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Salvadoran environmental activists put their lives on the line

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Story and photos by Tracy L. Barnett

SAN ISIDRO, Cabañas, El Salvador – We arrived in this tiny mountain community to find Father Neftali Ruíz at the head of a march for justice, with Father Luis Quintanilla and Bishop Gabriel Orellana not far behind. They were wearing white robes with brightly woven vestments draped around their necks, an influence from El Salvador’s indigenous past, much like the vestments worn by Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Jesuit priests who were assassinated during the civil war for their defense of human rights. I thought of those priests’ garments, some of them bullet-ridden and stained with blood, on display at the Oscar Romero Center in San Salvador. But these fathers showed the truth in the Romero quote on banners and T-shirts all over the country: “If I die, I will be reborn among my people.”

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The march wove down the cobbled streets to the sound of a marching band, a group of earnest-looking youths with revolutionary themed T-shirts. Young children in their school uniforms followed, accompanied by their teachers and a few parents. Many carried copies of the poster that had been created for the event. “No a la minería, sí a la vida,” it read, showing four raised fists, each holding up a photograph with a face of one of the dead – except for the fourth, which pictured a fetus still in the womb. “Los mártires ambientales de Cabañas (The environmental martyrs of Cabañas).

Several wore T-shirts with the inscription: “Los que mueren defendiendo su pueblo… no están muertos. (Those who die defending their people are not dead.)”

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Onlookers stood along the sidewalks and cheered them on. I moved into photographer mode, shooting the march as it moved down the streets and past a mural depicting the four elements that was so beautiful I had to stop for a moment to admire it. A bright curving strip of sun merged into the fire element along the top, below it a strip of scudding clouds flowing into a rainbow representing the wind. A lone farmer stood atop a rolling strip of green, terraced farmland, edged with a lush forest. At the center, a waterfall emerged from the beak of a white dove, representing the fourth element. At her back was a scene of a different sort: a hideous skull embedded in a stripped mountain, streams of black pouring from its orifices into a bulldozer shovel painted with the words “Pacific Rim.” And along the bottom, words of defiance: “Los recursos naturales no son mercancía, sino fuente de vida, por eso estamos en… RESISTENCIA POR LA VIDA (Natural resources are not merchandise, they are the source of life, which is why we are in…. RESISTANCE FOR LIFE.”

Padre Neftalí was a charismatic young man with a soft but compelling voice and indigenous features who rallied the crowds as they arrived at the Central Plaza. Later I was shocked to learn that he, like the other priests here, has been receiving death threats. Their fearless demeanor betrayed no thought of their personal safety.

Que Viva Marcelo Rivera!” cried Padre Neftali, and the crowd echoed his words. “Long live Marcelo Rivera, who still walks among us! Long live the martyrs of Cabañas!”

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Marcelo Rivera had been a teacher, an artist and a community leader who was outspoken in his opposition to the mining operations of Pacific Rim, a Canadian corporation that has changed the face of this region forever. Rivera mysteriously disappeared a year ago on this day, on June 18, 2009, and his body was found eight days later at the bottom of a well, with obvious signs of torture. Local authorities dismissed the incident as common delinquency, and a year later, no one had been charged with his murder.

The cultural center where Rivera once taught had been renamed in his honor, and repainted with a mural featuring his face and the inscription I’d seen on the T-shirts: “Those who die for life cannot be called dead.”

In December, following Rivera’s death, two other anti-mining activists were murdered in Cabañas, including Dora Alicia Recinos, who was eight months pregnant at the time.

Cabañas, the second-poorest department or province in the country, had been a guerilla stronghold during the war and was the site of several massacres. These days it’s a quiet backwater of subsistence agriculture whose capital city, Sensuntepeque, is home to about 35,000 people.

That quiet was broken in 2005 with the arrival of Pacific Rim, which came bearing promises of economic development and something the previous corporate-friendly ARENA government termed “green mining.” The same party that had held power since the war, when it ran the death squads that imposed a reign of terror on the populace, granted the company exploration permits, provoking widespread dissent.

Tiny El Salvador, with the densest population in Latin America and a looming water crisis, is simply not an appropriate place for mining, opponents argued. The current president, FMLN leader Mauricio Funes, ran his campaign as an anti-mining candidate, and once in office, he declared the country off-limits to mining. Pacific Rim responded with a $77 million lawsuit against the country under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, arguing that El Salvador had already given its permission to mine, upon which agreement the company had made a considerable investment. At this point the company had engaged in extensive exploration, but had not yet opened mining operations.

Friday’s march culminated with an outdoor interfaith religious service officiated by Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran ministers. The service was held in front of the cultural center, with Rivera’s somber face in the background like a benevolent ghost.

A canvas shelter had been set up to protect participants from the harsh midday sun, and dozens were already seated beneath it and milling about the plaza when the marchers arrived. A simple lectern and a small table with a chalice and a plate sat at the front, where the ministers gathered. Two marchers placed a copy of the poster depicting the four “environmental martyrs” on the ground at the base of the table, ringed by a wreath of roses and four lit candles.

“We are here to honor the memory of our martyrs,” began Father Neftali. “They deserve all of our honor and respect because they gave their lives just like Jesus Christ, to defend their people and future generations… We are here to celebrate their lives and to bring together the people who believe in the God of life and who also believe another world is possible.”

Lutheran minister Carlos Najera Medardo Gómez then came forward. “Satan is acting to destroy the plan that God has for each of us to have a life with dignity,” he said. “Destroying nature so that a few can fill their pockets with money is not justice… The only thing the poor have is the land, and if that is taken, they have nothing.”

Father Quintanilla, an older, curly-haired, more European-looking priest whose life was also threatened last year by two hooded assailants, took up the words of the prophet Isaiah, who told of an honorable man who was murdered and his case was not taken seriously by the authorities.

“Marcelo Rivera was kidnapped, tortured, killed and then found, and the authorities say it’s common delinquency,” said Quintanilla. “But the antecedents that mark the disappearance of Marcelo are not being taken into account: that Marcelo confronted an imperialist system imposed on this place, governed by the right wing in service to Pacific Rim.

“Nevertheless the Word of God gives us the courage to continue in the struggle. They sacrificed the life of little Manuel, still in the womb of his mother, Dora. In the hole of a rock they have found gold and they want to worship it…. They want to destroy our environment. But we must be attentive to discover and unmask the lies that threaten our land and our people.”

Bishop Orellana of the Renovated Anglican Church followed, reading the story of Cain and Abel from the book of Genesis. The words of God rang out as an accusation to a modern-day Cain: “What have you done? The voice and the blood of your brother cries to me from the earth.”

After the Mass, I visited with Vidalina Morales, one of the leading opponents of Pacific Rim, who had marched in protests and raised her voice alongside that of Marcelo Riveras. Morales is no stranger to violence, having fought with the guerillas for 12 years, and her tiny feminine frame belied the steely strength in her voice as she laid out her case against mining in tiny, overpopulated El Salvador. Wells and springs are already drying up in the communities uphill from the company’s exploration wells, she said, and the mining hasn’t even begun.

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“Most of us campesinos, we are barely growing enough food to survive,” she explained. “We can get by right now – but if they destroy our water, what will we do?”

I asked her if she’s ever afraid, and for a moment I saw the softer side of Vidalina.

“Of course I’m afraid – not for myself, but for my children, for my family, for those close to me,” she said, tears springing to her eyes. “In the end, if they want to do something to me, they’ll do it, and so be it. But I’ve seen this in the struggles against the people – they seek to hurt us in the deepest ways possible, so yes, I’m afraid. But at the same time the fear gives us strength to keep fighting – and we will keep on fighting because justice is on our side.”

Vidalina was one of the directors of ADES, an organization that was born of the need to resettle the people of Santa Marta, a whole town that fled to Honduras during the height of the war. Vidalina was just a child when, along with hundreds of her neighbors, she was forced to cross the border under horrendous conditions to save her life.

ADES, the Association for Economic and Social Development, has expanded its mission to the whole department of Cabañas, and is involved in an impressive array of programs to improve the lives of its citizens. Resistance to the mining operations is something they see as key to promoting equitable and sustainable development.

“They say they are going to bring development, but development is a mirage,” said Nelson Ventura, another ADES staff member who has been active in the resistance. A friendly, stocky man with an easy smile but a sad and occasionally haunted look on his weathered and prematurely aged face, Ventura narrowly escaped an apparent attempt on his life when a man swung a machete at him from behind. He saw it coming in the rearview mirror of a nearby car and dodged the blow. But when he reported the incident to the authorities, they just laughed it off and said, “Oh, he was just trying to scare you.”

Despite the threats on his life, and the loss of his friends and fellow activists, Nelson, the father of four, insisted that he felt more committed than ever to the cause.

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“Of course, I’ve thought of leaving, but what would I do? I have to teach my children to walk in the road of dignity. They have the right to a clean environment. If you don’t stand up for your rights, you have nothing.”

He ended with one of my favorite quotes from Bertold Brecht, made famous here in Latin America in a song by Cuban revolutionary songwriter Silvio Rodriguez:

“There are good men who fight for a day, better men who fight for a year, and even better men who fight for many years. But the ones who fight all their lives – those are the ones who are indispensable.”