Caring for
the community,
protecting the water

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More than $5.4 billion

arrived in El Salvador in 2018 in the form of remittances sent by its migrant population abroad, mainly in the US.

30,000 people

estimated to have been killed as a result of ethnic cleansing in 1932. Less than 1% of the Salvadoran population identifies as indigenous.

8,177,346 people

live in El Salvador, as of 2019. It is among the most densely populated countries in the world (315.72 inhabitants/km2), and the smallest in Mesoamerica.



Apopa (El Salvador)

Ubicación Apopa


El Salvador. A country so small, yet so rich. At one point it was called Kuskatan, “Land of jewels”, in the indigenous Nahuatl language. For centuries, from the arrival of colonialism onwards, foreign powers have come to plunder the wealth of these Salvadoran lands dominated by dozens of volcanoes. Minerals, precious materials and water are part of the spoils of war coveted by multinational corporations in the present day.

Yet such underhanded plunder would not be possible if El Salvador had not previously lost the common bonds of ownership of the land as a result of centuries of colonization and societal breakdown. One of the most bitterly-remembered dates is the 22nd of January 1932, when a popular uprising was organized to regain the rights and the lands of the people. The dictatorship of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez quelled the uprising, and state security forces killed nearly 30,000 people, most of them from indigenous and rural backgrounds. Following this massacre, the Nahuatl language was supressed and, out of fear of further violence, the surviving indigenous population was forced to relinquish their identity. Retaliation took the form of discrimination, abuse, imprisonment, and murder.

In 1932 the Salvadoran dictatorship killed nearly 30,000 people, most of them from indigenous and rural backgrounds, who had been involved in the popular uprising. The consequences of this act of ethnic cleansing continue to be felt in the country to this day.

Against this background, using a word of Nahuatl origin as a shared name is an act of resistance. The Kawoq women's group seeks to pay homage to the Mayan worldview, and the name evokes the "nahuals", or signs of the days. Specifically, it means growth, fertility, energy for both material and spiritual abundance: the energy that the rain brings to provide good harvests. For this feminist group, Kawoq underscores the efforts of nature, women, their ancestors and their community. It may seem like a symbolic act of rebellion, but in a country that this year alone has seen 120 feminicides and counting, raising your head and making your struggle public is not easy.

And even more so, when those who do so are rural women in an area like Apopa, known for the extensive presence and intense violence of Los Números, or the Barrio-18 and MS-13 gangs. For the women of Kawoq, however, the enemy is found further afield than the ranks of these tattooed teenagers: the real enemy to be overthrown is the globalized capitalist system that allows multinationals to take control of the land.

"We are women who have been abused, criminalized, and denigrated. As a result, women leaders cannot live in peace, it's a consequence of the fight for our rights", points out Sara García. She is a member of the feminist collective and has been involved in advocacy and activism for many years, particularly the defence of common resources from extractivism's grasp. García complains that, in El Salvador, financial assets are prioritized over the well-being of the population. "They sold us this idea that there would be development. Ultimately, people don't get that this development is for the benefit of corporations. It leads to the plunder of natural resources, to expropriation of land… and creates division among communities and community leaders”, she protests, not to mention the persecution and criminalization of people who defend their right of access to natural resources. Resources such as water.

La Colectiva de Mujeres Kawoq

The Kawoq Women's Collective is a Salvadoran grassroots feminist non-mixed organization, made up of rural women who protect the land.

Her main fight is for water: although by law it cannot be privatized in El Salvador, it is nevertheless plundered. In Nejapa, Apopa, residents fought against a multinational that sells a model of pre-packaged happiness and takes up advertising space all over the world: the Coca-Cola Company. The US multinational corporation has a bottling plant in the local area, which has already exhausted nearby water supplies. Faced with the threat of an expansion of the plant which would have seen ground water run dry, the area's 30,000 inhabitants got together and put a stop to the project.

This, however, was only half the battle. In 2019 local residents still suffer a lack of access to water. Sara García explains that, in 1998, the land was reclassified, and its status went from agricultural to idle. “These lands had historically been coffee groves, farms, centuries-old forests…it was a water-providing area, thanks to the forest coverage. After the reclassification, companies and industries set up shop here, monopolizing the water", which has become a scarce and much-sought resource in El Salvador, says García.

The Chacalapa estate (Apopa) can be reached by following a series of winding dirt roads, and it is here that the local community has come together to protect the water. "This is a small spring, one of the few green spaces and natural resources left for us to defend" explains García from the community's water supply facility. The supply flows from the Chacalapa river, and is managed by the community. Without spaces such as these, the water regeneration cycle breaks down. Droughts, famine, and disease occur. Without the water and the life that springs from it, there would be no rain. Kawoq's members are among the thousands of Salvadoran women fighting for rain, for water, for life.

"We've fought to make sure that the management of this resource didn't fall into the hands of the mayor's office, and that the supply doesn't end up in private hands. Water management must be community-based”.

"We've fought to make sure that the management of this resource didn't fall into the hands of the mayor's office, and that the supply doesn't end up in private hands. Water management must be community-based”, Garcia argues, in order to ensure that its use is sustainable. In addition, as she and her Kawoq colleagues explain, community management ensures household water supplies. And if the water can get into homes, it can get to women, who are the ones in charge of their households' day-to-day tasks and care responsibilities, whether paid or not.

planta de Coca-Cola Company a Nejapa

A Coca-Cola Company bottling plant was built in Nejapa, El Salvador. Its use of the area's water supplies has dried up wells, disrupting ground water stability for the local community.

At the same time, these community facilities provide a meeting place for women, and a way to recuperate, with a certain degree of security, ties and connections with their past. Sara García remembers spending her childhood there: “When I was seven, we bathed here. Only the women. During the war (the 1980-1992 civil war), we would come to collect coffee, to talk and be together. I grew up here, and this is where I've always got my water from” she explains, at the foot of the stream that flows from the Chacalapa spring.

In this small stronghold of endurance and equilibrium, the problems of the world seem so far away. Yet you only have to walk a little through the trees to see that the surrounding area is full of rubbish: littered –in a particular stroke of irony– by plastic bottles, a great many bearing the Coca-Cola label.

The arrival of multinational companies brought about change not only in land use, but also a whole road network tied to extractivism built not to improve local transit, but to provide global capitalism with its lifeblood. “These roads are exclusively for companies' commercial access. As a result of multinational corporate activity, the water basin has decreased, water and air pollution have increased, more waste has been generated, and there is greater division –physical and political– between communities. We don't tend to react to a problem here until it's right on top of us", explains García. And the problem has been right on top of them for some time now. Especially the women. Nevertheless, they have put their foot down.

“Women are the ones who provide care, who sustain the web of life, and who live the most impoverished lives. The banks don't keep the country going: we women do it with all this unseen, unpaid work”.

Kawoq argues that “All the effects that befall the natural environment are more keenly felt in the lives and bodies of women. That is why the struggle for water affects our bodies and our lands. We are the ones who provide care, who sustain the web of life, and who live the most impoverished lives. We do not have access to natural resources and yet we keep the planet and the economy going. The banks don't keep the country going: we women do it with all this unseen, unpaid work” affirms Sara García, under the natural shelter provided by the strong, tall trees. Trees which, from their leaves to their roots, connect the earth with the sky, and make up a part of the natural rain-giving cycle. Rain, safeguarded by the unseen work of hundreds of women.

La font Chacalapa

The Chacalapa estate is one of the few green spaces left in Apopa, El Salvador. It is a meeting point for women who use the water for daily household and care tasks.

Text: Anna Celma
Photography: Montse Giralt
Video: Estel·la Marcos



Sensuntepeque (El Salvador)

Ubicación de Sensuntepeque



The main reason for the El Salvador revolt of 1932 can be found in the quasi-feudalistic estate system dominant at that time, a phenomenon which resulted in several decades of imposed coffee monocropping. In 1882, the final chapter in a period of community land ownership began. By statute or by force, the colonial period had honed and refined the process of land confiscation. The fact that the means of food production were increasingly in the hands of fewer people meant that the vast majority of the Salvadoran population was condemned to seasonal employment, underemployment, or unemployment. They were the cheap labour for large estates, and cannon fodder for foreign interests.

This relationship continued into the twentieth century, as the forms of exploitation evolved following the arrival of multinational corporations to the card table, a fitting image of the network of global interests weakening and draining Latin America, from the South to Mesoamerica, to this very day. El Salvador's rural and indigenous populations were stripped of their lands, and had to renounce their ancestral identities for fear that the ethnic cleansing would be repeated.

In the 1980s, the civil war caused a great migratory exodus to the United States. In 2017, nearly 2.3 million Salvadorans remained in exile in the USA. Whether for political, economic or social reasons, a large part of the population was forced to make the decision to migrate. From the other end, however, would come one of the country's greatest lifelines: remittances.

Many of the women who migrate do so to provide under-the-table domestic and care work to households. The remittances they send from abroad support the families they have left behind in El Salvador.

In 2018, El Salvador received more than $5.4 billion in remittances sent by the migrant population. The point of origin of most remittances was the US, with over $5 billion transferred. Many of the women who migrate do so to provide under-the-table domestic and care work to households. In El Salvador, the minimum wage is $200 a month, but there are many lines of work in which this kind of money isn't made, such as agriculture work, an activity under threat.

“Although we might be an impoverished country, dependent on remittances, mining –and the extractivist economy– is not an alternative for getting out of poverty. Before having economic wealth, it is more important to have natural wealth, like the river”.

Marta Ribas speaks from the bank of the river Lempa in Cabañas. It is a 422km-long winding river that crosses Guatemala and Honduras before reaching the ocean off the Salvadoran coast. It is the main waterway in El Salvador, and the largest river basin in the country. Its waters provide for the majority of the population, especially those who live in the capital, San Salvador, but also the communities found on its banks.

Marta Ribas is a member of ADES Santa Marta, located in Sensuntepeque, in the northwest of the country, close to the Honduran border. It is a Salvadoran organization that seeks to promote economic and social development through anti-capitalist, community-based food sovereignty. With the incursion of multinationals in the country, ADES has also taken on the fight against extractivist projects such as metal mining. Its modus operandi, explains Marta, is the empowerment of women and the fight for effective equality, something which –things being the way they are– means starting with the protection of the land and the water.

El riu Lempa

The Lempa River is the largest in El Salvador. Its waters provide for the population of the capital, San Salvador, and over 5,000 people living in the communities found on its banks.

The river Lempa, the largest in El Salvador, is hemmed in by several dams: the Cerrón Grande (1963), November 5 (1976) and September 15 (1954) hydroelectric power plants. All three are managed by the Lempa River Hydroelectric Executive Commission (CEL), a public body that is part of the Salvadoran government. At the time, the construction of the dams forcibly displaced the local population, who migrated from the land that was to be flooded for the creation of artificial reservoirs. The people affected, explains Ribas, “were told to agree to sell their land. When they refused, they were expelled regardless. Once the land was flooded, how were they going to return?”.

“In El Salvador there is very little community-owned land, most of it is made up of small family allotments, but many households don't have one, and have to rent them. This undermines families and communities", weakening their strength and resilience in the face of the onslaught of extractive projects.

For the activist, none of this would not have happened if the land was community-owned. Along similar lines is the threat which locals in Cabañas have –for now– faced off: metal mining. “In El Salvador there is very little community-owned land, most of it is made up of small family allotments, but many households don't have one, and have to rent them. This undermines [families and communities]", weakening their strength and resilience in the face of the onslaught of extractive projects. This situation is a "big plus" for any company wishing to buy land in the country; if you have enough money, it is easy to get your hands on most of El Salvador's territory, which totals about 21,041 km².

This is what happened at El Dorado. The Canadian company Pacific Rim launched the operation between 2004 and 2005. This took the form of prospecting in search of gold and silver. The metal mine, had it started up, would have caused great harm to the river, and to the local population. On the one hand, it would have resulted in a significant diversion of water for mining activity, monopolizing water resources; on the other, it would have caused pollution which would have greatly threatened flora and fauna, as well as endangering the well-being of the local population, with over 5,000 people in line to be affected directly.

Alejandro Guevara i Marta Ribas

Alejandro Guevara and Marta Ribas are part of the grassroots movements that fought against the Canadian multinational Pacific Rim's El Dorado extractivist project. Had gold and silver metal mining operations begun, several communities in the area would have been affected.

As Alejandro Guevara, a Cabañas resident involved in opposing the mining project, explains, it would mean “total death" for local communities and for the river. El Salvador as a whole would end up a country destroyed by metal mining". Local communities got together quickly to deal with the threat and, thanks to their constant pressure, the Salvadoran government had to change tack. The El Dorado endeavour was the first to go, and was stalled in its exploratory phase. Pacific Rim had to turn off the machinery, firstly with the local population putting their bodies and lives on the line to physically stop them, and later on because they did not get an operating licence.

In 2017, metal mining was banned in the country, drawing a line under the fight against Pacific Rim, which in the meantime had sued the Salvadoran government, without success. However, as Marta Ribas says, this is not an end of the story. "There are 29 potential mining projects that could be built on the Lempa River in the event that the Salvadoran state re-legalizes metal mining", she explains. They are on hold for as long as the Legislative Assembly does not feel enough pressure from, or sympathy for, the multinationals and their economic interests to lift the veto safeguarding this river and other parts of the country.

For Marta Ribas, the World Bank prioritizes multinationals and their interests ahead of those of the people.

Victories are bittersweet. It may be that they are not even victories, if the fight is against extractivism as a whole. For Marta Ribas, "the World Bank prioritizes multinationals" and their interests ahead of those of the people. "It wasn't a victory for the people," laments Ribas, even though Pacific Rim lost the trial. "The people did not win, because the company was claiming $301 million from the state and, when the court ruled against them, they were only forced to pay $8 million. Pacific Rim said it was claiming more than $300 million in lost profits. What lost profits? They didn't even have an operating licence, only an exploration licence. The Salvadoran government had to fork out $12 million to pay for the legal proceedings", Ribas protests. As a consequence, the government lost money, despite winning the trial. And Pacific Rim? It dissolved when it went bankrupt, absorbed by OceanaGold, an Australian multinational that currently holds the rights to El Dorado.

"There has been no social, environmental or economic reparation. The people did not win, because our comrades who had to go into exile [because of the fight against the multinational] did not come home", argues Ribas," nor did our comrades who were killed”. There were many of them: Dora Alicia Recinos Sorto, pregnant at the time of her murder; Ramiro Rivera Gomez; Marcelo Rivera Moreno.

vaixell de pesca

The communities on the Lempa River depend on its waters. They fish there and consume the water, using it for agriculture, hygiene, and animal husbandry, among other purposes.

“One of Pacific Rim's strategies was to dress these murders up as gang feuds. While the killers may have belonged to the Maras, these were not deaths caused by gang violence”, says Marta Ribas. "Bringing foreign investment to the country means doing so at any cost, and often it is to the benefit of commercial interests and not those of the local population. This is why it is so important to strengthen the laws we already have", she argues, so that metal mining does not return to spoil the land, and water can remain in public hands.

Changes at government level, however, put this under threat, especially in the wake of the February 2019 presidential election, with the victory of Nayib Bukele of the self-defined "conservative and right-wing populist" Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). For the moment, the ban on metal mining means El Dorado has been abandoned, and OceanaGold says it has no plans to "invest" in El Salvador. “The company [Pacific Rim] knew that all governments are subject to change. At some point, they thought, the wind will blow in our favour again", says Ribas. Therefore, "as long as there is gold and silver, the threat continues" –and so too does the struggle against it.

As Marta Ribas sees it, women are putting their bodies on the line to defend their livelihoods in all sorts of circumstances. "Often, in struggles to protect the land, they are relegated to supporting roles, and the importance of their contribution goes unappreciated".

Women play a key role behind the scenes. They are engaged in double and triple activism in defence of the common good. As Marta Ribas sees it, women are putting their bodies on the line to defend their livelihoods in all sorts of circumstances. "Often, in struggles to protect the land, they are relegated to supporting roles, and the importance of their contribution goes unappreciated, in terms of how they keep life going. It seems that even though they make coffee, they cook, they take care of children, they take care of the sick or the injured, they provide food, they take care of the base camps, they go to get water” –in short, even though they work night and day– they do not seem to do enough to be recognized, because they only provide care, the activist explains. In fact, many take part in community activism while caring for children, and have to take them to demonstrations, workshops and marches, something that men do not do, being neither expected to, nor blamed for not doing so.

Women care for the land, and defend common and natural resources. Emotionally, they do a huge job in the community activist circles. “In the desire to care for other people, women neglect our own well-being. We always give importance to others, putting ourselves at the end of queue. If we're to continue the fight and ensure the defence of the common good, we must stand up for self-care. It is a right and also a duty, for men and women", argues Marta Ribas, “to be able to fight fully, joyfully, freely. To be able not just to fight, but to enjoy doing so", she affirms.

companyes de lluita assassinades

Memorials at the headquarters of ADES Santa Marta, dedicated to comrades-in-arms killed during the trial against the Canadian multinational Pacific Rim's El Dorado mining project.

Text: Anna Celma
Photography: Montse Giralt
Video: Estel·la Marcos