Lessons from El Salvador
This March I had the privilege of returning to El Salvador, which I first visited in 2012. Part of the nine days I was there this time, I spent at an “Encuentro” (literally ‘an encounter’) organized by FUNDAHMER, the NGO we work with. The Encuentro participants were representatives of the sister communities from El Salvador, Canada and the United States. We gathered for four days to share with each other, to learn, and to talk about issues of concern. Water, and the issue of water rights, is an important subject for Salvadorans.
Most Salvadorans get their water from three major rivers—the Rio Lempa, Sumpul or Torola. All three rivers are considered contaminated, their waters unfit for human consumption without treatment. We learned that Coca-Cola is a major user of water, which it buys from the Salvadoran government at a volume discount, meaning the rate goes down with an increase in consumption. This translates into the fact that Coca Cola pays only a percentage of one cent for the water they use there! So the issue of who owns the water, and who has the right to sell it or profit from it, is a critical question.
A highlight of my visit was the two days and two nights we spent in our sister-community of El Triunfo. On our last day in the community I was struck by how this small community is a microcosm of the whole country. In the morning we had the opportunity to see the bomba, or pump that brings water to 135 houses in the community and provides some irrigation for crops like coffee, cucumbers, and corn grown on the steep hillsides. (The ride down to see this—in the open back of a truck—was quite an adventure!) Santiago, our guide, showed us the cement cistern and pump house that was built, proudly explaining that the water—from an underground source—was “pure” enough that even we could drink it and not be sick.
As we arrived at the home of Juan and Yolanda to have lunch, we watched women washing clothes on the rocks in the stream, rinsing the white powder soap into the same source many in the community still use directly for drinking and cooking. Just across the road, after our lunch, Juan proudly showed us his cucumber plants which were being irrigated by a sprinkler system. So the issue of access to water is an important issue in the community of El Triunfo, too.
For us in British Columbia, water privatization is also an issue. Our province is finally going to start charging companies like Nestle for taking our groundwater and bottling it to sell at a profit. The problem is, B.C. will only be charging $2.25 per million litres which means these companies will be able to buy up Canada’s water for next to nothing. No one should be able to deny others access to clean water. And today, some Canadian corporations, especially in the mining & energy industries, are doing exactly this by diverting, polluting and overusing natural sources of water. Canada ranks a dismal 28th among the 29 nations of the OECD in terms of per capita water consumption. And while we live in semi-desert here at home in the Okanagan, the average person uses 675 litres of water per day – compared with the Canadian average of 380 litres.
Lila Watson, an Aboriginal woman from Australia, in a speech to the United Nations once said: “If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time…But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Her words resonate with my experience of El Salvador and my understanding of hermanamiento — the sister-relationship we are developing with El Triunfo. It is a relationship based on mutuality, respect, and a desire to work ‘for the common good.’ If we do not take lessons from the experience of our Salvadoran brothers and sisters, and make the connections between the issues that they face and the ones we face here at home, then we have not let El Salvador be our teacher.
I am filled with gratitude, once again, for the opportunity to let El Salvador be my teacher. I hope some of you will think about taking the opportunity in the future of visiting El Salvador on one of the exposure trips that Pat and Greig organize.
Our trip to El Salvador, Viaje 2015
Pat & Greig McPhee
Once again, I reflect upon the lively, noisy nature of El Salvador – parakeets screeching en masse across the skies at dawn & then again at dusk, roosters crowing at all hours, dogs barking, cicadas buzzing like electrical transformers, ‘bombas’ exploding in celebration on the streets on Palm Sunday & car alarms going off in the city.
One of the many highlights of our visit to our sister community of El Triunfo was the trip, in Fredy’s pick-up, down to the valley floor to see their coffee, fruits and vegetables growing. And to also view the source of their recent water project that brought potable water into 135 houses. At this time of year, it is just a tiny creek at the very bottom of the valley.
We travelled down, down, down on a scary, narrow dirt road with many switchbacks & much down-shifting of gears; a trip that the campesinos (farmers) make by foot
on (even steeper) foot-paths just as the indigenous peoples have done for many decades.
We saw & smelled thousands of coffee plants in flower as well as crops of cucumbers, peppers, mango, avocado & papaya. Soil on the hillsides and valley floor is very fertile and the humidity makes it a great growing environment for the coffee. The guys cut down coconuts for us to drink from and some brave souls sampled the hot peppers. There was birdsong & blue morpho butterflies.
Fortunately for us, when we were visiting in our community, the government had declared a National Day for Life, Peace & Justice on March 26th so we were able to meet with many families & with the scholarship students who normally would have been away at work and at school. (In the capital city, close to half a million Salvadorans dressed in white marched in a demonstration for a more peaceful El Salvador.) As the school in El Triunfo was closed, we left the shoes with the youth group to distribute to needy families. . Many thanks to all of you for your support of this Lenten project!
Another highlight for us was the Romero March & Vigil in San Salvador. This was the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Romero but it was also significant because the Catholic Church has finally opened the doors to recognizing him as ‘San Romero of the Americas‘. He will be beatified by Pope Francis on May 23rd, a step along the road to sainthood.
We attended the March and the candlelight Vigil with about 50 people from the Sister Community Conference we were attending – all of us dressed in our colourful burgundy t-shirts. Many North Americans participated in the march in solidarity with the Salvadoran people, including a group we met from Romero House for Refugees in Toronto [see the UC Observer interview with Mary Jo Leddy, April, 2015].