Water privatisation protests in El Salvador

Public protest against water privatisation increased dramatically in El Salvador from 2006, when former President Tony Saca’s ARENA party proposed a new General Water Law. The law, not yet passed, would decentralise water administration from the national to municipal levels where local governments would have to contract private firms to manage water for up to 50 years. Civil society groups in the country continue to argue that this is tantamount to privatisation.

In September 2006, residents of Santa Eduviges – a small community of 300 near the San Salvador suburb of Soyapango – blocked the Gold Highway that leads into the capital. Protesters were demanding the de-privatisation of the town’s water supply system with its management to be taken over by the national water agency, ANDA.[1] They occupied the road from morning until evening when police fired tear gas to dislodge the crowd and arrested five people.[2] They were later released.

Then in March 2007, on World Water Day, approximately 5,000 people took to the streets of San Salvador to protest against the high cost of water and its unjust distribution.

On July 2, 2007 another anti-privatisation demonstration took place in the town of Suchitoto. El Salvadoran police used rubber bullets and tear gas and arrested 14 protestors. Thirteen were charged with acts of terrorism and became known as the ‘Suchitoto 13’. Jason Wallach, writing on the Upside Down World website, said that after six months of deliberation, all charges were eventually dropped. On 2 May, 2008, however, the youngest protestor – 19 year old Hector Antonio Ventura – was murdered by unknown assailants in a house in Valle Verde, Suchitoto.[3]

His death is thought to have been politically motivated considering that just days earlier, he had agreed to speak at the Day Against Impunity to be held on July 2, the first anniversary of the arrest of the Suchitoto 13.[4]

Human rights groups including Amnesty International accused the government of unjustly using anti-terrorism legislation in order to quell future public protest.[5]

[1] Jason Wallach (27 September 2006) ‘El Salvador’s Water: Not for Sale’, Upside Down World, http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1276/68/ (Accessed 21/07/09)
[2] North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) website https://nacla.org/node/1499 (Accessed 21/07/09)
[3] Op.cit. (Jason Wallach)
[4] UNHCR website, http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4a6452bc8.html (Accessed 21/07/09)
[5] Amnesty International website, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR29/002/2007/en/a09ac5c1-5055-47ff-b2fa-7ba042d9e6ab/amr290022007en.html (Accessed 21/07/09)

The Mayan resistance to private concessions of rivers sees some light in Guatemala: Review of ‘Let’s Free Our Rivers’ by Madre Selva

Published on 14 March 2018 by ACAFREMIN (Central American Alliance Against Mining).

We are grateful to ACAFREMIN for permission to reproduce the article here.

Translated by Pamela Machado

The Guatemalan ecological group Madre Selva recently published a book narrating the resistance of the Q’eqchí Mayan communities from Santa María Cahabón, in the northern department of Alta Verapaz, to the Oxec and Oxec II hydro-electric projects.

The book, entitled ‘Let’s free our rivers’ and edited by researcher Simona Violetta Yagenova, aims to inform the Guatemalan population about opposition to the ‘privatisation of the rivers’, emphasising the process of ‘defence’ by surrounding communities to stop the development of projects along the Cahabón river and its tributary, the Oxec. The book, supported by the Hienrich Boll Stifting Foundation, brings a historical analysis of the ‘social fight’ against hydro-electric projects.

Both projects belong to the Energy Resources Capital Corp group, registered in Panamá, and they received definitive authorisation to operate from the Ministry of Energy and Mines on 7 August 2013 and 12 February 2015 for Oxec I and Oxec II, respectively.

The investigation narrates how, from 2012 to 2015, the population of Santa María Cahabón had suffered from assassinations and evictions of community settlers, as well as the imprisonment of some of their leaders who opposed the installation of the two projects.

The movement grew from an extensive defamation campaign, which included the criminalization of one of the directors (Bernardo Caal, detained on 5 February [2017] for supposedly committing the offenses of illegal detention and robbery), charges orchestrated by the ‘corporate’ and ‘local powers’, with the connivance of the Executive and Judiciary bodies

Photo credit: latrillamediosindependientes.blogspot.com

The Cahabón river, which is 19,596 kilometers long and spans across the north and east of the country, is made up of over 50 rivers and streams, among those the Oxec,

Canlich and Chiacté, where six hydro-electric plants are currently operating: the Renaces I, II, III and IV (owned by Multiinversiones Corp), the Oxec I and II and the Chichaic.

The construction of many dams, says the document, “seriously changes the fluvial ecosystem” around the riverbeds, “destroying habitats, modifying the flow and changing the basic water parameters.”

After a detailed analysis of the different actions, previous consultations, support and resolutions by the Constitutional entity – that in May allowed the hydro-electric station to continue working despite the fact that a prior consultation, based on ILO Convention 169, had not been held – the Madre Selva publication affirms that there were contradictions in the resolution.

The book concludes that doing “community consultations in good faith are mechanisms of social regulation, conflict resolution and decision making that are collectively built.”

Last December [2017], the Guatemalan Chamber of Industry celebrated the end of a community consultation process led by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, between September and November in 11 neighbouring communities, where they supposedly reached agreements that were then transferred to the Supreme Court of Justice. However, this process was criticised by activist groups like Madre Selva.

When presented with the results, the Minister of Energy, Luis Chang, said that the agreements delivered to the Supreme Court focus on establishing “relationships in an atmosphere of harmony”, and that the company will comply with “environmental mitigations during and after the construction and operation of the project.”

That is a statement opposed by the book ‘Let’s Free Our Rivers’ which holds that the Guatemalan state has historically “deprived the local people in successive historical periods under the flag of development and progress.”

While the Oxec I and II hydro-electric plants are expected to generate around 100 MW per year, hundreds of people and activists warn that the project has left 50 communities without water.

La resistencia maya a la concesión privada de los ríos ve la luz en Guatemala: Revista de ‘Liberemos Nuestros Ríos’ por Madre Selva

Publicado 14 de Marzo 2018 por ACAFREMIN (Alianza Centroamericana Frente a la Minería). 
Les estamos agradecidos a ACAFREMIN por el derecho de reproducir el artículo aquí.

El colectivo guatemalteco ecologista Madre Selva publicó hoy un libro en el que narra la resistencia de las comunidades mayas Q’eqchi’ de Santa María Cahabón, en el departamento norteño de Alta Verapaz, a los proyectos hidroeléctricos Oxec y Oxec II.

La obra, titulada ‘Liberemos Nuestros Ríos’ y editada por la investigadora Simona Violetta Yagenova, tiene como objetivo “nutrir” a la población guatemalteca sobre la oposición a la ‘concesión privada de los ríos’ con énfasis en el proceso de ‘defensa’ que han realizado las comunidades aledañas para impedir que se desarrollen los proyectos en los ríos Cahabón y su afluente Oxec. El libro, que contó con el apoyo de la Fundación Hienrich Böll Stiftung, realiza un análisis histórico de la ‘lucha social’ de los dos proyectos hidroeléctricos.

Ambos pertenecen al grupo Energy Resources Capital Corp., registrado en Panamá, y obtuvieron la autorización definitiva para operar del Ministerio de Energía y Minas el 7 de agosto de 2013 y el 12 de febrero de 2015 para Oxec I y Oxec II, respectivamente.

La investigación narra cómo desde el año 2012 al 2015 la población de Santa María Cahabón habría sufrido asesinatos y desalojos a pobladores de la comunidad, así como el encarcelamiento de algunos de sus líderes que se opusieron a la instalación de dichos proyectos.

Fotografia por: latrillamediosindependientes.blogspot.com

El movimiento, añade, emergió y se desarrolló a pesar de una extensa campaña de difamación, que incluye la criminalización de uno de sus dirigentes (Bernardo Caal, detenido el pasado 5 de febrero por supuestamente haber cometido los delitos de detención ilegal y robo), orquestada por ‘el empresariado’ y ‘los poderes locales’, con la connivencia de los organismos Ejecutivo y Judicial.

Del Río Cahabón, que cuenta con una longitud de 195,95 kilómetros entre el norte y el oriente del país, se desprenden más de 50 ríos y arroyos entre los que se encuentra Oxec, Canlich y Chiacté, en los cuales operan actualmente seis hidroeléctricas: las Renaces I, II, III y IV (de la Corporación Multiinversiones), los Oxec I y II y la de Chichaic.

La construcción de varias represas, señala el documento, “altera gravemente el ecosistema fluvial” alrededor de los cauces, “destruyendo hábitats, modificando el caudal y cambiando los parámetros básicos del agua”.

Tras un análisis detallado de las diferentes acciones, consultas previas, amparos y resoluciones del ente Constitucional -que en mayo pasado resolvió que la hidroeléctrica podría seguir trabajando pese a no haber esperado a la consulta previa basada en el Convenio 169 de la OIT- la publicación de Madre Selva asegura que hubo contradicciones en la resolución.

El libro concluye que “las consultas comunitarias de buena fe constituyen mecanismos de regulación social, resolución de conflictos y toma de decisiones que se construyen colectivamente.”

En diciembre pasado [2017], la Cámara de la Industria de Guatemala celebró el fin a un proceso de consulta comunitaria que encabezó el Ministerio de Energía y Minas entre septiembre y noviembre pasados en 11 comunidades aledañas, en los que supuestamente se llegaron a acuerdos que fueron trasladados a la Corte Suprema de Justicia. No obstante, dicho proceso no fue bien recibido por colectivos de activistas, como Madre Selva.

Según dijo al presentar los resultados el ministro de Energía, Luis Chang, los acuerdos entregados al poder Supremo se centran en constituir “relaciones en un ambiente de armonía” y que la empresa cumpla con “mitigaciones ambientales durante y posterior a la construcción y operación del proyecto.”

Una afirmación a la que se opone el libro ‘Liberemos Nuestros Ríos’, el cual sostiene que el Estado guatemalteco, históricamente, “ha despojado a los pueblos originarios en sucesivos periodos históricos bajo el lema del desarrollo y el progreso.”

Mientras las hidroeléctricas Oxec I y II guardan la esperanza de generar unos 100 MW anuales, han sido centenares de pobladores y activistas los que advierten que el proyecto ha dejado sin agua a unas 50 comunidades.

Guatemala: teleSUR Correspondent Attacked By Men With Machetes

The report on the need for Mayan resistance to the Oxec (and other) hydroelectric projects – also reported in this month’s additions to The Violence of Development website – is supported here by a teleSUR report on violence suffered by one of its journalists investigating the illegal logging and other damages done by the Oxec hydroelectric project. 

teleSUR, 24 August 2018 

Rolanda de Jesús García Hernández was filming the consequences of alleged illegal logging by a hydroelectric company when men threatened her with machetes. A teleSUR correspondent in Guatemala, the Indigenous Mayan K’iche journalist Rolanda de Jesús García Hernández, was attacked and robbed of her equipment while reporting on a hydroelectric project and illegal logging by unknown attackers who threatened to kill her.

García and another teleSUR correspondent, Santiago Botón, were summoned by the Q’eqchi’ community authorities of Sacta, on Cahabón’s riverside, to investigate illegal logging believed to be connected to the Oxec hydroelectric project. García travelled there to meet with local authorities, who accompanied her investigation on August 21 [2018].

García, with community leader Francisco Tec, walked for an hour to reach a community on Sacte mountain which has been severely affected by logging. Once there, they interviewed locals and filmed some of the affected areas for a T.V. reportage.

“The people were very worried; we interviewed them on the stop, as part of my job,” García told a press conference on Friday. “I managed to film some images, some shots with the locals. At the other side we saw there were some employees from the Oxec company. After a few minutes, they started yelling at us.”

The employees then approached the reporting team and tried to take the cameras. They then shouted sexually suggestive threats at García in Spanish.

The reporting team decided to leave the area, but got separated. García stopped at a small river, where she was surrounded by six men who threatened her with machetes.

“Employees of the Oxec Hydroelectric detained the journalist Rolanda de Jesús García, along with community members of Sacte in the Cahabón municipality, Alta Verapaz. The journalist was doing her journalism work when detained.”

García sent a text message just after 3 p.m. local time, saying: “In Cahabón, just informing you I’m in an ugly place, they want to take the camera away.” The attackers then seized the camera and threw it into the river.

“Our boss gets mad when someone enters his private property,” one of the men told García, stressing that the group knew who she was and where to find her. After threatening to rape and kill her then throw her body into the river, the men finally released García when she promised never to return. The incident has been reported to police.

People living on the Cahabón river say erosion and flooding have increased dramatically with the illegal logging allegedly related to the Oxec hydroelectric company, but the government is ignoring their plight.

“We can’t remain silent, it’s important to denounce this truth,” García said. “We’ve been the witnesses of several arrests and criminalization against the leaders, and now the press is being persecuted.”

“I fear for my life. I was warned they know who I am and took pictures and video of me. I was threatened and I was told their boss would have the files” – Rolanda García Hernández, teleSUR correspondent.

Guatemala’s social leaders, especially those involved in human rights and environmental issues, are often criminalized by the government and private companies whose economic interests are at stake, occasionally resulting in murder.

García said: “It would seem like it’s a confrontation between brothers and sisters, but we know this persecution comes from groups that are behind all these actions because when the communities try to speak to the cameras, the radios, to denounce, what they immediately receive is persecution. We’re also at risk.”

Several Guatemalan and international alternative media outlets and human rights groups are standing in solidarity with García, condemning the attack and demanding the Public Ministry prevent such assaults on freedom of speech.

The Oxec Hyodroelectric has denied any responsibility for the incident or having knowledge of García’s journalistic work.

The privatization of water in El Salvador

CISPES is the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador and, among other things, it actively supports Salvadorans and Salvadoran organisations in their campaigns to prevent the privatization of water in the country. We are grateful to CISPES for granting us permission to upload their Blogpost of 28th March [2022] to The Violence of Development website.

March 28, 2022

From CISPES: www.cispes.org


Key words: El Salvador; CISPES; water privatization; social movements; World Water Day; water management committees; Water Resources Law; water scarcity; Bukele administration.


World Water Day: Social Movement Organisations Call for Repeal of Privatizing Water Resources Law

Amid a week of protests, teach-ins, and cultural events to mark World Water Day on 22nd March, social movement organisations marched to the Legislative Assembly on March 22 with flags flying high, signs that read, “Water for the people, not for transnational corporations!” and demands more urgent than ever. As water scarcity intensifies in El Salvador, the movement’s most pressing demand is repeal or reform of the Water Resources Law, recently passed by the Salvadoran legislature that is now dominated by President Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) party.

El Salvador is the most water-stressed country in Central America, to the extent that widespread water scarcity represents a threat to survival. More than 600,000 families do not have access to drinking water, and hundreds of thousands more have limited or unreliable access. Studies warn that within 80 years, El Salvador could be uninhabitable due to the lack of water. Causes of scarcity include:

  • Monopolized use of the country’s water resources by corporationsand the sugarcane industry, which effectively rob tens of thousands of Salvadoran citizens of water every year;
  • Pollution and contamination of more than 90% of El Salvador’s fresh water supply due to unregulated industrial waste, toxic pesticides, and regional mining;
  • Sprawling urban ‘’mega’ developmentprojects;
  • Environmental degradation and climate change.

The social movement struggle in El Salvador to protect its fragile water resources guarantees the human right to water, and ensures community participation in water management. However, under the Bukele administration, the movement faces aggressive new threats. After shelving the popular movement’s proposed General Water Law in May 2021, effectively erasing more than a decade of legislative advances, the ruling party-controlled Legislative Assembly passed the administration’s own “’Water Resources Law’ in December of 2021. The new law is set to enter into effect in June 2022.

The Water Resources Law has been roundly denounced by the broad coalition of social movement and civil society organisations that make up the National Water Forum and the National Alliance Against the Privatization of Water. In a statement shortly after the bill was introduced, they warned that: “The proposed law, although it nominally incorporates some of the non-negotiable points that social organisations have been proposing since 2006, presents a centralizing, top-down, bureaucratic system of management, without citizen participation at the local, territorial level and without effective control of the water policies.” Likewise, they say, important elements are absent, such as an approach that addresses “water injustice, gender equity, and sustainability, among others.”

In a recent interview with CISPES, a representative from the Water Forum further explained some of the movement’s objections to the law and why, despite the ‘human rights’ rhetoric that Nuevas Ideas legislators have used in discussing the law, they see it as a privatizing endeavour.

  1. It entrenches water injustice by institutionalizing agreements between large corporations and ANDA (El Salvador’s water and sanitation administration). Currently, for example, ANDA grants concessions for up to 25 million litres of water use per day for massive urban housing developments to both the Poma and Dueñas families, two of El Salvador’s richest families. This massive quantity, monopolized for corporate use, exacerbates the already profound problem of water scarcity for nearly half a million people in the greater San Salvador area.

    The law creates a new agency with the power to approve 15-year water use permits to corporations, to provide “certainty to investors,” with no daily limits on the amount corporations can extract in that period, a concession added to the final draft of the bill. Environmentalists and social movement organisations, including University of Central America researcher Andrés McKinley, say that “these volumes of water without extraction limits and with permits of 15 years are a privatization.”

  2. In contrast, local water boards, which supply water to at least 1.4 million people in El Salvador (a quarter of the population, most of whom ANDA’s water systems do not reach), are limited to five-year authorisation permits. The law likewise withholds legal recognition from local water boards as non-profit agencies, which means they will have to pay fees to use water in the way that for-profit corporations do. As the limited revenue of the water boards is used for system maintenance, this is likely to have a destabilizing effect, organisations say, or even lead to bankruptcy. The result would be more than a million people without water. In the meantime, it translates into increased service rates and less access for the people, especially for those living in some of the poorest areas of El Salvador.
  3. It excludes local water boards and other water management committees from decision-making over water management. Given that the water boards are spaces in which women’s, environmental, and family farming organisations have a voice, this exclusion effectively “denies the participation of these sectors,” and is seen by social movement organisations as an attack on local community structuresthemselves, which will be weakened by this aspect of the law.

Therefore, although the law mentions water as a human right and retains some definitions of public management on paper, in practice, it promotes a privatizing spirit, organisations say, because these mechanisms will put water management “in service of the oligarchy and of big corporations.”

With only three months until the new law is set to take effect, organisations mobilized across El Salvador on World Water Day to show their opposition.

In San Salvador, groups gathered at the Legislative Assembly to urge legislators to recognize the years of struggle and deliberation that have already been carried out to create a water law that meets environmental, gender equity, and human rights standards and to demand that the current law be either repealed or reformed to meet these standards. In official correspondence prepared for legislators, they detailed the following non-negotiable standards:

  • water as a public good;
  • the human right to water and sanitation;
  • public control with effective community participation in decision-making;
  • sustainable management of watersheds;
  • and a just and equitable financial and economic framework.

Social movement representatives were not able to deliver their correspondence to legislators, however, as razor-wire barricades and riot police prevented them from entering the plaza outside the Assembly. This exclusion by force, which mirrors the broader climate of militarized repression and intimidation of popular movement activists in El Salvador under the Bukele administration is yet “another indication that the government does not intend to listen to the population,” and that the Legislative Assembly, “which is supposed to represent the people, has been usurped by business interests,” said the National Alliance Against Water Privatization.

In the face of ongoing repression, however, the organisations expressed their commitment to continue pressuring authorities to repeal the Water Resources Law and to formulate a new law that guarantees the human right to water and protects communities from industrial and extractivist projects.

The Water Forum, El Salvador, 2013

Social Movement Denounces P3 Law Reforms As Water Privatization Scheme

September 18, 2013.

picOn Tuesday, September 10, representatives of the diverse social movement organizations of the Water Forum held a press conference at the National Legislative Assembly to denounce proposed reforms to the controversial Public-Private Partnership (P3) Law as a back door, right-wing effort to privatize water. The reforms seek to include water treatment and administration among the public goods open for private contracts and concession after the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party successfully excluded water from the original legislation.

The Water Forum, which has been pushing for legislation to protect water from privatization efforts for years, criticized the recent formation of an ad-hoc committee by the Assembly’s right-wing parties to study the reforms, calling the move en effort to push through the reforms without public debate. FMLN Legislator Norma Guevara condemned the committee’s creation as “a means to take the issue out of the Treasury Commission and impose a rapid adjustment to incorporate water into the sphere of business, which appears to be one of the clearest interests of the [right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance] ARENA party’s financial backers, the largest economic groups.”

At Tuesday’s event, the Forum presented a letter to the Assembly (full English text here) demanding the exclusion of any schemes to privatize water from all laws debated in the Assembly and an audience with the ad hoc committee to present their arguments in defense of “the human right to water and its sustainability.” Carlos Flores, a member of the Water Forum, declared: “It’s impossible that ARENA continue to see water as a potential source of profit for companies to do what they like with: contaminate our aquifers, exploit state resources, contribute to the extinction of the country’s rivers. We cannot allow more privatization in this country!”

Water safe from privatisation for now – El Salvador

Reproduced from CISPES news item. CISPES is the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. – April 2, 2014.

picWith the ink barely dry on the State Department’s commitments to work with the incoming administration of Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the leftist Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN), US Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte continues her crusade for privatization policy, intervening in El Salvador’s legislative affairs to promote corporate interests. Aponte has taken up lobbying efforts to urge the Legislative Assembly to approve reforms to the US-backed Public-Private Partnership (P3) Law, conditioning US development aid on the passage of the reforms package. The Ambassador insists the reforms are necessary to invest the pending $277 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funds, claiming El Salvador’s investment conditions “are not totally mature yet.”

The P3 Law, which was originally drafted with US government advisors, opens up public projects to private concessions. The proposed reforms would reverse several elements that FMLN legislators had managed to include in the final bill to ensure it did not trigger a privatization free-for-all of essential public services. Presented by legislators from the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party last December, the reforms are based on a proposal by the National Council for Growth, a body created by the US-El Salvador bilateral economic agreement, the Partnership for Growth, that joins government representatives with the country’s wealthiest businessmen.

At a March 24 forum hosted by the Legislative Assembly, representatives of the broad-based social movement coalition the Water Forum and FMLN legislators expressed fierce opposition to a reform that would make water vulnerable to private concessions after the FMLN had successfully excluded it from the P3 Law. “The FMLN is not in favor of privatizing our fundamental services,” said legislator Orestes Ortez of the leftist party.

Intent on passing the reforms as soon as possible, the Council for Growth unveiled a reduced list of recommended reforms the next day, abandoning plans to bring water back into the realm of possible concessions. The surviving reforms aim to minimize public debate around concessions and speed up their approval. One would change the current P3 legislation, which requires the Assembly first approve the terms of bidding and then approve the final contract, so that concessions would only require a one-stop legislative approval. Another would put supervision of the concessions into the hands of the president’s Investment and Exports Promotion Agency (PROESA), rather than an autonomous oversight body in the Ministry of the Economy. A third reform would increase the limit on how much debt the State can incur from any one concession from 1% of the nation’s GDP to 3%. FMLN legislator Lorena Peña pointed out that 1% of the GDP is already $245 million, nearly the same amount as the entire MCC project ($277 million).

The US Embassy’s shameless intervention in the Legislative Assembly’s affairs make the US’s true foreign policy aims all the more transparent. Ambassador Aponte is forcing legislation on the country to ensure that MCC funds are easily diverted into the pocket of private, transnational corporations, granting them greater access to El Salvador’s public services in the future, regardless of the party in power. As Aponte recently affirmed the Obama administration’s willingness to work with the incoming FMLN administration, she emphasized the need to advance bilateral programs “not only for the benefit of El Salvador, but also for the benefit of the United States,” but her latest actions seem to indicate that the primary beneficiary will be, as ever, a transnational corporate elite.