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El Salvador women’s group takes a stand for river system targeted by development

  • Women in a rural part of El Salvador are leading an effort to stop urban development that could result in deforestation and loss of access to water.
  • The Ciudad Valle El Ángel project involves the construction of stores, hotels and houses in Apopa municipality, an hour north of the capital, San Salvador.
  • It calls for clearing 351 hectares (867 acres) of forest and diverting 17 million liters (4.5 million gallons) of water a day from the Chacalapa River watershed.
  • The community has started working with other local organizations to stage protests, sit-ins and letter-writing campaigns, and has also filed numerous lawsuits.

A group of women in rural El Salvador is standing up against a major infrastructure project that threatens to clear hundreds of hectares of forest and cut off access to rivers that provide the community with clean drinking water.

The project, known as Ciudad Valle El Ángel, involves the construction of thousands of stores, hotels and houses in Apopa municipality, an hour north of the capital, San Salvador, where much of the land is still rural and many residents rely on subsistence farming.

Completing the project requires clearing 351 hectares (867 acres) of forest and installing eight industrial wells that will divert 17 million liters (4.5 million gallons) of water a day from the Chacalapa River watershed.

Around 2,000 people rely directly on the watershed for cooking, drinking, cleaning and crop cultivation, according to local environmental advocacy groups. The river also indirectly benefits another 60,000 people in 21 neighboring communities.

“Nothing about the project benefits the poorer classes. They’re building this for the upper classes, for the people who can pay,” said Sara García, coordinator of the Kawoq Women’s Collective, the eco-feminist organization protesting Ciudad Valle El Ángel.

The collective is made up of around 50 local women of all ages, who recognize that the destruction of Apopa’s ecology will have a direct impact on residents’ quality of life — especially the lives of women.

“We are the ones that spend the most time at home,” García said, “taking care of the water, preparing food. If there is no water, there is no food. There is more work for us and more fatigue and the deterioration of our bodies.”

She added, “I’m not saying that men aren’t also affected. But because of the burden imposed on us by a patriarchal system, we suffer the most.”

The Kawoq Women’s Collective has spent the last decade trying to stave off development projects that threaten local ecosystems. In that time, it has witnessed the arrival of some stores and gas stations as well as a highway that now connects the area to San Salvador. García said she viewed the highway as a precursor to the construction taking place today, an attempt to attract people looking for quick trips out of the city.

When the Ciudad Valle El Ángel project was announced in 2018, the collective started working with other local organizations to stage protests, sit-ins and letter-writing campaigns.

Public pressure helped move plans to drill the wells along the skirts of the San Salvador volcano to other parts of the watershed farther away from vulnerable residents of Apopa. But they said the new plans would still divert most of their drinking water, and possibly contaminate what remains.

In addition to direct diversion of water from the Chacalapa River, deforestation of nearby forests has the potential to decrease access to potable water because the cleared land won’t be able to stop runoff and filter harmful chemicals.

“We are beneficiaries of the Chacalapa River system,” said Johana Mejía, the president of Apopa’s community water board, “and because of that, we have to act.”

Sociedad Dueñas Hermanos Limitada, the company carrying out the project, did not respond to a request for comment.

Protest on bulldozer
Signs hang off of a bulldozer at a construction sight in Apopa. Image via Joya Galana/Junta Comunitaria de Agua.

In 2019, legal representatives for the community filed a complaint in the country’s environmental court that highlighted the irreversible ecological damage of the project, but it was denied.

In other lawsuits, the community has claimed the government failed to adequately carry out environmental studies and the consultation process, in which residents are given an opportunity to air their concerns with officials and developers.

In a statement to Mongabay, El Salvador’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources said it had carried out all required technical studies, identified all environmental impacts and established the proper measures to “prevent, mitigate and correct said impacts on soil, water, air and flora and fauna.”

Another lawsuit claims there were irregularities in the permit process between the project developer and the local water service, which didn’t respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

So far, the lawsuits haven’t managed to stop construction, only delay the start date. In the meantime, other small-scale development projects have arrived in hopes of taking advantage of the area’s potential economic boom. The community is fighting scattered instances of deforestation and the drilling of wells, Mejía said.

In May, the country’s newly elected congress voted to remove five members of the Supreme Court, creating international concern that President Nayib Bukele, whose party now has a majority in congress, had threatened the country’s democracy and overstepped his power.

For Apopa residents, it was a sign that their cases might never receive fair consideration.

“In the community, there is always the hopeless outlook that we can’t stop what’s coming,” Mejía said, “that we can’t demand our rights to water because there is too much corruption. But there is another percentage that says no, we have to do something.”

Banner image: A lone sign of protest sits on cleared land with the San Salvador volcano looming in the distance. Image via Joya Galana/Junta Comunitaria de Agua.

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