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Photo essay: El Salvadorians taking action against environmental threat

Dr Oliver Moore travelled to the Latin American country with Trócaire to see local communities becoming empowered to fight for a clean environment, and for sustainable development.

Environmental protest posters
Environmental protest posters
Image: © Oliver Moore via Flickr.com

THE IRISH CHARITY Trócaire is currently campaigning on climate change, and specifically the climate change bill which Environment Minister Phil Hogan is due to release and recommend to a joint Oireachtas committee before the year is out.

Trócaire invited a small, diverse group of people to show the work they do in El Salvador – In my case, they wanted to connect up with and reach out to someone who doesn’t normally interact with them, but who has some interest in social justice and environmental issues. Their thinking was that I would then communicate what I’d encountered to others in my networks.

Communities learning their rights to a clean environment

We visited two to three communities each day. One was the community of Los Angeles. In 1994, this small community moved to the San Julian municipality of El Salvador, one of the countries poorest regions, where two out of every three people live below the national poverty line.

Since then, the community has faced numerous natural disasters including earthquakes, floods and tropical storms. UNES, one of Trocaire’s leading partner organisations in El Salvador, has been working with the community to build its capacity for sustainable development.

“We began to realise what our rights were… not only our physical but also rights to a clean environment. We learned that people must manifest themselves,” Walberto Herrera, 44.

They have manifest themselves through significant successful struggles against local threats. A local pig farm was leaking waste into a nearby river and contaminating the water. Sixteen of the local communities in San Julian organised together to demand the closure of the farm. The residents engaged in a two-year process of attempted legal action, demonstrations, marches, culminating in a a three-day road blockade. Despite death threats and severe pressure from vested interests, in the end, the pig farm was given three months to clear out, or the community would take the pigs. The community won.

They save seeds, have allotments, diversity into shade grown coffee and mixed cropping in general. In particular, they use agri-forestry techniques, to blend strong fast growing fruiting and nut trees into their food production. All of this helps build food resilience, give alternative sources of income, make the soil stronger, and protect against the worst extremes of the weather.

Agriforestry project. © Oliver Moore

Nevertheless, natural disasters have continued to stifle the progress of the community. In 2001 the area was severely affected by earthquakes leaving the people even more vulnerable to adverse weather. In 2011 Tropical Storm 12E flooded the land. “We weren’t able to achieve what we had planned or harvest as many seeds as we had thought” Hugo Juarez, 31, said.

Through the support of UNES, a partner organisation supported by Trocaire, the community now has seeds, tools, training and materials.

Like the other communities visited on this trip, and though it wasn’t planned as a trip to organic farming locations, the community here practiced organic farming methods. With affordable techniques and available labour, organic techniques simply made sense here and elsewhere. It was a step up from subsistence and a safer bet than single crop commodity exports.

The Los Angeles community is completely surrounded by sugar cane plantations. These are torched before harvest to dispose of surplus foliage and aerial sprayed with super-strong pesticides without warning. This happens even beside the school.

“Our next campaign will be about this spraying,” Walberto Herrera tells me. With no buffer zone, no warning and no way to know which way or how strong the wind will blow, its easy to see why.

A school sits cheek-by-jowl with a sugar cane plantation, which is sprayed with pesticides without warning. © Oliver Moore

Conference and march to mobilise community passion

Having visited seven communities all over El Salvador, from ex-combatants and women’s co-ops, to coastal fishing communities and organised organic farmers, we then went to a conference and march. The theme was justice for those effected by climate change, territories and mega projects. Participants from all over south and central America, as well as a few from further afield, attended.

March against climate change, loss of territories and Mega Projects. © Oliver Moore

In the global south, there is a growing movement – Moviac – of people effected by this triad of problems. For the rural poor and indigenous, all three affect them.

Climate change, through sea level rises and more erratic and extreme weather, is making life very difficult for marginalised rural and coastal farming communities, the kind with few tradeworthy resources, little mobility and a dependence on environmental basics like clean water and reasonable soil.

Territories refers to the integrity and sovereignty of people, and the threats and pressures they face in the places they have lived for generations and in the case of indigenous, for many millenia, as custodians of ecosystems. Unlike north America, central and south America still have large pockets of indigenous populations. Territorial integrity is especially important for these groups.

Mega Projects refers to dams and other similar large scale projects, the kinds which can make some sense on paper, but which inevitably impact on communities where the projects are located. The development of tradeable ecosystem services in global policy arrangements disempower the poorest and most vulnerable, the very ones who have been living in relative harmony in and around forests and other rural spaces for eons. Without the resources to hire the array of experts, from sectors such as engineering, law and advocacy, the kinds who could help define their protective role in their ecosystems, they lose out, yet again, to better resourced interests.

These marginalised communities are the very ones most vulnerable to climate change and most affected by loss of territorial integrity and sovereignty. In fact, this inter-connectivity of marginalisation and resistance was a recurring theme.

Inside the conference. © Oliver Moore

For example, speakers referred to how extreme rainfall patters caused by climate change result in dams building up too much water and having to have these waters released, flooding communities who then have to evacuate their territories.

I say conference, but in reality, this was more like an incredibly motivated mobilisation and rally. Certainly, it put the north European notion of what a conference is into stark, meek contrast. The whole Latin American experience is seeped in animated politics.

Groups from Honduras, Guatemala, Bolivia, Mexico and many more Latin countries spoke with incredible knowledge, passion and bravery. People whose families had been disappeared while fighting destructive mining operations in their regions, or people who had been displaced by mega projects or by the more extreme natural disasters that are occurring.

Spontaneous call response chants, groups from Nicaragua or individual countries jumping to their feet in unison, unscheduled political songs, fist waving interjections from the floor, all added to the sense of power, colour and urgency. A declaration was agreed upon at the end, before a long rousing chorus of “El pueblo unido jamas será vencido!”

As you can imagine, the protest march that occurred after this was a dynamic carnival of colour and energy, with samba bands and sound systems on trucks, accompanying stoic older rural women from the far flung hills of Latin America, a wheelchiar convoy, students, campaigners and others from the rainbow of civil society.

I had to remind myself every now and then that these were, technically, ‘the environmentalists’, a term associated with fairly middle class and polite political dialogue in Europe.

Yet in the global south, many environmentalists are also very much focused on social justice, as the rural marginalised poor depend upon a clean, functioning environment for survival. There is no red-green divide in this dynamic. Green is red for many of those who fight for the rural poor.

A samba band keeps spirits high at the march. © Oliver Moore

Dr. Oliver Moore is associate researcher with the Centre for Co-operative Studies in UCC as well as a freelance journalist. His column is in the Irish Examiner every Thursday. For more, see here.

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