Last week, I traveled to San Salvador, El Salvador for Uniendo Esfuerzos Centroamericanos: el Enlace entre Género, Pobreza, y el Medioambiente (Uniting Central American Efforts: The Link between Gender, Poverty, and the Environment).  This Central American regional conference brought together ELAW partners and other grassroots advocates from a wide range of civil society groups who are working in their home countries to promote social and environmental justice.

Opening night featured presentations that set the stage for rest of the conference in which climate change and its relationship to food security, access to water and other human rights, and the impacts on women and vulnerable populations were discussed in detail.  The opening event included a speech by Herman Rosa Chávez, El Salvador’s Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, who, along with Salvador Nieto (the Ministry’s Legal Advisor) were part of the delegation representing El Salvador at the climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa last year.  Nieto spoke later in the week about El Salvador’s experience at the negotiations and described the “Fossil of the Day” prize, which was awarded by Climate Action Network International to whichever country most inhibited progress during the day’s negotiations.  Unsurprisingly, the U.S.  frequently won “Fossil of the Day” and was in fact awarded the Grand Poobah for slowing progress: “The Colossal Fossil.”

At least we shared the prize with Canada.

While it is important that government officials create opportunities for international dialogue, it will take a strong voice

Sign near the former Baterias Record Factory where ELAW partners Luis Francisco López Guzmán and Victor Hugo Mata Tobar are working for justice in this community which is affected by lead poisoning from the factory and the contaminated water in the nearby Rio Sucio. The sign reads: ""In this place, there are 33,000 tons of toxic materials. Therefore, we demand justice and punishment of the owners, former officials, and accomplices to the Record Factory. Communities of the Movement without Lead." (Copyright 2012 Seattle International Foundation.)

from citizens, along with mitigation and adaptation at the local level, to come up with anything resembling a solution to climate change.  With “Colossal Fossils” in power, grassroots efforts and actions are more valuable than ever.

The San Salvador meeting was an inspiration.  We had the opportunity to bring a human element to our collaboration and increase our awareness and understanding of the challenges facing us as global and regional communities.  Despite leaps in technology, meeting face-to-face simply cannot be recreated via the Internet.

However, the real work continues when we return to our own communities, the places where we experience the impacts of our efforts.  Here in Oregon we have been lucky to have escaped severe weather events on the scale faced by El Salvador.  Just last year, Tropical Depression 12E dumped almost 30 inches of rain on El Salvador in ten days, leaving 10% of the country flooded.  10%!  If 10% of the U.S.  was under water, would the U.S.  still be a “Colossal Fossil” in climate negotiations?

ELAW partners are bringing lessons from El Salvador back to our home communities- where we can make a difference, regardless of the sluggishness of intergovernmental negotiations.  One of these lessons is from Elena Caal Hub from the Red de mujeres jóvenes Q’eqchi’ (Q’eqchi’ Young Women’s Network) who spoke about her community and the impact of mining and other environmental abuses.  She challenged the term “environment,” saying that our planet is “la Madre Tierra, ” (Mother Earth.) La Madre Tierra is living and breathing and not an object or “environment” to be exploited.

Reflections from group session on women's leadership. (Copyright Seattle International Foundation 2012).

Ideas from group session on women's leadership. (Copyright 2012 Seattle International Foundation.)

Elena Caal Hub’s presentation was a turning point in the conference: it emphasized why we had gathered in El Salvador and it exposed the changes that need to be made in our collective consciousness to effectively combat climate change.  It is easy to take small steps to reduce our ecological footprints: eat local, use alternative transportation, reduce, reuse, recycle, etc.  However, the changes we need to make if we are going to live in a more just world go to the very root of how we view and interact with the planet and with one another.

The time has ended for focusing on differences between cultures, differences between our efforts, and differences between ourselves and our home, our mother, this planet.  Regardless of whether we call ourselves environmentalists, activists, feminists, or human rights advocates, todos somos seres humanos — we are all human beings.

Many thanks to the Seattle International Foundation for sponsoring this event and to local hosts Victor Mata Tobar (Instituto de Investigación y Promoción Ambiental), Luis Francisco López Guzmán (Firma Legal López Guzmán), and Carla Trillos de la Hoz (Fundación Nacional Para el Desarrollo, El Salvador).

Melanie Giangreco
Latin America Program Assistant