Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 201 | Abril 1998


El Salvador

The Environmental Law In the Eye of The Political Storm

Never in El Salvador’s history have there been such fierce debates about a law. And never has it been so clear that the Salvadoran left’s new identity must be shaped within the environmental struggle.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

At the end of February, with the debate about the environmental bill in the eye of the storm, the Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technology (CESTA) dubbed the legislation "lukewarm" because "it barely touches the interests of large capital, and does not pull together or legislate all that is needed for the ecological rehabilitation of El Salvador." But this was not a condemnation; CESTA called the bill a "beginning" and urged its approval, "since the strategy of large capital is to put the issue off and thus, when an environmental law is finally approved, the El Bálsamo mountain range will already be destroyed, El Espino will be a commercial center, the water companies will be selling imported water, the Jiquilisco mangroves will be landing strips, there will be mountains but of garbage, fertile soil will be a memory of the past and to breathe we will need the help of small cylinders of oxygen."
For the FMLN and other sectors of the opposition, approval of the Environmental Law is an issue of dignity and justice to Salvadoran society. For ARENA and the sectors of large capital it is an inopportune stumbling block in the road they are on in search of ways to multiply their earnings, come what may, even if the whole country falls by the wayside.

El Espino: The Last Lung

After years of debates, the law was finally approved by the Legislative Assembly on March 2 and sent on to the President of the Republic. He returned it to the legislature's Environmental Commission with a series of observations that essentially represent the feelings and thoughts of large Salvadoran capital. Discussion in the commission of this set of executive observations now faces the danger of indefinitely prolonged debate. This is exactly what large capital wants: not to oppose the law directly, but to drag out discussion of all its various points to prevent the law from going into effect.

The urban projects being developed in El Salvador's capital illustrate that the alarm expressed by CESTA is not simple rhetoric. As the law bogs down in intentionally provoked interminable discussions, the El Espino forest on the imposing San Salvador volcano west of the capital is being clear cut to make way for a mega-project of two of the country's great oligarchic families. Within only a few more months, El Espino, the city's "last lung," will no longer be the green protector of its water-bearing hillside soil, relief from its hot climate, and air purifier of it and at least two other cities. In its place will be the country's most imposing commercial center, with a five-star hotel, a financial center and an exclusive residential zone. It will have been transformed from a monument to nature to a monument to cement and neon lights.

Eternal Antagonisms

El Salvador, the tiniest country on the Latin American continent and the one in the greatest danger of extinction, has been lagging behind with respect to environmental legislation. Meanwhile, nature continues to be the victim of the ravaging actions of Salvadorans, particularly those who control private industry, protected in the only forest in the country that so far cannot be expunged: that of impunity.

The process of drawing up environmental legislation began about four years ago, but really serious proposals and truly acrid criticisms by the country's big business were not aired until after the more timid bill had been approved in March of this year. All Salvadorans agree that never before in the nation's history have discussions around the approval of a law been so heated. And it is not without reason. The life of the present and future generations is at stake and it borders on being already too late. The ecological struggle in El Salvador requires greater boldness because capital has shown itself as obstinately defensive of its interests as in the worst moments of the civil war.

Then, the oligarchy identified the communists as its mortal enemies. Today its rivals are the environmentalists. And the FMLN counts itself among them. The environment is without a doubt the first priority for the Salvadoran left today, and not because it can win political spaces or votes at the polls behind this banner. The reason is more simple: if the left does not take up defense of the environment as a national emergency, it will not only have broken with the ethic of its struggle but will cease to have a future.

The environmental debate has been putting the real social contradictions of this country back into national discussion. The legislative opposition—led by the FMLN—is seeking to speed up that discussion to make defense of the environment a commitment of all public and private sectors. Large capital—represented politically by ARENA and in terms of social sector organizations by the National Association of Private Enterprise, the Chamber of Commerce, the Salvadoran Chamber of Construction and the Salvadoran Foundation for Development—has closed ranks to confront the law with a hidden boycott, claiming that it wants legislation but trying to reform fundamental aspects of what already exists to keep it from ever being ratified, or to turn it into a general ordinance that makes non-enforceable observations and philanthropic recommendations about nature.

We Are All Ravagers

With the environmental discussions at the center of the debate, envío made the rounds of the legislators' cubicles in the Legislative Assembly building in search of first-hand information. Liduvina del Carmen Magarín, lawyer and FMLN member since its clandestine days, has strengthened her vocation of protecting the human rights of Salvadorans by struggling for a legal order that would stop the disaster being committed against nature. She is currently legal adviser to the FMLN representatives who are active in the Legislative Assembly.

"The logic that activates us," Magarín says, "is not so much prohibition as it is the search for national alternatives in the face of a disaster that is carrying us all along without social or economic distinctions. That's the spirit behind the environmental law we just approved."
Although the essential concern is to find alternatives, the immediate priority is to draft legislation that can stop the current irrational disaster. "At this point," she adds, "it is unthinkable to have legislation that does not deal firmly with the impunity of the industrialists and big Salvadoran business interests. Our finger must point precisely to the causes and those truly responsible for the depredation of our natural resources, although without forgetting that this same finger should also point at each one of us. Because we're all ravagers, some for disproportionate wealth, others for survival."

Points With No Consensus

After long discussions, which were particularly heated in the first months of this year, the Legislative Assembly managed to approve the law with consensus on the majority of points. The ARENA deputies withheld their consensus from other aspects that for the opposition and the environmentalists are central:
Environmental permission. While the opposition firmly maintained that issuing permits to implement works of infrastructure, industry, commerce, housing and the like should be the exclusive competency of a state body, ARENA insisted that at least two entities should be responsible for the permits: a state one for providing permission to public businesses and another, private one for granting permission to private enterprise. The immediate and obvious question ARENA's idea raises is whether private enterprise, which is mainly responsible for the devastation of El Salvador's natural resources, can act against its own interests.

Compliance bond. ARENA tenaciously opposed establishing in the law that any person or entity interested in implementing works that presume environmental risks put up a bond guaranteeing respect for the environment.

Citizenry's participation in drafting environmental policies, in environmental management and in evaluating environmental studies. ARENA is opposed to the citizenry knowing and being consulted about the diverse projects that carry ecological risks or risks to the population's health.

Fines. The law establishes fines ranging from two thousand to five thousand current minimum monthly urban wages, according to the seriousness of the infringement. Although all the legislators know that private enterprise will never let itself get into a crisis, even if it had to pay many fines for many infringements all at once, the ARENA representatives also knew enough to represent business concerns by opposing the introduction of fines exceeding two thousand minimum monthly wages.

Ecological Crimes. The ARENA representatives were determined to make sure that prison sentences for all crimes defined by the law be commutable, even knowing that the stipulated sentences, from one to ten years, are laughable compared to the severity of the crimes currently being committed against nature and the human species in El Salvador.

Presidential Reaction

Once approved, the law was sent to the President who, according to the right granted his office by the Constitution, can veto it, return it with observations, or give it his seal of approval so it can go into effect. Calderón Sol had the law in his hands for 15 days. In that time he received letters from the various social and environmental groups in the country warning of the risks of bowing to the demands of large capital, which wanted him to veto it. In the first days, the mass media sent out the trial balloon that the President would veto the law. The manifestos of environmentalists multiplied and a parade of hundreds of cyclists through the main boulevards of the capital tried to affect that decision. In the end the President returned the law to the Assembly with observations, almost all of which were related to the points in which there had been no consensus between the ARENAS bench and the opposition—in short, observations that reflected business interests.

If the President had vetoed the law, as big business wanted, the political cost for ARENA as it prepares for a new electoral campaign would have been very high. To stay healthy, President Calderón Sol made public his opinion that the law should be approved, although he said that a "realistic" vision was needed. "I hope," he said, "that [the legislators] meditate very seriously and legislate very well, because it is also necessary for El Salvador to have a law that does not put a brake on development or on progress. Because development, progress, investment and job generation can also be stopped on the altar of the environment. And that is what worries us."

"Sacrifice nature a little bit"

The President wanted to define his role in the debate as a conciliator of diverse interests. "This isn't about approving punitive laws, since we all want a healthy environment, but we also want development," he claimed. But there were no doubts about which way he leaned. "The contaminators have to be gradually sanctioned, but without closing employment sources." His conciliation was obviously partial and when he returned the law to the Assembly with his observations on March 18, the various big business organizations demonstrated their satisfaction.

In his observations, the President called the attributions that the law provides to the Ministry of the Environment "excessive," since the ministry restricts the activities of private enterprise. In Calderón Sol's words, "An excessive discretionality [for the ministry] in aspects related to supervision, permits, impact evaluation and authorization of projects, activities or operations, instead of constituting a measure or criterion for order, does nothing but introduce an effect of technical and legal uncertainty into the development of productive and economic activities in general."
The President came out against the Public Consultation stipulated in article 25 of the Environmental Law as a mechanism to "grant or deny an environmental permit, for the effects of authorizing a specific activity, work or project." In his observations he said that "it is important to stress that indiscriminate public consultation not subjected to regulations, dealing with specific projects, could lend itself to manipulation by competitors, who feeling their businesses threatened, could oppose the project by invoking a fallacious defense of the environment when in fact the reasons are of a particular economic character, thus affecting the system of free competition that our constitutional order guarantees. Public consultation, as it is conceived, would do nothing but generate unnecessary political confrontations, demagogic and populist postures that would in no way enrich the preservation of social harmony and the conservation of interior peace and tranquility."
What most evidently sealed the government's links to the interests of large capital was the comment of the Director of the Metropolitan Area's Planning Office. After having authorized the construction of a highway that will cross the El Espino farm—the first step in converting the forest reserve into a colossal urban center—that public official, forgetting the national ecological disaster, limited herself to stating that "it is preferable to sacrifice the natural resources a little bit in order not to detain the country's development."

Large Capital's Reaction

"The Farabundists [referring to the FMLN] don't understand because they aren't businesspeople," said ARENA legislators disparagingly. The commotion caused by this debate has been profound and has been national. As in the tensest times of the war, the business organizations went on the offensive, in this case with their entire ideological arsenal trained on the argument that no law should hinder the country's economic growth.

In tune with President Calderón Sol, the president of the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP) declared that the environmental law as approved by the Assembly "puts a brake on development and paralyzes private investment." ANEP clearly showed its objective: oppose any legal framework that affects its interests. Nonetheless, its members did not attack the law frontally because they know that society is increasingly sensitive to ecological issues. Attacking the opposition legislators as unrealistic dreamers for legislating with arguments that the businesspeople called rhetorical and poetic more than judicial, ANEP gambled on stirring up an interminable controversy. That way it can gain time in order not to lose contracts and other business deals with its international partners.

ANEP argued in a document reacting to the law that "there is warning of a clear intention to consecrate a supra-ministry with a supra-organization." This was its way of making known its rejection of the requirement that its projects be supervised by a state entity. Accustomed to using and abusing nature, ANEP is demanding that the new law "assure that nature have what development requires of it." For that reason it stubbornly opposes any legal order that would not only protect nature from their whims, but would also oblige them to recreate what they already damaged with their voracity.

The businesspeople who belong to ANEP propose a concept that should govern the legislation. They call it "environmental compensation," understood as "the mechanism that the population should adopt to replace or compensate for the impact that its presence causes in the environment." If this concept were applied to the historic debt that big private enterprise has with Salvadoran society, the commitment would be of such magnitude that they would never see the end of the payments or compensations. The history of El Salvador is little more than the disproportionate enrichment of a small sector of Salvadorans, the same one that today is calling on society as a whole to compensate nature for the impact this sector in particular has had on it.

The Salvadoran Chamber of Construction (CASALCO), which the environmentalist organizations consider to be the entity that most ravages the nation's natural resources, proposed that the law be called the Sustainable Development Law rather than the Environmental Law. The Foundation for Economic and Social Development, FUSADES, bitterly criticized the law as approved by the Legislative Assembly, arguing that the representatives had approved not a law but a set of "lyrical and rhetorical declarations about the environment."

A Leftist Banner

The environmentalists also spoke out loud and clear. CESTA called ANEP, the Chamber of Commerce, CASALCO and FUSADES the "four horsemen of the Ecological Apocalypse" and "worshipers of the golden calf." It reproached these horsemen as follows: "This legislation is an attempt to stop the destruction of the lives of all Salvadoran men and women, including the gentlemen of large capital, but it seems that it wouldn't even matter to them if they died today, as long as the coffin in which they were buried were made of gold."
The Salvadoran Ecological Unity reminded the legislators that getting rid of the sanctions and fines in the law—as the powerful sectors of the country propose— would leave the hands of the destroyers and ravagers free to "go on doing the same thing that they have been doing with impunity."
The FMLN Farabundists are convinced that "only a law with teeth can shake up the environmental ravagers." They know that the struggle to preserve the environment is the new name of the left's struggle. They are convinced that the very future of El Salvador is at stake in this struggle, and that the new identity of the left and of all those excluded from the system who seek a new society is found in this terrain.

To be a leftist in El Salvador assumes standing alongside the victims of the ecological deterioration, with the awareness that the issue won't be resolved just with a law and that it is neither a fleeting issue or one that is the responsibility of a single political party. To understand this struggle, propose it and engage in it as a national challenge with a broad reach for which all sectors of society are responsible is the current task of the left.

A Long-Term Task

For the FMLN, opting for the environment means fighting to include this dimension in all policies, because the environmental struggle is not the task of a single ministry. The environment is an issue for all Salvadorans and the state should seek responses everywhere.

This struggle also means defining goals that are both bold and realistic. Exhausting the environmental goals in one governmental period is demagogic and would undermine the credibility of the left's proposals. One government period is barely enough to lay the foundation for a new system that would include projects to protect the river basins, improve filtration levels, reforest, stop contamination and soil erosion, make use of solid waste, etc.

The task is enormous and goes not only beyond one government administration but even beyond this generation. A single example: a minimum of fifty years of regenerative work would be required to recuperate the life of the Río Acelhuate's waters—which receive the majority of the waste from the capital's residents and atop whose banks are settled hundreds of phantom colonies.

Both Urgent And Structural

It is strategic for the diverse social sectors to wake up to the fact that the environmental problem is both urgent and structural. For this reason, short-term measures are needed, but ones that have been decided on the basis of a long-term vision of structural change. What is urgent cannot be reduced to what is immediate. The urgency of putting into effect a wide-reaching process is what must be dealt with immediately. At issue is the reversal of centuries of disaster. This assumes bold policies to stop the evil already done and proposals for strategic programs to put a new system into place.

There is also urgent need for an information and education campaign and for work to begin at a municipal level. The FMLN is proposing a municipal environmental strategy that would include creating municipal defenders made up of diverse social sectors which would act as "eyes and ears" trained on anything that threatens the natural resources and provokes greater environmental deterioration. The municipality itself would have legislative powers to protect its own natural resources. It is considered that the social sphere is where the greatest knowledge exists and the greatest control could be exercised.

The Municipal Councils and various sectors linked to the municipality should become aware of the power that they have to stop the environmental destruction. The process of garbage control—following the logic of reducing it, reusing it and recycling it—becomes a key task in each municipality. That is also where appropriate management of the slaughterhouses and marketplaces can be accomplished more efficiently and where environmental improvement projects involving neighbors can be put into practice more easily. The goal is to draw up a plan of ecological planning appropriate to the characteristics of each municipality.

National and Personal Commitment

Any broad-reaching environmental strategy should contain a clear dose of environmental mystique, first exemplified by political leaders and those involved in the formulation of environmental proposals and laws. Liduvina Magarín is such an environmental enthusiast.

"I always wanted to be an environmental lawyer," she confessed to envío. "And today more than ever. But it's not enough to be enthusiastic. It is a responsibility and a debt to our children. I have a seven-year-old son, and when I look at him I know he is seeing fewer trees than I did when I was his age. I know he is receiving more damage to his health than I received at his age. If I don't struggle from my discipline to stop this disaster, I'm not being responsible to my son or to the future of my country and that of humanity.

"The other day I was chatting with my son," continued the FMLN lawyer, "and I asked him what San Salvador had more of, streets or trees. He didn't hesitate in answering: streets. My commitment to all of El Salvador should begin at home. Based on an option for green spaces and opposing the civilization of cement. I have more opportunity than many Salvadorans. I'm an adviser to those whose mission is to legislate for the whole country. My influence can have a national scope. But that national scope also has to have a personal and family dimension. I want to grow in a commitment with those two dimensions.

"For that reason I try personally to contaminate as little as possible. I make an effort to use fewer discardable things. I try to go back to all the neat customs that I learned as a child in the countryside and there I always go, carrying my little sacks of cloth, the same ones my grandmother taught me to make. I use them instead of throw-away plastic bags for everything. I save all the water I can, and am careful about my food, avoiding meat. And if I had land, instead of using it to raise cows, I would grow what I know feeds many more people than cattle can feed. Each Salvadoran ought to do something personal, ought to have a commitment in his or her house, and according to the capacity and possibility of each, to extend that commitment to the greatest number of people possible."

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


El Salvador
The Environmental Law In the Eye of The Political Storm

A War Between Indigenous Memory and Government Amnesia


Who is Who: A Key to Understanding

Morals and Power

Is Being the Granary of Central America a Good Thing?

The Central American Integration: Open Agenda and Pending Dilemma
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development