It’s time for another round of Salvadoran food-gawking, as I find myself in my last week of volunteering in the country. This post mirrors how much I’ve learned about food production in the pueblo by focusing not just on the cooked dishes, but also the many plants and tools used to actually get the goods to the table. There’s not many of us who know exactly what it takes to make our dinner, and Salvadoran families are the exception. ¡Buen provecho!
Sorry to leave my readers hanging for a week. This goes to show how much fun our group really started to have the last two days of the delegation. I know I won’t be the only one to say that we were extremely lucky to have the most easy-going, quirky group of people possible. Give us a few beers, and we were quite the party.
After our observer training last Saturday, we spent the actual voting process dispersed throughout Arcatao the following day. Pairs of us were sent to the nine voting sites throughout the county- a successful day of divide-and-conquer. Safe and sound after the long hours of standing, sitting, talking with locals and watching the legal process, we gathered in Arcatao’s communal space to draft the statement we would give as international observers at the press release the following day.
Then it was back to San Salvador. When you put a bunch of exhausted observers with bellies full of pupusas on a gently-swaying bus at 7pm, it looks a little like this:
Obviously well-rested, we left the hotel San Jose in the morning and headed into the press conference for the consultation. While our European reporters set to work setting up cameras, equipment, and interviews, the other half of the delegates immediately organized the observer statement and arranged themselves behind Arcatao’s anti-mining leaders.
The results were impressive. 1,027 people came out to vote, which was over 70% of voters county-wide. In total, there were only three “yes to mining in Arcatao” votes with one null vote. The remainder of votes were in opposition. It was obvious that citizens had made up their minds long before coming to the polls- 99% of voters said “no” to mining activity in the municipality.
As observers, we provided our greatest impressions of the voting process: that it was fair and democratic, voters were well-informed, and regardless of any minor flaws that occurred during the consultation, we felt that the civilian voice had been heard.
With all of our “work” officially finished, the beach bums flew their freak flags as we loaded up the bus with our suitcases, sunscreen, and as much beer and platano chips that would fit. It was time to head to the beach for our final night, which included some classy underwater-pool selfies, the best pupusas I’ve ever had, a fight for the hammocks to avoid possibly-bedbug-infested sleeping quarters, nonstop laughter, and a sunset to trump them all.
Thank you to all who made this delegation experience possible, to all who came, and to all who fought and continue to fight for Arcatao in its long struggle to officially be free of mining. Keep your eyes peeled for future Sister Cities delegations- a cheap and educative way to experience El Salvador while connecting with some pretty incredible characters.
Our first morning in Arcatao came with some spectacular views. After loading everyone in the back of a pickup Salvadoran-style (including five members of the junta directiva), we drove up the mountainside to the base of the hill Cerro Patacón. Our Salvadoran friends trail-blazing with their machetes, everyone was able to make it to the top where we spent hours resting, chatting, and listening to community council member Niko Rivera explain the importance of the mining struggle in Arcatao.
“If mining comes here, all of this would be affected,” he explained, gesturing to the mountains where most of the town’s water comes from. “We have the right to live where we are from.”
Director of Arcatao’s elementary school, Rodolfo Rivera, agreed. “People here are used to seeing things, seeing death,” he said. “I don’t think this would be an exception.”
After everyone was nice and sunburnt, we headed back into town for a group lunch before getting a few hours to rest and shower. During this time, 11 more joined our team from San Salvador to act as observers in the much-anticipated mining consultation the following day. With an hour to kill before our observer training, the majority of the group headed down the hill to peruse the women’s local embroidery shop for souvenirs.
What do I mean with the term “observer”? Observers add legitimacy to the democratic voting process by being present at the polls on voting day. Their job is to remain impartial during the consultation, supporting voters and reporting any misconduct that might occur. This will be the main event of our delegation, as the now 29 of us from seven different countries will be volunteering to observe at the polls all day tomorrow.
At 3pm we reconvened in the town center for our formal observer training. Here are some fun “dos and don’ts” of the polls we learned today:
- Take pictures! Just make sure they don’t reveal who is voting which way
- Don’t interfere. No matter what level of manipulation an observer witnesses, they can only write it down in the observer packet
- Ask questions to see why people have come out to vote to see if they are informed voters
- Don’t ask them how they voted
- Be present and observant the whole day, from 7am to 4pm
Although it was clear that tomorrow would be a long day, the room nonetheless buzzed with excitement. We were now armed with the information and paperwork to act as official observers for the vote. We are looking forward to supporting Arcatao tomorrow in such a pure form of the democratic process!
Good morning from the Association of Development in El Salvador headquarters! Our group woke up to a steaming breakfast of beans, pancakes, plantains, eggs, fresh fruit, yogurt and lots of coffee. Needless to say, we were more than ready to hear what the ADES leaders were to present to us.
The information we were given was frightening. Mining of the El Dorado mine has lasted 20 years in a community with little mining expertise, little environmental information available to locals, and no international allies. The struggle has been an extremely difficult one, but locals have continued to inform themselves of the dangers of mining and have even created the National Roundtable Against Mining to spread this awareness. In a recent poll conducted by the University of Central America (UCA), nine out of ten voters from 20 Salvadoran mining municipalities were against mining in their territory.
Currently, the Roundtable is helping the fight in the OceanaGold vs. El Salvador case to keep the international corporation out of the El Dorado mine. While OceanaGold has learned how to beautify their efforts by offering money to local committees and projects throughout the department of Cabañas, citizens have agreed that there will be no negotiation while visions for the future of El Salvador remain to be so different.
“The truth is, for El Salvador this is a matter of life or death. We have to understand mining in those ways.”
And that it is. Events turned a little murkier (dirty water pun intended) in 2009 when three leaders in the anti-mining movement were murdered. One was eight months pregnant. Then in 2010, another leader was killed. Although the intellectual authors have yet to be found, it might have been a little more than ironic that OceanaGold Vice President Rigo Chavez was convicted of human dismemberment in ____. The crimes were not linked, but locals question the capabilities of such kinds of people in charge of the mining company. His sentence was reduced from 30 to 10 years in prison.
After getting back on the bus through the mountainous countryside to the community of Marañas, we then got to talk with current leader in the anti-mining movement, Alejandro Velasco, who was shot at last year. Later on, a murder attempt was also made at his 10-year-old daughter as she was hit in the leg with 21 rifle pellets. She is still recovering physically and mentally as the man in the car with her that day was killed, his body falling on top of her.
Meanwhile, the mortality rate of fish in the Rio Lempa has increased by 500%, as buckets of dead aquatic life are scooped out daily.
“We had people in our community who didn’t know what environmental nor individual rights were,” told Velasco, “Many of you today don’t come from countries with these types of violations, but these companies know no borders. Where they go, they violate human rights. This could happen to you, too.”
As we crossed into the territories free of mining on our way out of Marañas, the heavy mood of the day seemed to immediately lift, the countryside seemed greener, the cows even happier. As we digested the sad statistics of the day, we approached our host families awaiting us in Arcatao. We were split into pairs (thankfully over half of the group speaks Spanish) as we walked our separate ways for the first time in a few days.
All that’s left is dinner with the families and a good night of sleep before an 8am hike! Buenas noches.
Saludos from the 18 adventurous members of our third annual anti-mining delegation. We are lucky to have such an incredible group of academics, journalists, photographers, camerawomen, and human rights activists- from four international countries no less! For those of you who are with us mentally or emotionally but couldn’t make it down to take place as an observer in Arcatao’s fourth community vote on whether to allow mining in their territory, you can follow us here as I summarize our jam-packed tour, day-by-day.
After a night of air-conditioning, warm showers, and french toast for breakfast (you heard me right!), we left the San José Hotel in San Salvador well-rested and prepared to tour the San Sebastián mine in the department of La Union. A little background on the mine: throughout the 20th century, the Wisconsin-based company, Commerce Group, extracted over 32 tons of gold from the mountainside. When they requested to renew their license from the Salvadoran government and expand mining in the territory, they were told to first present evidence of successfully containing their previous contamination. The response? Commerce Group sued the government, an attempt that left the mining company bankrupt, unable to ever close the mine.
Today, the San Sebastián river runs rust-red by the homes of locals. The surface water is heavily contaminated with levels of arsenic, cyanide, and iron (you can find 1,000 times the natural level of iron in the water). Large containers of cyanide were outright left near the entrance of the mine, and other waste dumped alongside the river by the company. Unfit for drinking, those who can afford it now have to buy their water in town at the price of $3-5 per barrel, individuals who work making an average of $6-7 per day. Those who can’t afford water dig wells (which have not been tested for levels of contamination) or capture rain-water for crops.
Even scarier, the town has experienced six cases of a disease called Gillian Bare, which causes abrupt immobilization of the body. The last case was reported two years ago, when an 8-year-old was left wheel chair ridden after losing mobility of his body and falling down at school. His doctors said that contamination had caused his disease.
Local leader Gustavo Blanco talked us through these stories and statistics as we stood alongside the rapidly-flowing river, watching locals below wash their laundry in the murkiness. He told us neither the company nor the government has ever offered any aid in cleaning up the contaminated area and life source.
After all the wealth that was gained from this mine, he asked, couldn’t they have left us with a drinking-water system? “We were left with nothing but poverty and pollution and disease,” he stated.
Next, we made our way up the mountain to learn about artisanal mining. Some locals have made their living by mining on their own, enduring dangerously hot temperatures in the mine shafts as they extract rocks to grind for gold later in their homes.
Back in the bus, we made it all the way to the home of the Association of the Development of El Salvador (ADES) in Sensuntepeque for a well-deserved dinner of salsa-smothered pupusas and hot chocolate. While we ate, we met Vidalina Morales (a leader in El Salvador’s anti-mining movement) as she welcomed us with a short introduction and her motivation for fighting in the anti-mining movement: less than 3% of El Salvador’s surface water is fit for drinking.
Bellies full and exhausted, lights were out 9:00. Looking forward to our next stop, Maraña, and Arcatao by nightfall!
Well, it’s official. MacBook lived to almost his fifth birthday (yes, it’s a “he”, and he’s been a great friend through my years at Montana State). He’s been really struggling to wake up in the mornings, let alone keep up with my furious blogging under weak wifi conditions. From now on I will be hand-writing my blogs (handwriting? Does anyone do that anymore?) and later texting them out, for anyone curious into my unforeseen creative writing process.
I haven’t written much in a while because of everything that’s been going on recently. Jacey and I have had to bump-up our naturally mediocre social meters to meet not just Salvadoran standards, but Salvadoran party standards. This week, I:
- attended 2 birthday parties
- made 6 brick-oven pizzas
- had a sleepover at Jacey’s family’s
- hosted a conglomerate birthday dinner for 5 people and their families
- milked a cow
- dressed up as a cat
- won musical chairs at a high school Halloween dance
- unknowingly attended a 7-hour Catholic concert/lecture/mass
What this socially-crammed week has reinforced is that overall, Salvadorans recharge by being together. You might say they are a culture of extroverts. Where I spend as much time as I’d like by myself at home, I normally boost my mood by seeking out friends and having a beer. In Arcatao, there is little to no opportunity to be alone (I don’t even sleep in my own room), so I recharge by zoning out in the hammock or going on my morning run. Without beer.
Everyday I am pushed out of my comfort cocoon to be the social butterfly Arcatao expects me to be. I am left brain-dead by nightfall, but grateful for every second of discomfort I experience. When it comes time to leave El Salvador, I’ll be going with a lot more than a built-up resume and a brain full of campesino Spanish. For anyone needing to improve their patience, mindfulness in their daily activities, spontaneity, flexibility when things don’t go as planned, or street-smart traveling skills, I would highly recommend the classroom that is El Salvador.
“Everybody stop. We’ve hit a shoe.”
Shovels froze mid-air as everyone looked in the direction of the archaeologist. The playful mood of mindless digging had changed in an instant. I could actually feel the heaviness of the air resting its weight on my shoulders as my compañeros’ eyes darted into the hole they had created.
“I can make out the two tombs now where the dirt is loose,” he continued, drawing a large rectangle in the dirt. “I need everyone to dig ditches around this area so we can have walking space around the bodies. From now on, nobody steps in these lines.”
Half of the men started digging and chopping away at the ground even more furiously now that their job was literally outlined for them. The other half of us crowded around the unmistakable tip of a boot sticking out of the ground, in awe at the history unraveling before our eyes.
We were only an hour into the exhumation process, an hour into a moment anticipated by four years of bureaucratic preparation and jumping through legal hoops. All of the required officials were there: the human rights lawyer looking on, the archaeologist leading the dig, and the handful of police resting conspicuously away from the group under the shade of a tree. There was a journalist, a photographer, and the widowed owner of the land. The rest of us acted as manual labor and moral support for the brothers of the two bodies that had waited patiently to be discovered for 33 years.
As for me, I hadn’t picked up a shovel all day. I had helped a bit in the kitchen to prepare breakfast and lunch for the workers and policeman, but really spent most of the day watching in fascination as tons of dirt were lifted off of two skeletons, one shovel-full at a time. They could only be two skeletons to me- I hadn’t known them, and couldn’t imagine that murder had occurred underneath this beautiful old tree overlooking the rapidly-flowing Rio Sumpul.
It was easier that way, to think of them as bones rather than people.
I passed out coffee as the men took turns resting in the weeds. We talked as they told me stories of other exhumations they had participated in. Some were not so easy- a pile of stones had marked this grave, just as the witness to the murder had reported. Sometimes the men have to dig trenches all around a plot of land searching for loose dirt or other hints of buried bodies. Sometimes there are groups of bodies. My friend Jaime had even seen the bones of a woman and her baby that had died still in her womb.
Although the process is lengthy, hundreds of these exhumations continue to take place in El Salvador as families search for their loved ones who “disappeared” during the civil war. Even though the probability of their death by government military squads is almost certain, not knowing what happened to the fate of the departed can often be more painful for their survivors than the actual acceptance of death itself. Along with the fact that these are now labeled as homicide cases, great care is taken to correctly unearth the bodies and complete DNA tests of the remains, part of the reason why it can take years to complete an exhumation.
Did I feel depressed witnessing the fibula of the man being carefully brushed off before me? Guilty that my parent’s tax dollars had probably helped fund the weapon that killed him? Amazed that I was actually on site in El Salvador watching an exhumation I had spent so much time studying back home? Welcomed by these men despite feeling unworthy of being present?
Yes to all of the above. These emotions poured over my head like the bucket of water I had dumped on myself for this morning’s shower, but all I could do to process them was to give thanks for this experience that so few will ever get to witness in a lifetime.
Just then, Jacey motioned for me to lean in. “I know this is completely irrelevant,” she whispered even though we were speaking English, “but do you think it’s a coincidence we’re digging up a grave so close to Halloween?”
I couldn’t hold in my laughter. Despite the fact that we were literally digging up bodies, everyone around me radiated a sense of happiness. Happiness that the past was being unearthed and justice finally being served. Happiness that this somber event had brought so many together in solidarity. Yes, we were humble, yet happy.