In celebration of International Women´s Day we are thrilled to announce that one of the top candidates for the Salvadoran legislature in the elections — which are coming up this Sunday, March 11 — is none other than our dear friend and close ally, Estela Hernández. If she wins, she will be the first woman legislator from the department of Usulután, and the first woman from our partner communities to achieve national office. She is running on an FMLN platform that calls her, very rightfully, “a champion of the environment and social needs of communities in the Bay of Jiquilisco.”
Estela is currently the President of the Mangrove Association, EcoViva’s key partner organization in El Salvador, and she is on the Coordinating Committee of La Coordinadora, the social movement that oversees the Mangrove Association’s work. We work with her very closely and have developed a deep admiration for her strategic mind, capable leadership and sharp wit.
Estela is originally from a small village near the shores of El Salvador’s Bay of Jiquilisco. Her father, Don Luis Ramos, was a lieutenant in the army during the civil war. In the early 1990s, when refugees returning from exile and ex-guerillas began to settle in Usulutan, Luis was skeptical about associating with them. However, his concerns about the perpetual flooding of his community by water released from the upstream dam caused him to join a small committee of concerned neighbors which eventually evolved into La Coordinadora, or the Coordinating Body of Communities of the Lower Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco, an organization that now represents over 100 rural communities.
Estela was the first person in her family to complete high school, and then a university degree (in law). As a young adult she returned home to get involved with La Coordinadora. She began by joining a training program offered by Chencho Alas and the FSSCA (our predecessor organization), in conflict transformation. In 1996 Estela organized a “circle” for dialogue and reflection among a few friends and neighbors. By 1998, she was facilitating nine such circles, and together these nine groups decided to declare the area a “Local Zone of Peace” with a march that attracted international attention.
By 2000, Estela began working with former gang members in the Tierra Blanca area to involve them in leadership activities in their communities, and offered them help with the removal of their gang tattoos and symbols. In 2001, she helped negotiate a gang truce in the region that remains in force to this day.
Estela discovered long ago that violence is not perpetrated by weapons and aggression alone. “It is violence when we don’t have access to education,” she said in NACLA’s 2004 Report on the Americas. “It is violence when we can’t go to the clinic and get medicine.”
Estela has helped grassroots leaders and government allies meet at the intersection of human rights and the environment in order to change the priorities for development in the Lower Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco. In 2005, the central government enacted environmental legislation that threatened to displace thousands of rural families from the Bay of Jiquilisco, El Salvador’s largest and most important coastal resource. In response, Estela and La Coordinadora mobilized leaders throughout the region to demonstrate that strong communities, themselves, can and should take responsibility for stewarding local natural resources. She forged partnerships with scientists at the University of El Salvador, the Zoological Foundation of El Salvador, and the El Salvadoran Ministry of the Environment, and helped enact community-based conservation projects in forestry management, sea turtle protection, community health, and environmental education.
Estela´s advocacy with government agencies and other activists also provided the venue for grassroots leadership to participate in studies that led to the 2007 designation of the Bay of Jiquilisco as an international UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, highlighting the relationship between human society and the environment. La Coordinadora also played a pivotal role in El Salvador’s work with the Global Environmental Facility, assessing measures to adapt rural livelihoods to climate change.
In April 2008, La Coordinadora became an official co-manager of Bay of Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve, serving as the government’s active partner in managing large portions of the protected area. It has also worked with the nongovernmental organization Friends of the Earth (Spain) to train community wetlands rangers, manage integrated conservation and development projects, and coordinate a broad watershed protection strategy. Under Estela’s guidance, local activists have warded off major threats to the Bay of Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve, including the expansion of a sugar cane plantations and the construction of a luxury tourist resort, through legal action and policy advocacy.
Estela’s work has sparked a deep commitment to resist unfettered development and exploitation in the Bay of Jiquilisco in favor of community-based solutions. Keenly aware of the threats to their access and the long-term viability of the Bay, local leaders in eight communities established an agreement with government authorities to regulate the use of mangroves and fishery resources. A partnership with scientists has helped communities establish verifiable management criteria and designate quotas for valued land crab, fish and timber products. Local leadership also works hand-in-hand with regional authorities to enforce regulations and ensure that the right to access and use the area remains squarely with the local communities.
On March 16, 2011, local and national leaders gathered in the Bay of Jiquilisco to inaugurate a “Local Sustainable Management Plan” – a commitment to steward over 4,700 acres of mangrove forest, while safeguarding rural livelihoods and other important protected areas. Backed by a legal resolution to curtail the over-exploitation of resources that communities rely on for subsistence, the Management Plan limits the quantity of fish, crabs and timber products that can be harvested.
The enforcement of these limits is spearheaded by community members themselves; trained local guards educate fishermen and resource users on daily quotas and the importance of taking care of the area, and patrol the coast to prevent poaching. Alongside coastal scientists, they established the local Management Plan to work in harmony with a local way of life, instead of against it. Now, instead of relying solely on the central government to conserve the mangroves, local communities protect them, while continuing to engage on sustainable use and management that allows them to continue practicing their traditional livelihoods.
Communities in the Lower Lempa also live amidst sugar cane, with its long-term impacts on their environment and health. Recent studies by the Ministries of the Environment and Health reveal that 11 of every 100 rural inhabitants in the region suffer from chronic kidney deficiency, the highest per-capita in El Salvador and nearly ten times the rate in other parts of rural Central America. These high rates of chronic kidney failure, as well as higher than normal rates of respiratory ailments, are directly linked to sugar cane. These persistent public health issues, as well as ongoing deforestation in El Salvador’s most prominent natural protected areas by sugar cane growers, have compelled local authorities to call on national agencies to take emergency action.
In response, Estela has spearheaded a campaign called the Movement to Defend Life and Natural Resources. The Movement has a broad membership, including officials from eight local municipal governments and a number of community organizations. Under Estela’s leadership, the Movement is working across the region to rein in sugar cane practices that harmful to rural communities. With advice from legal experts at the University of El Salvador, they have drafted local ordinances that empower the government to act on its constitutional duty to clean up the sugar cane sector. All eight of these local municipal governments support the measures, and the Mangrove Association and University of El Salvador are working to help the authorities adopt them into law.
As a legislator, Estela will be able to use her role to push for national laws to regulate toxic pesticides, enforce greater protections for mangrove forests and protect poor rural communities from displacement by large-scale megaprojects. We are all holding our breath for the elections this Sunday.
Happy International Women’s Day, and may the best woman win!