We have only been in El Salvador for little over two weeks now and only half of that time has been spent in the community of Santa Marta, our host community for the next eight weeks. The warmth and kindness of the people both within the community and during our stay in San Salvador has been overwhelming. That these characteristics outshine the turbulent social issues surrounding the country after a 12 year civil war is a testament to the people and their collective spirit. Many of the individuals in Santa Marta were involved in the fighting during the civil war and all have had their identity shaped in some way by those horrific events. The older and younger generations are joined in their passion for keeping the stories of their struggle alive and have generously entrusted us with their personal accounts, all of which deserve this space to be published and read.
The courage and bravery of the Santa Marta people must not be forgotten. Despite this I would like to use the blog space for this week to write something that has evolved directly from my personal experience in El Salvador but is directed towards you, the reader. Despite hearing the occasional news story about international organisations exploiting and damaging local economies I never truly understood the importance of the position we occupy as the ‘consumer’ in the UK and the rest of the developed world. I admit that I very rarely considered who might be affected through my purchasing decisions and I don’t believe I am alone in that oversight.
I have seen first-hand how our decisions have direct effects on people’s livelihoods. One of the most alarming and immediate examples of these effects in El Salvador is on the water supply. Currently 75% of the rural communities don’t have access to constant running water in their homes, many waiting for ten day intervals as the water is distributed by department around the country. Predictions have indicated that the water situation in El Salvador is only going to worsen in the near future. The UN recently published a report stating that El Salvador will completely run out of natural supplies of water within 20-30 years and become one of the first countries to become a desert, turning its people into some of the first environmental immigrants.
In light of this prediction it might come as a surprise to learn that the three remaining natural water tables in El Salvador are privately owned by the Coca-Cola Company. These precious sources of water should be monitored and conserved for the population of the country. No profit driven international organisation, paying laughable amounts of tax, can claim to have the interests of the people at heart. It might sound extreme to claim that every can of coke you buy contributes directly to this problem; it is certainly much more convenient to believe that your purchase harms nobody. However, the truth is that without our financial support these companies would not be able to exist. If we continue to buy their products we are culpable for their actions whether we agree with them or not.
The national water supply is also under threat from a billion dollar project from the international mining company Pacific Rim. Initial exploration in the Cabanas department identified high levels of gold in the area and it was targeted for further mining. The major opposition to the project from the local people was the planned digging in the vicinity of the River Lempa, one of the main water supplies for the entire country. Even during the shallower digging of the initial explorations locals reported a change in water colour and increased levels of lead and mercury in the water. After a hard fought battle, in which three activists were assassinated, the local people managed to call a halt to the mining. The current government is standing strong on its position to keep the mining company from digging in Cabanas, despite the 100 million dollar lawsuit Pacific Rim have brought against them.
It only takes a change of government however for the situation to quickly transform. It is important to highlight this case, not only to show another example of a large international organisation exploiting the natural resources of the country but also to demonstrate the effectiveness of organised, collective action. As the locals are quick to point out, the people here are prepared to stand up and defend their rights; they won’t just sit back and say “well what can I do?”. That is an important message for all of us and I hope it is something you can think about next time you decide to buy something.
As John Bird, founder of the big issue says “We have to realise the collective power we hold in our hands. Only collective actions have made changes in the world”.
A highly thought provoking blog by Progressio ICS volunteer Andy Farrington
Photo from www.projectwet.org