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In January, a community of women from California, Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania ventured south to spend 10 days with Marta Benavides at the Institute for Co-operation Amongst Peoples in Nahuizalco, El Salvador. We also went in January 1997 and 1998.
In the two years since our first trip, many changes are evident throughout El Salvador, a nation struggling to recover from 12 years of Civil War, and in the work of the Institute. The Institute’s mission is to work directly with local and indigenous peoples to practice and celebrate ecological sustainability, wholistic health, and peace in their lives.
Flooding from Hurricane Mitch devastated crops, homes, and schools in eastern El Salvador and caused the loss of several hundred lives. In the western area where the Institute is located, flooding was not as severe but still caused the rotting of crops, erosion, and substantial damage to homes and roads.
Surprisingly, as we drove from the airport west to Nahuizalco, we saw a finished four lane Pan American highway and highway overpasses, double rows of utility poles with the deregulation of electricity and telephone companies, and new maquilas sprouting up in so-called industrial parks. Building the maquilas along the highway has meant denuding the hillsides in a country already suffering extreme erosion from deforestation and the usurping of some of the most fertile soil in El Salvador. Long rows of cement, two room workers’ houses, strung together like storage rental facilities, have no provision for sanitation, clean water, and only a few windows and a door for ventilation in a country that has hot, humid weather. NAFTA has pushed this development with its illusionary prosperity, yet little of the wealth coming into the country trickles down to the poor. Foreign companies like the Gap build cheap factories where workers assemble parts of a product for $4 a day and want good roads to truck in and out the parts. There are very few concerns about the environment and the workers. In one of San Salvador’s parks, we see a forty foot, plastic Coca Cola bottle, decorated with Christmas lights. It is a fitting symbol of the deculturalization and commercial exploitation of El Salvador and its people.
El Salvador is a breathtakingly beautiful, subtropical nation. The Pacific Ocean forms the southern border of this nation of lush, verdant valleys and tall mountains rising as extinct and dormant volcanoes. During the dry season, the weather is similar to southern California. Its people are warm, welcoming, and open, even to US folks. They are known for their industriousness and are eager for the joys of celebrating family, friends, and events through food, music, art, and dance.
In about two hours, we arrived in Nahuizalco, a community of approximately 40,000 people in the coffee growing region of the province, Sonsonate. It is a very poor community, home to some of the few indigenous peoples who are still alive in El Salvador. Killed throughout the 500 years of colonialization, those remaining indigenous peoples in this area were hunted down and many were massacred in 1932 in La Matanza, when they went on strike for the payment of their wages for the coffee they had picked. However, in the beautiful market, candle lit at night, we see thedark faces of the tall Nahuatl and of the small Mayan women and men in the colorful stalls.
In Nahuizalco, the Institute has created several programs on environmental awareness such as recylcing, water purification, erosion control, natural plants, and organic practices; wholistic health practices; conflict transformation; sexuality training; youth programs on culture and the elimination of violence; sexual abuse. These trainings are held primarily at the Institute. The Institute is currently seeking to build some cottages closer to the center of the community. Each Sunday, the Institute invites indigenous "grandmothers" from the surrounding area to come to a lunch in their honor. A nutritious meal is served, for some the only one of the week since these women are the first to go hungry when food is in short supply for the family. The youth entertain them with songs and plays. Each Sunday they receive a small, practical gift that the Institute has collected.
During our 10 day visit, we also traveled to the many projects of the Institute:
The Cooperatives: Since the 1995 in the wake of the land reform efforts of the 1992 Peace Accords, the Institute has worked extensively with 5 indigenous and campesino cooperatives in the western area and in the Morazan state to help them retain their land through legal representation and through very low interest loans to pay the mortgages on the land. Although the Salvadorean Legislature has promised legislation that would award the land parcels to the cooperatives, to date no bill has made its way into law. Many of these cooperatives are in the poorest agricultural areas and inhabited by peoples who were displaced from their native areas. The work is hard and difficult for them. The children are not immunized and many die from intestinal problems before the age of 5. Illness is common. Many are in remote areas where the nearest school is many miles away. On the Planta Nueva Cooperative, the Institute has helped to support the building of a one room school up to grade 3 for the children. The Institute has also trained cooperative members in sustainable agricultural practices, natural herbs and remedies, and environmental protection.
The Acajutla Technical School: We visited the school on the graduation day of the second class to receive training at this machine tool vocational school supported by the Institute. Two years ago, our group helped to clean and paint the run-down community building that now houses the school and to weed the surrounding area and plant trees. The Education Department has recognized the school and permits it to award certificates to graduates. A driveway has been built for unloading and loading trucks; some post WWII metal lathes and welders are in the shop area, and a bathroom has been built. Out of the weeds of yesterday, this school has grown. There are no provisions in the public school system for vocational trades. This school provides opportunities for young men who otherwise would be joining the many violent youth gangs in Acajutla and everywhere in El Salvador.
Ecological Demonstration Farm: We also spent a day working at the Ecological Demonstration Farm, north of San Salvador in an area of severe bombing during the Civil War. Circle of Love funds have helped to rebuild the partially destroyed house where a young Mayan couple and their five children are living and working the land. The Farm will be a demonstration site where University of El Salvador students and others will learn soil conservation, recylcing, water purification, and permaculture (a holistic approach to sustainable living and agriculture that is in harmony with the natural habitat). After an impressive presentation by Starhawk in both English and Spanish on permaculture, we grabbed our shovels and pruners and got to work digging drainage swails and pruning the overgrown fruit trees.
Feria Siglo XXIII Pax Sustentable: In order for life in the 23rd Century to be ecological sustainable, peaceful and beautiful in all ways; we, here and now, need to live the dream and begin to practice everyday that which we wish to see in our future. With this in mind, these Fairs were initiated in 1998, first in Cuscatlan Park in San Salvador where many people had "disappeared" during the War. Many others have been held since and each January, the largest one is held in San Salvador. To the sounds of a marimba band, we painted children’s faces while peace and environmental groups displayed and sold their work and crafts. We learned, danced, viewed the beautiful art work of the University Art Department students, ate, talked, and laughed. Stay tuned: In the year 2001, we are planning a large international Forum on sustainability in San Salvador.
All of this good work as well as other projects underway needs your support. The Circle of Love raises about $6,000 we are the main support for many of the above projects, on just $6,000, can you believe it? But many of these projects are stretched and operate on a shoestring. Additional funds are needed to continue this work. Funds are needed for the ongoing legal advocacy and support of the cooperatives and to provide an assistant for Marta, whose work keeps growing. We are committed to raising $20,000 this year. An anonymous donor has pledged to match each donation, to a total of $4,000. Please help the Circle by
Please send your name and donation to:
P.O. Box 7151
Lancaster, PA 17604-7151