El Salvador’s Dance Between Development and Displacement

April 16, 2013

The mangrove trees surrounding el salvador’s Jiquilisco Bay, with their sprawling, scraggly roots, have been described as botanical amphibians because they depend on both land and sea for their survival. In many ways, the communities surrounding the bay reflect the mangrove’s amphibious nature. Like the mangroves, their livelihoods are tied directly to the bay’s tremendous biodiversity through small-scale fishing, crabbing, and other aquatic ventures. Many fishers engage in blast fishing, using explosives constructed from locally available materials such as sulfur, sodium chlorate, and sugar. Blast fishing has been a lucrative practice for poor fisherpeople without access to proper equipment. But it is now illegal in El Salvador and is charged with being the greatest threat to the country’s coastal ecosystem, in particular to the endangered Hawksbill sea turtle.

1684Photo by Carlos Mar tinez

Together with the ecological destruction inflicted by blast fishing, the damage it has wreaked upon humans seems to have been behind the creation of the Palacio de las Aves fishing cooperative, many of whose members are ex–bomb fishers. The cooperative was created with funding from a World Bank project aimed at strengthening El Salvador’s natural protected areas system, which ended in 2011—leaving the fisherpeople looking for more funding so they could continue to sustain themselves. The fishing co-op is one of many groups hoping that a new round of development aid from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) slated for El Salvador’s coastal zone benefits them. In fact, they see it as a matter of life or death. Eduardo Zapata, the cooperative’s president, summed it up succinctly:

“We need the MCC to help us. We have to succeed as a cooperative so that we don’t end up amputated.”

The cooperative members talk candidly about the scars that many fishers in their community have suffered from using homemade explosives. One of their fishermen lost a hand when an explosive intended to blow up in the water instead exploded mid-throw. “Some have lost both hands, their eyesight, and other body parts,” said Zapata. However, little has been revealed about how the $277 million in U.S. taxpayer money will be allotted, and many are becoming concerned that this is because it will not be in their benefit.

The MCC was established in 2004 to administer the Millennium Challenge Account, a bilateral development fund created under the Bush administration. President Bush’s announcement of the fund came only six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was originally conceived as a new tool for combating threats to U.S. security with economic growth. The MCC touts itself as the capitalist response to traditional foreign aid approaches for focusing its investments not on direct poverty relief but largely on infrastructure, agriculture, and reducing constraints on economic growth.1 It has been lauded by supporters for using a number of indicators to determine country eligibility that purportedly provide an objective measure of whether a country is supporting democracy and free markets. A number of these indicators have been adopted from the conservative think tanks Heritage Foundation and Freedom House.

El Salvador is currently completing implementation of a five-year, $461 million agreement with the MCC focusing on the country’s northern region. Over half of this funding was committed to highway construction, connecting the northern part of El Salvador to the rest of the country, as well as to Guatemala and Honduras. Having completed this first agreement successfully, El Salvador is now on a short list of countries awaiting the approval of a second, five-year MCC investment, this time including the Bajo Lempa and Jiquilisco Bay communities in the southeast department of Usulután.

The Bajo Lempa region has been a highly contested territory for decades. Before El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, two landholding families dominated the area, which is famous for its fertile soil. Their vast plantations were worked by thousands of laborers who lived in slave-like conditions. During the war, the Bajo Lempa came largely under the control of the FMLN guerrilla movement. Through the 1992 Peace Accords, the FMLN was able to negotiate a land-reform process, which prevented the original landholding families from retaking control of the region.

Since the end of the war, the communities of exiled Salvadorans that resettled the region have suffered from a mixture of neglect and threats of expulsion by the government. But in the face of constant threats, these communities, with the support of solidarity organizations in the Global North, have survived annual flooding, a lack of infrastructure, and grinding poverty with incredible resiliency. In 1996, local leaders formed La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa y Bahia de Jiquilisco, a grassroots organization now encompassing over 100 communities, to coordinate a variety of peace-building and disaster-prevention initiatives. A few years later, leaders from La Coordinadora established a nonprofit, the Mangrove Association, to develop locally led sustainable--development- projects and policies aimed at protecting the local ecology while generating employment opportunities, such as the Palacio de las Aves cooperative.

1685Photo by Reuters

Investment in the Bajo Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco to reduce poverty once seemed like a distant dream. EcoViva, formerly known as the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America, a U.S.-based NGO supporting community-led development in the region since the end of the war, has played a crucial role in mobilizing resources for these initiatives through providing much-needed financial support and technical assistance to La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association.

“The majority of the territory was settled by ex-combatants of the FMLN, so it has always been treated as a territory with rebellious, belligerent people,” said Estela Hernández, a former leader of the Mangrove Association and currently the FMLN representative for Usulután in the Salvadoran legislature. She believes this historical neglect was politically motivated.

Thus, local communities have expressed excitement about the new funding, hoping that the MCC can offer real improvements through solutions that directly involve local people. While some indications have been made that this new round of MCC funding will prioritize the development of sustainable tourism, fisheries, and agriculture, little more has been revealed. La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association hope that the MCC will provide funding to enable the rural policies that they have already been pioneering for years. But the lack of transparency or inclusion in the MCC process thus far has created apprehension among many.

“We can make proposals if we are included in the project,” said Carmen Argueta, the Mangrove Association’s treasurer, “but if we are left outside, then private enterprises will be the only ones to benefit.”

As part of the conditions to receive an MCC compact, countries like El Salvador must negotiate a proposal that includes input from a broad range of public constituencies. Local governments across the coastal region have been targeted as key participants in this comment period. Like civil society groups, coastal municipalities have been confronting development challenges and wonder how a new MCC compact will contribute to their priorities in the region.

“Here in our area, farmers experience a lot of challenges with production,” explained Alfredo Hernández, mayor of the coastal province of Tecoluca in the Bajo Lempa. “Last year, we dealt with severe flooding. This year, we are in a drought. Any project like this must offer what we consider important adaptations to the vulnerabilities that we face.”

Offering quality education opportunities for youth is also foremost on Hernández’s mind. Though many area youth may be attending high school and university programs, he said, it remains a challenge to hone rural talent to meet the demands of El Salvador’s middle-income economy. Through a recent collaboration with the Salvadoran company Aeroman, an aircraft maintenance and service provider, only two applicants taken from a pool of 200 rural youth fit the criteria for placement in the company’s employment program. The MCC and Salvadoran government have said that expanding El Salvador’s Comalapa International Airport, and the services its provides, is a high priority for economic growth.

“This experience with Aeroman feeds our worries that the quality and type of education our youth are receiving is not of high quality,” said Hernández. “One of our great challenges is to generate the conditions so that our youth are well-prepared for employment.”

Whether or not the proposed MCC investments will take these sorts of concerns into account remains to be seen. For Rigoberto Cruz, a representative of the Jiquilisco province government, the big question remains as to whether the MCC and Salvadoran negotiating team will produce a second compact that strengthens ongoing local development efforts.

“All of the local governments, non-governmental organizations, everyone is focusing on this new MCC compact,” Cruz said. “It is our hope that all of our important initiatives in the region be strengthened and interlinked as an articulation of our vision for the MCC investments.”

While the MCC states that it is committed to community-led development and sustainable agriculture, its history in Africa, particularly its partnership with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), signals that this may be little more than green-washing.2 AGRA claims to be an African-led organization supporting homegrown solutions to hunger. However, AGRA’s primary founders and donors, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, have invested millions of dollars in the biotechnology industry and favor technological solutions for high-input industrial farming in Africa.

Most MCC compacts signed with African countries focus on agriculture, with a central land-privatization component supporting “market-based solutions to food security.”3 The MCC’s secrecy has caused many to worry that this new round of funding may be a cynical new attempt to return the Bajo Lempa’s land to El Salvador’s oligarchic landholding families under the guise of supporting sustainable development.

El Salvador’s Minister of the Environment, Hernán Rosa Chávez, believes that the country must move toward sustainable agriculture. He explains, “This is a country that took up the green revolution to the maximum with the intensive use of agrochemicals. We can’t continue doing things the way we’ve been doing them.” Asked if he is concerned about the potential for the MCC to cause environmental havoc in the Bajo Lempa and Jiquilisco Bay, the minister calmly stated, “In the end, it depends on us whether the MCC ends up creating major problems. The only responsible ones will be Salvadorans, not the United States. This is a dance between two.”

But for the local communities affected by the MCC’s decisions, this dance carries fatally high stakes. Community leaders are particularly concerned about the prospect of industrial-scale tourism in Jiquilisco Bay, considered Central America’s largest mangrove forest and pristine estuary. At a recent meeting with local leaders, top officials from the Salvadoran government said they would encourage all sources of investment in the Bajo Lempa. “Investment in this area is a good thing, and we will not turn anyone away,” said Alex Segovia, the lead Salvadoran government official in charge of negotiating with the MCC.

“Alex Segovia is seeing the potential for big tourism, but they also want to give us a hand,” said a hopeful Eduardo Zapata. But many local leaders do not agree with Segovia’s approach. “If [the MCC] is here to support large enterprises in building five-star hotels where the least favored are the community, we are not in agreement and will never be. We want our people to be protagonists, not just security guards,” said Walberto Gallegos, communications director of the Mangrove Association. “For us, the MCC is like an optical illusion where they want to implement some pretty projects, but we know what is at the depth of all of this.”

Gallegos poses the question that everybody in La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association is asking: “For whom are they going to promote economic growth? The same people who continue buying more and more land? Or are they going to support the processes that we have been supporting for years now?” Regardless of what decisions the MCC makes, local leaders are clear on what they want and don’t want, and they are ready to resist any attempts to undermine their goals. “We have projected how we want to live over the long term,” said Estela Hernández. “The experience that we have had in this country is that these mega-projects are often not done to serve local communities. What is left in these communities isn’t necessarily development.”



1. Nina Easton, “Foreign Aid, Capitalist Style,” ­Fortune Management Career Blog RSS, November 11, 2011, available at management.fortune​.cnn­.com.

2. “Turning African Farmland Over to Big Business,” Grain, April 13, 2012, availale at grain.org.

3. Millenium Challenge Corporation, “MCC and the U.S. Global Development Policy,” available at mcc.org.



Carlos Martinez formerly served as the communications manager for EcoViva, an organization working in solidarity with low-income communities in Central America to achieve environmental sustainability, economic self-sufficiency, and social justice. He is co-author of Venezuela Speaks! Voices From the Grassroots (PM Press, 2010), a collection of interviews with members of Venezuela’s social movements.


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