Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Winter, Canada Day and Vacation

So it is winter in El Salvador.  This means that it is hot, rainy and the days are longer.  I would guess that every day is about 30 degrees Celsius.  As it rains just about every day, their is a lot more humidity right now and that is what can feel very uncomfortable.    It cools slightly at night and while I may go to sleep with only a sheet covering me, usually before morning I am looking for my light blanket.   The Salvadorenos/as are experts at knowing how to stay out of the sun and there are a lot of fans around.  There is some air conditioning in big stores and at the mall but it is not common.   In general everyone just copes with the temperature because it is always more or less the same.  However, having said that this weekend I was in my hoody for the first time.  It was raining, breezy, damp and felt a bit cool.  Fortunately that temperature was short lived!

The rain has been a new phenomenon for me.  There are occasional long, gentle rains rains, but usually the storms are short (about 20-30 minutes) but very, very intense.  Everything here is designed for drainage.  Everything slopes.  In Guacotecti, where I spend the week, mud is a particularly huge issue.  The soil is red clay (think PEI) and so is tracked everywhere when it is wet.  People here have a way of scraping their shoes before going inside so as to limit the amount of muck they take with them.  I marvel at the footwear choices of women here, who stay upright and keep their pretty shoes clean.  I sometimes struggle not to fall and I am often in running shoes! 

On Friday, it is Canada Day.  I have to admit, I am sucker for this holiday.  I love the annual yard sale that my Church holds.  I love wearing red and white and matching maple leaf earrings.   I love watching the concert and fireworks from Parliament Hill.  I love celebrating being Canadian.  This year I will celebrating much more quietly.  My new tradition is to share little chocolates with my colleagues on Canadian Holidays.  They all know that Friday is a "chocolate day".  I won't be handing out the pins and pencils with maple leafs that I brought.  Here the Canadian Maple Leaf is a symbol of the company that my friends and colleagues believe is trying to destroy their community.

However, I will be celebrating being Canadian.  I know that I can share my new knowledge and experiences with you and not risk being hurt or killed.  I know that I can call upon my government to do better.  So my friends and family, over the next several months I will be asking you to join me in doing a few such things.  Today, I am asking you to write or send an e-mail to The Hon. Diane Ablonczy -Minister of State of Foreign Affairs (Americas).  In that communication I would like you to ask her to request that the Canadian Government ask the Government of El Salvador to fully investigate the death of Juan Francisco Duran Ayala and the other murdered anti-mining activists as well as all of the threats and intimidation.  As Canadians I believe that it is very important that we know whether what many Salvadorians suspect is correct -  that employees of a Canadian Company have acted illegally in violation of Salvadorian and International Law.  If in fact they have not, this is also important information.  Our reputation as Canadians is being deeply damaged.  The truth needs to be discovered and so appropriate actions can be taken.  The only way we will ever know who is responsible for what is happening here is if there is full and thorough investigation.   For more information please visit the United Church website, Urgent Action section -

This week the body of Juan Francisco Duran Ayala was exhumed and reburied in a cemetery near to his family home.  Thanks to a strong campaign here, his parents at least have the small comfort of knowing what happened to their son.  Today is the second anniversary of the killing of Marcelo Rivera, the first environmental activist who was murdered here.  The Salvadorians deserve to know who is organizing this campaign of terror and we as Canadians can help make this happen.  Please do.

Finally, I wanted to let you know that I will be coming home for a 3 week vacation in August.  I'll be moving around from Niagara Falls to Waterloo.  I hope to catch up with many of you then!


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Juan Francisco Duran Ayala

Today I want to tell you about a young man named Juan Francisco Duran Ayala.  Juan Francisco attended University in San Salvador.  Apparently he was very gifted in the area of languages and was in his fourth and final year.  He was an active participant in his community and like many other people here he was opposed to mining.   On June 2nd he spent time putting up posters in his community that called on the Salvadorian Government to pass a law prohibiting mining.  It has been reported that the Mayor of his town ordered his staff and members of the Police to both remove the signs and to intimidate the person putting them up.   Mayors here have a lot more power both legitimately and illegitimately than do their counterparts in Canada.  It is widely believed the Mayors of several of the Municipios in the department of Cabanas are corrupt.

On June 3rd, I participated in the Green March  (this is the topic of two earlier blogs), which was event that  demanded the Salvadorian government pass a law prohibiting gold mining.  I really enjoyed being a part of this event.  It was amazing  to feel a part of something that was so democratic.  Participating, or this case, observing a demonstration is not something that I have done a lot of in Canada.  There was something so invigorating about joining with so many in an event that felt so much bigger than me.   The energy was palpable.  While the seriousness of the event was not lost on anyone, it was nevertheless a very enjoyable event.

I don't know if Francisco was part of the march.  It certainly was a cause that he believed in.    That day he   left his home for classes at the University.  That was the last time that he was seen alive.  10 days later his family was asked to identify a body.   Juan Francisco had been shot in the face and so it took the systems here a while to connect the body with Juan Francisco.   It is believed that he is the 4th person from Cabanas to be murdered as a result of his participation in the anti-mining campaign.

Everything about this is unbelievable and outrageous from a Canadian perspective.  It is incredible to think that this young man likely died because he hung up posters and was part of a group working for a sustainable environment in El Salvador.  The "resistencia" to "mineria metalica" (metal mining) holds workshops, puts up posters and holds demonstrations.  There is nothing "radical" or "subversive" in these actions.  They are a group of people who are deeply and passionately committed to created a sustainable future for their country.
It is unimaginable that these types of actions get people killed here.

There are many, many questions that will likely never be answered.  There are a number of issues that suggest that Juan Francisco was not the victim of a random crime.  In one of the other deaths people were arrested and convicted, in the others there has been no arrests.  With the murders, threats and intimidation it seems like too much is happening for it to be anything but an organized campaign.  Despite calls from both inside and outside of the country the PNC (Polica National Civil) and the El Salvadorian government have been unwilling to thoroughly investigate these matters and work toward finding the organizers of these crimes.  While an active campaign continues to have the authorities investigate this whole string of horrendous crimes, no one is anticipating that anything will be any different in this case.

This weekend there is a memorial event to remember the death of Marcelo Riveras who was murdered on June 28, 2009.  Marcelo was the first anti-mining activist to be murdered here.  His brother Miguel works at ADES and continues with the work that he and his brother used to do together.  The memorial event is being held at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero.  I believe that it is very fitting that one martyr is remembered at the tomb of another.  Both Marcelo and Archbishop Romero stood up for the poor people in El Salvador. Both challenged power structures and both were assassinated because of their work.

 I believe as Canadians we all bear some responsibility for this situation.  In the middle of all of this social upheaval sits Pacific Rim, a Canadian mining company.  Company executives continue to deny any involvement.  There is no process for Canadian authorities to investigate the behaviour of  Canadian companies abroad.   We will likely never know for sure what role if any, that this company played directly or indirectly in the murder of Juan Francisco Duran Ayala.

I would strongly encourage you to check out the web site of Mining Watch Canada ( to learn more about the impact of Canadian mining companies around the world.   It is outrageous that many Canadian mining companies do not follow the laws of the countries they are in, International Law and are named in very serious human rights abuses.  We as taxpayers subsidize their work around the world despite the havoc they are causing.  It is appalling and ridiculous.  I am ashamed that I didn't know more about this until recently.

For more information about the death of Juan Francisco Duran Alaya, you can also view the press release by Mining Watch Canada and others.

Thanks to another Missionary friend...I shamelessly lifted this from her blog.  I liked it a lot.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

English, Spanish and Broccoli

One of the new delights of my week is the time I spend teaching English to my colleagues at ADES.   The basic class has about 15 students, but in general only about 10 are able to make it on any given week.  This means that I set up extra meetings with people throughout the week to keep them up to date with their fellow students. Their dedication is impressive!   This week all the meeting rooms were in use and so we squeezed into my team's office and had our class.  They really like songs.  So this week there were two -- the alphabet song and BINGO (There was a farmer had a dog and BINGO was his name oh...)   The buildings are created to maximize air flow, so there are lots of windows and walls don't go up to the ceiling, so that sound travels.  We were quite loud in our singing.    I was okay with this  as the other team in the building was not in their office.  That is because they were all in the downstairs meeting room, with the agency Executive Director and representatives from a foundation that funds programs!  I am told they found the English class amusing.  Oops...But no one told me!!!!

My intermediate class has less fun because they are working hard on grammar.  The students in both this class and the advance class all complain about irregular verbs in the past tense.  So I went on line to find out what the fuss was about.   Did you know that there are 118 irregular verbs in the simple past tense?   Simple past tense is generally made by adding "ed" to a verb in the present tense.  In regular simple past there are 3 pronunciations - say - locked, warned, wanted -- one sounds more like a "t", one more like a "d" and one like "ed".  There is only one pattern for about 6 verbs in the irregular -- they are just all different - begin/began, bite/bit, break/broke, cost/cost (no change), think/thought, see/saw.  So the next time you see someone who has learned English as a Second Language, give them a big hug and let them know that you know how hard it was.  It is amazing to me that anyone learns English!

There is no doubt that my Spanish is improving bit by bit.  However, I finding the process excruciating slow.  This weekend I had the opportunity to go with a group of my colleagues to visit a pretty town called Suchitoto.  I was really excited because I really wanted to go there.  There is a spectacular cathedral, artisans, a market and a whole bunch of other interesting things to see and do.  The group I was with were excited to be "tourists" for the weekend.  However, I got caught up in assumptions and assumed that my idea of being a tourist and their idea of being a tourist were the same.  We drove through the tourist area and they pointed it out to me and we kept going!  For most of the time we hung out at an agency that hosts activist groups from other countries.  They have dorm type rooms which is were we stayed the night.  This once grand house also has a pool.  We spent a lot of time there and "bathed".  In Spanish you only use "swim" if you are actually "swimming", floating in a pool is "bathing".  This was very pleasant, just different than what I was looking forward to doing.   My colleagues have been working very, very hard as mid-year reporting is brutal here.  They all just needed a chance to relax.   They talked and joked and laughed.  I understood little and felt very lonely.  I missed all you at home.  I missed the easy conversation and the laughing.   After dinner we went to a disco.  Yes, I looked for an opportunity to go back to "opt out", but there really wasn't one.  So, this group of ADES staff successfully got me not only to a disco, but dancing for several hours.  I also consumed a few "adult beverages".   Just to be clear there are no photos! The next morning we ate breakfast at a quirky cafe in the town square.  I opted to skip breakfast (because I wanted to be a tourist, I felt fine!) and take photos of the cathedral and do a bit of browsing of the shops and artisans.  

The loneliness persisted and I had a hard day "communication wise" yesterday.  I went home last night and just wanted to be alone and to feel sorry for myself.  However, you can't do that when you live in community.  I went home and a few of my housemates were working on dinner.  I went to my room and pulled out my book with special notes from people from home.  One of the notes led me to Psalm 118 which is a lot about hardship makes us stronger but God doesn't send us to death.  I also read a part from my "special book"  from a friend that reminded me to take things one day at a time.  Good advice, I was pretty sure I'd make it through today is another year of being that lonely that I'm not sure I can do.  Then this very wise 22 year old house mate came into my room and asked me what was up.  I actually tried to tell him a little bit and I know that what I said in Spanish  didn't make any sense.  In exasperation I ended  and with and that is the problem, I can't explain the problem in Spanish!  His response was interesting.  He was not comforting at all and in fact really told me off...but he was very right.  I didn't understand everything but I actually understood a fair amount. He told me that: 
*You can only climb a ladder one rung at a time.  
*That I am too intelligent to let language become this big of a problem
*My response is a decision that I make
*Canadians have access to lots of things but we lack "heart" which I took to mean fortitude
*That I need to have more patience -- which is something I am getting very tired of hearing.  I made some gesture and he told me I needed to be quiet and let him finish!

Then it was time for dinner.  Alex and another house mate Vicenta had been to the grocery store earlier to get supplies for the week. She asked me where I was in the afternoon because she had looked for me.  She knows I like to go to the grocery store.    Then I looked at the table and we had broccoli for dinner, which is available here but is not popular.  Vicenta told me that at the grocery store Alex saw the broccoli and said Lynn likes it, so they bought it for dinner last night.  In four months, we've never had broccoli.  It was mentioned once and I remarked on how much I like it, but that was it.    Then another piece fell into place...there is no aspect of my life that is the same here...literally...So I may miss friendships like the ones I have in Canada, but I do have friends here.  Like everything here,  it just looks very different.   In one afternoon, Vicenta had looked for me to include me in an activity she knows I like, Alex bought a food because he knows it is a favorite of mine and Vinicio gave me advice that I needed to hear, although it was not what I wanted to hear.   These are all things friends do.  

You know when you are at the gym and your head says you have done enough of that exercise and you want to stop.  But the person you are with says to do more.  Somehow you do and it doesn't kill you but if you'd been on your own, you would have stopped.  This is kind of the same.  Probably yesterday if someone had handed me a plane ticket, I'd have gone --- saying and believing that I had reached my limit of endurance.  Yet God reassured me both spiritually and literally that I am not alone and that I can endure and survive.  I was also reminded that I can also thrive and be happy, but that is my choice.

Leading the English class in the song BINGO

In one area I visited this week, they are building a new bridge, so in the interim all the vehicles drive across the river. 

Group in Suchitoto - Me, Jenny, Jamie, Digna and Vinicio (in green).  Jonathan (Jenny's son took the photo).  We were later joined by 2 others, making us a group of 8.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Green March

On Thursday, June 2nd the "Green March" was held in Ilobasco, the 2nd largest city in the Department (Province) of CabaƱas, El Salvador.  Early in the morning people starting being picked up along designated routes in the rural areas and villages.  Everyone then assembled at one of 3 designated areas.  We travelled in a caravan to Ilobasco.  There was great line of trucks with people standing in the back, buses, pick-up trucks and a few private vehicles.  Once we arrived in Ilobasco, we piled out of our vehicles and were organized into two lines.  Banners and signs were distributed.  We were led by a vehicle with an exterior sound system and another pick-up truck brought up the end.  We walked until we were on the main street.  I’m sure that there were several hundred people.  Speakers explained why El Salvador needs a law to prohibit mineral mining.  The signs and banners were powerful.  There is one sign in particular that I find both incredibly impactful and disturbing at the same time – the sign says “Our Martyrs for the Environment” and has pictures of the 3 people from this area who have been murdered because they were involved in organizing there communities against the Pacific Rim mine opening in San Isidro.  On this sign is also a photo of a fetus in a womb.  Alicia Dora Sorto was 8 months pregnant and carrying her two year old son when she was shot and killed.  Her two year old survived his wounds, but her unborn child (who was named Emanuel meaning God with us) is considered the 4th martyr.  People passed out printed material to passers- by.  I remain deeply moved by the determination and passion of the Salvadorian people to stop Canadian Mining Companies from beginning operations.  The participants included men, women, children in arms, children walking, teens, and seniors. 

My immigration status as a tourist prohibits me from participating in “internal political struggles” and as a result I was an International Observer.  This actually gave me the opportunity to move through the whole demonstration, taking pictures and seeing what was happening in different areas.  In the process I met two other foreigners, both Americans who were also “International Observers” – one a young woman is in El Salvador with the Peace Corps.  Her host family includes one of the women who I wrote about last week, who helped us invite people to the march.  The other was an American man who came to El Salvador to do volunteer work, fell in love and married a Salvadorian woman. They live in the United States but return with their child every year.   The threat of mining is very concerning to his wife’s family and so he was asked if he wanted to attend the rally. 

On a logistical level I am always amazed at how well these events are staged.  Partly I think that it is because from an observer’s point of view it is hard to pinpoint the event leader.  Rather it is more like an organism with several moving parts with everyone knowing their role.  While a group at the “head” of the demonstration were speaking there was a group at the “back” who handed out bags of water (think of half a milk bag) and later food to the crowd.  In the end garbage was collected, people walked back to their vehicles and the road was re-opened to traffic.  Incredible!

On Sunday I had the opportunity to attend Iglesia Bautista Emanuel (IBE), the other United Church of Canada (UCC) partner in El Salvador.  This Sunday marked the 47th Anniversary of the Church and so it was a real honour to be able to attend as a representative of the United Church of Canada.  As I understand it, the UCC became involved with (IBE) during the war and has continued to support the social justice work of this brave church.  Of course, the hospitality and warmth of the Church members both in helping me to get there (as it is very far away from where I live) and to welcome to the church was great.  On a personal note, it has been a long time since I have attended a Protestant Church.  I was very grateful for the opportunity to worship in a style that was somewhat familiar.  Two of the hymns I knew in English and there was bulletin with the words printed in Spanish.  What a gift it was to be able to sing a hymn in Church.  This is actually one of the “things” that I miss the most about being here.   

I’ll write more about my English classes (yes plural) in another blog.  However, let me say that I really enjoyed being able to “give back” in a small way to my colleagues here at ADES.  This week was been a lot of fun as we have all practiced greetings and introductions together.  I am amazed at how brave my colleagues are at practicing in front of each other and me.  This week we are learning the alphabet and numbers.  Yes, rest assured I am teaching them that the final letter of the alphabet is “zed” and not “zee”…this is after all a class of Canadian English!  

People from one of villages arriving in a truck for the march.

"People can live  without gold, but not without water"

"The women of Cabanas say no to gold mining"
"The poor farms of Cabanas demand a law that prohibits metal mining"

This is the sign with the 4 environmental martyrs.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

La Gente (The People)

Late last week I became aware of a "Green March" being organized for this Thursday, June 2nd.  The purpose of the march is to ask the government of El Salvador to pass a law prohibiting mineral mining.  At the moment there is a moratorium on issuing extraction permits, but there is no guarantee that this will last forever.  There is great pressure on this tiny county to cave in to the interests of the Global Business Community.  This is not a march of the "professionals in agencies" this is a march of the people (la gente).

For the past two days I have traveled with two colleagues through a lot of rural areas inviting people to participate in the march.  The contrast in lifestyles between me and the people we have met is striking.  Many of the houses are constructed of small pieces of wood, about two inches apart and the spaces are stuffed with rocks and dirt.  There is little running water and little electricity.  Many are quite a distance off the road.   This of course means that any consumer goods including water need to hauled up and down the paths, across the brooks and over the rocks.  These houses make where I am living look like palaces.

More than the contrast in lifestyles what really struck me is the difference in "life".  We appeared unannounced at peoples doorstep.  One day 2 community leaders joined us. They just put aside whatever they might have had planned for that day to help us find other leaders.  Each of these people agreed to let other people know about the march and the logistics.  This was Monday and the march is on Thursday.   Can you remember the last time when you were able to spontaneously rearrange your schedule to spend 2 or 3 days of the week on something that was less than a serious crisis???

On Monday, the day when Lilian and Julia joined us, we all decided that were hungry as it was past noon and we hadn't eaten.  We were in a very rural area and no one wanted to drive to the small city to find food, as it was way out of the way.  Julia just started shouting out the window of the truck at women who were making tortillas at their houses to inquire if they were for sale.  She quickly found a positive response and all five of us piled out of our vehicle.  In the end we had a wonderful lunch of tortillas, cheese and chicken soup.  The woman very reluctantly took money from my colleague in order to pay for lunch.  Once again, when was the last time that any of us spontaneously fed 5 strangers????

Today, Tuesday, we were again connecting with community leaders in another rural area.  I visited the poorest homes I have ever seen.  At our 2nd stop, part of the one room house was a little store and there were a variety of types of "pan dulces", basically any kind of bakery good.  One of people of our team was hungry as he hadn't eaten breakfast and he started looking at the baked goods.  Before long we each received a sweet roll and a glass of orange pop.  Isobel would not accept payment for our snack.  While she did not join us, she was going to invite all of her community to the march on Thursday.    At our next stop, we were fed tamales (which has become one of my new favorite foods).  I made a comment in to my colleagues about how much I liked tamales and they explained that the woman at the house.  When we ready to leave, she gave us more tamales to take with us.  The level of generosity and of commitment to making their country better is just amazing to me.  In Canada we understand that looking after the basics of life is a full time job for people who are poor.  Here despite how physically demanding, time consuming and overwhelming life is, there is a group of people who also want to help to create a better future for their children and their grandchildren.   It is all just incredible to me.

On a personal note, I have been asked to teach an English class to the staff of ADES.  It is quickly becoming apparent that there will likely be 2-3 classes - a very large intro class and small intermediate and advanced classes.  Learning English costs money here and everyone is excited about the possibility of learning for free.  Signs were posted last Friday and every day I am being introduced to more people who are "kind of " connected to ADES who want to come to my class.  I am very excited about being able to do something helpful and I am also excited about being able to lead a group.  I am also deeply humbled about how much trust people are placing in me.  ADES hopes that I will offer these lessons for a year and significantly improve the level of English of their staff.  Please think about me on Friday morning from 11-12 your time, as I leading the first class!!!

Two boys lead us along a path as we go to the houses of various Community Leaders.

This is a very popular refreshment - shaved ice with fresh lime juice, salt and chili sauce.  I skip the chili sauce!

Me riding a bike in the "Parque de la Familia" .  I spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon in this park with Jenny and her family.