Llano Grande's residents—thirty-five families, many composed of various generations—are among the many rural families that live in extreme poverty in El Salvador. People have lived in tin and clay shacks since arriving to the community, some ten years ago, waiting for land titles to apply for housing projects. When it rains, they and all their belongings get wet, and when it doesn't, their homes are converted into ovens. After the Ida rains last November, the bean crop was largely destroyed and corn rotted.
The community has no electricity, no health clinic, no community center, no school and no corn mill. In the community, there is “no paid work, there is no development, especially for women, and we're responsible for providing for and caring for children,” according to one of the many women in the women's committee I was able to meet with. From Llano Grande, it is a twenty to thirty minute walk down the dusty, unpaved road to the main street. From there, it is another hour's walk to Tecoluca, where the nearest health clinic is located. A grassroots organizatin in the region had offered a high school scholarship to a young person in this community, but the only high school age youth had already stopped studying. Because of the distance to the nearest school—an hour-long walk—many children make it to the sixth grade, at the most. At our late-morning meeting, the time that children should be entering the last class of the day, a handful of young, school-aged girls were present.
The land, especially now in the dry season, is barren and the earth is hard and brown—after years of sugar cane production, accompanied by aerial fumigation and yearly burning, the ground is highly contaminated and no longer has the minerals crops need. This pesticide use has led to disease in the community; two otherwise healthy men have died recently from kidney failure, a proven consequence of pesticide use throughout the region.
Families in Llano Grande do not own the land they have built their makeshift houses on; nor do they own the land they use to plant the basic grains—beans and corn—that feed them year to year. In 2009, many planted on unused lands near the community, but the owner kicked them off at the end of last year's planting season (because, the community believes, they are left-leaning). This May, when it comes time to plant again, the majority of families in Llano Grande will not have a place to grow their crops. Others have rented land, but run the risk of losing their crop because of bad weather and not making enough to pay the rent.
Facing this kind of situation, one may think that families resign themselves to a life of poverty and misery. In Llano Grande, as in many communities in El Salvador, the contrary is true. The women we met with are organized and dreaming of projects and ideas to improve the lives of their families and develop their community.
Working with a local grassroots organization, the community is advancing in the process to obtain land titles, thanks in part to a change of administration which has cut down on corruption in the infamously corrupt ISTA, the Salvadoran Institute of Agrarian Transformation. Having legal rights and legal documentation to the land is the crucial first step in soliciting housing projects, which would bring dignified homes to the people of Llano Grande. Land titles and cinderblock homes set the stage for running water and electrification projects. With casa, luz y agua, people are more likely to move to Llano Grande, increasing the possibility of successfully requesting a public health clinic and a primary school and, later down the line, a paved road and more regular transportation into the community. With more people, there are also more opportunities for work and development—to sustain a small corn grinder or a small store.
Although sexism and exclusion continue to be real problems for women in El Salvador, the women's committee here in Llano Grande is full of ideas for future projects—a panadería, says one woman, and another says that there are already too many bakeries, but a corn mill they could really use. To get to the molina, the tiny creek becomes a river in the rainy season, and the women have to wade across to grind their corn to make tortillas or do it by hand—intense, time consuming manual labor. What about getting together the funds or taking out a loan to put in a small store in the community?
Women here have organized to defend and demand respect for their rights. They have also organized to gain the skills and experience to make development in their community a possibility. There are a number of women going to workshops and training on organic farming, which includes making their own, organic fertilizer and pesticides. Some of the ingredients in the pesticides are expensive, they admit, but if they come together to buy in bulk, organic farming is viable.
CRIPDES San Vicente has supported these women by providing seeds to plant corn and beans, as well as seeds for home vegetable gardens. Through CRIPDES, the women are receiving training in different methods of planting vegetables, including ways to utilize little space and very little water and soil, a huge benefit in a community with no running water and dead earth. As a part of these workshops, women learn why organic farming is important and about protecting the environment. Two women participate in the training and will reproduce the knowledge gained with the community. One woman reflected: “Sometimes you feel alone, like you don't have anything, but with that a help, support, you feel like you have something, like you're not alone.”
Edith, one of the leaders from CRIPDES San Vicente, shares: “There are countless excuses not to participate in workshops or development or organizing, but there are women here working and getting educated. Without women leaders in the community, none of the things they have achieved so far would have been possible...its all part of a process. We can achieve anything with organization. Development we can fight for as we strengthen community organization and gain experience, knowledge and skills. We have to soñar despiertas—dream while we are awake— not just dream while we're asleep, and work to make these dreams possible.”
International solidarity has played an important, necessary role in the process of development and organizing in Llano Grande, in accompanying the women and motivating them to continue. Change is a long, hard process, but much more meaningful—and joyful—if we walk that dusty road together.