As the celebrations for World Environment Day concluded around the world on June 5th, Salvadoran environmentalist were left relishing a rarely felt sense of victory after a demonstration of more than 8000 participants was greeted at the gates of the presidential palace by a high ranking commission of government officials who committed to include their demands in the development of the environmental agenda of the newly sworn in government of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren.
Among the officials who stepped out of the palace to greet the demonstrators was long time environmentalist Angel Ibarra who exchanged friendly smiles and handshakes, this time as the newly appointed Vice-Minister of the Environment. Other high profile officials included Lina Pohl, Minister of the Environment, Roberto Lorenzana, Technical Secretary of the president, and Francis Hato Asbun, Secretary for Governability and National Dialogue.
The “government is committed to working with the environmental movement to develop a national environmental agenda” sustained on the logic of “Buen Vivir”, confirmed the officials during their brief public statements.
This reception is different from what demonstrators are used to in El Salvador. For more than 20 years of consecutive right wing governments, marches to the presidential palace were stopped blocks away from the main entrance and were received with trench wire fences and platoons of riot police.
For leaders of the movement, the welcoming attitude of the new government is a positive change.
“The fact that such high level commission was willing to receive the demonstrators was more than a simple good will gesture by a newly formed government” states Brother Domingo Solis, OFM, who lead organizing efforts of the Ecological Walk. “We trust that President Sanchez Ceren has a tradition of working with those who historically have been excluded, as such we hope that his government’s policies are more in tune with the demands of the social movement” he continued.
For others, this constructive relationship with the new government is the logical conclusion of a long term lobby strategy loosely devised by leaders of the environmental movement to advice and inform the FMLN’s policy making process on environmental issues.
Since early 2013, many environmental groups participated in a national consultation process, led by Angel Ibarra, to develop an environmental agenda for the FMLN’s political program. This was part of a larger a national dialogue, Dialogo Pais, initiated by the party with all sectors of society to develop a political platform for the Feb. 2014 presidential elections.
But as the campaign picked up esteem in late 2013 and the party released its campaign platform, environmental leaders became disappointed that the document did not reflect the proposals put forwards by environmentalists during the consultations.
National movements such as the Environmental Alliance,an umbrella organization for diverse environmental coalitions in El Salvador, became further disillusioned by the lack of discussion of environmental issues from all political parties during the campaign period and called on all the candidates to commit to a sustainability agenda.
“We are concerned about the lack of discussion of environmental issues by the candidates and political parties participating in the presidential campaign and elections scheduled for Feb. 2014” stated a press release by the Alliance in December, 2013.
As the dust settled from a highly contested presidential run off, the FMLN emerged as the uneasy victor with a narrow margin of 6500 votes. Following the ratification of the results by the Constitutional Court of Justice, the newly elected government began an intense process of dialogue to seek political consensus with key sectors of society.
Leaders of the Environmental Alliance were quick to react to the post electoral moment and sought to find potential openings for dialogue with the new government. Their plan envisioned three key moments where they could continue to advance their agenda: a) the period before the transition as the newly elected government formed its cabinet b) the first one hundred days of government as the government develop its agenda for the next five years, and c) the upcoming legislative elections in March 2015 for which campaigning starts in September.
Their strategy involved the continued unification of demands from grass roots environmental movements, leveraging historic relations of key environmental leaders within the FMLN and coordinating social mobilizations aiming to pressure the new government in the early stages of policy development.
The first phase of the plan has paid some dividends. Previous to the government inauguration, environmentalists had received a number of positive signals that the government is willing to engage in a process of dialogue.
On May 19th incoming Minister of the Environment, Lina Pohl, announced the continuation of the moratorium on mining started by the Saca administration in 2008 at a regional anti-mining meeting at the Central American University. She also publicly committed to having an open door policy to engage environmentalists in adopting and implementing an environmental agenda for El Salvador.
On May 23th Leti Mendez, personal secretary of President Sanchez Ceren and head of the National Secretariat for the Environment within the FMLN, requested a meeting with members the Alliance on behalf of President Sanchez Ceren. The meeting aimed to be a starting point to establish a direct mechanism for continued dialogue with the presidential office.
During the meeting, environmentalists expressed particular interest in informing the new government’s philosophy of “Buen Vivir”, a philosophy made popular by presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador that strives to harmonize economic development with community need, ecological sustainability and respect for cultural diversity, embraced by President Sanchez Ceren during his campaign.
On June 3rd, Lourdes Palacios, a legislator who leads a small group of members of the FMLN at the Environment and Climate Change Commission of the Legislative Assembly, received a commission of environmental leaders who delivered a set of petitions demanding the resumption of the debate on the general water law, the law to prohibit mining, food sovereignty and environmental risk management legislation. During her welcome speech, Mrs. Palacios committed to push the rest of the parties on the commission to start debate on these important pieces of legislation that are key to advancing the environmental agenda in El Salvador.
The June 5th march marked the beginning of the second phase of the strategy which aims to mobilize social organizations to push beyond good will and dialogue to concrete public policies oriented towards sustainability during the first one hundred days of government. This may may pose a greater challenge for environmentalists as the stated priorities by Salvador Sanchez Ceren during his inaugural speech were concerned with public security, economic growth and job creation, and regional integration.
However, many are hoping that the president will make true on his stated commitment to implement “development policies consistent with the protection of natural resources of the country,” to act to mitigate the “impact of the environmental crisis” and his belief that “only with an environmental sustainability agenda we will be able improve the quality of life of Salvadorans”