El Salvador Update – April 1997
Sustainability in El Salvador:
The Work of the International Institute for Co-operation Among People
Report by Starhawk
Since August of 1996, the broader Reclaiming community has had a commitment to support the work in El Salvador of the International Institute for Co-operation Amongst Peoples. Headed by Marta Benevides, the Institute engages in a wide variety of programs that support a different kind of development process, one initiated and shaped by grassroots people themselves with the goal of environmental, economic and cultural sustainability. “sustainability” has many broad implications. First of all, it means developing a way of life that heals the earth and preserves her resources rather than destroying them. El Salvador is the most environmentally damaged country in Central America–because of the war, the vast militirization of the ‘eighties, and the unrestricted power of transnational corporations to ignore their environmental impacts.
“Sustainability” implies equality, economic and social justice. A system in which a few people profit greatly while the majority work for bare survival is out of balance and inevitably destructive. Only an economy, an agriculture, and a system of governance in which people have control of their own resources and reap a fair reward for their labor can be sustainable. “Sustainability” is cultural as well as agricultural. In El Salvador, the indigenous culture was nearly destroyed in massacres in the 1930s. A process of sustainability involves not only preserving and renewing what true culture is left, but also reinventing a way to become indigenous, truly rooted in place. A sustainable life includes art, beauty, music and dance, not just work. Culture is sustained by human relationships, so part of a process of sustainability is learning the skills and attitudes which can truly lead to the empowerment of individuals and communities.
What does a process of sustainability look like in action? In January, I (Starhawk) together with Joy Kirstin from Victoria and my stepdaughter Amie Miller spent close to two weeks in El Salvador to observe and participate in the work of the Institute. Here is just a short list of the places and projects we visited:
We stayed at the Community House in Nahuizalco, a small village in the western part of El Salvador, which serves as a center for trainings, a guest house for visitors and local people, and a place to teach the skills of ‘convivencia’ — living together with vitality and mutuality — which includes everything from hygiene to nutrition to composting.
We met many of the young people from Nahuizalco who had been involved in trainings run by the Institute in everything from organic agriculture to sex education.
We visited a co-operative in Cacaopera, high in the remote mountains of the eastern part of the country. There a group of people are endeavoring to establish a rural community that will practice permaculture. They have bought land, and with the help of funds raised by the Reclaiming community, hope to add another parcel that will give them road access. They run a small museum of local culture that also models permaculture, composting and organic gardening. Many of their members are involved in the Mayan revival movement, and we shared ritual together.
We joined a study group from University in Pennsylvania, organized by Cheryl to learn first hand about the conditions of life in the Third World.
We danced in a fiesta hosted by a cofradia, a religious cofraternity, one of the many that preserve a syncretic mixture of indigenous traditions and Christianity. The Majordomo of the cofradia plays the marimba and is devoted to preserving the traditional instruments and music in the face of disinterest from many of the next generation. The Institute had brought him to a conference of the Mayan World in Mexico, where he had played in front of thousands of people–a high point of his life.
We met representatives from a co-operative near Nahuizalco who had nearly lost their land after being persuaded to take out a high-interest loan without understanding the terms. The Institute was able to find them legal aid to help them regain title to their land.
We also met some of Marta’s protégés–Nancy, a nutritionist working to help improve the diet of people in the countryside, whose own mother was killed by a death squad; Sylvia, a young psychologist working with developmentally disabled children, Hermano Daniel, an indigenous man who originally drove a truck often rented by the Institute and who now works closely with Marta, and many others.
We participated in programs at the House of Culture in Nahuizalco, and helped serve a lunch for a group of older indigenous women.
We met with representatives of a new Trade School being formed in the port town of Acajutla, helped to clean and paint the building they are using, shared lunch, a trip to the beach, and a spiral dance.
We took a joint trip to the pyramids with the study group from the United States and the youth group from the Trade School, many of whom had never before been to the major sites of their own culture.
We visited Planta Nueva, a co-operative near the coast, met the community and many of the young people who had participated in the Children with Children trainings. We saw the gardens they had created and the Children’s house they were fixing up and learned of their plans and dreams for their communities.
We saw the Free Trade Zones and the maquilas, the factories owned by transnational corporations where workers earn four dollars a day.
While we were inspired by the work of the Institute, we also saw the extreme difficulty of creating change in the present conditions. Logistics are challenging; the truck owned by Hermano Daniel was stolen and the Institute has not been able to replace it. Buses are not easily available to rent, and public transportation is slow and difficult with groups. El Salvador has achieved some gains in democracy, but they are still limited and vulnerable to subversion. Cultural workers of the Institute have received death threats, and security is always a strong consideration. The economy is volatile, and transactions such as buying land which are relatively straightforward in the U.S. are fraught with complications. Land prices are inflated by speculation–and even inquiring about the price of a parcel can be enough to double its price. The poor of El Salvador have been beaten down by many years of oppression and terrorized by war; they often do not dare to dream or cannot mobilize the optimism and perseverance to carry through their projects.
In spite of all the difficulties, we were left with a great feeling of hope and enthusiasm for the work of the Institute, and with pride in the Reclaiming community’s work in generating support. The Institute is making headway in pioneering an empowering form development in the Third World. Over time, we have faith that our exchange will be fruitful for communities on both sides of the border, and can become a model of a new approach to international solidarity.