Lisa Wartinger, Plenty Chairwoman
Plenty Bulletin Winter 1994-95 Vol. 10, No. 4
I was in El Salvador from October 10-19 as one of the organizers of the 4th annual US/El Salvador Colloquium on Health, which brought sixteen health professionals down for site visits to NGO health projects, seminars, and teaching at the University of El Salvador and several public hospitals.
The University and public hospitals were pleased to have medical people come and participate. Volunteer help is needed and appreciated. There was a request from some of the repopulated communities for teachers with specific skills in special education, and for those with backgrounds in alternative teaching methods.
My last trip to El Salvador was in September of 1992. The Peace Accords had just been signed and the mood was euphoric. The FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional —the rebel forces) had been recognized as a legal political party, and people were out wearing FMLN hats and bandannas for the first time—a bold move that would have meant death during the war. The UN observer mission, ONUSAL, was there in full force, assuring compliance with the Accords.
Now, two years later, there is evidence of some change and progress, but also a lot of unresolved issues. ONUSAL was supposed to have left El Salvador by now, but keeps extending its term of service, and is now planning to leave by March-April 1995. ONUSAL is still believed to be a deterrent to more overt abuses, and is determined to ensure that El Salvador’s peace agreement is a success story. The previously all-powerful security forces have finally been dismantled, and the new Civilian Police Force, made up of 20 percent former army, 20 percent FMLN, and 60 percent new recruits, is now in place. There are no more roadblocks, checkpoints, random searches, massacres, forced recruitment, or widespread human rights abuses attributed to the security forces.
Street crime is of great concern right now. People who have worked in the country for years during the war say it’s almost scarier now because at least during the war, you knew how to get around and who to watch out for. Now, the crime seems to be totally random.
New U.S. chain businesses are springing up around the city — Wendy’s, Bressler’s, Esso gas, not to mention the shopping malls and video stores. One couple that had just spent a month in Managua commented how economically depressed Managua seemed in contrast to San Salvador (the two countries share unemployment rates in the 70% range.)
One of the Colloquium participants brought a hand-held air pollution monitor, which measures particulate matter. It was highly instructive to ride around San Salvador in a microbus and measure the noxious fumes of the poorly maintained buses. The World Health Organization recommends breathing no more than 150 micrograms per minute of particulate matter per 24-hour period. Bus emissions ranged from 200-370 micrograms. What was astonishing were the tests he did in the countryside in rural shacks where women cook indoors over wood fires. Measurements done in three houses showed a range of 1100-1300 micrograms! Not only are the concentrations much higher, but the particulate matter is smaller, which imbeds deeper into the lungs.
Apparently, bus emissions are filtered out more by the nose and upper respiratory system. So rural women and children are particularly susceptible to respiratory illness, which is a major cause of death in El Salvador.
One of the more inspiring NGOs we visited is CESTA, the Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technology. Founded in 1983, it was developed to deal with the devastating environmental conditions in El Salvador. Only 3% of original forests remain, all water sources are polluted, especially the Rio Lempa, which supplies 68% of the country’s water. Erosion is a serious problem (it is estimated that 11 mm. of land is lost daily from erosion). CESTA does environmental investigation, research, and experiments with different alternatives such as composting latrines, natural medicines, communal organic gardens, methods of producing potable water, and soy promotion. They hold seminars and do community surveys, which investigate local sources of water, medical plants, and environmental problems such as deforestation and work within communities to promote environmental awareness.