Like the community of El Sontule in Nicaragua, the rural community of San Jose las Flores in El Salvador is another example of how organizational capacity developed over decades of political conflict has led to collective efforts in sustainable community development. San Jose las Flores is a community organized by religious leaders that believed serving and protecting the poor was not only a necessary priority of the government but also a responsibility of ordinary citizens.
This summer I participated in a travel seminar with University of Montana students to learn about the dynamics of sustainable development in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Coming from the United States, these two countries were often portrayed as dangerous in the 1980’s, as guerrilla groups gained popular support for radical social change in an effort that was considered by Washington both subversive and communist in nature. I wondered about the origins of this Central American “socialism,” as much of its communitarian style of societal development still exists at the local level. Were these political and economic developments rooted in soviet-style communism as professed by the United States? Or was there something more to it, something uniquely Central American at its heart? Visiting with urban and rural community members affected by the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador proved to be an enlightening experience that widened my scope of what sustainable economic development can actually encompass within developing, as well as the developed countries.
Visiting the social projects in the urban neighborhoods of Batahole Norte and Cuidad Sandino, as well as agricultural cooperatives in the Miraflor Reserve, one wouldn’t believe that the 9-year civil war in Nicaragua came to an end in 1990. Community members have remained active in resisting the social impacts of historical political and economic structures that have dispossessed and displaced the grand majority of citizens, even if they have discarded their green fatigues and rifles long ago. While the peace accords in 1987 attempted to bring forth political stability, subsequent neoliberal adjustments took away vital social subsidies that no longer made health care, education, food, and public transportation accessible to the working poor. The dramatic drop in real income and living standards ironically transferred the costs of development to the most vulnerable, but remarkably, the people of Nicaragua have responded with a resurgence of community organization to overcome the pressures of life without opportunity.
In Batahole Norte, community members have responded to new waves of economic shock with food and education programs, adult writing and language training, and women’s empowerment networks. “We are very used to fending for ourselves” affirmed one community leader. “The community center has been organizing like this for a long time, when the war made it necessary to build social support networks amid the violence that destabilized the country. Now we have systems that build community around family and the environment.” She continued to lead us through Batahole Norte’s highly regarded community center adorned with paintings of male and female religious and political leaders who fought, and often died, protecting the rights of the poor during the conflict. She discussed the local efforts to educate youth on environmental issues and to support families through today’s economic hardships. “If we do not organize to help each other, then who will?” she asked, reflecting the historical neglect of the poor in national economic policy. While members of the community point out that they are not opposed to external financial assistance, whether from governments or NGOs, the people of Batahola Norte have realized through the decades that community development starts with community, where the benefits of knowledge and skills can be realized together and passed down to new generations.
In Ciudad Sandino, cooperatives are helping some of the poorest people in Nicaragua obtain skills and generate sustainable incomes. Grassroots organizing in the poorest city, within the second poorest country in the hemisphere, could not have been possible without the hard work of local citizens determined to develop on the margins of global society. In addition to building water, electricity, and sewage systems, community members in Ciudad Sandino, with the financial support of the Jubilee House, are building the first free zone and fair trade women’s cotton spinning cooperative to generate more income to family members who need it the most, while eliminating dependency on the volatile interests of overseas stockholders so typical of large-scale private enterprises. The women of the cooperative, while faced with daily challenges, want people in developed countries to stand in solidarity with their efforts and to realize that: “Alternative forms of economic development are not only possible, but necessary.” By working as a cooperative, members are given fair wages and democratic decision making power that ensures economic development will continue to work in the interests of local people. Moreover, the spinning coop here produces alongside other cooperatives who are converting locally harvested and processed cotton into value-added clothing for the international market. Not only are previously undereducated women developing leadership and professional skills to operate their own projects, but they are also able to work locally alongside their families instead of migrating to obtain meager wages in traditional free zone sweat shops, maintaining greater social cohesion that is highly valued within developing countries.
El Sontule is another community, nested in the northern hills of the Miraflor Reserve, which is also establishing alternative development systems that have community members organizing to sustain their livelihoods in the face of economic hardship. As households who historically generated income by laboring on large estates monopolized by a small elite under the Somoza dictatorship, land acquisitions by local communities after the fall of the regime has produced greater food security and social stability for rural families. Many do not attribute their acquisition of local resources to the grace of political leaders, but to the efforts of ordinary people determined to organize, protest, and obligate government administrations to obey the basic needs of its citizens in order to sustain their simple livelihoods amid increasing pressures to migrate to urban slums. Doña Clara*, a member of the new women’s organic and fair trade coffee cooperative explains that: “Because of our organizing and fighting in the past, we have fair trade cooperatives and women’s cooperatives today, which are giving us greater income for our families and are allowing us to stay on our land and live a better life free from the violence that forced us to abandon our homes.” When I asked if each member worked equally to deserve a fair share from the cooperative, Doña Clara explained:
“We all have to give in order to receive, but sometimes people get sick and we have to help cover their work, yet we know later that we can also count on them. I am old and my husband died many years ago. I cannot work as I used to, but I am still a member of the coffee cooperative, as well as the eco-tourist cooperative. There are little other options for me. Still, we [the new women’s coffee cooperative] are waiting to receive income from the project, because we have to pay off the initial [$5000.00] loan that we took out to begin. Not all of us have received free land, but working collectively also helps us access lands for which we could not otherwise obtain credit.”
Clearly, for a single and elderly women like Doña Clara, joining in alternative economic development projects is an essential livelihood strategy that is difficult to live without and contributes to a diversified income base. With minimal access to social and economic services, grassroots social organizing for sustainable economic development remains critical to enhancing her well being, along with the well being of other impoverished groups within civil society.
Like the community of El Sontule in Nicaragua, the rural community of San Jose las Flores in El Salvador is another example of how organizational capacity developed over decades of political conflict has led to collective efforts in sustainable community development. San Jose las Flores is a community organized by religious leaders that believed serving and protecting the poor was not only a necessary priority of the government but also a responsibility of ordinary citizens. Twelve years of U.S.-sponsored military repression against the alleged threat of Soviet communism in the 1980’s led to the “Scorched Earth Campaign” that targeted entire villages in the district of Chalatenango and led to massacres of thousands of unarmed civilians with bombing campaigns that obliterated the homes and crop fields of San Jose las Flores; and which ironically turned many hungry and homeless villagers into guerrillas themselves. As Community Council member, Ana Navarette emphasizes: “All of us as human beings have a right to live how we see fit.” For such reasons, the village today remains hyper-organized, fueled by both religious and “socialist” principles at the heart of their actions, to the point that it has become the most communal village in the country. From collective security watch groups, neighborhood home construction, local education, and elderly care, to sustainable agriculture cooperatives, women’s sewing cooperatives and environmental defense groups, this village has become one of the safest in a country afflicted by organized crime, and one of the most resilient to political and economic shocks. While the village has declared itself communitarian, preferring economic stability to material accumulation and social fragmentation, the neoliberal ARENA party has not-so-surprisingly labeled them “socialists” and “communists.”
The last community our delegation visited in El Salvador was that of Nueva Esperanza (“New Hope”) in the Usulután district, where high hopes for community development are being challenged by a lack of financial and technical capacity. Many community members here were political refugees during the war, living in a cramped church basement for two years until finding refuge in Nicaragua where they learned of the benefits of cooperativism. With the help of a Holland-based NGO, households acquired a small piece of land and villagers began rebuilding homes and schools while developing socially and economically-based cooperatives. While priests have contributed in distributing scholarships for opportunities in higher education, lack of formal jobs leave even the most educated without well-paid employment, influencing many to return home and contribute to collective projects. Carmelo Nuñez, a farmer in Nueva Esperanza’s sugar, cashew, and coconut cooperative explains that agrarian reform has not come to Nueva Esperanza. Cooperative members in this village are receiving only $4 per day worked on the farm until harvest season. With last year’s floods and a decline in yields, the cooperative is not only becoming increasingly dependent on chemical inputs to protect their hybrid seeds from pests, but they are also unable to repair their only tractor to prepare their fields. Nuñez emphasizes that “we no longer want to be dependent on seeds we are forced to buy and that remain vulnerable to changing weather conditions, we want to develop our own seed varieties and better [agricultural] practices, but hiring a technical expert is out of our reach.” Clearly, all cooperatives are not created equally, receiving varying degrees of government and NGO support over the decades. Nevertheless, local peoples with extremely limited resources are doing the best they can to survive in a time of economic volatility and unpredictable natural disasters. But without assistance to acquire basic resources from which to develop sustainably, their efforts, and hope, may begin to erode like the soils from their lands.
Just as communities in developing countries have realized, we cannot leave economic development to market forces, governments, and NGO’s alone. While the ideas of socialism during the Cold War were distorted, and thus perceived by many North Americans as a utopian fantasy detached from the laws of economics and anchored in the ideological formulations of failed soviet states, what socialism actually means to so many people on the ground is collective emancipation from social marginalization with greater economic opportunity for the majority through cooperative organizing and community empowerment. Collective livelihood development, whether newly established or evolved within traditional socio-ecological systems, is rooted in local circumstances with local leaders for local people, and is full of real challenges not unlike any other economic venture. Furthermore, sustainable communities that promote livelihood security in the form of collective development are not breaking the laws of “economic efficiency”, but taking into account the social and environmental costs of so-called free market capitalism, in order to make capitalism work for people in the long-term. As a sign declared in the Miraflor Reserve: “We are not inheriting this land from our parents, but we are borrowing it from our children.”
Whether one labels such efforts socialism, collectivism, or cooperativism, the creation of communal spaces within local economies and ecologies is a logical response by populations who throughout their history have experienced aggressive external shocks that have led to destabilizing effects at the local level. As economic crises and capital concentration continue to ensue worldwide today, more people in both developing and developed countries are coming to the realization that the world’s population cannot be adequately absorbed into a global economic system directed by transnational capital. For such reasons, many local cultural systems continue the struggle to protect and encourage the development of communal assets that can better ensure community self-sufficiency and sustainable economic development for the less materially privileged within global society. Re-localizing wealth remains critical to supporting these efforts and thus the importance of government structures and NGO support systems cannot be overstated. However, the manner in which communities choose to utilize their assets and capabilities is a decision that should be left to local actors who must inevitably apply their knowledge to their own environment and who, like most of us, may fail before they succeed. As consumers within the global economy, it is our duty as global citizens to support the efforts of marginalized people by giving our time, our skills, and our enthusiasm, while leaving the power of development to them. It is easy for paradigms to crumble over time, but people, they must keep on living, putting together the pieces of so many failed development schemes and making the life that they envision for themselves. Only in this way will hardship continue to build strength and poverty, lasting wealth.
*Some of the names in this article were changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.
If you would like to donate funds, large or small, to the community of Nueva Esperanza for local seed development initiatives, and to fix their tractor, please call Siobhan Lozada, Project Coordinator for the Mansfield Center’s Program on Ethics and Public Affairs at (406) 243-6605.
Siobhan Lozada received her bachelor’s in Latin American Studies from the University of California, San Diego, and is currently a Master’s candidate in the International Conservation and Development program at the University of Montana.