Optimism in El Salvador

Fall 2010
Corn painting
Corn is an important part of the heritage of Central America and appears in art throughout the country. English photo.

Report of MOFGA’s 2010 delegation to its sistering organizations

The rugged mountains of El Salvador are great for growing organic crops – especially perennial crops – but should not be subjected to mining for gold, silver and copper; and the new government of Mauricio Funes has taken steps related to both issues. Those were among the lessons that MOFGA’s El Salvador Sistering Committee delegation learned during its February 9 to 19, 2010, visit to its sistering organizations in El Salvador. We also learned about the value of strong community organizations, including a community radio station.

Wide Opposition to Metal Mining

Our delegation consisted of Paul and Karen Volckhausen, Willie Marquart, Martha Dickinson, Matthew and Peggy Strong, Jacomijn Schravesande-Gardei and Jean English. The potential devastation of metal mining in El Salvador pervaded discussions at the meetings we attended.

Rodolfo Calles of the National Roundtable Against Mineral Mining told us that local people started the Roundtable in 2005 when they saw foreigners studying their water and soil. The organization learned about technical aspects of mining and its effects in other countries. Its goal now (supported by the Catholic Church) is to stop mining in El Salvador.

El Salvador is only 20,000 square km (about the size of Massachusetts), yet 15 mining companies have undertaken 29 exploration projects there, covering 1,300 to 1,500 square km in the northern region of the country. One major river provides water for 60 percent of the country, so mining could be a “massive potential disaster,” said Calles, through excess water use, chemicals contaminating the water, and deforestation. Mining uses cyanide, and material left over after mining generates acid drainage.

While exploration permits were given in the past, the government refused to give actual mining permits, saying the mining companies did not do proper Environmental Impact Statements. Consequently, two companies, Pacific Rim and Commerce Group, are suing the Salvadoran government for $200 million under CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

The mining issue has generated conflict in communities between groups that support or oppose mining; and anti-mining activists have been murdered in Cabañas, where Pacific Rim wants to mine. The Roundtable, said Calles, believes that Pacific Rim created this conflict, but it cannot prove that Pacific Rim paid for the murders. Complicating the situation, conflicts exist about who owns some of the land; and farmers don’t have the rights to subsoil minerals.

Mining would provide about 600 jobs in Cabañas at first, but only 200 after the first two years. The mining companies propose to give 2 percent of their profits to the Salvadoran government.

On its website, Pacific Rim focuses on its El Dorado mine, but Calles said that various companies are considering 29 mining projects throughout El Salvador. Mining in St. Sebastian 50 years ago, he noted, created extreme environmental damage, including drying up a river.

Anti-mining sentiment appears throughout El Salvador, including near this church in Carasque. English photo.
El Salvador terrain
The terrain of much of El Salvador is best suited to perennial crops. English photo.
Hill farm crops
Young coffee trees, plantain and other perennials grow on this hill farm. English photo.
Selling prepared food at a CORDES-sponsored farmers’ market in Los Ranchos. The market sets up on Sundays outside a church. English photo.

A bill that the Roundtable presented to the Legislative Assembly in 2006 to stop mining has been sitting there since; but President Mauricio Funes says no mining will occur during his five-year term. So the Roundtable is working to get the anti-mining law passed; to help the people of Cabañas; and to support El Salvador in the lawsuits brought by Pacific Rim and Commerce Group.

Calles added that CAFTA needs to be revised or annulled. Paul Volckhausen, a MOFGA committee member, noted that under CAFTA and NAFTA, companies can sue for potential lost profits, and tribunals rather than courts make decisions.

“There is a huge movement in the United States to renegotiate all the trade treaties,” said Volckhausen, and Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine is deeply involved in these efforts, including introducing the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act, which has broad support.

Asked how gold is used worldwide, Calles said 80 percent is for jewelry, 12 percent for electronics and 8 percent for medical uses (such as fillings). Also, many countries back their currency with gold reserves. Matthew Strong, who is involved in electronics recycling worldwide and was with the MOFGA delegation, said that much recycled gold goes to places such as India, where people use it like bank accounts.

Calles said that U.S. groups can help by pressuring the U.S. government to ask mining companies to pull out of El Salvador.

Fighting Mining in Chalate

Later on our trip, Miriam Alaya described anti-mining strategies that CCR (Coordinator of Repopulated Communities) has undertaken in Chalate. (Chalate is a nickname for Chalatenango, a community in the department of Chalatenango.) She said that mining company promoters tried to convince landowners to sell their land to them. Organized communities quickly realized which community members the company was trying to get to work for them (for $1,000 per month). The communities told these people not to work for the companies, because to do so would create conflict, and one community even threatened to expel a resident if he became a mining promoter. Communities held educational workshops to teach citizens about mining and companies’ tactics. People in the communities removed flags that technicians had used to mark sites containing minerals, and they set up checkpoints and wouldn’t let mining people pass.

All mayors of the region have denied companies permission to mine. CCR called an assembly, invited a mining director, and the people told the company it wasn’t wanted.

They posted billboards saying “No to Mining” and explaining its dangers; made T-shirts; and had programs on Radio Sumpul, which, said Juan Jose, extended into Honduras and were very important for informing people and doing advocacy. (Radio Sumpul is the community radio station in Chalatenango and is the sister radio station of WERU in Orland, Maine.)

CCR is educating communities about mining companies’ lawsuits so that if the government needs support, communities can mobilize. They have had marches and other activities in front of the U.S. and Canadian embassies, and CCR has protested in front of the Legislative Assembly in San Salvador.

To support the people of Cabañas, CCR sent 1,000 people there to remove a mining company sign and destroy a couple of hoses as a symbol of protest.

CCR visited mining sites in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua and made videos showing the environmental destruction and illnesses caused.

When mining trucks from Guatemala were seen driving around the area, CCR told the truck drivers they should leave – and that if they returned, the community “could not be responsible for what might happen.”

When one company said it wasn’t involved in mining in El Salvador, CCR brought a flag from the company’s survey to the company’s headquarters in Boston and told the company they didn’t want them in El Salvador. The company has since said it cannot get into Chalate.

Mining Companies tried to bribe a CORDES leader – unsuccessfully.

In 2008, a local university employee called CCR, saying that all the mining company representatives were there trying to bribe him. CCR called the director of the university and told him he shouldn’t let the mining companies do that, and the director agreed.

“It’s a permanent struggle,” said Alaya; “a national struggle. We have to do it for the good of everyone.” She thanked Sister Cities for funds to help with anti-mining work.

A New Government

Pedro Juan Hernández from the Popular Resistance Movement (MPR) and Gertrudis “Tula” Mejia and Rosa Centeno from CRIPDES (Association for the Development of El Salvador, the largest rural organization in the country and a leader in the Salvadoran social movement) talked about the possibilities and challenges facing the Funes government.

“We are coming out of 20 years of the right wing Arena party government,” said Hernández, “of neoliberalism based on the free market (deregulation, privatizing services, opening the market to foreigners).” Those 20 years failed to resolve El Salvador’s problems, he said, so the country now faces rising gas and food prices and is suffering from the spreading U.S. financial crisis. Unemployment, delinquency and emigration have increased, and 2009 saw negative 3.3 percent growth in the Salvadoran economy. In 2009, production was down, exports were down 16 percent, and imports from the United States were down 27 percent.

One-third of the Salvadoran population now lives in the United States, and their remittances to El Salvador are one of the main sources of income for their economy.

“We export people,” said Hernández.

However, because of the U.S. financial crisis, remittances in 2009 were reduced by 9.7 percent ($450 million).

Because of the economic crisis, the country lost 50,000 jobs in 2009, and underemployment is now at 55 percent. Most of the underemployed work in the street, selling water, snacks and other goods.

The poverty rate went from 34 to 44 percent in 2009, contributing to emigration.

At the same time, crime has increased, with about 25 homicides per day in 2009, said Hernández; and a much higher rate in 2010. (Our committee has seen other reports of 12 to 14 reported homicides per day.) “There are murders of non-gang members by masked people using military-issue weapons,” said Hernández. “We think these are intentional actions to create fear among people and to give the impression that the current government is incapable of solving problems.”

Many citizens have been deported from the United States and returned to El Salvador having no opportunities. “So the people saw the need for change and voted out the Arena party,” said Hernández. “Mauricio Funes won the 2009 election running under the flag of the FMLN. He inherited problems from 20 years of Arena government. It won’t change overnight.”

The new government, said Hernández, is more democratic, participatory and sensitive to the needs of the population. It has removed required payment at hospitals and clinics and enabled free access to medicine. School children now get their uniforms and supplies free. The government is helping people get titles to land where they have lived for years. Senior citizens have small pensions. Farmers are receiving seeds and fertilizers. The government is looking for new ways to respond to and to rebuild after emergencies, such as hurricanes.

Most important, said Hernández, “are opportunities for the people of El Salvador so that they can satisfy their basic needs.” Creating these opportunities should include supporting agriculture; supporting micro, small and medium-sized businesses; and supporting the informal sector (such as street vendors).

“I don’t agree with some of the decisions the government has made regarding multinational corporations,” said Hernández, including continuing the new Free Trade Agreement with the European Union and sending representatives to the Honduran president’s inauguration; but he praised its Social Economic Council, which includes representatives from government, business and social organizations; and the National Councils created to address agriculture, health care, energy and more.

Big businesses and the rich don’t pay taxes, Hernández continued; but the little people do. “We have to think of them [the big and rich] as criminals.” While weak fiscal reform recently passed, Hernández noted the need for deeper fiscal reform. “People who make more money should have to pay more taxes.”

Rosa Centeno said that CRIPDES is participating more in the government and confirmed the need for new laws and for continuing to strengthen social organizations and communities.

Tula Mejia said that CRIPDES trains local leaders to develop communities and has long worked with youth, women, agriculture and other community needs. “We need to help communities access the new programs the government is implementing. We need ways to help people in local right-wing governed communities access programs.”

CRIPDES, Mejia explained, started around 1986 as a response to human rights violations and to help people access resources so that they didn’t have to live in poverty. Now CRIPDES is in 400 communities in seven departments (like U.S. counties). About 60 people, many of them volunteers, work for CRIPDES, offering trainings, working with women and youth, working on sistering projects, and doing advocacy (especially to stop privatization of certain goods and services).

“International solidarity has played an important role in our strength,” said Mejia. “The change in government in large part is due to the work of the social movement. Before, the population was scared. Because we’ve been working with communities for so long, we’ve been able to make change. We can now say, ‘We don’t want [the president] to work for big business, we want him to work for us.’”

The Arena party is now divided, Mejia said, with some voting with the left on legislation.

She noted that visits from sistering groups “give hope to the communities” when they realize that “someone in the United States is thinking of them.”

Fruit processing plant in Guarjila
The solar-powered fruit processing plant in Guarjila. English photo.

Agriculture: New Push for Organic

At the CORDES office in San Salvador, we met with Don Felipe Tobar, president of the directiva; Francesco, political strategist for CORDES; and Rene Cruz, the CORDES treasurer.

Francesco reiterated the importance of the “enormous changes in government.” The Arena government of the past 20 years ignored agriculture in El Salvador and instead imported grains and basic foods and fertilizers. Importers were the economic elite who were part of the government, and farming was abandoned on purpose in order to favor the elite, he said.

The Funes government, however, is focusing on agricultural development. A Roundtable of Agriculture formed to produce a plan for Salvadoran agriculture – one strategy of which is opening up dialog. Farmers are now represented in the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, and the offices of that ministry are now open to farmers. “We can even have meetings there. The minister of agriculture and other officials make themselves available to talk about agricultural development.” Short, medium and long-term plans for change are in the works.

One focus is to strengthen farmers’ networks in the country; and organic agriculture is a fundamental program.

Paul Volckhausen presents a Common Ground Fair poster to Ernesto Morales of CORDES/CCR. English photo.

CORDES is working with the National Autonomous University of Mexico to produce biofertilizers that regenerate soils. One product is a nitrogen-fixing bacterium, Azospirillum, which also increases the availability of minerals in the soil for plant uptake (but is killed by synthetic fertilizers).

Another, called Bio-tric, is made from the fungus Trichoderma harzianum and is used to control painted flies in sugar cane; it also helps control various beetles and worms. Seeds, Bio-tric and water are mixed for about an hour before planting. A second dose is applied two weeks later in the field. When used with native (local) seeds, Bio-tric has increased crop production 25 to 30 percent. CORDES hopes the new government will provide it with funds so that the organization can develop, test, produce and distribute a CORDES brand of the fungus.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock has also formed a National Agricultural Council to create new policies for agricultural development and to help develop an agricultural production chain that includes producing, storing, transforming and marketing products.

“So the organizations take leadership and ownership over production,” said Francesco. “Before, farmers were pushed just to produce. Someone would buy products at low prices and take the profits when they sold, using speculation and withholding products to get the most money possible.

“Also, importing companies were bringing in basic grains that could be produced here – at low cost, because the United States and the European Union subsidize agricultural products. So local farmers failed when they tried to set prices for their products.”

The new government and CORDES are promoting two particular policies – food security and food sovereignty – to protect food access on a local level. “This will also help protect us from genetically modified products from companies like Monsanto and DuPont, which are trying hard to get their products into the country by propaganda and by paying people off,” said Francesco.

Pressing sugar cane
Sugar cane feeding into a press in Carasque. English photo.
Pressing sugar cane
Cane juice flows from the press – powered briefly by our delegation. English photo.

Asked about the Salvadoran indigo industry, Francesco said that an organization called The House of Indigo in El Salvador grows 250 hectares of indigo and has very good technology for extracting the dye. It is selling to Europe; and is expanding into Nicaragua because of the limited market for indigo in El Salvador.

Don Felipe said that CORDES was sponsoring many indigo producers, but high investment and production costs were problematic. Francesco said that CORDES was working on organic indigo production, since U.S., E.U. and Japanese demand was for organic.

About the state of organic farming, Don Felipe said, “Many farming families use chemicals to make farming easier. The process [of switching to organic] will take many years, but we’re always working on it. A lot of farmers are using organic methods. They motivate others who see their experiences. CORDES proposed that the Ministry of Agriculture include information about organic agriculture in the agricultural packets it distributes, and the Ministry has been happy to do that.”

Rene Cruz added that the director of CORDES, Hugo Flores, is now Vice Minister of Agriculture in the Funes government, per a proposal by CORDES. “This is important, because he worked with CORDES for the past 16 years. He is very conscious about food security and sovereignty. It is easy for us to talk with him.”

The Director of Administration in the Ministry of Agriculture also worked for CORDES. “Other friends of CORDES are in the new government,” said Cruz. CORDES realizes that change could take up to 20 years, but it is actively laying the foundation inside the government for those changes.

“We are still facing the challenges of being in a postwar country,” said Cruz. “Some people are anxious to have quick changes, but the CORDES board knows change will happen little by little, and we need to not exclude anyone. Today we are talking about representative and participatory democracy.”

Don Felipe said it is very important that the government recognizes CORDES. “There is strength between CORDES and the social movement, because CORDES was formed by the communities. In the 21 years it has been an organization, it has brought a lot of benefits to communities. We thank the international groups that have helped us.”

Paul Volckhausen noted similarities between CORDES and MOFGA, including the fact that the Obama administration’s Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, comes from the organic movement; and that the federal government has started the Know Your Farmer campaign to support small, local producers. “But we still battle with giants like Monsanto, who want to control all of agriculture,” he said.

Cruz noted that a very successful roundtable was held with 110 organizations representing 350,000 farmers to discuss organic agriculture and problems of genetically engineered crops. Likewise, rural farmer gatherings are discussing the need to bring back native (“Creole”) seeds and to educate people about how biotech companies push their seeds. For example, companies encourage people to bring native seeds to them, and the companies give GE seeds in exchange. CRIPDES and its farmers, said Francesco, also go to Monsanto trainings and challenge their statements.

Cruz said that governments tend not to look at this seed issue as one of national security, “but if companies take over the seed and water, they would have a monopoly, and that would be bad for the food security of the country. People would not be able to plant.”

CORDES is also concerned that seeds that companies give farmers may not produce well, so CORDES is trying to restore the number of varieties of crops, such as corn, in the country.

Francesco said CORDES is also watching what happens in the United States, especially regarding chemical fertilizers and their creation of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. “We are seeing the same here – fewer fish, crabs and freshwater shrimp in the rivers. We are afraid to eat our fish sometimes because rivers are contaminated with mercury.”

Pineapple growing on a farm in Carasque. English photo.
Still life in Carasque. English photo.

The Power of Community Organizing

The MOFGA delegation met with CCR and CORDES in Chalate. CCR started in 1988, to help repopulated communities in Chalatenango that had been displaced to refugee camps in Mesa Grande, Honduras, and in San Salvador.

“At first,” said CCR representative Miriam Alaya, “we didn’t have basic services, such as electricity. We also had to work to defend human rights, to make sure the army didn’t take leaders away from the communities.”

As CCR kept working, more communities joined. They numbered 110 in February 2010, although Alaya said more are joining every day. CCR is now a legally recognized entity named the Association of Communities for the Development of Chalatenango. Its 10-member board works on issues related to community organizing, health, youth (especially in risk prevention), women, popular education, the war wounded and sistering. CORDES is the agricultural production part of CCR. The regional office of CORDES in Chalate employs 18 people, and nationally CORDES has 125 employees.

Board member Jose Franco said that because of CCR and CORDES, communities had survived the hard times, and now they have been able to organize resistance to large companies, such as mining companies. They have set up directivas (boards of directors) in all their communities, which can inform people and have even been able to expel some companies from communities. They also worked against large hydroelectric dams that companies wanted to build in Chalate; and against the highway planned through northern El Salvador that would displace many local families. Because of their work with youth, delinquency hasn’t increased as much in Chalate as in other communities.

The four CCR program areas are:

agriculture and livestock, which works on farm development plans, crop diversification, sustainable agriculture, soil and water conservation and using native seeds. Its ultimate goal is to have only organic agriculture in El Salvador;

women, including promoting “patio production” (family garden plots);

youth, including honey production, aquaculture, bakeries and other production efforts;

business development, encouraging people to own their own, independent businesses. CCR has a savings and loan co-op with 1,800 members; a wood products handicraft co-op, which sells primarily to Austria, Italy and the United States; small production initiatives, such as a coffee co-op; a solar dryer production facility, which, due to its success, has become its own business, with help from the Austrian NGO CONA.

Our delegation visited the coffee processing co-op, supplied by some 10 organic (but not certified) growers, and the solar dryer production facility, which produces more than 100 types of food dryers, the largest having been sent to Guatemala. A study by the Center for the Defense of the Consumer in El Salvador found that all chips and other snack foods made with corn were contaminated with genetically engineered (GE) material, so one goal of the government is to substitute non-GE and healthier alternatives, such as dried fruits.

CCR also hopes to make proposals to the Millennium Challenge Fund (a U.S. foreign aid program); is promoting local markets; and works to strengthen institutions and to help local governments look at agriculture as a way to develop municipalities. The organization trains municipal council members so that they can make these development plans themselves. It is also promoting gender equality in municipal councils and is working on natural disaster management and prevention.

The contested highway, said Ernesto Morales, is one of three components of the Millennium Challenge Fund; is part of Plan Panama, the Mexico-to-Panama highway; and is linked with companies’ desire to exploit Salvadoran minerals, especially gold. Other components of the Challenge are human development (building high schools and teaching to provide technical services that will grow up along the highway) and agriculture, but highway construction is using up most of the funds.

Juan Jose said that the highway has been under construction for a year from Chalate to the border of Guatemala and will eventually cross the entire northern part of El Salvador in order to move products to a port. A bridge will cross the Lempa River, going from Santa Ana to Chalate.

Asked about organic certification, Juan Jose said that there is no certification agency in El Salvador. They are working on participatory certification – i.e., selling products locally to people who know how they have been grown. “There are people who have been trained in organic certification,” said Jose. “We would need more support from the government to start a certification business.” Two products that are exported as organic are cashews and cheeses, certified by Via Latina.

Farm and Food Highlights

Our delegation visited an organic coffee farm that also raised passion fruit, avocados, castor beans, citrus and more, much of it interplanted and mulched on steep hillsides. Coffee trees were fertilized at planting and then mulched with compost made from coffee bean fruit residue, manure and lime.

In Guarjila we saw a fruit processing plant that employs a dozen women. Each woman works for a month and gets the profits from that month. They dry pineapple, apple, coconut, papaya, mango, lemons, limes, oranges, tomatoes, peppers, herbs and tea. They are improving their packaging so that they can sell dried fruit in stores; meanwhile they sell to 1,000 or so foreigners who visit the plant each year.

We also visited Radio Sumpul in Guarjila; and we walked about 45 minutes from Guarjila to a small farmers’ market in Los Ranchos that sets up outside church on Sundays.


In Carasque, Bangor’s sister city, we toured Francesco Orellano’s organic farm with Mario Menjivar, who told us that most fruit trees in Carasque are organically grown, but most corn, sorghum and beans are grown with synthetic chemicals. The plantings in Orellano’s permaculture-style farm are fertilized with residue from coconut trees and other crops. This one hilly, rocky farm included the following plants:

  • Pinal, a type of pineapple, that is planted on the contour as a living fence. A milky beverage called atoll is made from its fruit; plantlets are eaten like artichokes; and the flower is eaten raw or in soup.
  • Coconut
  • Bamboo, used for crafts
  • Sorghum. The residue is used as mulch around coconut plants.
  • Nances, a small tree or large shrub in the genus Byrsonima that produces a fruit used in refrescos (like fruit smoothies)
  • Mango
  • Citrus, including oranges – some grafted and some native trees with a longer harvest season than commercial varieties
  • Basil, often used in chicken soup
  • Loroco, a vining plant with flowers produced in the rainy season and eaten in soup
  • Bananas of various types
  • Coffee trees – although Mario noted that the soil in Carasque wasn’t good for coffee, and the trees flower but don’t fruit
  • Olive trees, also called aceituna. The fruits are used to make oil, and the wood is used for firewood and to make light colored furniture.
  • Laurel, a tree used for construction
  • Teca or teak, which is a different variety than the teak grown in South America but has the same uses

Other plants that we saw around Carasque included the pepeto tree, which produces a sweet fruit; copinol; and cashew.

Higher in the hills of Carasque, on Beto and Lydia Alaya Cruz’s farm, we saw:

  • Carambola, star fruit
  • Green beans
  • Anchiote (annatto), used to color soup
  • Huarumo, used for shade and kindling wood
  • Papaya
  • Cypress trees

We also saw Lydia’s several dozen chickens – meat birds that she bought with an Oxfam micro-loan.

And we saw Don Manuel’s oxen-powered sugar cane press, made in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Lacking oxen when we were there, several members of our delegation powered the press and we enjoyed a drink of fresh sugar cane juice.

Popular Education with Equipo Maiz

On Feb. 15, the Bangor Sister City delegation arrived in Carasque, and Mario Menjivar noted that this was the first time the community had had 19 people visit at once. He described some community projects, including one to pipe water from a nearby mountain to Carasque and two other communities. Also, the sewing cooperative is making school uniforms; and the road to Guajila should be paved within 14 months. The community is fixing up an old school building where meetings will take place.

On Feb. 16 and 17, the MOFGA and Bangor delegations gathered with leaders, teachers, business people and students from Carasque for popular educational workshops by Equipo Maiz.

We learned about the history of El Salvador, beginning with the 1539 colonization, when the country started growing indigo, a native plant called xiquilite, in warmer areas for export to Europe. Ecologists have since said that production led to desertification. It also forced the indigenous people to the highlands. In 1840-1850, coffee became a more important crop, because the Germans began synthesizing indigo. Coffee grows better in cooler places where the indigenous people had previously been banished by indigo production, so these people were further marginalized.

By 1881-1882, anyone with money could buy land to grow coffee. The indigenous people had to live on the edges of the coffee plantations and work for nothing. The owners let them plant corn and beans around their homes, but they could cultivate them only on weekends and had to work on coffee during the week. Fourteen families owned the country through coffee production…until the 1932 uprising.

Equipo Maiz took us through more history and politics of El Salvador, to the current day, when again, a few corporations control banking, food, seeds, and other essentials in the country.

As we heard throughout our tour, Equipo Maiz noted that the 2009 election that threw out the right-wing Arena party holds hope for more participatory democracy.

– Jean English

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