CIUDAD ROMERO, El Salvador – Women are playing a leading role in a powerful social movement addressing natural resource protection, adaptation to climate change, and corporate accountability in this coastal village in El Salvador.
Cristina Reyes is currently in her second term as president of the local community council in Ciudad Romero, located in the department (province) of Usulután, on the Pacific Ocean.
Her work bringing electricity, potable water, roads and services for women to her area helped get her elected as head of the community council.
Her life before this — and the lives of many others living in this area — reads more like an epic story of adventure, survival, and resistance.
Reyes and her family had to flee their home village during the political violence that preceded the 1980-1992 civil war that claimed some 75,000 lives.
After living in the jungle and caves with her sister while fleeing the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency forces, Reyes finally sought refuge in neighbouring Honduras.
“But in 1980 we had to return to El Salvador because the Honduran military were conducting a campaign of repression against civil society that was just like what the military in El Salvador were doing,” Reyes told IPS at her home in Ciudad Romero. “Back in El Salvador, however, the military here was still doing the same thing.”
Reyes described a brutal campaign that included the burning down of homes, arrests, and repression of Catholic priests who were defending human rights.
The village where she now lives was named in honour of one of them, Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who was assassinated by a sniper in 1980 while celebrating mass.
“When I came back home there was nothing left, not even a dog,” Reyes continued. “We became guerillas because of the massacres we were witnessing.”
By then, various leftwing groups had joined together in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). She and her sister worked at a radio station run by the guerrillas, while working to assist and comfort women who had lost their husbands and children in the war.
This led to her work in women’s organisations in the capital city of San Salvador, before she moved to the Lower Lempa River region in Usulután, where Ciudad Romero and other communities were built by former insurgents and refugees who returned to the country after the war.
“We helped start food programmes, and now we’re working on improving electricity availability,” Reyes said. “And we have plans to build a hospital here.”
Reyes is part of a broader social movement called La Coordinadora de Bajo Lempa y Bahía de Jiquilisco, a coalition of grassroots groups active in more than 100 communities in this region, which was declared the Xiriualtique-Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Educational Organisation) in 2007.
This coastal area, through which the Lempa River runs, is home to the country’s largest expanse of mangroves.
Political decisions in the local villages are taken by the community councils.
The Mangrove Association, a group that forms part of La Coordinadora, is a grassroots response to the frequent crises caused by climate change — the overflowing of rivers and flooding.
The social movement aims to increase diversified sustainable farming, organic agriculture, food security and adaptation to climate change.
“In our social movement, communities manage their own resources,” Estela Hernández, a member of the board of directors of the Mangrove Association, told IPS at her office.
“And at the same time we’re working to ensure that the policies of the new national government include our actions and strategies about food sovereignty, environmental management, water, and decision-making on a local level,” she added.
The government is now in the hands of the FMLN, which laid down arms after the 1992 peace agreement, and after becoming the main opposition party, won the 2009 elections that carried the left to power for the first time in this small Central American country of six million people.
María Elena Vigil, who is also on the board of directors of the Mangrove Association, is working to help communities organise against the state-run Lempa River Hydroelectric Commission (CEL) that manages four dams.
In the rainy season the water releases by one of the dams, known as the 15 de Septiembre dam, which are sometimes carried out without providing ample warning to downstream farming communities, cause loss of crops and even lives, she said.
“Affected communities are having to leave because of this flooding,” Vigil told IPS. “So we are now actively organising against the hydroelectric companies.”
Vigil is also leading the fight by local communities against the sugar cane industry’s use of toxic herbicides and fertilisers that are causing illness, including kidney failure.
“There is more and more illness in this area,” she said, complaining about “aerial spraying of these chemicals that then get into our food and water, and even wash down into the mangroves on the coast.”
Dolores Esperanza Maravilla, who works with La Coordinadora, is organising local resistance against CEL, which she blames for the flooding of crops and local communities.
Standing at the edge of a levy breached by flooding last summer, Maravilla told IPS, “The hydroelectric companies are responsible for this, and there are other breaches in the levy like this one.”
She was one of the first on the scene when the levy broke, and used photos of the disaster she took with her cell phone to pressure the Ministry of Agriculture to come and take measurements and begin preparing an adequate response effort.
Besides their involvement in grassroots community organising efforts, many women in El Salvador have taken it upon themselves to further their education in a national adult literacy programme.
In a literacy circle in the village of El Carmen, three woman use workbooks to practice math problems and currency conversion tasks provided by their instructor.
“We’ve waited a long time for this,” María Concepción Ortillo, one of the students, told IPS. “The war prevented us from studying, and most of us were guerillas or soldiers. Today I’m happy to be here and we women can now continue to move ahead in this society.”
Reyes said one of the most important achievements of women’s organising work in recent years has been “the confidence we have given each other.”
She has helped build a shelter managed by her community, a service for women that includes psychological counseling, and a way for women to file confidential reports on domestic violence or sexual abuse, and to obtain support.
Reyes’ busy life is indicative of the increasingly important and prominent role that women are playing in grassroots social movements in El Salvador.
“We’re at a place where we’re trying to figure out what else we can do to help women,” Reyes said. “We look forward to the future and to more of this work.”