El Salvador has been under the spotlight in recent months, with President Nayib Bukele sparking international outcry over his aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic and numerous attempts to subvert democracy. Bukele has shown a disdain for human rights, jailing thousands for violating quarantine orders and implementing a brutal lockdown in the nation’s overcrowded prisons.
Bukele’s alarming embrace of authoritarianism comes at a time El Salvador is also facing severe environmental problems. Much of El Salvador, along with parts of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, are located along the Central American Dry Corridor, a tropical dry forest region characterized by irregular rainfall patterns. The region is vulnerable to severe drought and floods that are made worse by the climate crisis. Drought has been a major problem in El Salvador in recent years, and has helped drive migration.
Adding to its severe human rights and environmental problems, El Salvador has yet to sign the Escazú Agreement, a regional environmental treaty among Latin American and Caribbean nations to protect the human rights of environmental defenders and provide public access to information.
I spoke to two prominent El Salvadorian activists, César Artiga and Rev. Marta Benavides, about human rights, climate change and other issues in El Salvador.
Artiga is the coordinator for El Salvador’s National Promotion Team for the Escazú Agreement, a group of volunteers committed to the signing, ratification and implementation of the treaty by their country.
Benavides is a theologian, ordained minister, permaculturist, educator, artist, and founder of the Siglo XXIII Movement for Sustainable Peace. She is one of the last surviving activists from the original group of human rights and peace advocates who began their work during the 1970s in a rising climate of repression. In 2003, she was one of 33 Laureates of the Women’s World Summit Foundation Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life. Two years later, she was among the 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
What follows are the edited transcripts of my conversations with Artiga and Benavides.
SG: Why do you believe El Salvador has not signed or ratified the Escazú Agreement?
Artiga: We believe that there is really no will or commitment that is first, ethical, and second, political, to provide the country with the legislation and legal framework necessary to strengthen the entire apparatus of environmental protection.
The current administration has been quite ambiguous. We have tried in various ways to establish political dialogue, including at the highest level, and we have not been able to establish it. However, we have had very good meetings with some of the technical representatives in government, but we know that decisions are made at the highest level.
On the one hand, we understand that there is no objection and no reservation to signing the agreement. But on the other hand, we do not see this discourse being translated into concrete actions since the signature is not carried out. El Salvador and Honduras are the only countries in Central America that have not signed the Agreement. I don’t know what the impediment is for El Salvador to sign it.
SG: One of the most important things about the Escazú Agreement is that it provides protection for environmental defenders in the most dangerous region. Would you say that El Salvador is a dangerous place for environmentalists?
Artiga: It is curious to a certain extent that in all international indexes such as Global Witness or reports from the United Nations, El Salvador is not cited as a country where there is persecution of environmental defenders. It does exist however.
Let’s remember that El Salvador is one of the countries in Central America with much higher rates of violence. Here in the country, almost everything that happens is associated with gangs. If a person is murdered, be it a man or a woman, it is categorized as gang violence and no effort is made to investigate and delve into the facts.
This person goes to the prosecution to file a complaint, and the prosecution processes it as any crime. Even if that person is murdered, they categorize it as a common homicide of violence.
So what does it mean? We do not have a protection framework for defenders. So, in this context, Escazú becomes much more current, relevant and necessary. We have put a lot of emphasis on that. We need to provide human rights defenders with an instrument that protects them. Above all, in the case of Escazú, it gives mandates to the states, specific mandates of protection measures that must be adopted to protect people who defend the environment.
SG: El Salvador has been under the spotlight for possible human rights violations in the prisons and elsewhere. How do these recent developments highlight the need for El Salvador to sign and ratify the Escazú Agreement?
Artiga: The President of El Salvador is a person with serious tendencies toward authoritarianism, which is very concerning and alarming. This is a country that comes from a long history of blood. We come from an armed conflict that lasted more than 12 years, which took the lives of thousands of people, and we refuse to return to those dark times.
We consider Escazú a very valuable instrument to protect environmental defenders and the population as a whole from authoritarian and undemocratic practices. This is because Escazú works to create an environmental democracy in the countries and advance the democratic governance of the natural commons. We need an instrument of this nature to strengthen these mechanisms. Otherwise, we will become tied to the hands of these individuals who are obsessed with power and control and want to make us return to authoritarian practices and this vertical way of governing that does not take into account the opinions of civil society organizations, communities and territories, and where the citizen participation is reduced to nothing.
SG: How has the current administration acted in terms of climate change and other environmental problems? What initiatives has Bukele taken?
Artiga: President Nayib Bukele has not prioritized the environment. He has reduced the public budget for the institutional environmental framework within the country.
Secondly, since he assumed the presidency, he ordered the Ministry of the Environment to relax the environmental permits that were in the hands of the Ministry to authorize investments, especially by corporations, both national and international, of large infrastructure works. In other words, make the permits more flexible, to the detriment of the country’s environmental regulatory framework.
In terms of climate change, El Salvador’s first Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement was very technically deficient and, in many cases, counterproductive. We believe that El Salvador should proceed promptly to draft a new NDC that does contemplate all the measures that are urgent and necessary to promote in the country so that we have a possibility to face climate change in another way.
SG: Can you talk about your work on human rights and the environment in El Salvador and in the international community?
Benavides: We have to work on human rights because we have been so inhuman. We have violated the rights of peoples in general, and the more that we can extract from them, the better it is. Especially those who are older, kids, people with special conditions, or people who belong to sectors of society that have been traditionally excluded and objectified.
We have created societies where the progress has been for a few, really. For me, nature and the planet are beings that we have to respect.
But in general, I think that we have to have a society that really is about the understanding that everybody and everything in the universe is sacred. All of us are sacred. I have to make sure how I live in harmony with them and in harmony with myself, too.
We have this need to have these human rights-based positions because we haven’t worked on having societies where the priority is for everybody to be well and the planet to be well. We haven’t done that.
SG: We have seen in El Salvador and all over the world how climate change and the coronavirus crisis are really coming to a head at the moment. Can you talk a little about your situation in El Salvador and the situation at large?
Benavides: I experience it first in my country day in and day out. In the U.S., it might seem better, but it’s not. I see people begging on the streets and looking for food in the trash. I see veterans who are begging and why? They were forced to go into a situation that brought them back sick.
And then to me this pandemia is slapping us from one side of the face to the other. Wake up. How long are you going to wait? Because we don’t react to things that we are seeing.
Those people who are healthy, why are they healthy? Because they eat well. Because they have water to drink. Because they live in hygienic situations and conditions. The mayors pick up the trash there while the other people are treated like trash and live in trash. I get very angry.
I just don’t see how people can see this and not understand about all those people who don’t have water in their homes. I’m telling you I have to really calm myself and say I’ve got to keep healthy. I’ve got to keep doing this. I have to keep working on Escazú. I’ve got to keep working on human rights.
SG: What do you suggest we do as a society? What lessons do you think we should learn?
Benavides: I think a priority has to be that we say we have been lied to in all the processes related to the pandemia, just as we have been lied to all along about how life really works. The real truth is much deeper and much more transcendental than washing your hands so many times and wearing that thing on your mouth.
At the root of this situation is to be happy and to be healthy goes to the fact of keeping the planet safe and healthy. Having clean air and clean water that is accessible to all. Nobody should be privatizing it and selling it. Those things are done against the planet and against the environment.
The problem is those of us who are able to survive. We will always have the threat of people getting sick and contaminated because we didn’t do the right thing. This is the truth that has to be said, and this has to be challenged.
I worked with Oscar Romero. That’s what gives me the strength when I feel like crying and screaming and don’t know what to do. He said work with the people. Accompany the people. Show solidarity.