On March 22, thousands of people marched on the streets of El Salvador’s capital city, San Salvador, to mark World Water Day — an international day recognizing water as a basic human right, and a resource that must be protected. Carrying posters, banners and flags, people led powerful chants: “Sin agua y sin semillas no hay tortillas!” (“Without water and without seeds, there are no tortillas) and “El agua es un derecho y no una mercancía!” (Water is a right, not something to sell”).
The march was co-organized by six different AJWS grantee organizations, including Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (UNES), Indigenous Unification Movement of Nahuizalco (MUINA), Mesa Nacional Frente a la Minería Metálica de El Salvador (MNFM), Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho (FESPAD), Foro del Agua and Asociación Comunitaria Unida por el Agua y la Agricultura (ACUA), representing a true intersection of activist organizations across multiple AJWS issue areas. From fighting for Indigenous land to preserving democracy and civil rights, these groups rallied around the common cause of water as a human right.
While there were numerous demonstrations across Latin America to mark World Water Day, a palpable sense of urgency marked the march in San Salvador — people knew they must act now. Activists across El Salvador are concerned that several bills currently awaiting a vote would be vetoed by the president or abandoned by the new incoming congress, set to take power on May 1st. The new congress is largely comprised of members of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s populist, far-right wing party, giving the president both executive power and a loyal majority in congress.
Activists fear that El Salvador’s General Water Law, which was first introduced in 2006 and would define and protect water as a human right and a common good that has to be managed by public (state) actors, could be among the first pieces of legislation dismissed from the agenda by the incoming congress. That’s why activists demanded during the march that congress pass it before the current session ends. They also demanded that recently approved amendments to the constitution, which define access to safe water and food as human rights, be ratified a second time by the incoming congress, a requirement to become applicable law.
The demonstrators’ third demand was that El Salvador’s law prohibiting metal mining — which was a first of its kind in the world when it passed in 2017 — must not be repealed. Their fear has been stoked by Bukele’s ongoing delay of the full implementation of the law, as over a dozen abandoned mines in the country are yet to be safely sealed off. The abandoned mines also threaten El Salvador’s limited water resources, and a possible reopening of mining would be devastating.
The concern of Salvadoran activists is based on President Bukele’s increasingly bold pronouncements that the current congress is “irrelevant,” and his insistence that all new legislation will be introduced only by his own party and its allies. Citizens across the country are watching their president erode democracy and move towards authoritarian leadership. The new congress, consisting of nearly two-thirds Bukele loyalists, will consolidate the power of the president — and in the meantime he is trying to block or discourage any initiative not created by his own party. The General Water Law, originally proposed by social movements, had been introduced for discussion in the congress by left-wing FMLN party — making it a prime target for Bukele and his incoming congress. In fact, Bukele recently alluded to his party creating a new water-rights law.
The estimated 6,000 activists who took to the streets on March 22 (in the biggest demonstration since the beginning of the pandemic) were met with barbed wire barricades and heavily-armed police. Thankfully, it remained a peaceful and safe day, as protestors wore masks to protect against COVID-19 — but also a reminder that the activist organizations AJWS supports in El Salvador must continue to build an even stronger social movement supporting sufficient and affordable access to water and other natural resources to ensure the voice of the people is heard by those in power. The demonstration illustrated AJWS’s Land, Water and Climate Justice strategy in El Salvador in action: To build vibrant, national, grassroots and people-powered movements that force the government to pay attention.
Justin Jacobs is a Senior Marketing and Storytelling Officer at AJWS.