lessons that four members of the MOFGA-El Salvador Sistering Committee learned while visiting our sister organizations and other groups this winter. We also saw strong emerging leadership among young activists; a committed push to legislate the right to water and to food sovereignty; a growing interest in ecotourism – sometimes accompanied by organic food production and sometimes as an alternative to metallic mining; and deeply disturbing indications of the effects of gang violence in El Salvador.

MOFGA’s El Salvador Sistering Committee works closely with the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities (USESSC) Network, a grassroots organization of U.S. citizens and residents with ongoing partnerships with Salvadoran communities. Those partnerships began in 1986 as a citizen-based response to U.S. intervention in El Salvador’s civil war. The Association for the Development of El Salvador, or CRIPDES, facilitates these efforts.

The MOFGA-El Salvador Sistering Committee maintains a relationship between MOFGA and two Salvadoran organizations working toward sustainable agriculture: CCR (Association of Communities for the Development of Chalatenango) and CORDES (Foundation for Communal Cooperation and Development of El Salvador). The MOFGA committee explores issues that affect farmers in both countries. Several delegations from Maine have visited El Salvador, and Salvadorans have visited Maine.

The 2015 Delegation

Our delegation consisted of MOFGA certified organic farmers Paul and Karen Volckhausen, Willie Marquart (also representing WERU’s sistering relationship with El Salvador’s Radio Sumpul) and MOF&G editor Jean English. We were accompanied by USESSC co-coordinators Cori Ring-Martinez for our entire trip and Catie Johnston at two stops.

We first visited Parque Cuscatlan in San Salvador to remember Salvadorans who were killed or disappeared during the country’s civil war, as well as the National Cathedral, where Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, is buried. Salvadorans already consider Romero a saint, for standing up for the poor and opposing their oppression by the rich. On March 23, 1980, Romero urged Salvadoran troops to defy their orders and stop killing fellow citizens. On March 24, he was assassinated while celebrating mass. In February 2015, Pope Francis decreed that Romero’s assassination was a Martyrdom for the Faith – the penultimate step toward sainthood.

Harvested achote or achiote (Bixa orellana) seeds collected in Carasque. Achote is the source of annato, used to color and flavor foods. English photo

Joining Hands

Next we met with Kristi Van Nostran, a Presbyterian Mission co-worker with the Joining Hands Network of El Salvador. This mission of the Presbyterian Hunger Program goes where people struggle daily with injustice and have invited Joining Hands to accompany them and add its voice. In El Salvador, Joining Hands advocates for food sovereignty, the right to use “native” (heirloom) seeds, and access to agricultural inputs, such as land and water.

Van Nostran took the “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day” proverb to a deeper level than “teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” When access to a place to fish is missing, she said, “we stand with the people to reclaim that access.”

El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world (due to gang violence), she continued; is at high risk for natural disasters; and has high rates of malnutrition – which “screams of a broken food system,” said Van Nostran.

“The farming families are the ones suffering most to put food on their tables,” she said, “which is ironic, because those farming on less than 1 acre contribute 80 percent of the country’s basic grains.” Many farm on rented land – an impediment to transitioning to organic.

Traditional Salvadoran diets have been “McDonaldized,” Van Nostran continued, so Joining Hands helps urban people reconnect with their sources of food. It also deals with issues related to climate change.

Joining Hands works with community leaders, schools and churches to raise awareness that farms should produce first for families, then for neighborhoods and then, possibly, for a municipal market – and with reduced synthetic chemicals. “Once people have seen that they can grow organically or reduce chemical inputs, that starts to catch on,” said Van Nostran.

Joining Hands is part of El Salvador’s National Roundtable on Food Sovereignty, which has put forth the national Sovereignty, Security and Nutrition Bill. The effort includes the right to use native seeds and recognizes the importance of women in agriculture. Van Nostran said more than 50 percent of small farmers are women, yet when the government offered seed packets to the poorest of small farmers, only males were listed – because El Salvador categorizes women by only three occupations: domestic help, professional or homemaker. So women had to ask their husbands to obtain the seeds.

The bill also promotes agroecology; farming methods more aligned with Salvadoran traditions; crops adapted to local climates; a national reserve for basic grains (previously eliminated as imported grains were cheaper); price stability; and regulation of non-nutritious foods.

A group of social movements is also pushing to reform Article 69 of the Constitution so that having adequate food and water is a human right. Van Nostran said that Brazil, by taking this as a first step in its Zero Hunger campaign, helped tip the scales toward small farmers and helped move millions out of hunger there.

Joining Hands helps educate U.S. people, too. “Only so much advocacy can happen in El Salvador before we bump up against CAFTA [Central America Free Trade Agreement],” said Van Nostran. For example, the country is not allowed to preferentially obtain national products (such as native seeds) over international; or sacrifice investor rights to protect the environment.

Kitchen gardens are beginning to appear in many areas, thanks to work by CCR and CORDES. English photo

Joining Hands is also campaigning against especially toxic synthetic pesticides, including the herbicides glyphosate (in Roundup) and paraquat. Many pesticides are applied in El Salvador by people with exposed skin who use backpack sprayers, or aerial applications are made near homes. Pesticide reform may occur through municipal ordinances rather than national bans.


We met with CCR and CORDES at their headquarters in the Department of Chalatenango, which includes 33 municipalities. Here Anna Dubon, secretary of youth work, talked about anti-mining efforts. Lacking a national mining ban, CCR, with the National Roundtable Against Mining, is educating residents about the consequences of mining and working on municipal ordinances. Three municipalities have overwhelmingly passed anti-mining ordinances, and one other was slated to vote this spring.

Ernesto Morales, head of CORDES in Chalatenango, said that a CORDES’ study in five municipalities found that mining would quadruple various water contaminants. The study also found significant biodiversity – 146 avian, 7 reptile and 21 mammal species – which should help with ecotourism. CORDES is educating residents about this study and has created demonstration plots showing sustainable agriculture.

CORDES has seen a huge improvement in nutrition based on its work in its municipalities. Dubon said that each year CORDES focuses on a different educational theme – e.g., how to make a vegetable garden, or how to garden organically. Because of the quality of CCR and CORDES’ work, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization started food security programs in three local municipalities.

Rubia Guarado, secretary of organization, said CCR has been working with women’s organizations to promote feeding families and generating some income; to include their families in the gardening work; to learn to make organic compost; and to use locally grown foods.

Radio Sumpul

At Radio Sumpul, WERU’s sister station in Guarjila, Anna Dubon, Juventina Ramirez and Carlos “Charlie” Guardado told us that the station enabled three high school students to go to college after they had worked there; that it covers local elections and then provides a forum to verify whether officials do what they promised; and that their listeners are very aware of the WERU-Radio Sumpul sistering relationship.

The station hosted an agronomist talking about effects of agricultural chemicals. “So many people came and called to ask questions,” said Ramirez. “Many didn’t know that when you spray and then pick two days later, toxins will still be there even if the food is washed, and that’s why they feel sick.”

Radio Sumpul has an all-volunteer staff and is starting a relationship with students, who can do their community service hours at the station for the two years they are in high school.

Radio Sumpul’s Facebook page ( helps with outreach, letting people know that the station is a center for distributing seed packets, for example.

Cori Ring-Martinez (left) and Karen Volckhausen enjoy fresh coconut water while visiting a permaculture planting in Carasque, El Salvador. English photo
Brahman and other cattle on a livestock cooperative in San Jose Las Flores. English photo

The station is running social messages to educate people to “say no” to violence against women and to mining.


While visiting Carasque, Bangor’s sister city, we heard about the local school’s 15 new computers; about community projects to make medicines, disinfectants, shampoos, soaps and balms from natural ingredients; and about the municipal women’s association, which runs the community corn mill and coordinates with CCR and CORDES – which supported 16 kitchen gardens for women in Carasque.

We visited two organic polyculture farms of coconuts, oranges, mangos, avocados, star fruit and other fruits as well as small plots of sugarcane. What a treat to hike to a hill farm with a dozen community members and enjoy fresh coconut water, right from the coconut!

San Jose Las Flores

In San Jose Las Flores, the community council was enthusiastic about a 9-year-old school garden project focusing on growing food and on biodiversity (e.g., butterflies and other insects) in the organic setting. A tilapia pond is being established, and students are researching the kinds of plants that fish and chickens can eat. “It’s hard to get old farmers to change,” said the teacher. “That’s why school gardens are so important.”

One member of the council said he would like to see a CCR campaign on the importance of using native seeds. Farmers are told that genetically engineered seed produces greater yields, but the council member believes that native seeds may resist drought or pests better or offer better nutrition.

We heard from Don Lisandro, a former president of CORDES and a founder of CCR and CORDES, about the long, arduous events leading up to the founding of San Jose Las Flores. Many townspeople resisted the 12 years of war, but from 1981 to 1985, during the worst of the struggles between the army and the guerillas, people were repeatedly displaced, hiding in the mountains, in caves and in holes in the ground, wandering in and out of Honduras, being arrested and interrogated and even giving birth during their flight. Many were massacred by battalions trained at the U.S. School of the Americas. Survivors ended up in refugee camps.

Lisandro, a leader of the refugees, worked with CRIPDES to get the papers needed to leave the refugee camp, and CRIPDES worked with Cambridge, Mass., sister city members. On June 20, 1986, 26 families from San Jose Las Flores made their way back to the town, with representatives from Cambridge accompanying them past military checkpoints (where they had to renegotiate their right to return). They reached the decimated town on June 21, celebrated, and began rebuilding. “If not for sistering committees, we wouldn’t be here,” said Lisandro.

This planting of mangos and other perennial fruits supplies an ecotourism center in San Jose Las Flores. English photo

A livestock coop is a community project supported by a Spanish organization. The workers raise and make silage from corn and sorghum for 160 cows – including 16 being milked (mostly Holsteins) and 56 for meat (mostly Brahmans). The milk is pasteurized in San Salvador, and some is made into cheese.

The community is also developing a fruit orchard near the livestock farm, where irrigated mangos, mandarins, limes and nances (small, yellow fruits) are the main crops. Mangos are sold in the community, at the Tourist Center (see below), and to markets in Chalatenango. A few even make their way to the United States by special order – with fresh fruits individually vacuum sealed, sent and received within one day. Manure from the livestock operation nourishes the fruit trees.

The Tourism Center, an income-producing project of San Jose Las Flores, shows the community’s dedication to ecotourism and historical tourism. The community gradually bought land along the Rio Sumpul, and the center now has a cafeteria and store, a swimming pool, two kiddie pools and six rental cabins. It is adding on to a multipurpose room and adding a second cafeteria and a museum. Visitors can hike to the Rio Sumpul or along historical paths. The staff has grown from three to 14 and expands to 30 for special events.

Income from the center supports projects for senior citizens who were orphaned during the war and other projects and has slowed emigration to the United States. Visitors come from local communities, from Honduras, from La Libertad, from Maine … The weekend after our visit, the Peace Corps was holding a 60-person conference there.

This area was threatened when a mining company studied it for future prospects. Community members visited mines in Guatemala, saw their ecological damage, returned, removed the mining company’s markers and bought the land. Later 20 men carried a statue of the Virgin Mary to the site. Every September 14, during the celebration of the “Virgin of Resistance,” the community commemorates removing the markers. The mining company withdrew but said it would return when the old leaders die off. “We still say no to mining,” said the young guides at the center. On Sept. 21, 2014, San Jose Las Flores become the first Salvadoran community to pass an ordinance against mining.

El Zapotal and Los Ojos de Agua – “Where water grows”

In El Zapotal, we heard that the health promoter and church promote sustainable agriculture, and a few people are farming organically and using native seeds.

Nearby, Los Ojos de Agua consists mostly of conventional farmers, although the mayor acknowledged associated issues of climate change and pesticide-contaminated water. The herbicide Gramoxone (paraquat) is widely used in this mountainous landscape that drains into the Sumpul River, a significant water source for the region.

Last year a 1,000-acre forest fire occurred when farmers burned their fields after cultivating a crop; so Los Ojos and six other communities, including El Zapotal, were planning to make fire breaks – and discourage people from burning.

Women in Los Ojos are being trained, using municipal funds, to have their own businesses – making and selling raffia purses and natural shampoos, for example.

“Native” (indigenous heirloom) seeds are of great importance to many of the Salvadoran farmers we met. The community of Buena Vista has a corn festival, and this dress, made from different varieties of native corn, won first place in a contest at that festival. English photo

Most striking in this community was a new building that may serve these new businesses and includes a cafeteria. Most striking just outside this community were boulders showing what we were told were Mayan glyphs.

Buena Vista

This 19-year-old community, formed by ex-combatants, was formerly a sugar cane field. The 250 families (about 450 people in about 100 homes) have worked closely with CCR on their highly organized, productive, forward-thinking community where they farm about 200 acres.

For a while, lack of water was one of Buena Vista’s most pressing issues, and women  spent considerable time getting water for chores. With funds from the community and from the EU – obtained with help from Maria Pilar, a Spaniard who was a great friend of the community – it was able to drill a 130-meter-deep well, set up a water tank and distribute water to all the homes. “Having water has drastically improved life in the community. It’s our water, and we would never allow it to be privatized,” we were told.

Most Buena Vistans are between ages 14 and 35. They have organized and supported many projects for youth, including building a gazebo near the community center (funded in part by Buena Vistans in the United States) and creating a T-shirt stamping project. A basketball court was slated to go in soon, and a soccer field sits alongside the community center and the church.

Despite the focus on youth, “it is impossible to stop the flow of youth out of here because of the economic and security situations,” said community leaders. Gangs are strong in nearby communities, and about 50 Buena Vistans have left for the United States in the past five years.

Indeed, one of the saddest moments of our trip occurred when one of our hosts brought out a photograph of her 23-year-old son, who had left for the United States with a coyote 18 days earlier and had last contacted his family from Cancun, Mexico. His mother wept (as did we) as she told us how worried she was for his safety. Likewise, in Carasque, a young man told us he was planning to pay a coyote some $8,000 to get him to the United States because of the limited opportunities for him in his community. Taking a bus from small communities such as Carasque to San Salvador, where young people may get higher education, is no longer an option, because gangs “own” the bus companies, often rob travelers on the buses, and force young men to join gangs. Wherever we went, gangs were cited as the primary problem in El Salvador.

To keep a strong link to the remaining youth, the Buena Vista community council recently appointed a young, third-year law student, Esmeralda Calderon, as president of the Junta Directiva (board of directors) because she communicates so well with young people.

Making an herbal salve in Buena Vista. English photo

Buena Vista’s self-sufficient Juan Chacon Cooperative was agriculturally inspiring. Made up of a few dozen ex-combatants, it started in 1992 and was named for an assassinated leader in the revolutionary movement. By 1998, with support from CORDES and Oxfam UK, it had bought equipment enabling it to sell honey (exporting some to Europe), milk and sugarcane. In 2010 the coop joined the Salvadoran government’s “one glass of milk project” to supply a glass of milk for every student in school every day, because of the quality of the coop’s milk.

The coop recently started raising tilapia during the four rainiest months and eventually hopes to extend production by pumping water from a river to the fish tanks.

The coop was invited to exhibit its livestock at a fair in the community of Concepcion because the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock values Buena Vista’s stock and husbandry. The coop envisions creating ecotourism opportunities to generate more income and employment.

The women’s committee in Buena Vista makes herbal medicines, massage oils and other natural products and would like to have a permanent building where they could make these and offer massages.

San Vincente/Parque Ecologico Tehuacan

We enjoyed hostel-like accommodations, food and another swimming pool at a second eco park, in Tecoluca, near San Vincente. Here we also met with representatives from CRIPDES San Vincente.

A natural volcanic spring running through the Parque Ecologico Tehuacan brings water to 700 residents, to park visitors and employees, and to a concrete pool for swimmers and a second pool for raising fish.

A polyculture of mangos, papayas, avocados and other perennial crops in Parque Ecologico Tehuacan fed visitors to the eco-center and others in the community. The 50-acre planting was transitioning to organic. English photo
A perennial plant nursery in the Parque Ecologico Tehuacan. English photo

The first campesino massacres in the ‘70s took place here. The area, then owned by large landowners who raised sugar cane, cotton and livestock, was abandoned during the war. Later the state parceled the land out to individuals and set some aside for the park.

“The war at its origins was a struggle for land,” said Luz Esmeralda, CRIPDES coordinator for the region. The local people have grown basic grains here since resettling and recently have expanded to producing peppers, tomatoes, papayas and other fruits.

CRIPDES San Vincente works with local institutions, municipal governments, women’s organizations (including establishing seed banks and community gardens), youth, social and environmental justice groups and with MOPAO – the Moviemiento Popular de Agricultura Organica. Staff members, especially concerned about harmful practices in sugar cane cultivation, are working on municipal ordinances against aerial pesticide spraying and are educating about the dangers of the common practice of postharvest burning of sugar cane fields. They are also working on water rights and community water projects.

Three communities in the area have sistering relationships with U.S. cities, and CRIPDES helps connect them.

We saw an impressive 1,500-plant greenhouse tomato growing operation – one of three local tomato greenhouses run by the Volcano Breeze Cooperative, which received partial funding from the Ministry of Agriculture and from a Spanish association. The plants were growing in pots, in a medium of pumice and rice hulls, fertilized with non-organic hydroponic nutrients. The houses were covered with fabric to exclude insect pests – primarily whiteflies, which spread disease. Tomatoes (and a few peppers) are sold to the eco park and in the local area.

A polyculture planting in the park held three types of avocados as well as mangos, plantains, mandarins, oranges and papayas, all set in planting holes amended with compost. Chemical fertilizers and some herbicides were used initially, but the 50-acre project was transitioning to organic. Water was controlled on the somewhat hilly site through swales, drainage sluices and drip irrigation.

We learned that MOPAO, supported by the Austrian organization Intersol, consists of 16 municipal and community organizations and 53 producers who promote organic as the best alternative for sustainable development and for improving the quality of life of producers.

One MOPAO grower, Apronores, exports cashews, dried fruit and mushrooms through Equal Exchange and is certified organic by a third party. Others are certified by a participatory guarantee system (farmers certifying one another). Apronores, originally a CRIPDES project, became independent in 2005.

MOPAO works on organic crop production, fish production, livestock, a seed bank, food sovereignty, patio agriculture, production of agricultural inputs and medicinal plants.

It has a school garden program, too, and the Salvadoran Ministry of Education is beginning to try to fit school gardening into curricula. “Children love it,” we were told. “They get healthy snacks, get to take food home, and they learn that organic is positive.” Through Intersol, MOPAO supports some high school students who are being trained in organic agriculture.

MOPAO teaches growers how to make their own organic pesticides, which one MOPAO farmer also makes and sells as a business.

The organization is researching the use of row covers with low hoops to protect plants growing at sea level from wind and salt damage.

MOPAO helped start three successful honey initiatives, including one for a women’s cooperative.

The MOPAO staff showed us its permaculture garden at the Eco Center. All fertilizers and pesticides were produced from materials on-site. They make an insecticide called “M5” to combat white flies, using chili peppers, garlic, mint, ginger and onions in 90 proof alcohol. They also use trichoderma, a chalk and copper mixture, and sulfur in small quantities. They plant aromatic herbs among vegetables to confuse insects. And they make compost in 16 days from chicken manure, composted rice hulls, mountain microorganisms (soil collected from nearby mountains) and water. The finished product loosens the clay soil. A women’s group was selling some of this bagged compost. They also ferment a foliar fertilizer in a tank, combining a plant called florifundia with rock fertilizers, molasses, rice hulls and mountain microorganisms. They dilute the fertilizer in water before applying it.

MOPAO growers raise indigo (“anil”) on a plantation away from the Eco Center. To produce indigo, they put the anil plants in water for 18 hours, then add lime so that a blue color sinks to the bottom and a yellow color rises. They decant the yellow water and strain the blue water to capture and dry the indigo.

MOPAO teaches people about handling agricultural chemicals, “because many people are still going to use them.”

Changing climate is affecting these growers. Two years ago, when 93 mile-per-hour winds blew the leaves off trees, MOPAO growers lost $40,000 in crops. Hurricane Stan in 2005 resulted in $30,000 in losses for these growers. They face floods, cold fronts and droughts.

Pesticide drift from the numerous large sugar cane operations nearby has led to loss of 140 acres of certified-organic land.

The MOPAO representatives showed the following data about Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) in Tecoluca. This gradual loss of kidney function, followed by death, is common in Salvadoran and Nicaraguan sugarcane workers. Heat stress and agricultural chemicals are suspected causes.

Sugarcane is a major crop in El Salvador and accounts for much of the pesticide use there as well as crop residue burning and traffic congestion. English photo
A compost-making demonstration in El Papaturro. English photo

Deaths in Tecoluca due to Chronic Kidney Disease

1995      6
1996      7
1997      7
1998    10
1999      3
2000      9
2001      4
2002    10
2003    15
2004    17
2005    14
2006    18
2007    21
2008    16
2009    20
2010    19
2011    24

These numbers are based on death certificates that list CKD as the cause of death, but about 40 percent of the people who die in the hospital from heart attacks also die from CKD, we were told; those numbers are not included in the above. The big sugarcane companies apply insecticides aerially and use a top kill agent before harvest to concentrate sugar in the lower part of the plant.

El Papaturro

In El Papaturro, we met with Julio Cesar Rivera, the young president of the Junta Directiva of the 750-acre community of about 490 people. Rivera had created an ecology group in 2009 to care for the local environment. The 17 members, ages 12 to 25, began by recycling trash found in public spaces and rivers. They now truck all types of plastics, food containers, glass, cans and more to a processing facility, using funds they receive from the facility to support their group. They pay to transport the trash by holding “lunatas” – when they build a bonfire on a full-moon night and host games and sell food by the light of the fire and the moon.

Their work has expanded to include caring for the three rivers bordering the community, rescuing plants and holding environmental education workshops for children. They have a program on the local community radio station to raise awareness about reducing the use of toxic chemicals in products, including junk food. They have an organic garden growing cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes, celery and more – for healthy food and to rescue the traditions of their ancestors of growing food and caring for the earth. And they’re encouraging stores to sell more produce and natural juices and less junk food and Coca Cola.

The group leads hikes in the forests and mountains and along the river. “We have cliffs along the river, so we have to figure out where to put the trails,” said Julio – adding that they hope to add zip lines to promote ecotourism. Hikers may see snakes, iguanas, scorpions, carrion birds, coyotes, fox, armadillos, deer, mountain cats and “an invasion of squirrels.

“We’re paying back to the earth just a small part of what we’ve done to damage it,” said Rivera. They’re seen “as a model municipality in our work and level of organization,” he added, “so many communities ask us to speak about what we do and how we do it so that they can rescue their water resources.”

Members of the group sometimes attend conferences or work with other environmental organizations. “This helps us see that this is a global movement,” said Rivera. “For example, the issue of climate change – We all have to work on it.”

We visited a polyculture plot where corn was followed by bananas with squash growing between the young banana plants, and sugar cane separated fields; a mixed organic vegetable garden; and a field of corn that was planted in north-south rows one time followed by east-west rows the next time to limit erosion.

Centro de CRIPDES

Our final stop was at the Centro de CRIPDES, a demonstration organic composting center and garden started in July 2014. The three-year project is funded by the Divine Providence Sisters. About 26 people, mostly women, received training and are expected to pass that training on to 27 local communities. The gardens are meant to feed families, with surplus to be sold in local markets; and to involve young people. The project is also experimenting with growing greenhouse tomatoes and peppers, and is working hard to convince people not to burn their fields.

Back Home

We returned to Maine enriched – knowing that our sistering organizations, like MOFGA, are working hard to ensure a nutritious, productive, organic, socially just future. The strong community organizing we saw was inspiring. The right to food and water and the unwavering “No to mining” campaigns help guide our committee members’ work in Maine. We worry about the gang violence, about communities that live in fear of gang violence, about pesticide exposure and about the effects of emigration. We look forward to sharing our experiences at the Common Ground Country Fair. Perhaps most of all, we are excited about our next delegation, likely in 2017.

For more about our work, see the MOFGA-El Salvador Sistering Committee page.


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