By Parker Townley
As part of the FMLN’s ‘Year of Agriculture,’ La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa –the social movement affiliated with our partner organization the Mangrove Association – has been chosen by party leaders to share its experiences with youth leaders from around the country. La Coordinadora will host several agricultural workshops and has been hard at work preparing in past weeks for the arrival of numerous groups. Troupes of 40-50 youths will arrive in the coming months to take part in the workshops. Youths chosen for the program come from all walks of life and include university students, farmers and involved community members. Each group comes from one of El Salvador’s 14 provinces, and will travel in turn to visit community organizations in each province over the course of the next year. La Coordinadora is the chosen representative for the province of Usulután and will focus its workshops on sustainable agricultural practices.
On May 27th, forty students arrived in Ciudad Romero as the first group taking part in the “agro-eco” or ecological agriculture workshop for youth, part of the effort to encourage agricultural responsibility and innovation. The first day participants became familiar with the history of La Coordinadora and how the area had transformed into a beacon of organization and community involvement after 15 years of challenges and triumphs. Members of La Coordinadora emphasized that although the organization has evolved throughout the years, it has always kept close its core mission to improve living conditions through economically and environmentally sustainable practices in the Bajo Rio Lempa area.
Saturday began early for the students, with a full schedule planned for the next two days. Presentations focused on the differences between conventional and organic agricultural practices. The advantages and disadvantages of pesticides, seed banks, compost and diversified plantings were all discussed at length. On a local and personal level, agricultural chemicals have had a direct effect on the population of the Bajo Lempa area. Due to the heavy use of pesticides in past decades, the area suffers from extraordinarily high levels of kidney disease. With the support of EcoViva, La Coordinadora has worked to offer alternative solutions to pesticides in an effort to lessen contamination of water sources; for example, farmers have been encouraged to use compost and diversify crop production. The morning also included a visit from Salvadoran Congressman Aristides Valencia, a founder of La Coordinadora. Valencia spoke of the challenges that had faced the community over the years and the work that had gone into organizing local communities.
After the series of morning lectures and discussions the workshop transitioned into ‘hands-on’ mode. Theory was put into practice as students learned to create various types of compost. Composting, when applied appropriately, can help to decrease dependency on fertilizers and return needed nutrients back into the soil. Afterwards the Xinachtli (“Seed of Life” in the Mayan language) seed bank was explored. The seed bank has aided farmers in becoming independent from large multinationals such as Monsanto, and recently has caught the attention of governmental officials, including President Funes. In an April visit to the area, Funes praised the work of La Coordinadora and announced support for local production of seeds.
After visiting the seed bank everyone loaded onto a waiting bus for a quick trip to a local farm. Here a local farmer explained his use of mixed crops and organic fertilizers/compost to naturally boost production and limit the need for pesticide use. Cacao (chocolate), mango, plantain, corn and beans were all grown together in various sections of the farm, standing in stark contrast to monoculture plantations lining the highway only a few miles away. This system of diversification lessens vulnerability to erosion, floods, droughts and pest invasions. During the tour and discussion students munched on the last mangos of the season, grown directly on the farm.
Following another quick bus ride the group arrived at a local shrimp cooperative. Set up with the help INELSA (Instituto para un Nuevo El Salvador) and the Salvadoran Ministry of Agriculture after the civil war, the cooperative has seen recent growth in large part thanks to micro-credit loans. While the work is demanding and the harvest often uncertain the cooperative has managed to employ a number of community members and has continued to operate as a joint venture. The students patiently listened to an explanation of how the system operates and then peppered Roberto Rivas Marquez, director of production in the cooperative, with questions ranging from operations strategies to a request for a taste test. As rain clouds gathered and the drops began to fall the group hastily retreated back to the awaiting bus.
Arriving back in Ciudad Romero, the group reflected on the experience thus far in the workshop. The group seemed impressed at the level of community organization, with many citing it as an example and hope for other communities struggling with similar issues. There was even a re-enactment of La Coordinadora’s founding performed by a small group of youth recounting how communities in the Lower Lempa region struggled with consistent flooding, lack of governmental assistance and a desire to develop on their own terms.
The final day of the workshop targeted in on issues specific to the Lower Lempa. Presentations focused on specific environmental issues in the area and efforts to mitigate effects. In years past the area has been especially prone to flooding and has suffered significant losses during weather events such as hurricanes Mitch and Agatha. Thanks in large part to the organization and emergency planning of La Coordinadora and its affiliated organization, the Mangrove Association, many lives have been saved as residents have been provided with warnings and shelter during times of need. Looking to the future the organization plans to further prepare local communities for natural disasters and assist in building a just and fair society in the Lower Lempa area.
After some final reflections the youth group packed up and headed back to the capital. After three days of discussions, presentations, and field exercises they left content, with heads full of new ideas. The experience had not been only positive for the youth but also for organizing members from La Coordinadora. Through the workshop they had been afforded the opportunity to reflect on the challenges and accomplishments of the past as the organization, now in its 15th year, prepares to look forward.
Parker Townley is a volunteer with EcoViva living in the Bajo Lempa over the summer.