Gerson Suazo

Interviewee: Gerson Suazo
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: Central Square, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
11 September 2015
Key Words:protests | government corruption | CICIH (International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras) | Hunger strike
Notes:For background information on Los Indignados please see where you will find a blog entry by James Watson on his time spent with the Indignados protests in Tegucigalpa.
Note: ‘Los Indignados’ may be variously translated, but is probably best and most commonly understood as ‘The Outraged’.

Martin Mowforth (MM): I am going to begin. So, everything is ready, I am recording. So if you want to, only if you want, can you give me your name? [Please note that not all the hunger strikers and members of Los Indignados would wish to give their names due to the likelihood of threats and persecution if their identities are known by the government. Outside the encampment of Los Indignados in the Central Square of Tegucigalpa there is normally a group of plain clothed government officials taking note of who enters and leaves the encampment.]

Gerson Suazo (GS): My name is Gerson Suazo. I am from the department of Santa Bárbara. I have already been here in Tegucicalpa for 15 days. I was involved in the first strike around the Pesidential Palace. We’ve maintained a huge struggle in order to be able to find a solution, a solution to the political, economic and social crisis that now, well, is causing us a lot of problems in our country. This is a momentous struggle to get the president Don Orlando to put in place the CICIHHH the International Commission against Impunity in Honduras, enforced by the United Nations. So, we have been subjected to these problems, social problems, in which all of the sectors of society are involved. There are so many problems of landowners, so many problems, of officials who are involved in a lot of corruption; that all sectors of society have come to us to launch a big struggle, to incorporate everybody in our country.

In fact, from the land, its recuperation, the care of the environment. We are making this struggle so that it can flourish again – really, the culture of our country. In truth they have implanted a sub culture in which, they have made sure, they have erased the identity of with the people and all of the sectors. So the struggle has been going for several months now – it began with mobilisations, which now have become very big, which has been accompanied by different types of protest, such as taking control of roads, occupying government buildings. And a hunger strike which is taking place here in the Central Park. In truth, this represents ordinary citizens who do not belong to any organisation, nor any political party, who are wanting to see a change in our country.

To be able to live with dignity and that everyone’s rights are respected, we are at the limits of our country Honduras.

This is a very big fight that we have taken on. Unfortunately we have not had any response from our President. So that he heeds the call and the demands that our people are making. So then, the president is taking underhand actions, wanting to create a CICIH but one that is imposed by him. It’s more commonly known by the Honduran people as CHICHI, they say the CHICHI, because it is a lie, thus it is a farce, what he is doing. And this is what he wishes to create, a system of interaction of Hondurans to fight corruption. But directly what the people ask of him is, if he wants to combat corruption, then it should be with the international commission set up by the UN. The truth is that this is what the people want, and it is the only demand that the people are making. Because the people trust that this is the tool which allows them to investigate cases and take away immunity from people who really should be paying. True? How all the people have paid through a lack of the laws. So there we wish to see them in prison. Unfortunately they have ‘prosecuted’, in inverted commas, people like Elena Gutiérrez, Mario Celaya, who are directly implicated with what has happened and what they have done has angered the Honduran people, that was what they took from the social security. So, they are directly enjoying their liberty – right? They make it appear that they are prisoners, but they put them inside barracks where they are not really confined. They can leave and go directly to their homes and there isn’t any real security keeping them behind bars. So this is what the people want to have, to actually solve in part, true? But the people are willing to continue fighting, to carry on, demonstrating in all areas, all types of pressure to be able to make direct changes. To be able to change the system in this Honduran society. So, we really want a change, more profound change. We trust that we have the tool, but we’re going beyond that, ok? No, we will stay here, even if it’s the start of a fight, which has actually already started but we’ll take it further.

MM: OK, many thanks for that. Certainly you have brought me up-to-date a little. But, at this moment here in this small area, where we are, what are your plans for the future?

GS: Well, what we are doing right now here is raising awareness of the people who, most of all, are not involved in what is the social struggle, the fight for the freedom of our country. Therefore, we are directly here to be able to break this indifference that is instilled in us, that disillusionment that is put into us and that has been filtering through to the people. That splits or drives actions which generate division within the Honduran society. So we are here to demonstrate that we can unite and we can do big things because the intention is to unite all of the Honduran people; without distinction or political allegiance, without distinction of race and without many things which might restrict us in becoming united. We wish to break this individualism which has been imposed to unite the whole society. Because we know that the government is the party of government, the national party, but within its militants there are normal everyday people who aren’t in line with the way the country is governed. So we also want to involve these people so that they demonstrate and are able to unite everyone. Because in solidarity is strength and it is only in this way that we are going to be able to change this. So, this more than anything else is like an epicentre to unite the people, to unite all sectors and, to unite that indifference, to eliminate that which really puts us on different sides. So the intention is a general awareness so that we can continue forward hand in hand.

MM: Yes, OK.

GS: All, all to follow the same path which is to liberate our country.

MM: Good. And is it your intention to stay here?

GS:  Well, we have already been here a month. Within that, we have been rotating people, because there are others who have been going to the doctors, because of the state of their health. They’ve have already done 50 days, but during that time there have been other people coming to support. It has been a great achievement in itself – the people can see because this is a well transited place. The Central Square is the heart of Honduras. So, people have been able to see that this little plot continues to be maintained and that this will not cease until it achieves what the people want. That is, finish with the corruption and truly live in dignity for all. The 8 million Hondurans.

MM: Yes, yes, that is it. Many many thanks. And, eh, and can you let me have your name again.

GS: Yes, Gerson Suazo.

MM: Excuse me, Gerson Suazo. So, perfect, many thanks.



GS: So, this is what we have been doing here, and we have managed to make many people come together, people who have never been involved, including those who came and gave their experience. By chance a man approached me and he said that that he had never been interested in politics, he had never been interested in taking to the streets, and none of that. But he saw a part of the messages we have on our signs, which drew his attention, and now he is involved, he comes more frequently, and he has never participated in anything before, in politics, not in any group from the left, in absolutely nothing – he has been nothing more than a citizen who hasn’t cared about the situation of others. And now, seeing this type of action, carried out by a group of people who also want the same, who are demonstrating their discontent with what is happening in our society. So, he was able to take that example and now he is incorporating himself, just like others who have involved themselves.. Right now, we are hoping that more young people will come from other sectors, to add themselves to the strike, the camp of the Indignados. So we are here to make a big noise – the intention is that that big noise of the people of Honduras may always be maintained..

MM: And say hello to James.

GS: Yes, James, a very good friend. Greetings to James – the last time that we were talking – he is a very good person. And so greetings, greetings for James.

MM: Yes, I’m really pleased about his experience here.

GS: Yes, it was very good because he had the opportunity ……

MM: Yes, yes, for him too.

GS: He had the opportunity to live with us and through what is happening in this country.

MM: Yes. So, perfect. Many, many thanks.

Berriz Sisters

Interviewees: Sisters Abdontxu Viar, Ana Lourdes, Paulina and Ana Noemi of the Berriz Sisters
Interviewers: Martin Mowforth, David Pickles, Amy Haworth Johns and Russell Hawe
Location: Centro Catequístico of El Viejo, Nicaragua.
Date: Saturday 7th March 2015 (10.15 am)
Theme: the issue of children left behind after parents migrate away from the area.
Keywords: migration; violence; gangs; sexual abuse.
Notes: The interview was held in Spanish, but MM translated for DP, AHJ and RH at times. The original Spanish is left here in the file.


Sister Abdontxu (SA): Sister Ana Lourdes is busy organising the El Viejo Youth Centre. Come along [to Ana Lourdes], because they want to talk a bit about the issue of migration.

Martin Mowforth (MM): Ana Lourdes, I was explaining to Abdontxu that one thing I should like to do is to conduct an interview about the problem of migration – specifically the problem that Sister Abdontxu has told me about before: that is, the problem of children left behind here without father, without mother, perhaps even without the grandma. So perhaps you can give us an explanation of this phenomenon, especially relating it to this area of El Viejo and the Cosigüina Peninsula?

David Pickles (DP): So just to clarify, the problem is emigration of parents leaving the country.

MM: That’s right, exactly. I thought when they first mentioned it to me about two years ago it was a real problem with immigration, actually it’s the other way, it’s emigration, and children left parentless.

SA: I was telling Lourdes this that I’ve already been chatting with you about earlier, right? The issue of migration in Nicaragua is very acute. The data we have is that for every ten families, seven of them have a family member out of the country. Yes, and in particular, quite recently, it’s the emigration of women that has been the problem. And very many women migrate especially to Spain, where they find work more easily, work which is appropriate for women than in other countries.

In many cases you know the situation of families in Nicaragua is that the woman is actually the mother and the father, because many households are headed by women, a significantly high proportion. And the males basically disappear off the scene a lot of the time so the woman has to do all the work, as the breadwinner and looking after all the children. And so, with the women emigrating, the kids are left without either mother or father. And very often the role of the mother is taken over, assumed by the grandma instead. So the grandparents put in much effort and dedicate themselves to the children, but it’s not the same having the grandma looking after you as having the mother – not only on the level of the love they give, which perhaps they do, but for providing all the necessary follow-up. The role of the grandma is a lot more difficult than the role of the mother.

And in the same way, they are left with an aunt because the grandma may die – the aunt also is not able to perform exactly the same role in terms of either love or understanding or closeness, as a mother can give. It’s the mother who best fulfils the role of the mother. It’s not quite the same.

[We are joined by Sister Paulina now.]

SA: At the same time as this, or perhaps as a consequence of it, what happens is the abandonment of the children. Every time where there’s no father, no mother, no grandma, it generates gangs of youths, the ‘pandillas’, here in the barrios. And that in turn gives rise to a greater aggression, greater violence, and greater threat on the streets.

Another effect which arises, as a consequence of this, is the abandonment of the schools as well. That’s another very important factor. And also the pandilleros put their money into drugs …. [Inaudible – a lot of noise.] …. Also, another problem that arises is that the mother sends money back, the majority from Spain, to the aunt or grandma or whoever’s been placed in charge of them. But often the children will tell the mother that they’re not given any money and that they should send it direct to them. So the mothers fall into the trap and send the money direct to the kids. Again that causes more conflict – a major conflict.

Do you know Neli? Neli worked with us in the field of health, in the pharmacy. Well she was left in charge of her nephews because her sister went to Spain. Well, what I was describing happened to her – the mother sent money to her. Now the boy is in jail – it’s already the third time that he’s been put away.

MM: And how old is he?

Sister Paulina (SP): He’s 16 or 17 years old.

SA: There are lots of cases like these, but I’m telling you about this one because I thought you might know Neli. She’s been very close to us, carrying out work with us for over 20 years. Her sister went to Spain and left her children with her.

MM: And the son of 16 years old, he’s …..?

Sister Ana Lourdes (SAL): With the money that his mother sent him, he bought drugs, alcohol.

SA: It’s a concrete case of what we were talking about. There are many like it.

SAL: And another problem is abandonment, and not having anybody close to them to give some sort of follow-up, there’s a lot of sexual abuse. Teenagers getting pregnant really early – at 14 or 15 years old.

SA: At the national level, many denunciations have been made about what we are talking about. In part it’s a consequence of the abandonment by the two parents. I can’t remember the data now, but it doesn’t come up much in the press, although it has increased – youths of 14 years old, young children pregnant.

SAL: Family committees have been created …..

End of tape 1  …        Interview 2

SAL: ……. so that when there was a family problem or a case of physical abuse, of the wife or within the family, they would go to the committees, so that they didn’t have to go to the courts, but instead to those committees.

MM: In all the barrios?

SAL: In the schools and in the communities.  And then, instead of going to the family court, they go to these committees. And yesterday in the press it was reported that the committees should recommend to the mothers that when they go to place a complaint of sexual abuse of the daughter, they should make it with the abuser present. But the girls of 14 years who were abused by a man of 30 or more years, instead of making the complaint that would result in prosecution, the committees suggest that they should marry the abuser.

Amy Haworth Johns (AHJ): Did they [the Sisters] set up the committees?

MM: And were you responsible for the creation of these committees?

MM: No, the government set these up.

 SAL: And there is a problem, and that is that some women’s movements are denouncing the committees. There is a law, Law 779, which protects women from abuse and from violence. But the problem is that instead of going through the courts and a judge, they take their cases to these committees. These are committees of the family, but the people on them are not trained. That’s a really big problem because at times they act as intermediaries advising them not to prosecute the cases – in other words, so that they don’t pursue the legal process of the denunciation.

So the problem of migration is very complex. It involves unemployment, abandonment, abuse, violence, gangs.

MM: So, a question please. You, the Sisters, run some programmes working with abandoned children, don’t you? Here in the Centre?

SAL: It’s a Jesuit project. It’s called the Jesuit Refugee Service.

MM: And it’s a programme designed by the Jesuits?

SAL: It’s global.

Sister Ana Noemi (SAN): It’s a network.

DP: What’s the main problem? The gangs or the problems of abuse within the family?

SA: Some of them join the gangs, and it’s a major problem when they join.

Sister Paulina (SP): Both the women and the men.

SA: All of them suffer as a result of abandonment, and some as a consequence of joining the gangs. But not all of them join the gangs.

SAL: In this area here, the problem of drugs is a relatively new problem. You know, 10 years ago this problem didn’t exist here. And it’s growing – a lot.

SA: One thing we have observed is that internationally there are many media reports and many organisations defending migrants, but very little is spoken about the consequences which are left here. So, here, that’s what we’re dealing with now.

And the Jesuits carried out a study on the level of migration from the country.

MM: In this country, in Nicaragua?

SAL: Yes, and the result was that Chinandega was the area that had most emigrants, after Managua. So here in Chinandega they opened an office, and we link with them to work as a network with them.

It was a study which they did in El Salvador, at the University of UCA. A study of the children, sons and daughters of emigrants, who are not building a life project [identity / ethic]; but instead ……. They’re not building their identity for the future, for their own life project. For example, they don’t feel as if they have an identity, say as Salvadorans, or as Nicaraguans. Because their mind, their future, has been put into the United States or Costa Rica or Spain or wherever they migrate to. And they might spend 8, 9 or 10 years thinking like that.

And the problem of the children of migrants and the adolescents is growing. So they go as well, and sometimes never come back. And their identity continues on standby, because they’re waiting for them to return or to return themselves. And so they’re in a stage where they aren’t a person, they have no identity, they don’t belong to anyone, nor to a family, because they’re waiting, maybe to get there themselves. And when they do get there they still can’t construct a life for themselves because they don’t belong to anything or anyone.

AHJ: It’s a lost generation.

MM: Yes, exactly.

SAL: Lost, completely.

AHJ: Vulnerable, the gangs?

SAL: Gangs, drugs – there is no sense of life. There’s a lot of suicide here.

AHJ: Everybody looking to try and belong.

MM: So, many thanks for your words. …… Many thanks indeed.

"Paulina (back to camera); Ana Noemi; Ana Lourdes; Abdontxu; (with Martin)."

“Paulina (back to camera); Ana Noemi; Ana Lourdes; Abdontxu; (with Martin).


Interviews in English

For ‘The Violence of Development’ book, many interviews were conducted in Central America during research visits in 2009 and 2010. Only a very small fraction of these interviews have been used in the published work, and so this chapter of the website is used to make available the full interview transcripts and translations to those who may wish to refer to the words of any of the interviewees.


candy1Interviewees: Candy and George Gonzalez
Location: San Igancio, Belize
Date: Friday 16th August 2013
Theme: An informal interview about environmental and developmental issues in Belize.
Keywords: TBC
matthew_millerInterviewee: Matt Miller, Director of Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
Location: Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize.
Date: 6th September August 2013
Theme: The development of tourism in Belize.
Keywords: TBC
matthew_millerInterviewees: Ernesto and Aurora Saquí
Location: Maya Centre, Belize.
Date: 3rd May 2016
Theme: The development of tourism in Belize.
Keywords: indigenous land rights; subsistence farming; citrus cultivation; conservation; cruise tourism

Costa Rica

Woman-silhouette-2Interviewee: Patricia Blanco
Location: Offices of PAN-UK, London
Date: 29th August 2018
Keywords: pineapple production; monocultivation; export crops; food security; pesticide abuse; contamination; supermarkets; transnational corporations.
Woman-silhouette-2Interviewee: Amilcar Castañeda, Consultant in indigenous rights to the Inter American Institute for Human Rights
Location: San José, Costa Rica
Date: 21st July 2009
Theme: Indigenous issues in Central America.
Keywords: TBC
Daryl-Loth-1Interviewee: Daryl Loth, resident, guide and hotelier in Tortuguero
Location: Tortuguero, Costa Rica
Date: 19th August 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
ross-ballardInterviewee: Ros Ballard, resident, guide and hotelier in Tortuguero
Location: Tortuguero, Costa Rica
Date: 20th August 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
isabel-macdonald-1Interviewee: Isabel MacDonald, Coordinator of the Centro de Amigos Para la Paz
Location: San José, Costa Rica
Date: 24th September 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
didier-from-bl-websiteInterviewee: Didier Leiton Valverde of SITRAP Costa Rica
Location: London, United Kingdom
Date: 17th June 2010
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
Woman-silhouette-2Interviewee: Nela Perle
Location: San José, Costa Rica
Date: 28th September 2010
Theme: Labour conditions and free trade banana cultivation in Costa Rica; organic food production in Costa Rica
Keywords: TBC
12198090531909861341man-silhouette.svg_.hi_Interviewee: Juan Luis Salas Villalobos: Producer of organic vegetables and spices and the Executive Secretary of the Costa Rican Organic Agriculture Movement (MAOCO)
Location: San José, Costa Rica
Date: 28th September 2010
Theme: Organic food production in Costa Rica
Keywords: TBC

El Salvador

hector-berrios-1Interviewee: Marta (This is a pseudonym used for protection of the interviewee’s identity).
Location: San Martín, El Salvador
Date: 19 January 2019
Theme: Interview with Marta about her experience as a migrant on one of the migrant caravans from El Salvador heading for the United States during 2018.
hector-berrios-1Interviewee: Hector Garcia Berrios, lawyer and member of the National Roundtable Against Metal Mining
Location: San Salvador, El Salvador
Date: 22nd and 23rd July September 2010
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
P1000640-1Interviewees: Estela Anzora (Presidenta de COMUS), Juan Rodríguez, Jaime Coutts, Chico Peña and Ernesto
Location: San Francisco Javier, Usulután, El Salvador
Date: 26 July 2010
Theme: Many aspects of development in Usulután and in El Salvador as a whole, with special emphasis on agriculture and forestry.
Keywords: TBC
CIMG1139Interviewee: Carlos Flores of the Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (UNES)
Location: UNES office, San Salvador, El Salvador
Date: 30 July 2010
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
CIMG0971Interviewees: Oscar Beltrán, Cristina Starr, Manuel Navarrete and Elvis Zavala (all of Radio Victoria)
Location: Cabañas, El Salvador
Date: 29 January 2014
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
hector-berrios-1Interviewee: Hector Berríos of MUFRAS-32
Location: Cabañas, El Salvador
Date: 29th January 2014
Theme: The operations of Pacific Rim / Oceana Gold in El Salvador and the consequential human rights and environmental abuses.
Keywords: TBC
brian-rude-2Interviewee: Brian Rude
Location: San Salvador, El Salvador
Date: 7th February 2014
Theme: An informal interview about drugs, gangs and crime in Central America
Keywords: TBC
12198090531909861341man-silhouette.svg_.hi_Interviewee: Jesús López, Administrator of CESTA (Salvadoran Centre for Appropriate Technology)
Location: San Marcos, El Salvador
Date: 7th February 2014
Theme: An informal interview about environmental and developmental issues in Belize.
Keywords: TBC
CIMG0898Interviewee: Delmy Valencia
Location: CIS, San Salvador, El Salvador
Date: 28th July 2010
Theme: A wide-ranging discussion of development issues in El Salvador, but especially covering the CAFTA-DR free trade treaty and maquilas.
Keywords: TBC


iduvina-hernandez-2Interviewee: Iduvina Hernández, Director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy.
Location: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Date: 27th July 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
maria joseInterviewee: Hermana María-José López
Location: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Date: 27th July 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
norma-maldonado-2Interviewees: Norma Maldonado, member of the International Gender and Trade Network (IGTN)
Location: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Date: 27th July 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
norma-maldonado-2Interviewees: Omar Jerónimo
Location: Tavistock Hotel, London
Date: Sunday 21 June 2015
Theme: TBC
Keywords:Guatemala; human rights defenders; indigenous communities; land conflicts; the dialogue process; corruption


noneInterviewee: Purificación Hernández
Location: San Miguel Ixtahuacán, Quezaltenango, Guatemala
Date: 25 July 2009
Keywords: General Law of Mining (Honduras); mining companies; open cast mining; cyanide; Hurricane Mitch aid; Civic Alliance for Democracy.
DinaInterviewee: Dina Meza
Location: Tegucigalpa
Date: 22nd May 2017
Keywords: human rights; rights defenders; environmental defenders; journalism; media censorship; precautionary measures; freedom of expression
DinaInterviewee: Aurelia Arzú, vice-President of OFRANEH (the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras)
Location: The Tattershall Castle, a boat on the River Thames in London
Date: 25th September 2017
Keywords: OFRANEH; Garífuna people; indigenous peoples; the ‘commons’; ILO Convention 169; human rights defending; criminalisation; land titles; threats; tourism developments; coconut oil; African palm oil.
berta-caceresInterviewee: Bertha Cáceres, leader of COPINH, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Peoples of Honduras
Location: Intibucá, Honduras
Date: March 2010
Theme: COPINH; resistance; indigenous knowledge.
Keywords: TBC
2006 pandresInterviewee: Padre Andrés Tamayo
Location: Online
Date: 8th July 2010
Theme: Email Interview regarding deforestation in Olancho, Honduras
Keywords: TBC
P1000689Interviewee: Alfredo López
Location: Triunfo de la Cruz, Faluma Bimetu radio station
Date: 16 August 2010
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
eduardo zavala y dennis sierra mughshot2Interviewees: Eduardo Zavala, Executive Director of FP and Dennis Sierra, Director of Jeannette Kawas National Park
Location: Tela, Honduras
Date: 17th August 2010
Theme: Area protection; threats to the environment.
Keywords: NGO | conservation | Caribbean coast | Garífuna | plantations | monocultivación | land invasions | palm oil | drug trafficking | tourism | fishing
12198090531909861341man-silhouette.svg_.hi_Interviewee: Bryn Wolfe
Location: Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Date: Wed. 18th August 2010
Theme: General human rights situation in Honduras; palm oil cultivation and Miguel Facussé; free trade treaties
Keywords: TBC
P1000698Interviewees: Elvín Maldonado, María-José Bonilla, and Juan Granados – All members of the Camamento Environmentalist Movement (CAM)
Location: Campamento, Olancho, Honduras
Date: Wed. 20th August 2010
Theme: Deforestation in Olancho, Honduras; threats to defenders of the forests
Keywords: TBC
stock-footage-people-consultation-zooming-rotating-silhouetteInterviewees: Bryn Wolfe (long time development worker in numerous parts of the world), Elly Alvarado (resident of Tegucigalpa and Bryn’s wife) and Mauricio Santos (member of the Artists in Resistance Collective, Honduras)
Location: Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Date: Wed. 22nd August 2010
Theme: Resistance to the 2009 coup; post-coup developments in Honduras
Keywords: TBC
????????Interviewee: Dr Juan Almendares
Location: Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Date: 23rd August 2010
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
2007reneInterviewee: René Wilfredo Gradis of the MAO (Olancho Environmental Movement)
Location: Olancho, Honduras
Date: 28th August 2010
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
berta-oliva-2Interviewee: Berta Oliva, President of COFADEH (the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras)
Location: Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Date: 23rd August 2010
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
12198090531909861341man-silhouette.svg_.hi_Interviewee: Lizandro [pseudonym]
Location: Centro de Amigos para la Paz, San José, Costa Rica
Date: 11th July 2010
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
12198090531909861341man-silhouette.svg_.hi_Interviewee: Gerson Suazo
Location: Central Square, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Date: 11 September 2015
Theme: Los Indignados
Keywords: protests | government corruption | CICIH (International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras) | Hunger strike
12198090531909861341man-silhouette.svg_.hi_Interviewee: COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras)
Location: COPINH’s office, La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras
Date: 23rd September 2015
Keywords: peaceful resistance; indigenous rights; transnational companies; community radio; ILO Convention 169; Lenca people; CONATEL; repression; impunity; National Institute for Agrarian Reform.
12198090531909861341man-silhouette.svg_.hi_An interview with Gustavo Castro (conducted by Vinicio Chacón for the Costa Rica weekly Semanario Universidad) is given as an article in Chapter 8 of this website (in the sub-section on ‘Land disputes and encroachments …’). Gustavo was with Berta Cáceres when she was assassinated in March 2016 and was left for dead by the hitmen.


CIMG1361Interviewee: María Consuelo Sánchez, Director of the Asociación Quincho Barrilete
Location: Managua, Nicaragua
Date: 6th July 2009
Theme: Violence and abuse against children; family breakdown; The Quincho Barrilete programmes.
Keywords: TBC
edilbertha mugshotInterviewee: Edilberta Gómez
Location: Clínica Xochil, El Viejo, Nicaragua
Date: 9th July 2009
Theme: General health of the population and health provision
Keywords: TBC
IMG_1433Interviewee: Sisters Abdontxu Viar, Ana Lourdes, Paulina and Ana Noemi of the Berriz Sisters
Location: Centro Catequístico of El Viejo, Nicaragua.
Date:Saturday 7th March 2015 (10.15 am)
Theme: The issue of children left behind after parents migrate away from the breakdown; The Quincho Barrilete programmes.
Keywords: migration; violence; gangs; sexual abuse.
IMG_1433Interviewee: Council of Women of the West of Nicaragua (CMO)
Location: The office of the CMO, Chinandega, Nicaragua
Date:Friday September 11th 2015
Theme: CMO
Keywords: Nicaragua; drought; monocultivation; small-scale farmers
IMG_1433Interviewee: Conversation in the office of PASE
Location: Chinandega, Nicaragua
Date:September 2016
Keywords: chronic kidney disease of non-traditional sources (CKDnT); maquilas; labour conditions; plantation agriculture; Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security (INSS); social security.


GE DIGITAL CAMERAInterviewee: Osvaldo Jordan
Location: Panamá City
Date: 14th July 2014
Keywords: CHAN75 hydroelectric project; Ngöbe people; Barro Blanco; Changuinola 2; Partido Popular; civil society; Naso people; Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD); Bonyic hydroelectric project.
GE DIGITAL CAMERAInterviewee: Naso people of San San Drui, Felix Sánchez, King Valentín Santana and the mayor of Changuinola, Lorenzo Luis.
Location: San San Drui, Panama
Date: 1st September 2009
Theme: Naso struggle for land rights against the Ganadera Bocas company and the violence of the company and police.
Keywords: TBC
julioyao-2Interviewees: Julio Yao
Location: Panamá City, Panamá
Date: 3rd September 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
geodisio-castillo-1Interviewee: Geodisio Castillo
Location: Panamá City, Panamá
Date: 3rd September 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
geodisio-castillo-1Interviewee: Geodisio Castillo
Location: Panamá City, Panamá
Date: July 9th 2014
Theme: TBC
Keywords: Kuna Yala, Kuna General Congress, COONAPIP (National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples), Development projects, Tourism, Carrying capacity, Cacao production, Agroecology, Lobster conservation, Climate change, REDD Plus
GE DIGITAL CAMERAInterviewee: Felix Sánchez (President of the Naso Foundation) and King Valentín Santana (King of the Naso People).
Location: San San Drui, Panama
Date: 9th September 2009
Theme: Naso struggle for land rights against the Ganadera Bocas company and the violence of the company and police.
Keywords: TBC
Alida SpadaforaInterviewee: Alida Spadafora, Executive Director of ANCON (Asociación Nacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza de Panamá
Location: ANCON’s office in Panamá
Date: 4th September 2009
Theme: Panama’s environment; the inappropriateness of mining in Panama; mining protests; deforestation; ANCON’s programmes
Keywords: TBC
Interviewee: Osvaldo Jordan
Location: Panamá City
Date: 14th September 2016
Theme: A conversation with Osvaldo Jordan, regarding the construction of the Barro Blanco Dam in Panama.
Keywords: Ngabe Indigenous group; Barro Blanco dam; land demarcation; militarisation.

Dr Juan Almendares

Interviewee: Dr Juan Almendares
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Date: 23rd August 2010
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC



Juan Almendares (JA): I’m going to tell you more or less the areas in which I work, both as a person and with organisations, because I work with organisations. We’re associated with the Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Families (CPTRT) – the web page is . In this we work on the most difficult issue of human rights, that is torture, because in general the army and the police do not want to be accused of it.

The other area in which we work is community work, so we have the Action Committee for Peace (COAPAZ), for which we work in 26 communities, where most of the participants are women from very poor barrios. That movement forms part of the Mother Earth Movement (MMT), which is part of Friends of the Earth International.

At the same time, we have this clinic which is for humanitarian services. We’re not welfare assistants, we work with the grassroots in social organisation. Also we’ve done a lot of work on mines, studies in mines, clinical studies in difficult cases of displacements of campesinos and indigenous peoples, and of police and military brutality.

On a personal level, we write a lot on the environment, human rights, political history, and our activity is very intense.

The question of human rights we see from the human and politico-social perspectives. Personally, I hold an ideological position which is anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist, and we are fighting against what can be called the military agro-industrial complex.

We have worked in the area of knowledge and the area of practice. We work in prison, a tough and historic work in the prisons because they are cauldrons of injustice. There’s a team, there are materials, there’s a whole series of things produced. That’s through CPTRT. The CPTRT has a big team of people, thirty people at full time, it’s an institutional work in which we have to follow an institutional mandate. Our central work theme is torture, medical attention and psychological care, but we also make denunciations, do case monitoring, and there’s an interdisciplinary team: lawyers, sociologists, social workers, medics, psychologists and social communicators. At the beginning it had a medical and psychological focus, but now it has a community focus. We are based here but we work in rural communities.

We have two types of work: first, you have to see work with the most violent communities of Tegucigalpa; we are in Nueva Suyapa where we have a really strong programme in the community – we’ve been there for several years. Second, we’ve serviced MUCA (the Unified Campesino Movement of Aguán) where there is a social project. We were in almost all the fincas taken by the MUCA. The hardest movement is the problem of how to respond to them – it’s the fundamental campesino problem right now and the riskiest problem. In fact, they nominated us as the representatives of MUCA for the Verification Commission of the Human Rights Committee.

We are also in the SARA Movement – that is the Movement for Food Sovereignty and Agrarian Reform. We are part of that movement which is a campesino movement. It’s a part of Vía Campesina and other organisations. We’re in the Political Commission of the Let’s Go With Grains Campaign in which there are a number of organisations making up an agrarian platform. We’ve also contributed to the organisation of human rights in Honduras, the platform which has promoted the Truth Commission. There are six of these organisations and the work is collective – there’s no one organisation which represents it, rather it’s a uniting of organisations.

In the Centre we have been the object of several attacks. We have had to move and change office, and right now we are in another place, partly because of the rain and also because we’ve had some personal threats. We try to keep a low profile and in the reports we try to be as objective as possible and as close to the truth as possible, with the aims of satisfying the responsibility ethic and of not losing institutional credibility. More or less that is the CPTRT.

As for the Mother Earth Movement, here in 2008 Friends of the Earth organised its world meeting in recognition of the work done by the Mother Earth Movement, and the theme was sovereignty and climate change. It was in Tegucigalpa. There were 800 delegates at that meeting and the organisation was really popular. We did it in the mountains in …???… and women from the barrios did it all. They won an international prize for the work.

We’ve worked on mining for more than ten years and are in contact with the Environmental Committee of the Valle de Siria and we’re also part of the Civic Alliance for Democracy which is another organisation which has protested against mining. The anti-mining protest here has been very strong. At the moment it’s changed a bit because of the coup.

We have also worked against the transgenics. With Monsanto our work is to mobilise marches and participation, to denounce and also to research. Mother Earth is forest, water, a whole series of things, and it’s a campesino issue.

In COAPAZ we have …???… relatives. There’s community social work and in the clinic we use alternative medicine. I’m a medical doctor, a physiologist. I studied in the University of California and in the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve been a professor, a rector, a dean, various things, so we are very absorbed in this. And now with the coup we are very much into the Resistance. We also try to keep a low profile, not for any particular problem, but because of security. We’ve had a lot of threats and attacks.

Martin Mowforth (MM): Have the threats increased since the coup?

JA: Perhaps in some circumstances. What happens is that we are well-known in the country and we have many international links. But, yes, it has happened to us. For example, we had to cancel the telephone for four months, four months without a telephone. They had got into all our systems. For example, at the moment they have tapped my whole system. I’ve lost all my contacts, I’ve changed my email, I’m rather isolated, the telephones I have are tapped. They cut our water for almost a month, and it’s not a question of not paying. They’ve loosed off some shots at us and they’ve threatened all the team. Well, at least I can send what I write which are strong statements against the army and we try to promote the Resistance. But I’m not really on the scene because when I am on the scene I’m in danger because they see me as an ideologue. So we try to keep a relatively low profile.

MM: What’s your analysis of the current situation of the Resistance and the movement to promote the new Constitution?

JA: I think that there’s no doubt that the Resistance is the strongest and most popular political movement in the country. It’s not been easy from below, there have been a lot of repression, threats and assassinations. Not just the leaders have been assassinated, but also their families and relatives. For example I don’t have any contact with my family, and if I do it’s very limited, very short. It’s a very tense situation. But despite that, the Resistance is very strong in rural communities and with the campesinos.

I’ve been involved in the whole process since the Resistance first arose. The Resistance was formed almost the same day as the coup took place, when we were facing the army troops. Under that tension the Resistance was formed by various organisations. It’s a very plural movement that involves all sectors of society; it’s a movement which dialectically engages the coup and helps to unify the people; it’s a positive thing that has come from the coup. The coup gives us many negative things, but the positive side was that it has facilitated the organisation and unity of the people, and not solely those people on the left, but all sectors. So the Resistance was formed as a plural movement which takes a non-violent line.

So it included people of every tendency: Marxists, liberals, even conservatives. There were also the supporters of ex-President Zelaya, people from popular social movements, christian grassroots organisations, the LGBT which is a group which has become acceptable because here there was a terrible discrimination against them because of the prejudices influenced by religion; feminists in resistance, artists in resistance, human rights organisations. There is everywhere a coming together of organisations which managed to constitute a type of front, a front which at the beginning didn’t have a very clear form, but which after a while became well defined. Since the start it has had good leaders, straightforward people who have had more than a year of taking part in marches and protests.

In the process it has pulled down many of the country’s plans: for example, the church hierarchy has been broken by the demonstration of its corruption of the rejection of the Cardinal who is a figurehead who is representative of religious values. The same occurred in the evangelical church which has had leaders who have been strongly in touch with the class struggle – that is to say, the unity of capital with work.

That situation also takes us to broach the media question. The media have had an extraordinary influence on an uneducated people. But come the coup and the people realise who is on their side and who is against them because throughout the whole process we’ve been seeing that the oligarchy is brutal, through the alliance between the oligarchy and the church and the alliance of the oligarchy with the military. All that has brought about a unity amongst the people.

At the beginning there was a lot of excitement. We were opposed to President Zelaya because I was the presidential candidate for the left. At that time, we didn’t think that Zelaya could get to the point where he would take a very progressive stance. So we had differences, but in the process we prepared ourselves for the coup. The Resistance nominated me as delegate to go to the State Department, to take part in dialogue and in September we had a trip of condemnation of the coup.

We’ve been asked: What is the ideological principle of the Resistance? What’s the Resistance’s strategy? What is the future of the Resistance? How are you going to create a National Constituent Assembly?

At the beginning, we only saw police brutality, the use of terror, mass torture. Our information reveals that before the coup there were around three torture victims per month, but immediately after the coup there were 119 torture victims. I’m saying it’s only our information because it has been medically and psychologically certified, based on the Istambul Protocol – that is to say, very rigorously. There has even been torture taking place in the parking lot of the Congress building, in the military grounds, and in various other places.

What I want to say is that the Resistance has formed itself in response to the people, not just because it’s a political crisis but also because it’s a social crisis. There is not only a difference in the traditional political ideas, but also the Resistance is formed as an expression that results from a yawning ideological and political gap which generates a lack of credibility in the church, in the media, in the army, in the police, and in the normal social structures. The Resistance is filling that gap.

The Resistance has its major expression in the urban centres of Honduras, in San Pedro Sula, in various places along the coast, in Tegucigalpa, but it’s not a purely organic issue. But lately it’s been becoming more organic, especially in the barrios. When they repress us in the streets of Tegucigalpa, the Resistance organises demonstrations in the barrios, despite police actions. It’s very difficult for the army to control all the barrios. So there’s a mixture of the traditional values of the people who aren’t so politicised, for example like the people of Nicaragua or El Salvador. But they are a people who have been stigmatised as cowards or lacking values, even as being leftists, …???… But in fact they are a very courageous people. At the moment, the Resistance is perhaps the strongest movement in Latin America. We’re talking in relative terms, but this movement has managed to move a million people.

MM: What are the possibilities of changing the constitution?

JA: With that you have to consider the whole process. First, it’s a process ignored by the political-military apparatus which is radically opposed to it and for which supposedly that is one of the reasons why they kicked out Zelaya. Legally, through the media and through religion they create a filter against a National Constituent Assembly. Now, what possibilities exist? At the moment the coordinator outside of the Resistance is President Zelaya – he is the spirit of the leadership of the National Constituent Assembly.

I believe that we fill the ideological vacuum in the people, but we don’t fill it with an ideology. It’s a process which takes time, resources, training. There’s an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist sentiment, but there isn’t a political development or formation. We need to fill that space but with a leadership to go with the development. People are waiting for ideological and political direction which is happening to some extent, but perhaps not with the necessary speed because of the lack of resources. We have a leadership which has been sacrificed for self-denial, respect and dedication, but we need it [leadership]. The other thing is that we’re talking about mobilisation, and from that comes the debate about whether the Resistance should be a political party or if it should be a broad front. The other question is if the Resistance is a front for the mass of people, of course not fascist, but anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist, still we are not there.

I’m not talking in the name of the Resistance, only on a personal basis.

We need to build a peoples’ front because there’s a very important question that refer to the material relations with life. I believe that the material issue is not separate from spirituality. We need to consider that connection with life, of the material, of the cultural and of the spiritual. This means that we need to fill the space which the church has left in all these sectors, because first it seems to me that there is an emotional phase of sympathy, which we can call a honeymoon; but afterwards we have to take concrete actions with which the Resistance may make changes and transformations which the people can see. For example, in your events and propositions you oblige the system to make various changes to satisfy some real necessities that the people have. It seems to me that that is fundamental in the process of construction. For example, we have an agrarian problem which is fundamental in the country and which is unjust to the campesino sector; so the Resistance can support the events or propositions of campesino organisations which are emerging through an agrarian transformation and they can do that in a National Constituent Assembly. This is a mechanism – we don’t see it as a legal mechanism, but as part of a process in which the people take power. That is to say, the people decide not only to build a Constitution but also to transform it. This is a fundamental point.

It seems to me that at the moment we have policies which are all destructive and criminal and that the priority which is emerging is in favour of the private over the public. So it’s necessary for the Resistance to have all these ideas and positions worked out and to take them to the people as ideas and positions for change. We lack that.

The scheme for the Assembly is one of the Resistance’s priorities, but that requires a lot of work, including the theory, the philosophy, the politics, the ideology, to build the transformation of the Constitution, of the system. People haven’t lost their enthusiasm for the Resistance. Yes, we need to build in order to get there, it needs to be worked at, but we lack that at the moment. Remember that we are a country that is militarily occupied by the United States; the whole dynamic of counter-insurgency is very strong here and the army is advised. The whole ideological apparatus of the state and of the international community is trying to present a scenario in which Honduras is a country where there is democracy, where there is dialogue; but on the other hand it’s repressive. In that sense, education is fundamental. I’m talking of education for liberation, not simply formal education. It’s also very important to share experiences and solidarity.

So, the possibilities of a Constituent Assembly you can see them in the dynamics of the situation, because the government could be interested in such an Assembly because it’s such a need felt by the people. But they [the government] are thinking about the Constituent Assembly not to change the representativeness of power but just as a popular demand. We are thinking of changing the whole system to generate a process of change in the country. So the possibilities are difficult, but we haven’t abandoned them – it’s one of the priorities of the Resistance.

MM: In the long term is it feasible for the Resistance to take part in the next elections?

JA: Well with that there are very different positions – there isn’t just one single position within the Resistance. I’ll give you my point of view. I believe that the Resistance must not become an electoral political party because that would weaken the Resistance. The right wants the Resistance to become a political party and to take part in the elections. With that end they are encouraging different sectors to take part in the elections. We must recognise that historically Honduras was a country which didn’t have elections for 18 years. In the 1980s, we began to get elections and there was an almost cultural enthusiasm for them. But the Resistance could lose its major objectives if it turns itself into a political party. From that, the Resistance has to think like a political force, it has to plan strategic objectives and tactics with the aim of bringing about changes and with the aim of allying itself with the Latin American people, but it has to have objectives which go further than a political party.

From another point of view, elections divide and create individual aspirations and fictitious leadership. I believe that in reality the people have to be the drivers of the Resistance rather than a leader. The idea is that there should be a collective direction, not a traditional direction. Now, whether the Resistance can support a political force in an electoral process, that’s another thing. We don’t deny that that possibility exists and I think that it should not abandon any possibility or any space in the political field. Through discussion, the Resistance could support a political force which would compete in the elections, but its objectives must go beyond the elections because historically elections in this country have given rise to distortion, corruption and a whole host of things.

So, what would be the other characteristic of the Resistance? Well, it could be a political force that at this current moment concentrates on the National Constituent Assembly and which through that could develop other characteristics of a political force. In that sense, it could be a broad front, it could be a patriotic front, a force to transform society. Obviously, it has to put itself forward in order to take power – that’s logical – but it’s lacking a lot right now.

In the Resistance there are many political forces which have even taken part in elections and yet they are good colleagues. I’m a supporter of unity, without excluding any strand – the indigenous peoples, black peoples, parties which traditionally have been part of the Resistance, in the democratic unification. Right now I’m not a supporter of any particular sector, rather we are all involved in building a Resistance which has a collective direction and we don’t hide our sympathy with people in other Latin American liberation struggles – we are in solidarity with Cuba, with the people of Venezuela, Ecuador, the whole process in Bolivia – we must protect the Bolivarian process which has a rich philosophical background.

MM: Can you bring me up-to-date with what is happening in the Aguán valley?

JA: In the Aguán valley you have to understand that there’s been a history of land conflict. In the first place, a campesino associative company was founded there. It was called the Associative Company of Small Islands (Empresa Asociativa de Isletas) and was a collective company[ – like a cooperative]. But it was a brow-beaten company because it obliged the campesinos to sell their land. And the right wing demanded that position of the campesinos. They had created a situation of terror and there was a military intervention, assassinations of campesinos – a whole series of things at that time.

But in that zone there were groups of campesinos and also migrants. Some leaders had emigrated from the countryside to the city in the hope of finding an organisation. So there’s a period when the campesinos were selling their lands and Facussé bought them for a price, as they say here “de gallo muerte” [the price of a dead cockerel] – that is to say, extremely cheaply. And he also took over various lands of the state and grew African palm on them. Now obviously we are against agrifuels [biofuels]. Now, we must ask ourselves how a campesino movement arose and seized force during the period of the coup. It has to be with very brave and organised people to be able to take control in such a fixed way that they managed to recover land.

There is a group, Guadelupe Carney, a historic group, which has been in various places close to the Aguán for years. It’s the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA), which is a number of organisations, sectors and families who have organised themselves to reclaim their land, to survive or die. The movement reached its climax during the coup d’état. A situation of tension was created there, near Nicaragua and the Caribbean. It was a zone of military testing, heavily militarised, and before there was a battalion there. Now it’s near a North American military base. In the midst of all that MUCA developed. MUCA’s aim is to occupy lands belonging to Miguel Facussé, René Morales and Reinaldo Canales who are the big landowners with thousands of millions of dollars. Moreover, the World Bank is developing there the cultivation of agrifuels (biofuels) as recommended by the [US] Embassy. It’s a project which was not originally associated with the campesinos, but what we have to take into account is that the campesinos have occupied land that is already cultivated with African palm. That’s the crucial point – they don’t know anything about African palm, but they occupied relatively large areas of land.

Faced with the production of African palm, they had two possible situations: not to buy it, but then they don’t process the palm, not in sufficient quantities. So Facussé created his own army. We have to see that here the private army is a major force. We are talking of more than 60,000 armed men, larger than the Honduran army. That’s not just what he has in the Aguán, but this figure is made up of all the private forces in the country. There are hitmen in a very tense situation. It’s not just Facussé, I’m referring to all the private guards in the country. Here we are watched by the army, by the Pentagon, by private guards and by hitmen.

So the conflict develops there and the danger is such that a civil war could develop. There have been many deaths. They manage to tell the government, “We are not going to let you enter here.” They negotiate, they sign an agreement in which they have to deliver lands, they demand health services, education and housing, because it’s an abandoned zone. Those people live in houses of plastic, at high risk and in danger of flooding. At times they are very heterogeneous groups, with a history of struggle, and they have great strength.

Then there are contradictions in the system because the landowning oligarchy is radically strong. The government is from the right and was participating in the process, but the oligarchy is the most radical force there, more radical than the government. Well, these forces, the oligarchy, don’t want to let the campesinos get a hold. But they have gained a very big political space and the threat of the army’s massacres are there. When we go to these barrios/colonias there’s a lot of tension because we have accepted an extremely delicate mission – the struggle against the ultra-right wing.

So I’m not sure how it is going to turn out. There is still conflict which isn’t resolved. The land problem is still ongoing, and still it has not been delivered to the campesinos. But that is just an appendix to the campesino problem which goes beyond MUCA. It’s the community of Guadalupe Carney which has been beaten down. They are the campesinos from other regions of the country where there is no agrarian reform. Here the law of agricultural modernisation rules, and that destroys agrarian reform. That’s a part of modernity, of capitalism. I’ve written about 15 articles on the campesino problem.


Carlos Flores

Interviewee: Carlos Flores of the Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (UNES)
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: UNES office, San Salvador, El Salvador
Date: 30 July 2010
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC


Martin Mowforth (MM): I have more specific questions about this topic, with reference to Coca Cola and the use of the Lempa river, but first I would like you to tell me your thoughts about the water supply in this country.

Carlos Flores (CF): Perhaps it is best to begin by saying that the problem of privatisation in El Salvador is present, lying dormant, but it is not the main problem.  Already, water is in crisis and still supply systems are not privatised.  I am not saying that they will improve if they are privatised, nor that the actual scheme is the best that there is to manage the water.

MM: But still there is a crisis­?

CF: Yes, there is. The water problem in El Salvador is the main socio-environmental problem; there are conflicts between communities, municipalities, commercial communities, and governmental ministries and communities.

MM: What is ANDA’s role?

CF: ANDA is an autonomous institution that is responsible for providing the water supply service.  ANDA holds part of the responsibility for the water problem in this country.  The law of creation says that ANDAs role is to supply water to all citizens and provide systems of sanitation.  We must check whether this has been achieved or not, this is a test that we must do.  This is enough analysis on this matter.

MM: With regard to water supply in the capital area, what is the current status of water quality?

CF: I agree with ANDA that the water is of good quality.

MM: The ‘quality’ includes more than just the quality of water.  I was also thinking of the quality of the service.

CF: The problem of water supply is a complex one.  If we focus on San Salvador, access is almost 95% of the capital area.  The people that live in the metropolitan area of San Salvador, mainly in the heavily populated and poor areas, have access to a stream, a pipe, but this does not automatically guarantee that they have water.  For example, Soyapango, the communities of Ilopango in San Marcos.  Almost all of these colonies have access to a pipe, but they have frequently had prolonged water cuts.  It is also very common to have a periodic water supply, sometimes once a week.  There are communities that have water once every two weeks, and some once a month.  Thus, the quality of water service is quite periodic.  This is the first element.

The quality of water is not guaranteed.  ANDA takes samples at the source, or where it is sent, or where the water arrives and where it is distributed, but we must check the quality of the transport mechanisms, as they are basically pipe systems, which, being quite old (30 or 40 years) leak in parts.  So, the problem with systems so obsolete is that they do not guarantee the quality of the water.

When there are long periods without water supply, the problem is that the systems generate a reverse pressure, so that the water goes out instead of into the pipe.  When this occurs, the pipes tend to leak and pipes rupture, so anything from earth and organic matter to raw sewage can enter into the water.  Thus, the quality of water reaching the family homes could be guaranteed under current conditions.

We are talking about a service that is unprofitable, since we are talking about communities that do not have a regular service.  This can be explained and I will try to give a technical explanation, but it is not too technical.  Technical in the sense of hydraulic solutions, to seek more wells or to extend the pipes, the problem is that the water nearby, i.e. the aquifer in San Salvador always produces less water.  This has forced ANDA to implement different projects, there is one in particular that is called The Pavas Plant (la Planta de las Pavas) that provides San Salvador with almost 40% of the water used, which is a large quantity of water.  The water is transported almost 40 kilometres which is very costly for ANDA.   And there is a problem, because in San Salvador ANDA produces close to 5 cubic meters per second, and loses almost 50% (2.5 cubic meters).  This is a large quantity of resources to lose and it is directly impacting the service that is received by the people that live in the capital.  It is not possible to achieve zero leakage, there is no system that is perfect, but we cannot continue maintaining a scheme like the one we have now.  This has its origin in a system of neglect, an attitude that has given little importance to water in general and the service of supply and sanitation.  This lack of interest is translated into little public investment by the San Salvadorian state in this area.  The people that make the decisions are not interested in how to fully resolve the problem, because suddenly a loan is obtained to put a patch on the problem, to make another supply plant or to construct a sporadic sanitation plant.  There is not a state policy which tells us or which can send us an increasing or sustained level of investment which would help us to resolve this problem.  There is no planning system that they can tell us, well, this pipe is 40 years old, and it has to be changed.  This leads to an additional problem – the sewage pipes of San Salvador.  The sewage system in San Salvador already is between 40 and 50 years old.  This puts us in a very serious position because when we are talking about sewage sanitation, we are talking about sewage pipes of a larger diameter.  If these pipes start to fail …  The same applies for rain water pipes, because they already have the same life.  The problem is that these pipes are beginning to collapse which leads us to the problem that we are facing right now in San Salvador – the appearance of gullies, large-scale holes in the middle of the city, that are becoming more frequent.  We dedicate state resources to, literally, cover these holes, without even really planning to make this investment.  We should plan it better but we have to plan it now, and still it is not planned.  At present we are making a diagnosis to see which pipes should be changed.  We are beginning to make the diagnosis, even though we do not have resources reserved.  We think that it is necessary to give it our full attention: we talk of leaks in pipes that are obsolete; we talk of the collapse of pipes for sewage and rainwater.  This is the system in San Salvador.  We are talking about the scarcity or the deepening of water tables, mainly because the aquifer of San Salvador is going down very quickly.  This is forcing us to make plans to transfer water from other basins.  And thus is San Salvador, the Salvadoran territory is the space where the most users are connected to the supply system and to the sewage system, but in practical terms the concentration of population receives the least water per capita and gives the least treatment of waste water.

MM: Do you know if the water table has been affected by pesticides or residues of any other chemical, fertilizers perhaps?

CF: There are no studies about the quality of the water at this level.  At the beginning of this year, as part of World Water Day, the Environmental Minister made an announcement that all of the surface water in El Salvador is contaminated, i.e. there is no safe water in El Salvador, and some water is prohibited, even for bathing.  This was the announcement, which was very worrying.  I could give indicators that could tell us that there are problems with sewage.

MM: I have been told that there is a study by the university, but also by UNES about water pollution.

CF: No, we haven’t done a study on pollution.  But there is a study about the quality of El Salvadoran water by the Ministry of the Environment.  In El Salvador, there is the capacity for sewage treatment, although only for 14% of sewage, but what really is purified is 10% of the water.  This indicates that there are problems with sewage.  In the case of the industries it is more difficult, because there are more or less 1,600 companies in El Salvador, and if we manage to get 300 to treat their sewage then that it good enough.  So, we are very far from achieving the treatment of sewage and the control of sewage.

In the case of pesticides, in El Salvador prohibited pesticides are still sold.  This can be taken as an indicator of what we can find.  There are many water boards – the water board is a community organisation that manages a supply system – that are faced with doing the chemical analysis of water parameters that are found to be very high in lead, boron, cadmium.  These chemicals appear suddenly, and just as suddenly have disappeared from the water supply.  It is not a systematic analysis but we receive these types of complaints and we see them as precise indicators of what we can find.  In this country, this type of study is very expensive, they could be done by the Ministry of the Environment, but they are not.

MM:  As for the access to drinking water in rural areas, could you give me some sources of data for this, apart from the United Nations?

CF: We recently did an investigation, and in March we held the second regional meeting for organisations that work in the field of water, it is called Towards the construction of a new public institution for the management of water and sanitation.  So, we have an investigation in El Salvador which highlights the problems of water in terms of supply.  Broadly, this is a form of community management of water in El Salvador which is supplying close to 19% of the population.  This shows that there is a serious problem in this country, because ANDA, which is the public institution that is ordered by law to do this, is supplying only 40% of the Salvadoran population with its supply service.  The remainder are supplied by water management boards, between municipalities and a system known as the self-sufficiency system, which is a system run by construction companies that implement water supply systems to make their own projects seem attractive.

MM:  This type of exchange is like a planning benefit because the company can have permission to do what it wants to do, and in exchange they supply water to a percentage of houses.

CF:  Exactly. And there emerges a problem.  The problem is that legally they are only taking part, the supply systems are only directly regulated by ANDA, legally.  There are the municipalities, the water boards and there are the self-sufficient systems that would be the will of God.  In the case of the water board systems, it is the people from rural communities, who are very poor, that often have to pay five or six times more than they would pay for urban systems, such as the one supplied by ANDA.  It is like a paradox, because ANDA has a water subsidy, which applies to users, which until recently were all users of ANDA, including the people that have the means to pay and that have had a great capacity for squandering water.  So, we have ended up subsidising the middle class and rich people, and we have been forcing people to pay, first the bill, but after the bill, for the cost of the construction of the supply system.

When we speak of supply we leave the most profound issue that the supply, the final supply that indicates to us how the state can break its promises, … (missing transcription) … the obligation to guarantee the right to water and committing injustices, like the issue of the subsidies.  But the water problem in El Salvador is much more severe than the supply, because the water problem is expressed in drought, floods and landslides. In El Salvador we go from periods of drought to flooding.  This has, without any doubt, to do with the effects of climate change, which is an external phenomenon.

Undoubtedly, there is another important component here which is the development model that has been implemented in this country and the rest of this region, which makes us more vulnerable to these impacts.  So, the water problem that I mentioned is drought, flooding, pollution and water shortages.  We see it as it is, but there are underlying structural causes.

MM: You can also link the problem to deforestation during the years of the war and afterwards?

CF:  It is the historic process of the implementation of different types of agro-export models, of the implementation of monocultures.  The 700’s began with the cultivation of indigo, and for this, crops were destroyed to the quantity of … (missing translation) … Deforestation has its origin in this: indigo, coffee, after the coffee it changed the land use to the mountains, after came the sugar cane, cotton and after all this, the processes that come associated with the neoliberal model, the intention to turn El Salvador into a ‘service-hub’.

MM: To make our clothes in the West.

CF: Yes, Singapore style.  It has cost us what we had.

MM:  I do not know much about the problems caused by Coca-Cola in Nejapa or near to Nejapa.  Do you know anything about this?

CF: Not so much, but I can make approximations.  Coca-Cola has not been in Nejapa for very long.  It was in Soyapango for ten years.  Soyapango was one of the zones with the richest aquifer in San Salvador.  Coca Cola dried up around 40 wells in the aquifer and when there were no wells left nearby, they packed their bags and left for Nejapa, which is another area that supplies San Salvador with water.  Competition is needed to supply San Salvador or to give water to the companies.  The previous administration of ANDA had a pretty good arrangement to save water for businesses, it was to open wells, to do research, and to find out if there was enough water to save for investments, sacrificing the need for water in San Salvador.  There were 15 or 20 open wells that had a good supply capacity, but they were not used for this … So, Coca-Cola is doing global research about its impact on the neighbouring communities.  For this report they have chosen three countries and one of them is El Salvador.  The organisation that is developing this report is called Offam America, and they invited me to listen to the progress of the investigation in El Salvador.

MM:  This was recently?

CF:  It was last November, it still isn’t finished.  If they finish it, they will not return to invite me, but it was supposed to be finished in April.  The progress was until November, we were invited to listen to everything that they had achieved so that from what we said, they could explore other elements.   To me it seemed peculiar, first because in the report they still took it that water is an indispensible material for production, they did not put it in the costs of production.  They said that the chemicals of Coca-Cola were the first input, the production plant was the second input and that the labour that they took from Nejapa and Quetzaltepeque was the third input.  Water was not yet there.  I made this comment.  Another thing that interested me is that they had quite an emphasis on the fact that they respect the laws of the country, i.e. that they pay the amount that the law states and that the tariff s that ANDA charge them are 6 centavos and they pay the 6 centavos for the 149,000 cubic meters that they use per year (149,000 m³).  It is interesting because in El Salvador we do not have a General Water Law and it is peculiar because between 1998 and 2005 they discussed ten draft bills, they constructed them, and they paid for them with loans. Then, consultants came from Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Spain, each one to make their proposal for the law, from their vision and emphasis etc. Some proposals involved privatisation, others did not, but in general they were all very loose about the issue of regulation.  What is interesting is that nothing was approved by the private sector (they were only consulted) so nothing was official and therefore nothing was passed at the Legislative Assembly.  So, I made this comment as a joke: that it is so easy to comply with the law when the law permits me to do anything I want and it is so easy to obey the law when I determine whether or not there is a law.  And here lies the problem.  We can analyse what Coca Cola does.  And because they have already complied with ANDA’s 6 centavos, which is almost $20,000 per year, mission accomplished.  They say that they go there because they have two basin management projects with those who spend maybe $10,000 per year and they go to give bottles of water to the communities that do not have them.  With this issue addressed in the current conditions, we say very little.  If there were more restrictive laws and if there were institutions that had the ability to monitor and to regulate, then we could see how to confront them.  Under the current conditions, however, they give us a sweet and we are happy and we feel that we have won.

MM:  One last thing.  Could you give me a few words about free trade in this country, and specifically the working conditions within the factories? I know that these are different issues, but they are also linked and I wonder if the free trade treaties (CAFTA-RD and the Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union) have clauses and articles about the conditions in the factories.

CF:  I am going to respond firstly to the environmental issue and afterwards to the topic of the factories.  The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States (US) already causes us a problem.  At present, we are faced with two international demands on the issue of mining: Pacific RIM and Commerce Group Corp.  They have each demanded $100 million from us respectively, covered in the FTA.  At the moment this impact is more severe than it looks, not for the $100 million each, but because there are 29 exploration permits that have been given, so there could be 29 demands for $100 million for the FTA with the US.  Here there is another problem which is the present government’s necessity to continue negotiating free trade treaties, because they are also negotiating under the table an FTA with Canada.  We do not trade anything with Canada, maybe some pupusas (typical El Salvadorian tortilla).  Canada’s interest in El Salvador is in gold and silver, so the FTA is gold and silver, and we are still determined to negotiate this treaty, despite the implications that it could have.  With the European Union (EU) we have more or less the same history.  In the AA we begin with everything that has been negotiated with the US, that the EU’s AA already has, and we negotiate from there up.  And this is not a good thing.  With the EU, what is it that runs a risk? The environmental issue.  1) Biodiversity, 2) The agrochemicals business, i.e. the pollution from agriculture, there is Monsanto, Merck, etc, and 3) medicine.  These are the biggest businesses that the EU has. In addition, the telephone, but that is another issue … Here are the impacts that we see and the impacts that are not so far away because already some are beginning to occur.  When we speak of biodiversity, we mean the threat of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) which would become almost an obligation in this treaty.

MM:  This is a part of the treaties.

CF:  Of course.  On the issue of the factories, here there is not too much to regulate, the factories in El Salvador are a branch of Europe in the 1700’s, still since the times of slavery.  Various studies have shown the serious breaches of human rights in the factories.  Here there is not too much to regulate, because nothing is regulated, apart from the minimum wage which is being pushed very strongly in El Salvador in order to make the working hours more flexible, to hire by the hour and provide no overtime pay.  The treaty has not gone into much depth on this issue because it has not been necessary.  Already the conditions are fairly good within the companies, and also El Salvador is not one of the main strengths, it is not a very attractive country for businesses.  It does not have the water supply system that it needs and electricity is very expensive.  So, between China and El Salvador, companies go to China or Asia, where the conditions are much worse than here.

MM: The two M’s are terrible for El Salvador, Migration and Maquilas (factories).


Candy and George Gonzalez

Interviewees: Candy and George Gonzalez
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: San Igancio, Belize
Date: Friday 16th August 2013
Theme: An informal interview about environmental and developmental issues in Belize.
Keywords: TBC



Martin Mowforth (MM): Can you tell us a little bit about your own association with BELPO [Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy] and what issues it has dealt with in the past, before you bring us up date with its current issues?

Candy Gonzalez (CG): BELPO stands for the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy. I got involved with BELPO in 1997, and at that time it was just prior to the fight against the Chalillo dam. I was involved in coastal zone management in terms of general environmental issues and environmental impact assessments, and the initial work I did with BELPO was educational in terms of trying to make the environmental laws understandable to people in Belize. When the fight against the Chalillo started, we got involved here in San Ignacio and through BELPO because we saw the problems the Chalillo would cause to this community (the Santa Elena and San Ignacio communities), in terms of what the dam would do to the river and the importance of river tourism to the community, and then the issues of the health and safety of the people living downstream from the dam, (2:28 – unverifiable) meaning that we weren’t aware of and concerned about what it [the Chalillo dam] would do to the rainforest, but there were people were arrowing in on that, but nobody was arrowing in on what it would actually do to the people downstream. We’ve always been very firm in terms of you can’t have a healthy environment without healthy people, and people need a healthy environment to be healthy themselves, and we believe that clean water and a healthy environment are human rights. So that’s been a lot of the focus that we’ve tried bring into the quote, “environmental movement” in Belize, in terms of our perspective.

MM: Okay, thank you very much. Before we get to any current issues, do you want to have a final word about Chalillo and how it progressed to its current situation?

CG: Well, I don’t think there’s a final word today, because we’re still struggling to deal with Chalillo. Chalillo has unfortunately caused all the problems we foresaw; there’s virtually no river tourism, the water quality is poor and they [Belizean Government/BELPO] warn people to not drink the water. People can’t swim in the water because it itches and a lot of people have come out of the river having stomach problems from swallowing the water. We still don’t have a “dam-break” early warning system even though Chalillo went online in 2005, and so we’re facing all these problems and then in 2009 the Vaca dam opened and then there was a third dam put there, but it was really quiet, there was very little said about it. There was a public hearing, and we went to the public hearing – we opposed Vaca because the owners of the Chalillo dam still had not complied with the environmental compliance plan for Chalillo, and we said until they comply with it they shouldn’t be allowed to build another dam, and then make another bunch of promises in terms of mitigation.

We [BELPO] took the Department of Environment to court for failure to make the company comply with the environmental compliance plan, and we took the case in 2007, and we won the case. We got a decision saying that in all the areas that we were contesting, which meant the health and safety issues, that there was no water quality tests that were being shared with the people, that we weren’t getting the tests on the mercury levels in the fish, that we still didn’t have a dam-break early warning system, and that there was no public participation committee, which was supposed to be a two way conversation with the stakeholders, the company and the department of environment. On all those issues, the court ruled that there had been a failure to comply, and we ended up going back to court two different times seeking enforcement, and unfortunately we still don’t have a compliance, but we’re still working on trying to bring attention to the non-compliance and to get the government to force people to comply with the law. So that’s why I say there’s no final word!

MM: Our students will not know about the Chalillo dam, but I shall mention it to some of them if I get a chance, but it would be fine it you could mention precisely what you have just said to me, when you talk to the students. Just as a side, I’ve been visiting quite a lot of – I just want to pause this.

[Apparent pause in the tape at 7:30 and discourse of topics]

MM: I must take a photo of that before I go.


CG: They heard word that they’re going to build a dam on the Mopan River, because the Mopan starts in Belize, goes into Guatemala, and then comes back into Belize. So they were looking for information and support from people because we would be affected by that dam also.

MM: So this in other words is still an active programme, but can you now update us on one or two other programmes that BELPO is currently dealing with.

CG: I sat on the National Environmental Appraisal Committee [NEAC] which is a committee that vets all of the environmental impact assessments for Belize, and I sat on that for over 7 years. One of the things that we did as BELPO was to try and say, okay, we need quality information to make quality decisions. The problem was that the majority of the people on NEAC were in our government employees and so they just, even though they raised points that this is no good, and that is no good, they would still vote in favour of the project because that was their job.

MM: In fear of losing their job as well, presumably.

CG: Right – and the other NGO’s that sat on NEAC at the time, other than me, they had co-management agreements for protected areas.

MM: So, Belize Audubon Society [BAS]?

CG: Right – so they rely on government for the continuation of their co-management agreement, and so a lot of times they voted in favour of [propositions]. So most of the time it was 11-1 vote, or 10-2 once in a while! But what it did in terms of BELPO was that we demonstrated we were across the range of looking at environmental issues that are countrywide, though in the beginning most of our members were here in the Cayo area, either in San Ignacio or Santa Elena – they didn’t stop us, this is not a big country. We were down in Toledo District doing workshops on oil and petroleum in 2002, way before any of the controversy [surrounding] oil and oil exploitation arose, and we also worked with a number of other lawyers from different countries, trying to bring attention to how climate change would affect or impact the [UNESCO] World Heritage sites around the world. We filed a petition with the World Heritage committee, asking for the barrier reef to be put on the endangered list, trying to get a little bit of leverage to try and force the government to do the right thing.

MM: And did the World Heritage people actually put it on the endangered list?

CG: Well, they put it on the endangered list a few years ago, but not related to climate change. They rejected that argument saying that they would have to put in 70% of all the World Heritage sites.

MM: If it was because of that, yeah – okay.

CG: After we brought attention to the problems that we were trying to raise in terms of the government taking parcels [of land] that were within the world heritage site, in terms of development, cruise ship tourism, and how that would impact, was even prior to the whole fight against offshore oil, and we included that in terms of one the reasons why the barrier reef was endangered. It remains, as of earlier this month, through updates from the World Heritage committee that the barrier reef will remain on the endangered list. Along with that, one of our main focuses has been trying to draw attention to the need to protect our rivers and watersheds, so that involves the issue of oil and the issue of dams, because they all impact our watersheds. I do believe, as has been stated by many experts, and I’m no expert, that the future wars will be fought over water, not oil, and we’re rich in water, and we’re ruining our water, and we need to be made aware of and have people appreciate what we have in terms of water resources because people tend to take something for granted until its gone, and we’d rather not get to the point that it’s gone!

MM: Yet another good point for our students, I’d like them to be aware of these struggles over water as well.

CG: The other thing that BELPO continues to do is to try and make the laws understandable to the people on the ground, and we did a guide to public participation in Belize, focusing on the Freedom of Information Act, the Ombudsman Act, and the Environmental Protection Act, giving people sample letters on how they can write a letter. Just last month, we came out with a second edition of it because all of the first edition was gone, and so that was a really happy thing to be able to do, because most of the time you have things that, you always have leftovers of this and leftovers of that, and this time they were all gone!

MM: I’m aware of having lots of leftovers as somebody who writes things, and then having too much left over. That’s great that you did manage to get rid of them all. Just on the World Heritage site, the coastal problem, I’ve been doing a bit of reading over the coastal problems recently, particularly in Belize, and one thing which appears in all of the other central American countries, is the way in which agricultural pesticides are washed down into mangrove areas or affect the reefs, and so on, but not in the case of Belize, it hasn’t been mentioned, that’s the one thing that has studiously not been mentioned.

George Gonzalez (GG): You didn’t mention chemicals.

MM: They don’t. Well, that doesn’t mean to say that they don’t use them though, does it?

GG: Yeah, they use them but they don’t mention them, they try to make it sound like there’s no problem here.

CG: We have tried to bring attention to that as a problem, and there have been a couple of workshops that have been done on land based sources of pollution, as connected to the reef because there’s so much attention that goes into the reef, but everything that happens to our rivers ends up in the reef, so we try and bring attention to what’s being done to the rivers and the banana and the citrus industry do an awful lot. And the sugar canes.

MM: And all the pesticides and all the plastic bags, but the one thing that’s mentioned –

GG: We using something to deal with pesticides – GMO [Genetically Modified Organisms] – a lot of the stuff we grew, and educated the people, is that when they bring GMO, they have to bring the chemicals, it’s one of the chemicals that they are already use here, to make people aware of what happens with all that stuff. Right now, there’s a not major support of GMO, there’s a lot of people against it, but it changes real quick. You get a couple of ministers to say something is good, and the people go for it because they want jobs, or they want to keep their jobs.

CG: Or they want a scholarship for their kids to go to school.

GG: The government has ultimate control over those things.

MM: I gathered that from my recent reading as well, not just from Bruce Babcock’s book, which was an excellent book and very enlightening. One thing that’s mentioned on the coastal thing is the litter – basically bottles, plastic bags, and so on. It struck me that there was one thing being missed, and that was the pesticides, the chemical pesticides and the residues and so on. So I thought I’d ask whether that is still a problem here, even though it’s not mentioned.

CG: It’s definitely a problem.

MM: Really? Okay, fine. On the oil exploration – this is really a last question – can you enlighten me about what the current state is in Belize? Is the government going hell bent for it?

CG: Absolutely. It’s really sad because we’ve done a lot of campaigning, we had a people’s referendum because we have a referendum act in Belize, but the original referendum act was one that says only the government could call for a referendum. So when we had a change of government, they revised it to say that the people could call for a referendum. They really weren’t happy with the changes they made themselves, because when we decided we would do a referendum against offshore oil drilling and drilling in protected areas, thinking about protecting our water and watersheds, the government really opposed the referendum, and ended up where we got the number of signatures that we were supposed to get and more just in case they threw some out, and then government threw 40% of the signatures out because they said the handwriting didn’t look the same, or little things like that. So we went to court on that, challenged it and then on technicality the case was thrown out. The coalition to save our natural heritage which is been the force behind trying to stop the offshore oil drilling and in protected areas, which BELPO is a member of and OCEANA was also a member of the coalition. We did a people’s referendum saying okay, we’ll hold our own referendum just so that you realise how strong the public opinion is, and we got an awful lot of people out to vote – I can’t offhand remember the numbers.

GG: 8/9 thousand or something? [21.53 – check for the figure, but this is what I perceived it as]

CG: It was something like that, of registered voters who came out.

MM: How many now?

GG: I think it’s around 29 or 28 [thousand].

MM: Yeah, that’s a lot in Belize.

CG: The campaign continues; OCEANA and the coalition filed a court case to void concession contracts that the government gave to different oil companies, seven different oil companies, saying that they were illegally granted and there were different parts that did not follow the petroleum act. We won the case and the judge in the case said that the contracts were null and void. The government just recently, because the written decision still has not come out on this, they went saying they wanted a lifting of the injunction on the oil exploration offshore, with these companies where the judge said the contracts were null and void, and they made this argument that the injunction only applied to the government, did not apply to the oil companies, and therefore, the oil companies were going to proceed and government couldn’t do anything, because on their side it was null and void, while any law that I ever came across –

MM: Way of interpretation –

CG: And the Chief Justice ruled in favour of the government on that argument, and I haven’t seen their written decision that is yet to come out.

MM: Are the concessions just for exploration or for exploitation as well?

CG: There’s no line between the two, but our law says that up until 2007, I believe, oil exploration was on the ‘Schedule 1’ list meaning that you had to had an EIA to do exploration, and in 2007 they revised the law saying that exploration didn’t required an EIA, but exploitation did. We already knew from experience that once they find oil, they just start, and it’ll take time for an EIA, and the government doesn’t make them take time for an EIA, they want to get that oil out of the ground as fast and as much they can, so there’s really a very blurred line between the two in terms of concessions for everything – do everything you want. Even with all the promises we’ve seen in so many other countries, where the oil companies have no regard for the people or the land, and I’m always amazed no matter whether or not people think it will be different here, and no matter where you live they always think it will be different.

MM: They also associate oil exploration with great wealth, and if you look at places like Ecuador for instance where poverty levels before oil exploration were at 40% by the UN definitions, and now they’re at 70%, so there’s a higher proportion of the population living in poverty now than there were before. Not only that of course, in the case of Ecuador, they’ve destroyed huge tracks of the Oriente region, which was part of the Amazon basin and left it contaminated, for goodness how many decades in the future, so it certainly leaves them a lot poorer. Despite that, there’s still a general feeling that oil will bring wealth, of course it does to very few people.

GG: You know what they get here? The oil company keeps 95%, the government gets 5%, and of that 5% they have to give 1.5% to the property owner. But they don’t mention that, they mention about the millions that they are going to get, and it’s been made and everything and they make it sound like they’ve made millions, not that the oil company made it, and they’re already almost out of oil, for what 10 years?

CG: Yeah well, Spanish Lookout is.

MM: How long have Spanish Lookout been exploiting oil?

GG: About 10 years, and its running out. They said they don’t have a long time, we only have a few years so what they’re destroying, they’re destroying for a lifetime, only to get a minimal resource.

MM: It’s very similar to gold mining around Central America as well, where the companies leave tiny, tiny proportions 1% or 2% of their revenues, that kind of thing, it’s just frightening. Thank you very much for your thoughts and bringing me up to date with that.

[Onto second recording]

MM: If you’d like to just explain that again, the situation with BEL Fortis and Sinohydro.

CG: Belize Electricity Limited is BEL, and they are the ones that distribute electricity around the country. That used to be owned by Fortis of Canada, and it was nationalised 2 or 3 years ago, and BECO [Belize Electricity Company Limited] is still owned by Fortis, and they own the 3 dams on the Macal River. They sell power to BEL for distribution and BECO, which is the one that owns the dams, are operating under what is called a third master agreement, and the third master agreement them, or guarantees them a 1.5% raise annually. Payment for electricity, whether or not they produce the electricity and compensation for water that goes over the dam in case of flooding, that they don’t produce electricity they can estimate how much electricity was lost by the water going over the dam, and no liability if the dam breaks and there’s loss of life or property downstream. We believe it’s an illegal contract, so if anything happens in term of the dam breaking, we would definitely not believe there’s no liability. Sinohydro are the ones that constructed the dams, they were hired by Fortis, to construct not only the Chalillo but also the Vaca dam, they hired a lot of non-Belizeans but people from Nepal in the main, to come over and work for extremely low pay, and very bad conditions. One of the problems that we’re facing now is more incursions into the rainforest because of all the paths and all the areas that the hydro construction workers opened up, so we’re facing more incursion in terms of taking the natural resources from the Chiquibul Forest and National park, and pretty much clear cutting a lot of the area along the border on the Belize size, they’ve already clear cut the Guatemalan side.

MM: Okay, thank you. And of course the more incursions into the forest, the more it will attract other settlers and colonisers. Do you want to add anything George?

GG: No, I guess the only thing I would say is that in the agreement they are unregulated and when we were fighting Chalillo, we were always amazed of how Fortis would use the excuse of the money its losing on this here, but never mentioned the other one, and we had to remind them it was the same pair of pants. You know, the money went in this pocket and that pocket, for the same person. A lot of people, even though we told them, they just couldn’t grasp that concept, that it is actually happening. Being unregulated, we’re not getting the value of cheap hydro; we’re getting what they say the value is, and one year they tried to charge us, or did charge us, for poles and electrical equipment that was already paid for. So that was an extra, what, 15 million or something?

CG: I think it was 14 million.

GG: It’s not just here; I don’t want people to think that we’re a banana republic and stuff, this going on in the US – upstate New York – Fortis is planning a utility company, a co-op.

CG: In the central Hudson Valley.

GG: And he’s telling them the same stuff that he told us down here, only he’s using down here as his recommendation about what a wonderful guy he is.

CG: And their wonderful environmental history.

GG: And he gave himself an award in the Caribbean.

MM: It’s amazing – it’s incredible how they get away with it. That’s Stan Marshall isn’t it?

GG: They contacted us, and they put us on the radio and TV through satellite, and we let it run on all the stuff that he did, and I think they’re still fighting it. They got permission to buy it.

CG: They bought it and it’s in the appeal process.

GG: But it’s not just here, they’re doing it to there [New York] and then to the people in Canada, they have the same contract that we have here. Some of the ones that found out that it’s just standard big business contracts – it’s call incentives! No taxes, no regulations.

MM: You find that in many other fields of activity as well. Well thank you again, both of you.


Iduvina Hernandez

Interviewee: Iduvina Hernández, Director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy.
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth and Alice Klien
Location: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Date: 27th July 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC



Alice Klein (AK): Why are there so many human rights violations in Guatemala and why do they go unpunished?

Iduvina Hernandez (IH): This question has two types of answers. These things are happening right up to this day, 12 years after having signed the Peace Accords, through impunity, which is of a structural nature in Guatemala. There was the signing of the Peace Accords: for example, in the accord on Strengthening of Civil Power, a series of changes in the security system that particularly indicated the army as the main agent in the committing of human rights violations during the armed conflict. The creation of the Historical Clarification Commission was also agreed, a commission which had some limitations, because it was unable to identify by name the people responsible – the way it was phrased is that they were unable to individualise responsibility.

You could say that the state committed human rights violations or that the army was responsible for something, but you couldn’t say such-and-such general ordered such-and-such plan, ordered such-and-such thing, was executed by this Colonel, with this captain, with these soldiers, at this place, on which day. The commissioners were very intelligent in how they used their mandate; what they did was carry out, to the finest detail, the place in which the violation was carried out, the unit responsible for carrying out the action, and the victims. This report had very positive support, it was drawn up by the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishopric, with Monsignor Juan Gerardi at the head, who identified by name many of those responsible.

Another important help was the release of documents by the National Security Archive, a U.S. NGO [she says NGO, but I don’t think it is.] that revealed information about the Guatemalan army from secret U.S. files, including names of officials and units with the years in which they were in specific locations. It’s not entirely complete, because as the enquiry has deepened, it has become clear that there are some things missing, that there are some officials who seem to have their biography protected by the U.S., as the details of their missions in Guatemala don’t appear. Therefore it is difficult to fit one thing to another … but it has been a big help.

All of this is external help, because there wasn’t any conviction to pursue the violators of human rights during the armed conflict, from which to start a judicial process, from which to send a lesson to the future that these violations were not going to be tolerated. From the moment in which the dust settled on the Peace Accords – and what I’m going to say I have said in other places, I don’t have any problem in saying again – there was a certain level of complicity from the UN’s own office, which had to have verified, acceptance of conduct which did not match up with the disposition to overcome human rights violations. And it turns out that the person assigned as verifier for compliance of the Accords [director of United Nations Verification Mission] is Jean Arnault, who was also the UN moderator during the negotiations for the Accords. In the end he was a kind of judge, and because he was responsible for verifying the Accords which he had helped create through the process of mediation, he was quite lenient towards failures on the state apparatus’ part, especially the army. The Guatemalan army finally found mechanisms for evading full compliance with the Peace Accords, with regards to correcting conduct which allowed it to become the most criminal institution that could exist in Guatemala, and for the most part in the whole of the Latin American continent.

This carries on up to this day. With the exception of Lima – father and son, who are in prison for the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi  – there is not a single high ranking military figure in prison with a clear sentence for having committed an act of human rights violations against the population, nor a General, nor a Colonel, not one person accused of genocide or forced disappearances. All these policies have created a system of terror and barbarity in our land. By these means the army considers itself victorious, and if it considers itself victorious and society accepts that what it did was OK, that conduct, maintained through a tolerance of impunity, prevents the Guatemalans from getting angry at human rights violations, at the many human lives that are lost day by day. They don’t get angry that a women is mistreated, that a group of judges decide to alter documents to pass the illegal adoption of three children, that one has to go on hunger strike to incite the slightest bit of feeling. But they kill bus drivers, they kill children, they kill young people, people are lacking basic resources and society doesn’t get angry. We have lost the ability to get angry because we have developed a high level of structural tolerance, because it works this way in the Justice system with judges, in the Public Ministry with the public prosecutors, lawyers, specialised in developing mechanisms of impunity for crimes against the Guatemalan population.

These structures that functioned during the armed conflict were allegedly for pursuing the rebels, but they went much further than that, because the same rebels were pursued violently, annulling the country’s own laws, they weren’t dismantled, the crimes that people committed during this time weren’t processed … they continue to this day being powerful structures. In this sense a schema of human rights violations exists and survives in Guatemala, because there is a system of structural impunity that maintains itself in the non-compliance with the essence of the Peace Accords signed in 1996.

AK: In your opinion what are the causes of femicide?

IH: There are two terms: femicidio and feminicidio. I’m not a technical expert in the matter because I’m not an activist in the feminist movement, where there is the debate about whether it is femicidio or feminicidio. But I can talk about the murders of women, which are becoming more and more violent each time they occur.

I want to say that this rests much on what was raised in the previous question, but that it also feeds off the cultural sphere in which we find the roots of personal character beyond the Guatemalan State. This is a mutually exclusive and expulsive State, economically and socially – those that have less are those that are mistreated. With regards to gender, women – in the field of State conduct and of society – are the people that are least protected legally in all spheres, and most unprotected with regards to using and claiming their rights in society. The woman is seen as a machine for having children or as an object of desire or in certain social strata if it is a woman who furthermore – and here comes another factor for exclusion – is of ethnic origin. The indigenous people make up the greatest part of the population in Guatemala, but at the same time they are the most excluded. So, if the reason duplicates itself in the sense that in addition to being a woman, she is indigenous too, there is a double reason for discrimination, which indentifies them as people suitable for servitude, as domestic staff in the houses of wealthy people, practically a system of slavery.

In Guatemala a good number of families have the means to pay a woman, generally indigenous, and often very young, a minor, for permanent domestic help, from 6 in the morning to 10 at night, without rest, responsible for everything, for sweeping, mopping, washing the clothes, cooking, going to the market, doing a thousand things, a system of slavery, which is culturally reproduced and inherited through families.

This way of seeing the woman as an object of reproduction, as an object of desire, and as an object of servitude, builds the elements that are also reproduced in the media. And the result is that, if the woman in a poor district of Guatemala is young, the single fact of her having a tattoo means she is identified as a member of a gang. And since she is a gang member, the media practically say that she deserves it. I’m not expecting the media to make political propaganda, or publicise in favour of human rights, but neither do they have to publicise in favour of what is happening. In continuing to feed these prejudices, the media should stress, at the same level and in the same space, actions such as the murder of the lawyer Rodrigo Rosemberg, the murder of any woman, of any person, but especially of any woman.

In Guatemala we have a print media, in an illiterate country, which is a ‘boom’ business in Latin America. There’s a tabloid with the highest circulation in Latin America per capita; it’s called Nuestro Diario and it’s dedicated to sensationalist crimes full of images, because photography stands out. So if the title is “they find her chopped to pieces”, it’s feeding the morbidity and it’s earning money and profiting from the death of people, in this case from the death of women, of which there are plenty. The discussion in the sexist opinion that prevails in the spheres of the security authorities and justice and in other spheres, like with some conservative columnists is – on the deaths of women, if the proportion of deaths of men is always much greater than women … they complain if there are less women that die in comparison to men … so the men should claim that there are hombricidios because the women claim that there is femicide; the womens’ fight to put violent murders on the agenda is questioned and condemned by the male voices in the media, and by the authorities.

But there are various factors that set out the construction of these terms: one relates to the brutality of the murders – generally men are shot, whereas with women, in 90% of the cases the attack is sexually violent, there is mutilation, often to the breasts and the extremities, apart from other types of evidence of mistreatment prior to the murder, so there is a cruelty and rage against the person’s feminine expression; and furthermore, in a good number of cases, there are connections with the partner living with the woman, which implicates the existence of an extreme expression of domestic violence. These are the factors, not the number of women as such, because there may be more than men and because numerically, from the point of view of how many cases are reported, there has been a substantial increase of more than 500%, or be it, from 100, 200, to 500, 700 or more in only one year. Therefore it is a number which really alerts us in an impressive way about the need for this to be documented. If we had to compare this with the case worldwide that raised the alarm about this situation against women, the case of the women killed in Ciudad Juárez [North Mexico], in Guatemala the number is higher, in the same period, despite Guatemala having a smaller population than Mexico, or from the point of view of Guatemala City in comparison with Ciudad Juárez. Therefore, in the context of this foundation of tolerance, of impunity, threshold of tolerance, culture of acceptance of all violent acts and social exclusion, and of the description “she deserved it because she was part of a gang”, or in the past, they said that she was with the guerrillas – and that’s why they were killed. We haven’t overcome this attitude as a society and in the case of the media, we haven’t even been capable of questioning it, nor capable of questioning it in the educational field, all of which feeds these types of situation.

AK: …..?

IH: Amongst other things for reasons that I have already raised. We would see, and that is also what feeds the maintenance of these cases. If the woman is a person who has a tattoo, that stigmatizes her as a member of one of the gangs or as a person linked to a gang, even if she only got a tattoo because she liked it or wanted one. With this argument, the police say “she’s a marera”, and then it’s a case of not having to bother to investigate [the death]. They inform the Public Ministry and the Public Ministry validates the police decision because neither of them want to demand an investigation. It stops being a priority case for investigation. The judges also go along with this and the media explain that a body has appeared, etc, and that it has a tattoo, and that a tattoo is a social code which signifies that this person is disposable. We have built up a social perception that there are disposable people in our society, in terms of gender, relations, characteristics, age, youth.

Martin Mowforth (MM): Are there no daily papers which press on these issues? For example, I have read a daily paper, the first three pages of which were about CICIG. I know that the message of the report was from the right, but at least it gave coverage of the problem. But are there any other daily papers which are a little more questioning or investigative?

IH: No, here in Guatemala when we talk about investigative journalism it’s El Periódico. So it is called, but in reality it uses a team to get evidence, at times facilitated by a source who has their interest against a given functionary. That is to say that they use the concept of investigative reporting to carry out campaigns against a given actor/person in the State when it suits them to affect/get at someone. I’m a journalist by profession. I said that I was going to take a year’s sabbatical and I’ve had 12 years of sabbaticals. I’ll probably never return to journalism. In the period in which I worked, there was a weekly paper, the Crónica, which probably wasn’t the best that Guatemala had or the best example of journalism, but in its time it did have a different attitude. It was mid-conservative and its owner was conservative, but the journalists who were working there had some power, and we even managed on occasions to prevent the publication of certain stories or certain slants of given stories with the arguments of professionalism. So being that the owner was a conservative man as well as the President, it became clear that the Crónica was a media a bit too questioning and so it was disappeared by the government of Álvaro Arzú. After the Crónica was stopped there was no written media in Guatemala which took a questioning stance. Of the traditional media, that is Prensa Libre, El Periódico, Siglo XXI, La Hora, which have national circulations, I would say that La Hora is a little more questioning, but with many weaknesses from a professional point of view.

Beyond that we are talking of a kind of reporting which in reality takes advantage of the moment when it can exploit someone. Technically we can question this kind of reporting. I was a Professor of Journalism and I read the media critically – I held my head in my hands every time I saw these barbarities, almost every day.

Beyond that, independent media don’t exist with the exception of a critical journal called La Cuerda, which is feminist. It’s produced by a collective of feminist women, it’s more open, more democratic, and obviously its focuses are from a more feminist perspective, which in my opinion has some limitations. It’s for an elite – the informed elite of the feminist sector of the capital city of Guatemala who receive it by subscription. The women of La Cuerda are great activists and very strong women in Guatemala’s feminism, but their communication media is very limiting. Also there’s an opinion journal called La Coyuntura which is circulated every 15 days by internet which also means that whoever receives it has to have access to the internet, which is not great.

As regards the radio, which is the most extensive media, ownership of commercial radio is concentrated in four family groups. Open television is concentrated in the hands of just one person and cable television is controlled by three companies which are also associated with the radio and written press because there is a characteristic of the written press. Prensa Libre started as the property of five families, each have 20 % of the shares. So there was no overall majority stakeholder. As the first owners died off, the children developed another vision for the running of the business and began to sell off some shares. Some of the associates began to accrue more shares than others until today when there are just two families who own 80 % of the shares of all the holdings of those companies which make up Prensa Libre, which is not just the daily paper but includes much more such as a cable television channel. And very probably, one of the owners of the daily La Hora is the person who is jumping to the defence of the new owner of Siglo XXI, which was bought a month ago when ownership changed hands.

What this means is that the press, radio and television are concentrated in very few hands and independent media don’t exist. That’s what facilitates the reproduction of an image of social conservativism in Guatemala. It’s very similar in Honduras – the difference is that in Honduras you don’t have Presidents of the Republic who are owners of newspapers. Here that still hasn’t happened, but we have aspirations.

AK: Talking of CICIG (the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala), has it brought about any changes?

IH: I believe that yes. Originally, CICIAG, which was the first proposal pushed by human rights organisations in the year 2000, and which ruffled a few feathers amongst the conservatives and ultra right in Guatemala, was rejected. It was President Oscar Berger who found the perfect excuse not to insist on the ratification of the agreement which would have created CICIG, which had a wider brief than CICIAG. During Berger’s government they began to negotiate a new commission, which was CICIG. We said CICIG is CICIAG. Sholca, sholco in Guatemala is someone who lacks teeth. CICIG had teeth, but CICIAG is CICIG without teeth, maybe with some teeth lacking because the brief it had was very limited.

I think that the Commission, like the Commission on Historic Enslavement, has used every last point of its mandate to advance the investigation. We, like other civil society organisations, have also supported changes in the government authorities and in the Public Ministry because CICIG is obliged to liaise with the National Civil Police and with the Public Ministry, something which the other Commission was not obliged to do. For more than a year, CICIG wasn’t able to do anything worthwhile – in Berger’s last year – because government authorities, who were in charge of the police, did not give sufficient support to ensure that CICIG could employ qualified researchers, and most importantly whose honesty was proven. The same happened in the Public Ministry.

With the change of government, one of the merits of Álvaro Colom’s government is that for some reason the pressure which we are exerting has worked on high government officials and they have managed to make changes in the Ministry of the Interior and the Public Ministry. That marks a radical change of course in the functioning of CICIG. CICIG manages to find …??? … in local institutions with which it has to liaise in order to further its process of investigation. I would say that CICIG started off as sholca, but found someone to put on a prothesis.

I would say that sadly, for what it signifies, the death of Rodrigo Rosemberg gives to CICIG the support of another actor that isn’t widespread but is powerful and has the media, and that is the actor who begins to complain that he doesn’t trust the responsible authorities in CICIG. This says a lot, that is to say, CICIG is not the emblem of human rights organisations and that the press have built us up as the ones who arrest delincuents. No, CICIG is the instrument of society, we believe that to have managed to build this image and to have created this degree of confidence is a positive change. And we hope that there is an attitude of relative honesty on the part of the media who have pushed this, an attitude of understanding that if the symbol of CICIG falls there is not going to be an argument about campaigning against it. So what we want to do now is to make certain that CICIG produces a sustainable change, and that sustainable change in my opinion can only come about through the generation of local capabilities to fulfill their functions. Otherwise, we will have won some cases, but not as a society. We need to have a good enough tool to produce a structural change.

AK: In the Prensa Libre there is an interview with Carlos Castresana, but before that there was an article which says that CICIG is not Guatemalan and that that is not fair. People here in Guatemala, the authorities, say that they don’t want it because it’s a foreign organisation and therefore has no credibility.

IH: It’s a United Nations organisation, so it comes from outside. It’s an external actor, not a local one. It’s not a national entity and has no legitimacy and no credibility. That is part of the arguments which some time ago were used against CICIAG, against CICIG and against MINUGUA because always as far as human rights violations go in Guatemala foreign authorities have been very strong in their remarks. So whoever has supported the system of impunity rebukes this foreign image, which highlights bad Guatemalans, paints us in a bad light internationally and speaks badly of Guatemala. That’s what the military said during the armed conflict, and now some actors still say it and consider the presence of the United Nations threatens national sovereignty. It’s a concrete expression of a very strong xenophobia that is well rooted in that type of actor. It’s a selective xenophobia because it’s towards the external actor who takes a position of questioning the exclusion, the discrimination, the human rights violations. If the US Army comes here, they have to let them enter; if the FBI comes, the FBI must have an office here – there’s no intervention in our sovereignty, there’s no intrusion into our internal affairs. It’s a selective xenophobia which has class origins and an ideological position. I’m impressed – I didn’t know that there was also an article in Siglo XXI (the article that Alice mentions). It’s an indication of a very strong push by the Press Office of CICIG and at times it makes me fearful when they give so much space to CICIG in the media because it could also generate high expectations and the hope that everything can be resolved. When in fact CICIG can’t rise to that, they’ll throw all the rubbish of the world at it.

AK: What are the dangers for a defender of human rights such as yourself?

IH:  In general terms we are in permanent confrontation with a conservative position in the sphere of the media which uses the work of human rights defenders to question all national struggle and all social struggle for the purpose of bringing about national change. We are under the world’s magnifying glass, and when I say all the world I’m referring to the media, to a conservatism so marked from the military intelligence services to the prosecution service of Guatemala. We are questioned because we work with funds from international solidarity and we have practically built something positive in our own culture by paying our dues. This is different from Guatemala’s big companies which seek out every possible way of avoiding paying their taxes.

Our organisations are under the magnifying glass of all types of persecution that we must be sure to have covered all angles of all legal matters. As for prosecutions, in recent years we’ve been cited for prosecutions on three occasions, as an institution and in my case in a personal capacity. In all cases things have worked out well because all our papers are in order; but at each step the organisations feel a kind of persecution by these means, when we’re actually at a strong level. At least it’s a waste of time because you have to assure yourself and get through a full day when we are feeling very strong, and to go a full day whilst they prepare and bring over your documents.

If those aren’t the problems, then the other risks are the threats. As far as we ourselves are concerned these haven’t been a problem, but we have seen human rights defenders who have lost their lives. The number of assassinations is rising in the field of human rights defenders, so the risk even includes death. In our case, in May this year we had a series of threats. Between the 2nd and 5th May, six members of our team received 20 text messages by mobile phone that included death threats and demanded the turnover of declassified information. Declassified information is information which has been held by the security forces, like reports, etc., and which has been made public. So to declassify it was to remove its secrecy. Our organisation worked in support of the Human Rights Attorney in 2003 on the declassification of files relating to the now defunct Presidential Staff, which was the military detachment which provided security to the President of the Republic. According to the Peace Agreements this body was closed down and replaced by the creation of a civil entity. When it was closed down all its documentation had to be incorporated into a public archive. It wasn’t made public, but the Army and the Attorney General’s Office were given the possibility of accessing the information. Our organisation worked for more than a year taking digital photographs and we got 800 disks with almost a million images that contained the information.

One of the text messages insisted that we were going to deliver this information to the Attorney General; but he already had this information. We did all the work, and the Attorney General still had not made it public. But it was as if the military wanted us to deliver this and other information that they believed we had, but which wasn’t in our power.

What information do we have? Declassified information which is already in the public domain, because we have an agreement with the National Security Archive of the United States. We have it and we make it available to the public and we give training mostly to organisations which are pursuing issues of genocide and to lawyers who are working on human rights. We’ve trained them in how to use the documentation to press for judicial procedures, in what kind of information there is, where they can find it and what steps they have to take to ensure that a judge will accept these documents as valid proof when a human rights case reaches them. We’ve been doing this as an organisation, so we understand that this kind of threat could come from them.

Two years ago my house was broken into and the office car (which was at my house) was opened and left open, but nothing was stolen. This is the kind of action we have faced. Others have had burglaries in their offices where documentation has been taken, offices destroyed. Others have been temporarily kidnapped, or beaten, or in extreme cases assassinated. For example, a little while ago youths who were gang members decided to join organisations which were working to re-insert youths into society – they do theatre and cultural things. They killed, assassinated six of them from the same organisation. So, in extreme cases, death can occur.

Up to now, over the ten years that we’ve been operating, we’ve received threats, harassment calls which are emotionally upsetting and have an impact. One has to concentrate on the protection and to invest in psycho-social support. We are 14 people in the team, and six received threats over the course of five days. This had an impact on their work and its quality. At times people think that it’s going to be passed on to the family, and so they think it’s better to get out of here. They begin to think about training another person, because the work we are doing here is so specialised and you simply don’t meet others in the street who are trained in this. So you have to begin to think about training as a part of the process of work.

AK: Talking of impunity, why are some of the ex-militaries working with the police and government?

IH: In fact until September last year, President Álvaro Colom had ex-militaries as his own bodyguard. President Alfonso Portillo had as his Chief of Staff a soldier who was being prosecuted for corruption. Retired General Otto Pérez Molina is the Secretary General of the Patriot Party and during the government of Óscar Berger he worked for a period as a National Security Commissioner and as it became convenient for him to conduct his political campaign he returned to the Congress as a deputy. He also competed as a candidate for the presidency, but lost. So he is the Secretary General of a political party which is an important part of the opposition in the Congress.

In Congress, beginning with Efraín Ríos Montt (who is accused of being the principal architect of genocide and who is a deputy in Congress), and along with him in other parties there are approximately 6 or 7 ex-militaries. Another military man is Colonel Otto Noa. He is at the head of the Santo Tomás de Castilla company in the Guatemalan Caribbean port which is one of the places through which it is suspected that the major part of Guatemalan contraband enters the country in an organised way – all types of contraband, vehicles, drugs – they’re very diverse in their business.

And I would say that they [ex-military men] are in various positions of the state, which are often not visible but they’re key positions and they maintain the structure of impunity.

MM: I don’t want to put you in a difficult position, but what do you think of Álvaro Colom and the possibilities of changing the structure of Guatemalan society?

IH: I don’t think that Álvaro Colom would propose making any change that would imply a structural transformation. I think that up till now he has been an apparently well-intentioned man, but he’s a well-intentioned man without a political party capable of helping him to push, even minimally, his good intentions. In Guatemala there is a phenomenon which shows itself at different levels, in both politicians and in social organisations. I know sister organisations with which we have serious differences on account of the way in which they relate to power – from a poorly understood political pragmatism they accept the idea of giving way on whatever things for the sake of gaining a tiny bit. We believe that negotiation is important, and one can negotiate certain things for the sake of seeking others, but it’s not necessary to negotiate questions of principle or to negotiate so many questions of principle that you end up not knowing where you are and what you stand for. I believe that that has happened to the President of the Republic. In order to reach the presidency and in the belief that having got the presidency would enable him to do everything, he allowed any kind of person to get into his party and to get to Congress and accepted whatever kind of financial support they gave for his campaign. In the end, he remained trapped inside those networks, and not in the social support networks in which he had intended to integrate himself.

So, some changes can be positive, but they are not changes of a structural nature. I begin to doubt if this country’s structure can be changed in the short term in an easy way through politics. I think there’s a need for a sustained effort over the long term, for the construction of an alternative politics which right now does not exist for the vast majority of the Guatemalan population. I strongly questioned the candidacy of Doña Rigoberta Menchú in the last election because it brought out the coffee-growing oligarchy which was the major promoter of the most retrogressive and most racist laws in Guatemala, and which probably explains why, without there being a clear and strong public movement, many of the Mayan population didn’t vote for her but rather for Álvaro Colom.

I believe that in a strongly self-critical approach, she got the message and is very probably trying to construct a new project. I don’t know how easy it’s going to be, because she lost/wasted the most valuable opportunity. But perhaps she will be able to regain this capability in the future, or someone within the movement might manage to build a solid base. At the moment, coming as I do from the left, I can see no possible alternative within the left nor any capacity to build this alternative. So I think that although it doesn’t represent a solid ideological position of the left, perhaps a proposal which arises from the grassroots of the Guatemalan Mayan people may manage to develop some structural change, but it’s not going to be in the short term. And that means that whatever happens, there will be a confrontation with the oligarchy which continues to be the powerful boss of this country, and which, in my opinion, is in large part tied to mafia capital.

MM: I was asking because I recall the hope which was associated with Álvaro Colom’s election, but also the reality is that the things which you face are structural – changes are not going to happen in the short term

IH: I think that he is creating things which could help towards the future, certainly in these programmes which have a secondary or subsidiary effect. But there are people that don’t have anything, don’t have enough to eat from day to day. People have to forget their concerns because they have to concern themselves to provide food from day to day, and also they have to ensure that their daughters and sons get to school, because many of the benefits are conditional on their sending their children to school. That is generating a different relationship between each actor and the state, creating minimum conditions of empowerment and citizenship. That’s not going to yield results, not even for this government; but I believe that it will do so further on in time.

AK: And Rigoberta Menchú – are you hopeful?

IH: I think that if she manages her position in a self-critical way and seeks wide alliances – not in the capital but with other actors – she could be a figure who could convince people from the grassroots. What happens is that political campaigns in Guatemala require millions; people believe that if you don’t have millions, then …. But I believe that there are still possibilities to win over social groupings which are committed to a hard and constant struggle but which offers the only possibility of change and of compromise.

MM: Do you also work with Casa Alianza?

IH:  No, we don’t do anything with them at the moment. We did join forces with them on some activities a few years ago, particularly when the executions of street children began, and especially of those who had tattoos. For us, Casa Alianza was an important ally when it carried out its research into this. That was really the relationship that we had with them. It was very painful for us to know that … the director of the organisation. [This latter refers to Bruce Harris who used to be the Director of Casa Alianza until he left under a cloud – which I can explain some time when we meet up again.][Please also note that this was a silly question really because earlier this year the Guatemalan office of Casa Alianza had to close because of a lack of sufficient funds.]


Daryl Loth

Interviewee: Daryl Loth, resident, guide and hotelier in Tortuguero
Interviewers: Martin Mowforth, Karis McLaughlin and Alice Klein
Location: Tortuguero, Costa Rica
Date: 19th August 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC



Martin Mowforth (MM): Re. the road about which you and Simon Tompsett wrote in an ENCA Newsletter a number of years ago, what has happened about that?

Daryl Loth (DL): The people who were pushing the road were the municipality, a couple of the diputados, were trying to push for the road to improve the economic development of the area. But it was challenged. Someone went to the Sala IV, and SETENA, who do the environmental impact assessments, had to approve the proposal and demonstrate that the road would not have any harmful effect.

Karis McLaughlin (KM): Where was this road to be from and to?

DL: I’ll show you on the map; but basically, if you go round the corner here (pointing to around the bend of the canal) and you’ll find a gasoline filling station – that{s where the electrical lines come in from the mainland. It would follow the electrical line right from Cariari potentially to that last turn before going off to La Pavona … right to the edge of the river here. So they’re talking about putting a parking lot over there and it would cut right through an extension of the National Park which connects the National Park with the wildlife refuge, land that was purchased by the European Community 16 years ago with Fundación Neotropica. It was purchased with European Union money with the local parliament to purchase the land to convert it into national park to create a biological corridor. And then a couple of years later, someone wanted to build a road through it, which would be a giant slap in the face for the European Community.

Anyway, that’s where it stands until they can prove that it won’t have any environmental consequences.

MM: So SETENA turned it down on the grounds that it would have environmental consequences?

DL: I don’t think it even went to SETENA. It was challenged I believe in the Constitutional Court and they didn’t let it go further.

MM: OK. Well the other issue which you once explained to me on one of the treks I did with you round the Cerro, was the problem of squatters and colonizers – perhaps people who have been dispossessed elsewhere and who are looking for somewhere new. And you explained about a 30 day rule – I don’t know whether this still exists – where if they could prove that they had been on this land for 30 days or more they would be granted a kind of titling which meant that they could not be thrown off.

DL: I don’t know about the 30 days any longer, but there is a certain amount of time which must be respected. Some people move onto land and will plant fruit trees that are a few years old and will say that they have been here for this long – I’ve been here for this long, see, I planted this tree. And of course all their neighbours, who will be in the same boat as them, will be witnesses and will vouch for them. I was speaking to the folks at Caño Palma (Biological Station) just yesterday. They did a census and there are now over 300 people in the area of the Cerro. Fifteen years ago, there were none. Now there’s a school.

MM: So there’s a degree of permanence. Within the National Park (further south of there), do you have the same problem of squatters, colonizers coming in in the same way?

DL: I don’t think there are squatters in the National Park. I haven’t heard of any. The problems are with people using the buffer areas, which are demarcated as buffer areas. Now people are moving onto those and clearing those.

MM: The protection is not the same then?

DL: It’s difficult. There’s plenty of protection right here by the National Park offices where the principal entrances are, but if you’re a hunter or you’re doing something illegal, you’re not going to come in the principal entrance. There’s a 100 square miles, it’s huge, and it’s mostly bordered by people’s farms and banana plantations; so there’s an infinite number of places to come in and out.

MM: And the Cerro is one of those buffer zones is it?

DL: The Cerro is actually inside the Wildlife Refuge. (6:08) They call it the rebajo, the refugio; It’s officially inside, but the village is outside. But they push right up to the limit. They go in there with a GPS and they’ve marked it out. (6:23) People still go in, even if not in terms of settlement, but in terms of gathering wood for building things, cutting down trees and things like that; they are going in to the refuge to get their building material and firewood.

MM: Well that’s very helpful and has brought me up-to-date. So, what do you consider to be the pressures on the park at the moment in terms of this so-called development?

DL: You mean sustainable development, as opposed to raw material?

MM: I’m concerned about raw material extraction and illegal development, and whether there are any pressures from specific sectors such as hunting, or farming, or maybe the plantations?

DL: Every once in a while there are stories of people coming into this forest, coming down the river and squatting on some land, National Park land, cutting down trees and taking the wood out. It’s land that some people claim is theirs, or people sell it to them. I don’t know how legitimate they are or not. But the Park is pretty good at getting onto those people; and people do come in from the road and they hunt and they take out things.

MM: So there are no large-scale threats at the moment from big plantations or mining operations, or whatever?

DL: I believe that (8:12) that there are a couple of things where banana plantations have not respected the rule about the edge of the river – it’s supposed to be 50 metres, as I understand – in the buffer zone.

MM: The Rainforest Alliance has these standards.

DL: ISO. …. I think there’s still a lot of pressure from weekend hunters – you see people are allowed to hunt for their lives, to feed themselves. That’s legal, but some are trying to claim it’s legal and that they’re surviving on it. But they have their land cruiser and their boat on a trailer and have high-powered weapons – they’re not just taking wood pigeons, they’re taking deer and anything that moves. There are a lot of people who come just athe weekend just to bag a mapuche or a deer or a wild pig. And people start on the coast taking a few turtles, babies – right here in front of the village. Four days ago, between mile 5 and mile 18 on the public access beach, it was estimated that about 10,000 eggs were taken at night, in one night – over 100 nests were dug up by people from Limón in ocean-going flat boats. They pulled up – it was calm that night when they set out. They landed about 10 – 15 people and just dug up 100 nests.

MM: That would be for sale of the eggs?

DL: Yes. People like to have their eggs with yoke. And after a couple of weeks, they’re going to have a lot of little baby turtles in there, and people don’t like to have them in there. In the first few days, they want to buy them fresh with a yoke and white. And people from the new community at the base of the Cerro – that’s where most of the people are coming from – are involved to keep trouble off the beach, at that end out near the airport. There have been several arrests but it’s hit and miss. A lot of the people don’t survive on tourism, they are not …

MM: The people in the village are probably not involved in any way, are they?

DL: They are. There are people in the village who aren’t getting the trickle-down, and some of them – well, you have them everywhere – in every country – people who think that National Parks take their constitutional rights away. Those who hunt and gather, and so they against ……

MM: The reason I made that assumption is that there are so many people who make their living from tourism.

DL: You wouldn’t believe how many of the long-standing guides, local people, who show up at the meetings and talk about the importance of conservation and the importance of maintaining this resource that provides them with their daily bread, and at night they’ll join in the feast of the turtle or the turtle eggs. There’s one guy here who used to work for one of the hotels, one of the bigger hotels in the area, and who used to do the patrolling of the beach for the CCC to do their survey. He used to walk the full length of the beach. He got paid $75 each time he did that – four times a month. So he’s getting $300 per month which is an average Costa Rican wage. He got that for doing one day a week, and he worked for one of the biggest conservation organizations in the area, and worked for one of the foremost hotels in the area that had a reputation for conservation, and was a turtle guide. In the off-season, when the turtle season ended, someone caught him with a gill net, fishing illegally on the other side of the river, trying to catch fish. I don’t know whether he was going to sell them or what; but he had the net confiscated; he had his boat confiscated; he had his turtle guiding license revoked; he was fired from his job at the hotel; he was fired from his job at the CCC. This is the kind of mentality that some of the people here exhibit, which I find shocking.

MM: Are there any extra pressures from tourism itself on the integrity of the National Park, but also on biodiversity?

DL: Biodiversity. I would say not. I don’t think it’s affecting a lot in terms of biodiversity. They’ve gone from two cycle outboard (motors) to four cycle outboards which are a lot less …. I don’t think there are problems from the fumes or the wakes given by the boats – I don’t think there are any effects on biodiversity in the park due to those. The people walking on the trails in the park that are temporarily closed – the main trail in the park – because the footpath was getting wider and wider because people were walking off the trails to avoid the mud. They need a big cash injection in the park to build trails that people will stay on, and therefore will not have an impact on biodiversity. But it was being affected, not necessarily by numbers of people, but by people walking through and round to avoid the puddles and then turning the sides into puddles – this was destroying some of the habitat at the side. So that was happening, but the Park stopped that. And we have to raise money – and there seems to be no money in the public coffers to rebuild the trail.

MM: But in your experience, over the last 15 or 16 years that you’ve been in the area, you haven’t noticed any loss of wildlife?

DL: Not due to tourism. You’ve seen at night how the turtle tours are managed. We used to go out when there were 250 people on the beach – 10-15 people per guide – might be 20 guides – all walking up and down on the beach looking for the turtles. Then the National Park put on a limit as more and more people came. They said (16:09) OK, 400 people per night – that’s the limit – 200 from 8 till 10 pm, 100 in the public beach, 100 in the National Park. Then this was repeated from 10 till 12. That was up until about 4 years ago, I think. But the number was being exceeded – the demand was greater than the supply of spots on the beach during part of the year. So they devised a new system – they’re using a system of scouts on the beach. They have news of where the turtles are, and they manage where the groups can go – one group at a time to see a turtle. There’s a trail system just inside the National Park parallel to the beach, just inside the beach, with an exit every 100 metres. So we are not walking up and down the beach any more, we’re not tripping over logs, we’re not scaring turtles back into the ocean as we used to do, especially when we’re coming back after seeing everything, and people just want to get back home, but the turtles see us and get scared back into the water. (17:16) That’s called a false call, when they come out and …. . There are far fewer false calls now than there used to be because the tourists are only going out on the beach exactly where the turtle is – or within 50 metres of where the turtle is. So there are more people than there have ever been and there is less impact on the turtles that there has ever been. It’s a very well managed system, but I guess the walking trails are the ones where you can see the turtle tours are having an impact. (17:54) But it’s partially it’s not just for saving the trails, but it was the legal issue as well, the liability – if someone were to hurt themselves, then the National park trail was open saying that it was adequate for walking but it was not, and it could be proved that it was negligent to allow people to go out there, then it could be sued. (18:28)


DL: There are limits to the number of boats that are allowed on the canal, (Names of rivers, canals, such as Caño Palma, Tortuguero Canal) each one has a specific number of boats that are allowed to navigate in the canal for certain time periods ……

MM: There are certainly a lot more boats now that use the electric motors. You were the first to use one.

DL: Yes, I’ve been using one now for some years.

MM: Also there were several today that were just rowing.

DL: Yes, and there are some rivers that you are only allowed to go into if you have an electric motor, and some where no four cycle motors are allowed. (19:47)

MM: Gave thanks and asked for further recommendations for interviews.

DL: One other interesting thing is a greater number of jaguar sightings recently (20:28). That could be a result of the diminishing buffer zones. What were traditionally jaguar hunting grounds are now turning into farm fields; so there’s a concentration inside the Park. So there might be more jaguars per sq km than there have ever been here. It’s nature’s balance. I was in a photo studio a couple of months back and someone was doing some re-touching of a photo of a jaguar that looked like it had a strange pose to it. I asked what kind of pose is that? Well, it’s actually been propped up by sticks and I’m air-brushing out the sticks. Oh, really, what happened? Well, some farmer in Siquirres shot the jaguar because it was eating his farm animals. A trophy picture. So this is showing us again the conflict between humans and biodiversity.

MM: Anything else you’d like to add?

DL: (21:52) One of the effects we get here is that we get agricultural chemicals washed down from the banana plantations, fungicides and vermicides and pesticides and herbicides. I think it’s the fungicide which is the one that they know in Nicaragua – nemagon.

MM: They use that because they’re exported over the Atlantic.

DL: Apparently, it causes birth defects and sterility. And they have been found at levels – in the river, coming down from the banana plantations up there – at ten times the level that in a laboratory would cause changes in protein – the synthesis of protein could lead to birth defects and genetic problems. And they’re finding levels of these toxins at ten times higher in a laboratory that would be necessary to cause these problems. We think that may be having an effect on the manatis. These heavy substances come down the river in the sediment, and when that gets churned up they are absorbed by plants which are eaten by manati; they’re absorbed by fish which are eaten by crocodiles. So it comes right into the food chain. We have seen in the past fish kills on the level of thousands. By the time they get here, they’ve been in the river for a couple of days, so finding the smoking gun is very difficult. So the banana plantations have gotten off scott-free. We all know what’s causing it, but we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt where the spill took place.

KM: Have there been any health effects on humans?

DL: Well, probably the biggest human health problems from agricultural runoff have been in Siquirres where their water supply has been decimated by the pineapples. One plantation was closed down – I don’t know whether it was Del Monte or who, but they were shut down by the Ministry of Health, and some of the local people were complaining about the water, and others were saying you can’t shut them down – that’s where we work.


María Consuelo Sánchez

Interviewees: María Consuelo Sánchez, Director of the Asociación Quincho Barrilete
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth, Karis McLaughlin, Alice Klein, June Mowforth, Ken Martin, Sue Martin
Location: Managua, Nicaragua
Date: 6th July 2009
Theme: Violence and abuse against children; family breakdown; The Quincho Barrilete programmes.
Keywords: TBC


María Consuelo Sánchez (MS): When there’s a holiday the kids also think they have a holiday from the Centre. So they don’t come in, or very few of them come in. But it’s OK … XXXX … The important thing is that they always treat the Centre of Attention as an alternative to their problems. Normally there are 60 – 80 kids with us each day, one session in the morning and one in the afternoon; and the rest of them are in their communities, because the Association attends to an average of 200 children annually. Some finish the process of care; others don’t. But we get an average of 200 – 210 annually. The kind of attention which Quincho gives includes those children who are interned with us for very short periods whose lives are at risk. The person who rapes them or abuses them is within their family, and this includes the period whilst the abuser is being processed by the police until they go to jail. The other kind of attention is for those who come and go on a daily basis, from Mondays to Fridays, and who live in the communities.

Interview Team (IT): These latter still live with their families?

MS: Yes, one characteristic of these children who we look after is that almost all of them have a family, and our studies reflect the fact that the families do not know how to educate them in any way, don’t know how to look after them, and live in poverty, with violence, lack work and opportunities, and suffer social exclusion. So the child leaves the family, and then they go through a stage of rebellion, and the family kicks the child out. Then this pushes them into drug abuse, alcohol abuse and into being victims of sexual exploitation, and on top of all this the problem we get is sexual violence. So, it is the abuser in the house, the stepfather, or the uncle or the neighbour who carries out the rapes. So all these circumstances are what push the children into this situation.

IT: But who are most at risk? The ones who live with you in AQB’s centres?

MS:  Yes, for example those who have only just been raped stay with us. Police proceedings are very slow during that time, and so the children stay with us. It’s important that we work in parallel with the family, not just the boy or girl, because one of the problems which we always face is that the family is afraid to make the denunciation/accusation. For example, if it’s the partner of the mother of the girl who raped the child, then they’re afraid to make the denouncement because she knows that she’d then be left on her own and that she wouldn’t have any economic income – so rather than that, she chooses to learn to live with the rape. So things then return to normal for the mother.

IT: ….

MS: So, in our programme of family empowerment, for example, say we have to confront a neighbour in a community which says “it’s the child who offered herself, it’s the child who was guilty, she took advantage of the man who was alone and knew that he had work and money.” This is really difficult because it’s a struggle against a cultural problem in this country versus what we could say are the rights of the child. Then the boy or girl becomes depressed and stay away from school; then the parents put them to work because they aren’t studying. On top of this you have the problem of poverty where the mother has to go out to work leaving the kids uncared for. So this is a vicious circle; poverty is a vicious circle. And this country is very, very impoverished, and there is a lack of opportunities for work; and along with this problem you get a majority of parents with very low levels of education. Perhaps they have managed to get through primary school, which is six years, no more, and they can barely read and write, so what are they going to work in? Selling water, selling in the streets at the intersections. I always ask and say that a mother who arrives home after spending all day in the sun and having earned very little, on seeing their child, an adolescent rebel going through the normal stage of adolescence, then the mother goes … XXXX. And our studies tell us that these families are dysfunctional and hardly ever do you see the mother with the father of her children. In fact the mother is never with the father of her children. So normally what happens is that the mother seeks another partner or marriage and then has another child with the new partner, and then the same happens again. So she has three or four children all by different partners. Finally, when the children are bigger there comes the moment when the last partner … XXXX. So it’s very, very difficult.

IT: What proportion of the children who you deal with here at Quincho have been abused?

MS: Sexual abuse is about 30 per cent. I could give you some statistics here – there’s another big percentage who have been raped.

IT: How many have been raped?

MS: It’s a study which we did some time ago about the population of children when they enter the centre.

IT: The most at risk who stay here?

MS: Yes, we have three places which give attention with different phases of care at each. This is the place where originally the girls most at risk stayed. The girls who are being sexually exploited are in a house which we have by the side of Parque de su Jardín, by the Mercado Oriental. The Parque de su Jardín is a centre where we have around 70 boys and girls – already some have reached adulthood, and many take drugs. The profile I want to give you at the moment is that here we give literacy classes from the age of ten, 75% of them attend school – about 15% of the boys and 29% of the girls/young women don’t attend school – always it’s the women who have less education.

Here is the problem: 76% experience intra-family violence; 31% experience sexual violence; 58% spend much of their time on the street; 18% (almost 19%) are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation; 21.4% have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation; and 31% work on the streets, either selling or simply playing. Basically, the children who are not at school are on the streets.

IT: But is there also a certain proportion of children who are selling on the streets during the afternoon but who during the morning go to school?

MS: Yes, but we’re against that because this is what happens – for example, if the child goes to school in the morning and in the afternoon goes out to sell, when do they get down to any of their own studies/homework? This is like a family breakdown …. intra-family violence, how much physical violence and psychological violence do they suffer – as well as the sexual violence that we’ve already talked about? How much hassle, how much abuse, how many rapes, how many attempted rapes?

IT: And how are children referred to Quincho? By the police? By the Minsitry of the Family?

MS: Yes, we get them from the police, through the Ministry of the Family or through work that we do in the community. We sometimes identify some cases and take them, but we inform the Ministry of the Family. Everything is coordinated with the government.

IT: Do you not have any street educator teams working in the streets now?

MS: No, but remember that within our work the psychosocial team is permanently in the community? Why? Because our work is now as much with the family as with the child. So we make interventions in the family whilst the child is there in the house with the family.

IT: Do you have education programmes for the families in your centres or do your teams go to the houses?

MS: Both. We have both schooling for the parents who come here and family interventions which we make in the homes. Because if there is a situation of really bad violence or a lack of communication, it’s best to approach them in the family.

IT: Are your centres solely for the children? I expect that there are some cases where the women, the mothers, also need protection?

MS: Yes, but what we do is coordinate with other NGOs which look after the mothers.

Now, this is interesting because the girls almost always have worse problems than the boys. For example, in intra-family violence it’s almost equal – 33% and 34%; but in terms of physical violence, dishonest abuse, the girls are always on the receiving end more than the boys; psychological violence is equal; as regards sexual violence, 6.4% of the boys and 28% of girls; as regards rapes, 2.1% of boys and 15.7% of girls; attempted rapes are greater on the girls than the boys; and commercial sexual exploitation is equal. All sexual violence has increased a lot.

IT: Entrapment?

MS: Entrapment is a situation where the person lives in sexual exploitation and knows that they are living with it, in which case the process of recuperation is much slower, because, as in my case for example, I was the victim of sexual exploitation but I was clear that it provided me with money, an economic benefit. That gave me the power to go to a restaurant, to change my clothes and that type of thing. So it was an option for life which I had. And it’s more difficult to break that when you are clear that it’s a sexual activity which brings you money. I didn’t like it, but it paid and poverty presses you to do things like that. Here, on the other hand, I enjoy what I am doing.

But it’s difficult even now because already the link has been broken, including with the family.

IT: What do you mean by ‘dishonest’ abuse?

MS: Dishonest abuse is a proposition – it’s someone who proposes “I am going to have something with you and I am going to give you something …” But nothing happens; it’s punishable by law because in this case it involves minors. Now, for example, we have a serious problem with health because many of the children come to us under-nourished; 30.5% have psychosocial problems; 28.2% are depressed; sexually transmitted diseases have increased a lot in recent years. Nowadays we attend to many more children who are being sexually exploited, something like 60%.

Suicidal tendencies are about 9.4%. We have had children kill themselves because of the type of life that they lead. We get self-mutilation and attempted suicides. In terms of disabilities, we have some disabilities. We have a boy of 17 and a girl of 15 who had a baby and we pray that nothing is transmitted vertically to the child. But what we try to do here is assess the characteristics which the children have. We have had orphans, we have had child labourers, we’ve had victims of sexual exploitation, kids who have lived on the streets for seven years, kids who use drugs and alcohol, particularly the glue-sniffers, we’ve had depressives, psychosocial problems, paternal irresponsibility at an early age when fathers abandon the babies.

IT: Do you have a programme for mothers and babies or for those who are pregnant?

MS: Yes. We have the ‘Club of Pregnant Adolescents’ for when they enter the centre. That gives the guidelines for child rearing and, above all, how to accept the situation because many times they are such children that they don’t want to accept the fact of the pregnancy; but as abortion is penalised in Nicaragua, they have to have the baby – there’s no other option. They also learn to read and write, without going to school. And femininity, they’ve been a victim of physical and psychological violence from the father, made pregnant at an early age, perhaps when they are just 15, and perhaps the family are violent and the mother abandons them. Or perhaps they live with the father, hardly able to read and write.

IT: Is it a recent problem?

MS: I think it’s a problem for the whole country because the truth is that I consider that if the mother is not prepared for this the child will be a victim of these circumstances. Sadly the government does not provide preventive measures for pregnancy. The woman has to have a minimum of five children before they will operate. So the mother cannot decide to have just one or two. So this generates yet more poverty. At the same time, whatever type of contraceptive the woman wants has to be bought by her – it’s not supplied – so the woman gets pregnant and has a pile of kids. And as we were saying before, normally it’s not with the same partner. So, “I have 5 or 6 kids; I don’t have a house; I don’t have work; I have no opportunity; the government, the state gives me nothing; so I get poorer and poorer.”

IT: Do you promote the use of condoms?

MS: Yes. That’s one of our strongest tasks because more than anything it’s part of the prevention of STDs and HIV. It’s part of their education as well because we consider that, more than avoiding pregnancy, the power to be aware of what they have will be of use to them all their lives. It’s one of our really important roles, but it’s hard.


39.3% take drugs; the girls are more into alcohol than the boys because of their depressive state and all the trauma of violence that they suffer. ….

IT: Even in our country which is more developed, women use alcohol more.

MS: It’s the women who bear more social pressure because they don’t have a house, a husband, work and all that. The average age at which they start work is 12 for the boys and 14 for the girls.

IT: What’s the lowest age?

MS: 8 years old. And this brings consequences for malnourishment because on the street they don’t eat well. Being on the street is like an addiction – the stimulus of the street. But they also get HIV infection, physical, sexual and psychological violence. But they do get tired and worn out by being on the street.

Tremendous problems on the street. 51% of boys were outside the school system and 71% of girls after the average age of 13. For all these reasons they are outside the school system. Just imagine being a pregnant child out of the school system. 16% of the girls had left school because of being pregnant. And out of the total of 172 children surveyed, 73% had deserted school.

IT: Who did these studies?

MS: We do a profile of all the kids who enter our system.


MS: ABOUT VOLUNTEERS: They’re from a Spanish university and they commit to produce something, a document or some product. They’re doing a communications strategy with a view to being able to project the Association internationally, with the aim of generating more resources. For example we have a Japanese volunteer who helps us a lot in the handicrafts work – he’s lived with us for two years now. He says he likes Nicaragua better than Japan.

We have some agreements with, for example, PLANAGUA, a Canadian NGO. They sent a social worker and left with us a diagnostic report on the social work that we do. We always ask that they know they have a command of the language, because if they don’t and they come for less than two months then it is hopeless and we can do nothing. One thing that they can do for us is produce a diagnostic report, an evaluation. We are particularly interested in this because of the quality of the relationships that the children have with their families. With mothers for instance, 34% say it is good, 9 regular, 9 bad and 1 violent and very bad relationship and 16 say that they don’t live with their mother. With the father, 9 say it’s good, 14 regular, 11 bad, 1 violent and 16 don’t live with them. With siblings, things are much better, 65% say it’s good, 19 regular, 8 bad, and 3 violent – an increase. (In my case, my mother mistreated me, I mistreated my brother, and so it would be obvious that I would then mistreat my offspring.) And 15% live without siblings. …. With stepfathers 5% say it’s good, 3% regular and 10 bad. Probably there’s a lack of information here. Probably this reflects poor information because when some kids arrive, they are extremely closed and don’t want to talk. In the case of the stepmother, we never get good information. It seems that it’s always a bad relationship. In the case of grandfathers (21 of them), they do somewhat better than uncles and partners because they have their own partners. Cousins and nephews/nieces also do better than others, possibly because they aren’t part of the live-in family.


MS: I believe that this is one of the achievements that we have made because it has enabled us to take many decisions about our work. When Quincho Barrilete began, we had this idea about care that separated the boys from the girls. Each house/centre got its own money and gave its attention/care accordingly. Now we have a Quincho Barrilete much more integrated and I believe that this is one of the things which has helped us a lot, because in the end we are only one project.


MS: We have made a care programme, detailed in these supporting documents, which more or less show the route that the kids who enter follow. We register the child and carry out a diagnostic inspection of them and their family situation. It is this which yields the statistics which we have given you. After designing a care plan which includes the denouncement, the health care, special protection (the laws of the country allow for special protection), and psychosocial care for the strengthening and conscientisation of the family. Then we see a small advance – the idea is that the child follows a clear programme of need – only one for each child.

If I’m in the community, for example, and I detect that a particular child is referred to me by neighbours – maybe a neighbour tells me that there has been a certain situation, maybe sexual exploitation of an adolescent, maybe the mother has put the 13 year old to work in a dance salon – then, ….


MS: So after that detection, or after the study of that detection, and after all that we do with the family so that a child can enter our programme ….


IT: Who has access to these files?

MS: Only … XXXX …

IT: So they come from the Ministry to here?

MS: Only that.

After we have all the necessary information for their registration, then all that remains is to include the child. And that’s when we do the diagnostic of the child and their family. This includes a socioeconomic evaluation of the family, whether the child goes to school (because Quincho also supports the school). And if I see that the father or mother has some form of income, then we can support with other things, but not with uniform because we don’t want to take over the responsibility of the parents.


MS: So when we have all the background information collected, we send a psychosocial report to the Ministry which gives all the information and all the support that we have given along with a full picture of the family situation.

IT: The Ministry of the Family has social workers?

MS: Very few, and they’re very weak.


Delmy Valencia

Interviewee: Delmy Valencia
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: CIS, San Salvador, El Salvador
Date: 28th July 2010
Theme: A wide-ranging discussion of development issues in El Salvador, but especially covering the CAFTA-DR free trade treaty and maquilas.
Keywords: TBC


Delmy Valencia (DV): The recent storm Ida which battered the country caused a price increase in vegetables, because this storm came to ruin the crops. 80 per cent of the vegetables consumed in El Salvador come from Guatemala, we buy bananas from Honduras, and we buy cheese from Nicaragua. The natural disaster affected these countries, ruining the crops. There was a brief shortage of vegetables which caused a rise in prices, an increase in dairy products, and an increase in the cost of bananas that we get from Honduras because our own production is not enough. So there was a loss of a million (dollars?) in crops.

The government is currently distributing agricultural kits, giving farmers seeds for purple bean, sorghum, corn, coffee, because the campesino does not have the economic resources to buy fertilisers and to harvest as in previous years. This has been done to make sure there is enough production so that at least we do not have shortages of these products in the market.

As a result of all this, at no point were the prices of foodstuffs lowered again. The National Service of Territorial Studies (Servicio Nacional de Estudios Territoriales, SNET) is taking precautions against various tropical storms that are coming and will cause problems in the region and we are very aware that we will have food shortages. What measures are the Government taking? Well, I already mentioned that the Government has a unit which is providing all such measures to help alleviate the situation. I have not mentioned that such an environmental problem has caused gullies (by soil erosion). There are houses which have been carried away by the mud coming down from the mountains.

So, with the food problem we rely heavily on Guatemala; we have to buy grain, we depend on other countries with this issue. We believe that the food shortages, even if we have the support of the World Food Programme for the most essential needs, there may come a time when we will have the money to buy, but we are not going to have to buy. This is something that the Government must move forward, take measures that will enable us to address these types of situations, because we could end up having famines. So, the efforts currently being made by the Government with regards to Central American integration, if we do not fight because the five Central American countries are becoming a nation without borders, where will we be able to exchange without legal bindings or borders this problem. We are going to have a crisis which could lead us to other problems, like what I was pointing out about water.

With water, we could end up with a serious social problem. There is one study, by the person who we will meet this afternoon, they have an estimate on how long before we are going to be buying water from other countries.

So, the food issue is very important, it is an issue which needs to be addressed in greater depth. We have lost millions which has forced us to try and buy from other countries, but Guatemala did not have anything for itself, much less to sell to us, as the storm Ida also affected them. That has created a series of problems and the first has been the rise in food prices.

The Free Trade Agreement is a huge issue. I do not know who you are going to speak with about this Agreement.

Martin Mowforth (MM): In other countries, but here, no. We have already addressed this issue in various interviews, in Panama and Costa Rica. This topic is the least developed in the current chapters. I have been following not only the development of CAFTA, but also the European Union Association Agreement.

DV: One person who could give you very valuable information and who has written books and has been on the board of … Dr. Raúl Moreno, an economist. He wrote a book about the Free Trade Agreement.

MM: One issue that interests us especially in El Salvador, is the issue of water and water supply, privatisation or efforts to privatise it and the campaign against privatisation. I understand that the Suchitoto 14 was a problem caused by water privatisation. Could you tell me more about this issue and your views on what is happening and how the campaign against privatisation is going?

DV: Thank you for the opportunity to share with you some issues to do with the development of my country, especially on an issue as important as water. Specifically, I was involved in the events which happened in Suchitoto which had to do with an attempt by the Executive Power, then president Antonio Saca, who sought release from the city of Suchitoto, which is a city where the FMLN has governed since they signed the peace accords and is a landmark city in the country, especially for the Left, the first law of privatisation of water.

Many social organisations and NGOs found out about this attempt at privatisation and there was a demonstration by all the social organisations in the country and of non-governmental entities, to try and stop what they were trying to do that day. The protests by the social organisations were suppressed by the Saca Government in a combined military action with the National Civil Police. It was the police chief at that time who was later the presidential candidate for ARENA, Rodrigo Ávila. The social organisations attempted to block the road, to prevent the leader reaching Suchitoto. There was also a demonstration boat in the Lake Suchitlán, to block some of the intents of the Salvadoran ruler.

These demonstrations were suppressed by the army, supported by helicopters, large amounts of tear gas was used, some people were hit, some were caught, and with these actions the attempt at water privatisation immediately failed, but those caught were subjected to the anti-terrorism law. Then there was a commotion at the international level because this has to do with the life blood of our population. As a result we had people who were tried. Later, after the trial, the people arrested were dismissed, that is, they were released, but under pressure from national civil society and under pressure from international agencies. It was almost heroic, the actions of those people who were imprisoned, who were mistreated, whose human rights were violated.

MM: How long did they spend in prison?

DV: More than two months. The US on this issue, before then we were visited by a foundation, a niece of the ex-president Kennedy, daughter of the Senator came to the front … Kennedy in support of saying yes to water and no to privatisation.

The government agency that administers water here is called ANDA and it supposedly delivers the service at a basic minimum cost. And it should also be noted that there are municipalities, such as the municipality of Suchitoto which delivers water services for the city of Suchitoto where the FMLN govern. That is an example of how municipalities can supply water. There are some non-governmental associations, such as the association in the municipality of San Pedro Perulapán in the Cuscatlán province, called ACOSAMA, which administers water and which also takes care of the environment. This civil society organisation was financed with funds from USAID through CARE. In the country we also have non-private institutions that deliver water services.

So we have three types of water delivery to the population: one through associations, the other through the municipalities, and ….. (no mention of the third, presumably the non-private institutions No, the other being ANDA).

The country has seen declining levels of water collection as a consequence of deforestation and neglect of the environment. Construction companies have destroyed large areas of land, farms, with a zeal and spirit for accumulating economic resources. They have built, then there has been incredible deforestation. This has happened over the last 20 years. So as a result El Salvador is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world. Here it rains one hour too hard, we already have emergencies in some places, the ground is very loose and full of water, and on top of that we have the water pipes, the piping that goes in, that of the houses, the piping is old, they are old water systems and when they block up the drains they cause serious flooding. We have had some serious misfortunes.

I think that very soon in this country we will have to be buying water from another country. We believe it could be a fight for water. Water is becoming more and more scarce every day, precisely because we have not looked after the environment. Many trees have been cut down, large farms have been turned into residential development estates, nature has hit us with earthquakes, this is a country where the earth shakes a lot and this has filled in springs and other sources of water. With the natural disasters, storms and tropical depressions that we have experienced, our land has been eroded and washed away too much, but also major springs have been covered.

To some extent there is a cultural reason that has contributed to this problem, which is that in the countryside we have many people that chop down trees for firewood; so, they cut down trees but they do not plant them. That has also contributed. The modernisation in which we find ourselves with regards to plastics, bottles and disposable products also has created problems and we are going to have a water crisis very soon.

The fight against privatisation of water is a fair fight in which all the Salvadorans must get involved. There are bodies which are fighting for this and it is not yet resolved, for example UNES (Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña), also the Centre for Consumer Protection (Centro para la Defensa del Consumidor, CDC), they have sought support from international agencies so that our springs will not disappear completely.

Naturally, the issue of water also lends itself to the greed of transnationals. We have bottled water here, enormous transnationals and pure water does not exist in this country. The water in all parts of this country is heavily contaminated. The National University has done studies, UNES (Unidad Ecologica Salvadoreña) has done research, and our water contains faecal matter, contains parasites. I suggest that you investigate it, maybe you could follow this up with UNES. There is a study. Water quality in some parts of this country has caused kidney problems and some studies have indicated that this is precisely because of the quality of the water. Many water sources, where before water could be taken without problems, now the water is grossly contaminated, now it is not colourless, now it is not odourless, instead it has a greenish-blue colour, it has flavour and it is full of worms/maggots and faeces.

With the issue of mining in the world we know that this will cause further problems in the environment. It will poison us even more and right now there is a fight against mining, there is a specific movement against mining. In Cabañas, there have been deaths, there have been people ‘disappeared’, murders, because we are playing with money, very big money.

I believe that on the issue of water in El Salvador, we should point out the attempts at privatisation, water quality, and how natural disasters, the greed of big capital in construction, and the logging of trees have contributed to having water unfit for human consumption, and sometimes not even for washing in. For example, in the municipality of San Pedro Perulapán there is a place in which the children have many skin disorders (se llenan de muchas cosas en la piel) precisely because of the quality of the water. So here we have very serious problems with the threat of privatisation, how the quality is having an impact on health because of various diseases, how natural disasters have caused the closing-off of springs, and how the greed of big capital has contributed to the point where our climate is changing. The logging of trees has contributed to an increase in temperature, to climate change which sometimes people that are not experts on the subject fail to understand. And how some people have gone to prison in their fight to prevent such threats of privatisation. How the human rights of people fighting to defend their right to water are violated.

MM: Do you know about the case of Coca Cola in Nejapa, what is happening, has there been over-exploitation of water?

DV: There is overexploitation of water in Nejapa. Nejapa has a whole system set up to recycle water, to classify rubbish, there are landfills that are managed by an entity called MIDES. The information we have, but which has not yet been brought completely to the public light and is handled by secret voices, is that there is over exploitation of water and the non-proper management of solid waste.

MM: Regarding the current government, what is the position of this government with regards to the privatisation of water? Is it against it or under pressure from big capital to continue with privatisation in small parts? What do you think?

DV: Mauricio Funes’ government is a government of social inclusion. In his cabinet and in its autonomous institutions there are people from different parties, from different sectors, representatives from private business, there are ministers from the Left, there are people from the Right. We qualify as a very broad government, like the words say it, of social inclusion.

In his campaign, he made commitments that are slowly developing. One year of government is still very little time for actually seeing changes. There is a commitment from him for full respect for the political Constitution, and his main objective is to govern for the people most in need. In fact, in his first term, the most profitable thing that has come from Mauricio Funes’ government are the measures taken, for example, such that in the hospitals the people no longer have to pay, the people that used to buy their medicine now no longer have to buy it, they no longer pay for any service. So that is a measure that has naturally come to help the poor.

The other programme which he has implemented and that really benefits the vast majority is the measures taken by the Ministry of Education. The government now buys childrens’ uniforms and their shoes. There is food in the morning for the children who sometimes go to school without having eaten anything. These were the first measures he took.

There is a commitment against corruption, in fact already there have been legal actions taken against some representatives of the previous administration that had embezzled funds. There is one authority for government ethics, there are actions that I mentioned a moment ago, where already there are people who have been sued, to make sure that people answer for any embezzlement and abuse of administrative responsibility.

There is a commitment from him to deepen democracy through the promotion of measures which bring greater transparency and the modernisation of the electoral system. There is also another concept from the departmental governor, now he is not the governor but he was in the time of ARENA, who was one activist more. Today the governors have a prominent role in assisting with natural disasters for example. There is one authority which right now is doing a great job, the institution that coordinates with SNET to take preventative measures for natural disasters, called the General Directorate of Civil Protection, Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (Dirección General de Protección Civil, Prevención y Mitigación de Desastres), a body which is working really hard to prevent natural disasters.

Diplomatic relations with some countries have been opened, for example with Cuba, of course, now they are going to sign the agreement with Cuba to increase and strengthen programmes such as Operation Miracle (provides free eye surgery to those in need) which was to do with El Salvador sending contingents of people with cataract problems to be operated on in Cuba.

There is an effort by him for the integration of Central American.

MM: Does El Salvador have a Petrocaribe treaty with Venezuela?

DV: No, in the relationship with Venezuela, Mauricio Funes has been very cautious, very slow, he really has not wanted to resume a relationship with ALBA-oil.

MM: Maybe because of the problems in Honduras. Because the relationship with Hugo Chávez was an excuse for the rightists, for the coup?

DV: We can understand, we do not like being distanced from Venezuela, because we truly believe that Venezuela is a country with which to further strengthen relations and exchange would be very helpful for the Salvadoran population. However, the president is who he is, and we respect that. He has adopted a very cautious policy with the Chavez government, but we understand that the Executive heads foreign affairs and we respect that. But we are making progress, I am rescuing his efforts towards the integration of Central America, for reviving the Central American common market. It is important, because it would strengthen the textile industry, it would benefit the small businesses, medium-sized businesses and as a result facilitate other types of migratory relations. For example, it could strengthen and deepen ties with regards to citizen security, which is one of the biggest debts of the Mauricio Funes government, but that is not a problem caused by this government, it is inherited, although that does not justify the high statistics. El Salvador is one of the most violent countries of these times, but this is due to various factors, even if it has been inherited. Because for example, El Salvador lives on remittances, but what impact do remittances have? Yes, it brings millions of dollars, but it also causes the disintegration of families, because there is a father or mother living abroad, and here the children are living with the grandfather or grandmother, with the uncle, the aunt, the cousin, a friend. Therefore there is no paternal or maternal guidance, there is no guide for strengthening and shaping the character and the conduct of young people. This creates problems of identity, causes loneliness, there is not any guidance for the young people, there is no motivation to study, there is no motivation to succeed. Or be it that the remittances bring wealth by which the country lives, but the other side of the coin is family disintegration.

But that also creates another problem, a subculture, a transculture, because the young that are born in the United States adopt behaviours and absorb much of the U.S. culture. By bringing that culture here, and when I speak of culture I mean the music, the language, all those features that make up a culture, and when they come from a developed country like the United States, and are implanted in a developing country like this, that causes a collision and generates an emotional outburst and very dangerous attitudes. So, the phenomenon of violence here is caused mostly by gangs, but we cannot blame only the problem of gang violence, it is organised crime and we still have remnants from the war. There are many weapons in the hands of the population.

MM: Are there many facilities for getting hold of weapons in comparison with other Central American countries?

DV: Yes, although there are some measures to make sure that a weapon is not sold to anyone who does not meet the requirements, it needs to be regulated more, it is a very old law. Currently the sale of legal weapons occurs under a very old law which needs to be modernised and reformed so that there is greater control. What the government was promoting before was not to do with the possession of weapons, but the use. You can have a weapon in your house to defend yourself but what the Executive was promoting was a greater regulation of its use. We think that the law governing the sale and purchase of weapons in this country should be modernised and updated. If you compare it with the United States, this country has a law a little more open, there you can buy weapons of a different calibre. But, it is the problem of society, a society in crisis, a sick society, which only recently emerged from civil war and we entered a postwar period, with remnants of the people who ran away, of the social integration of all the people who rose up with weapons, the long-term effects continue, but also transculturización (transculturation?) as a result of the disintegration of families, intra-family violence.

MM: What is your view on the working conditions in the maquilas? Has this government managed to improve the conditions? Do you know of labour abuses in the maquilas?

DV: That is a debt that still exists – a law is currently being debated – because there is a claim in the maquilas for increasing the hours which people work in the maquilas. Already there is resistance to raising the issue, there are organisations that are already touching the subject, but then enters the part of the private business which has had a very prominent role in this government in the sense of coming out before the media and questioning any action that they believe threatens their interests. In this sense it is a fight which has hardly begun, although it is something that has been seen for years, the abuses, but on this issue we have made very little progress. I think it is a duty of the current government, it is something that will be addressed.


Matt Miller

Interviewee: Matt Miller, Director of Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
Interviewers: Andie Whitfield, Jessica Meaden, Sam Buse, Ollie England and Beth Grant
Location: Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize.
Date: 6th September August 2013
Theme: The development of tourism in Belize.
Keywords: tourism development; cruise ships; independent travellers; cultural differences; Belize Tourist Board; natural capital.
Notes: This interview was conducted by undergraduate students from Plymouth University, UK, whilst on geography fieldwork in the country and whilst addressing specifically the issue of tourism developments in Belize.

Andie Whitfield (AW): So basically, we are focusing down on cruise ship tourism. So it may not be your expertise/skill, but we feel like you would at least have a sense of what’s going on. Is that right?

Matt Miller (MM): Yes

AW: So what’s your impression, at the moment, of the cruise ship tourism in Belize? Give us your overall summary.

MM: Well, my impression of it is that it benefits a few people rather than many people. I see the difference between overnight tourism and cruise tourism as benefitting those that are already well off become better off; while overnight visitations give people at all levels of society an opportunity to engage with the tourism industry. So, you know, the other end of the spectrum would be a community-based overnight homestay – you know, where guests stay in a rural village guesthouse or family home and that’s where you can put your money to where it is needed the most; in the hands of local rural people.

AW: We saw that in Maya Centre Village actually.

MM: Yes. When we run students through the homestay programme in Maya Centre it puts money in the hands of the woman of the house, which is an unusual thing in this culture because men are the usual income earners and women, they might help him manage his money; but for women to make money like that is a recent positive change. And I’m going to go on a little bit more about this because it’s important that women handle the money, or earn the money, because you know what they do with it? They invest in the family; buy the kid’s school books and shoes and they maybe improve the kitchen or the house. Typically, when the men get a hold of cash, they tend to go to the bar and drink. And so this is one way that tourism can really benefit rural communities in developing countries like Belize – whereas cruise tourism is at the other end of the spectrum, I mean they sell big fancy diamonds and the tour operators have to have a high level of standards in order to compete for the cruise tourists’ attention and money and there’s not yet that many people in Belize that have that level of sophistication. So what happens is these international companies come in and plant a franchise of their international company to run tours, cell food, art and craft. And they import big boats and things that are not from this part of the world in order to capture more of that flow of money that goes off of the cruise ship. So I’m not too impressed with Cruise tourism in general.

AW: No. I think we can pretty much agree with that. What we saw today, we saw the flow of money go off the ship and you’re lucky if it will get to the port.

Jessica Meaden (JM): With the port all owned by the private companies.

AW: It’s all privatised, like the Diamond Company; 49% built by the cruise ship itself – so that’s why they really want to keep you there.

MM: Yup

AW: And then you’ll be very lucky. I don’t know if you heard that we said that 2,900 got off the boat today.

MM: Ok

AW: 2,100 left the port, but of those 2,100, only 450 took independent travel from then on.

MM: Out of Belize City.

AW: Yes but, you know, for the Belizeans. Otherwise they want already pre-booked tours, so it’s a minuscule amount.

MM: Got you.

AW: So that’s what I was quite surprised by.

MM: It’s quite impressive that you were able to capture that division of where people went.

AW: And then 900 people just stayed on, sorry 700 people, just stayed

MM: In the terminal?

AW: In the port. Yes.

Sam Buse (SB): And then 2,000 people stayed on the boat.

AW: Yes

SB: And we asked why, and he said “oh they are either hung-over, or they’re too old.”

AW: And also the cruise ship passengers, the cruise ship companies, I don’t know if you’ve got the sense that the cruise ship companies deterred people from going.

MM: Yes

AW: They’ve often said things such as “it’s too far.”

MM: Deterring the people from not going far. Yes. An interesting story, just before coming here on this trip, about a week before you all arrived there was a PBS news report about cruise tourism in Alaska, where a lot of North Americans go, and they discussed Anchorage (which is a big cruise destination) where people get off the boat and shop for Native American craft or smoked salmon or all kinds of, you know, products from that unique part of the world. And they have these cruise dock lecturers, they’re called, and people gather around them to get the scoop on what to do in town and where the good deals are and these lecturers are biased already because the cruise company that hires them also has financial relationships with retail vendors in town. And the role of the lecturer is to try to influence the passenger to go to those shops and avoid the others that don’t pay a $25,000 a month fee to the cruise company, so that the lecturer will mention their name.

AW: Yes.

MM: And that was found in the courts to be illegal. It’s like racketeering; it’s trying to control a market as a monopoly. And the cruise company was fined $200,000 which isn’t much for them to pay back into the community that they were manipulating. And it was a big ‘to do’ in the news, when really it was just a slap on the wrist. So it’s just something that was brought to the light really that I didn’t know was going on and I’m sure that a similar type of influence is happening here.

JM: Do you think it’s a sort of ignorance on the visitor’s point of view? Because I mean we’ve seen a different light – I asked yesterday whether they have more people come there as an independent traveller, because when you’re an independent traveller or a backpacker you do your research before you go. I mean, like you take out your Lonely Planet guide book and you go on TripAdvisor and all sorts of different things, whereas people that get on a cruise ship just go – and they’re going a lot of the time with no idea of what it’s about., I mean today, Sam told me about the cruise ship website and how they were glorifying Belize even though no-one is going to get to see Belize

AW: The bits they were advertising

SB: Like “You can go swimming with sharks off the reef or trekking through the forest”. But they don’t even advertise that and they don’t even do it as a tour.

AW: If people were going on a tour, what was it? 89% ended up going to Altun Ha and then maybe some cave tubing but 89% just went to Altun Ha and then back.

MM: Yes.

AW: Which is nothing.

MM: And the sad thing is that the passenger then goes home and says “oh we visited Belize” but they don’t know what the country is really like.

AW: Yes, we were getting quite angry.

JM: That’s what I mean about the port. Because people are thinking they’re visiting Belize, but if they walked just 20 steps outside that port they would see a totally different side of Belize.

MM: Right.

JM: And, maybe they would change their minds about helping the people and the community because, you know, you can see it, like there is so much deprivation outside of the port.

AW: We were relieved to go back into Belize City.

AW: I was wondering if you know.… So we spoke to Terry today – who is part of and she was saying that she thinks, perhaps, cruise ships have too much influence over the country – because they are bringing so many tourists to Belize, they can actually use that to get what they want. Do you think that’s the case?

MM: Absolutely. And when the idea that Belize was going to be a cruise ship destination came about, there were negotiations right up front between the companies and the government about what kind of arrangement are we going to have. How much are we going to pay per passenger to come to the shore? What kinds of facilities can you construct for us so that we can operate our cruise operations? And there was hardly anything that the government could influence the company to do. They literally just said “here’s what we are going to do, take it or leave it.” And if the government had said “well that’s not good enough for us, then the threat was “well we just won’t come to Belize”. So they do wield a lot of influence and generate big bucks and it’s very easy to influence a politician with, you know, a gift.

JM: Much of it is about money as well.

MM: But I think, you know, on your question about the education of the tourist – tourism is the number one largest industry on the planet. It’s very important that we as tourists (eventually all of us are going to be tourists at some point in our lives), that we understand how our dollar impacts the destinations we go, how we get there and all of that stuff. So, if tourism really is the biggest industry on planet earth, then it should be part of our training as young people early on to understand that, you know, what our choices mean.

JM: Today personally for me, I mean I was just stood there and I decided that I never ever want to become the kind of person that stands on a port and says “I’ve visited a country”. I never ever want to do that.

Ollie England (OE): It was a culture shock going from there and then going to south Belize City.

AW: We really were relieved to get back into Belize City.

MM: That’s interesting.

AW: So you think that cruise ships wield a lot of power, can you see any way that perhaps the government or other stakeholders in Belizean tourism can get some of that power back or influence?

MM: I don’t know if they go head-to-head with the influence of the cruise companies because their profit margins per quarter are more than the annual budget of the whole country. They’re so powerful because of their economic influence. But I think that the Belize Tourist Board could focus on somehow educating those tourists that do land on our shores, about why this is such a great destination to come back to with their families for an overnight visit, you know a week-long stay and visit the parks, go mountain biking and view Victoria Peak and the Blue Hole and all these other natural features that Belize is becoming so popular for.. So I don’t know that they could go head-to-head but they could do a work-around where they are beginning to let people know what this country really does have to offer and why it’s worth coming back on a family vacation on another time.

AW: Like an enticer for the future.

MM: It’s a way to educate – because they are not getting it from the cruise companies.

AW: Do you think it’s too late for Belize to try and switch its focus on another type of tourist? Like backpackers or ecotourists? People that stay overnight. Do you think it’s too late to do that?

MM: No. And they have been doing that from early on. When you look at the BTB website and some of their promotional materials, they do a very good job of promoting the cultural aesthetics of the country and how friendly people are to interact with and share their culture. And they do a fantastic job displaying all the natural features, from the bird watchers to the, you know, the river paddlers to the snorkelers and SCUBA divers. So they already, I think that BTB is doing a good job and I think they could do more specifically targeting cruise passengers on why this country is worth coming back to again for a second, long-term visit.

OE: Are the overnighters and long stays with other companies in the BTB’s plans? Do you have any say at all? Do you have any influence over them?

MM: Well I think they have an open ear to comments. I don’t know really what the communication channels are, but the BTB is supported entirely by our accommodation tax. So with you guys sleeping here and paying seventeen dollars per night to sleep in the dorm, nine percent of that revenue goes directly to the BTB.


MM: As a tour operator/hotelier – we are classified as a hotelier – then we are the ones responsible for collecting that and paying it on time. There was a time when I would avoid paying it and they came back and they slammed me with a big fine.  It took me five years to pay it off – so I learned my lesson the hard way. But, I think, because we are supporting BTB by pay the accommodation tax, then there should be a way we can influence their policies. And I don’t know, I don’t really have a whole lot of desire to try to influence the BTB other than when they go to these big tourism trade shows in Europe and North America, it would benefit our organization if they had at least a portion of their promotional materials to let people know what a great education destination this is for students and researchers who are interested in doing the kinds of the experiential learning activities that you all are doing. Because, when you look at the tourism pie, there’s a growing slice that represents education programs and student groups that come – and their numbers are increasing. And you know, mission groups that come to do service projects for churches, there is all this service learning tourism that is coming to Belize that doesn’t really give much flash in the pan in the eyes of BTB. It’s not who they are going after – that just kind of happens because of community relationships or individual companies advertising on the web to attract that clientele. But BTB, I think, could show a stronger effort toward reaching out to these tourists as well.

SB: Going back to the financial side, what do you think of the banking system in Belize? Especially the business banking. Do you think they do a good job? Do you think it’s a success or do you think that they could do better?

MM: Banking, I think, is fine. It’s expensive but working fine. They still pay a good interest rate on money in the bank.

SB: The reason why I asked you that is because yesterday when we spoke to the lady that, just three years ago, opened the Caribbean Shores hotel in Hopkins, she said that the banks were absolutely unbelievably bad.

AW: Do you think it’s because she’s just moved from the USA and perhaps is not acclimatised? Or do you think there is some basis there for her to comment on?

MM: And its true there is a basis. I mean, from what little bit that Martin told me, she had a bitter taste in her mouth overall about Belizeans and the culture and the problem with holding on to employees because of dishonesty and stuff like that. But when you leave a developed country and you move to a developing country you have to expect that things are going to be different and when you bring the US or European model and try to lay it down and expect it to work the same in this context, then you are going to be disappointed. So there may some differences in the way that banks would do business in North America than how they do business here. One of the frustrating things is that the banks take a big chuck of money out of wire transfers from abroad. They not only take the part-exchange fee (which shaves off a couple of percent points), but the overall wire transfer fee that can run into the hundreds of dollars. So you’re dealing with a customer – let’s say I’m dealing directly with Plymouth – and Chris and I have agreed on a price for your programme and I send him a bill and he sends that amount of money, but by the time his bank is through with it and my bank and the corresponding bank in New York (because, I mean, you can’t wire money directly from London to Belize City – it has to go through New York) and so that bank takes a piece and then the arrival bank takes a piece (my banker) and by the time I get it I am five hundred dollars less than what Chris paid me. So that pisses me off about the banks and I understand its convenience is key; it’s a way for him to get money to me quickly and securely so that I can run the programme when you all arrive, but it’s a rip-off. It’s a rip-off. So that could be part of what she is talking about. Because if her customers are coming from North America and she’s asking for a guarantee deposit, the banks are getting a piece of it.

SB: She also mentioned the fact that she was building this new apartment next door as well and she was like “one million dollars in the bank” – she said that to us – and she was like “oh I had real trouble getting it in there”.

OE: Yes she was complaining that the guys working for her could get ten dollars in there and were saying “oh you did it so easily”.

Beth Grant (BG): I think one of the main things from everyone that we have interviewed, is that there is a massive miscommunication problem in Belize. What are your opinions on this?

MM: Well any person that is coming from a developed country with that mindset and wants to transplant it and expect it to work the same, is going to find that there are lots of miscommunications.

BG: We found out also that Belizeans, like people in the Maya Centre who are actually from Belize, they have had trouble with the government as well in terms of communication.

OE: Like trying to create licenses and what you need for your business.

JM: I think the thing is that people think that the Belizeans are uneducated, but they are educated in different ways to what we perceive education to be.

MM: Good point.

JM: So that’s how I see it as a problem.

MM: Very good point.

JM: The locals know their stuff, they really know their stuff, but why, you know, the lady was saying yesterday that she had to get a tour guide license or whatever but she was saying “but why? I know about my plants, I know about my land and I have lived here my whole life. Why do I need to go and buy a license and why is the government telling me this and making my life difficult?”

SB: Yes. They said that they threatened them with a machine gun! They came in with a gun. Yes, they said that it was very scary and it really frightened her.

AW: Any comments on that?

MM: Well, big money attracts attention and if she’s flaunting it and she doesn’t know you from Adam and she’s telling you that she tried to put a million bucks in the bank, and then she is telling a sensational story to attract attention to herself. And you can bet that there are other people around listening and they want to get in on that too. If she’s got those kinds of resources, then I want my piece of it. You know, a Belizean might look and say, you know, how can I get my piece? So, I think what is interesting is the comment about Maya Centre having problems getting their trade licenses or, who knows, getting their tax license paid or getting a cell phone connected. There’s a big challenge with communicating with people in authority, because with that power comes a big fat ego that says “well, they are lesser than me and I don’t have to tell them everything that they really need to know.” And you’ll find people here in Belize who won’t share information freely unless you ask them very specifically for an answer to a question. One example, you know, when Josh walked into this land back in 1975, no one ever bothered to tell him that when the river floods it gets thirty feet high and two miles wide and he worked here for eight years putting in the pasture and stringing in the wire fences and releasing the cattle and then they all drowned and he was shocked and everybody else was like “well didn’t you know the river rises every year?”. So it’s the same thing, for example, Fiona has just arrived from South Africa and so she said “let’s go to the bank so that I can open my account” and we called them and said “what do we need to bring?” And they said “bring your ID”. OK, so she brings one form of ID and she gets to the bank and they take her ID and they say “ok now where is your driver’s license?” or “where is your letter from your banker?” And they kind of lead you into this, and it is almost as if they are saying “got ya”, because you didn’t ask me so why would I tell you what you need to bring. Whereas in America or the UK or Canada, people would be forthcoming and say “here’s the checklist of things that you need to come and open your account” and it would work seamlessly. Here it is like …

JM: The lady yesterday said something like “if you had patience before you came to Belize then you will lose it and if you don’t have patience before you get to Belize then you will gain it”, or something like that.

MM: Yes. That’s a cliché that a lot of us from other places use to say. The reason that is happening is to teach us to be patient and tolerant and accepting of our differences. And it’s really true. When you step out of your comfort circle, something is going to rub you the wrong way and we have to learn how to adapt to that.

AW: That was really interesting, especially to hear it again from a different person because, you know, that story is actually very much the same. But moving away from infrastructure and communications and getting back to cruise ships, do you have any apprehensions or are you optimistic about, maybe not for your business but for Belize as a whole, about the proposed new Norwegian cruise liner dock down in Placencia? Are you for or against?

MM: No, I don’t think that is a good idea. I understand the people of Placencia think it’s a bad idea because they have built a very strong tourism foundation on the overnight guests who come for the natural beauty, the coast, the diving, the fishing, the great food, the inland tourist accommodation, routes to Cockscomb from Maya Centre to Placencia. So in Placencia you can do it all and they certainly don’t need cruise passengers in bikinis with big fat rolls walking down their sandy lanes, you know. It would just be a total distraction from why people go to Placencia in the first place. I think it’s a bad idea for other ports to set up in Belize.

JM: I would be interested to know what your opinion is on the independent people that come into Belize, like the lady that we spoke to from Caribbean Shores yesterday, about them taking over, you know as they do, like in Hopkins the whole south side is pretty much foreign-owned land and they have done it up and I’d like to know what you think about that. Do you think it will go the same way as cruise ship tourism is going? Do you think that it’s a good thing or a bad thing?

MM: Well, I’ll probably be talking out of one side of my mouth and not the other because I myself am a large land owner and I’ve chosen to take this land and strip it of its development rights and that lowers the value. But we’ve actually gone through an exercise here that says that this land will stay protected long after I’m going to be here, because we have used the legal instruments available to us to say that any future landowner – there is something attached to the title – so when it transfers to another owner, they’re now restricted on what they can do on this property. Other people, most people, would look at this probably and say “oh well I’m going to work this for a few years and then hopefully the value will rise and when I’m finished I’m going to sell it for more than I bought it for”. And so I think Josh Brown – the original purchaser of this land – had a very unique approach that I’ve bought into to try and help him move his project forward. So when I see foreigners taking over the south end of Hopkins I don’t think it’s a very good idea as it creates a division in the community. You know, there is white people down on the south side and then there is less well-to-do people in the north and that just creates division in communities rather than integration and I’m sure that the resort owners down below see the folks up north as their labour pool – they want them there but they don’t want them to be partners in the business and they aren’t going to elevate them to high positions because they are cheap labour; and they’re not trained and educated at the level that it would take to run the business or manage the business. So it’s a delicate thing.

AW: It seems to me that most places we have gone to and people we have spoken to in relation to Norwegian Cruise Liners have been pretty much fairly against it unless it develops into community based tours like where they go into Maya Centre and they actually experience it. Like the lady from Maya Centre said that she doesn’t want to go down to the dockside and do her bit there. She was definitely determined that she wanted the tourists to come to her. So I was just wondering how you think that the government is listening to the people? Do you think they are listening to the people? It seems to be a general move against cruise ships?

MM: I’m sure they are hearing them, but the influence of the industry itself on those that are in the decision-making positions and the potential for that elite group to make money from it is probably deluding and the comments that they are getting from the general population.

AW: Do you think that the government sees the potential for cruise passengers to go further inland and actually spread their money independently amongst Belizeans, or do you think that they don’t actually know about that? Or do you think that they know about it but are just turning a bit of a blind eye?

MM: I think the government and the people in the Belize tourism industry, and in the government and the Belize Tourism Board, they know about the potential to spread those people out to more places and for those dollars to be used more effectively in developing our communities. But it’s probably a free market thing that is going to make that happen. If people here were more savvy, maybe they would be able to put up websites and say ‘visit us on your trip to Belize’, or maybe it’s titled ‘Cruising to Belize?’ and you click on that and you can see all the alternative eco and the community-based or the cultural exchange opportunities that are available and for those maybe ten percent of the cruise passengers interested in that type of thing – they will write to inquire. I just got an email today from a guy; “Hi my name is Michael, I’m on a cruise to Belize in December, is there any bird watching at your place?” That was all he said. So I wrote back and said “that’s cool that you’re coming and we’re about thirty miles from the cruise terminal, it would be easy for you to get here and yes there are five interesting habitat types; here’s our bird list of the things that your can see here and we would be delighted to host your visit so let us know how we can help”. I didn’t try to sell him anything, I didn’t say to come and have a meal or that there was an entrance fee, I just said ‘here is the information that you asked for, let us know how we can be of service’ and when somebody throws like that and they get an immediate response that’s focused on exactly what they asked for, I’m going to have a nice little dialogue with this guy over the next couple of months and he may wind up coming here with his family and hiring a local guide and maybe even taking a half-day float down the river in the canoe with one of our guides and staying for lunch. I might make a hundred bucks out of the deal and that’s the potential that anyone operating in Belize has if you’re willing to advertise and then engage with the person. You can’t have like a robot respond and say ‘yes, there are birds here’ – it would go flat. You’ve got to make it personal and engage the person and for them to want to know more about what we can offer them.

JM: But then you’ve got to have that person in the first place that is doing their research.

MM: Yes. Right. I’ll say ten percent might be looking online to see what else is to do in Belize other than what the cruise ship is offering. But the ninety percent are just happy to be on the boat and eat all they can and burn their skin in the sun. That’s an American approach to cruise ship tourism. It’s a great rate for eighty bucks a day to get your room and all you want to eat, you know, you can’t even go into downtown Atlanta – where I live – and do that for that price. I met one woman, when I was helping my Dad do the retirement community move, and she said “oh I didn’t choose a community, I just go on a different cruise every week – it’s cheaper for me to stay on a cruise boat in my retirement, than settling down into a retirement community”.

JM: But the cruise passengers today, they had to pay five dollars just to get out of the port and that money goes back into the private investors.

MM: You mean the individual passengers?

All: Yes.

JM: A small amount goes to the government and it’s supposed to be going on the roads outside but, I mean, you can’t see anything developing.

MM: Well we did hear that ten percent goes to PACT [Protected Areas Conservation Trust] (twenty five dollars) and Belize City were saying that they get a piece of it for infrastructure but I didn’t know that it actually came out of the pocket of the tourist. I thought the cruise company paid that based on the number of people they had on their ship.

JM: The guy said today five dollars per person.

AW: It might be paid by the ship though.

MM: We don’t know, I think it’s probably included in the lump sum that they pay. It’s like the airline flight. In your ticket here, you paid an extra thirty dollars that stays in Belize and most of it goes towards that PACT fund, but it’s the departure tax and now it’s incorporated into the ticket rather than you paying it just before going through immigration. I think that’s happening with the cruise terminals.

JM: And that’s the point I’m making; a lot of it goes back into the government.

MM: Wouldn’t it be great if that was triple that and then we would have a better relationship with the cruise company?

JM: Five dollars per two thousand five hundred people a day and, most of which is going straight back out.

AW: Yes, five dollars doesn’t seem like an awful lot of money.

SB: It’s like the hot sauce they sell there. We’ve seen it as $2.75 Belizean, but in the port it was $8.50 American.

MM: Yes, they know very well. [Pause] Also, in the past, there were big problems with cruise ships dumping their garbage over the side during a cruise and emptying the bilge with all the sewage into the ocean when they are cruising and who knows if that is still going on? It’s supposed to be regulated but it’s sort of a self-regulating industry because there is no-one following them. Anyway, those are issue too that have, in the past, influenced or put a bad name on the industry; is how they manage their waste. I think the cruise ships have negotiated with the government to be able to offload their solid waste to go into a landfill. So that’s another, you know, certain environmental cost.

JM: They are thinking of putting a road all the way from the road to the island off Belize City.

MM: That’s like five miles.

JM: And every one of us was like “what!?”

MM: Yes, that has been debated now for over ten years.

AW: Yes, it’s in one of the books that we are researching.

MM: And when a certain political party was in they had a ‘let’s go do it’ approach and then they were voted out and now it’s resting but it’s still brewing because it’s big money people that have influence over government that is driving all of that. But what a disaster that would be. You know, first of all of the dredging that would need to take place to sink piers; that’s going to stir up sediment. And it goes within two miles of this beautiful manatee sanctuary that’s been declared as a marine reserve. But with the events of hurricanes that come through here, I can’t imagine it surviving though a big storm with an eighteen foot storm surge. It would be an expensive piece of infrastructure to maintain.

AW: I don’t know if this is the last question, but I’ve got a question. I was wondering, as a stakeholder in the tourism industry, where do you see tourism in general going in the next ten years? Do you see a reliance on cruise ships? We have also seen a lot of people thinking that Belize is going to aim for the higher-end people (such as in Hopkins). So yes, if you could just tell me where you think it is going?

MM: Wish I could predict. Here’s what I hope will happen. I see the world, in general, becoming more and more developed and so that makes places like Belize (that are still relatively underdeveloped) more attractive to people who want to see nature and how natural systems function and I think that that is going to continue to be a big draw for global visitors and tourists to come here. You’ve got, you know, beautiful rivers and an abundance of wildlife and sixty percent natural vegetation cover – all of these are fantastic statistics when you compare this country to others in the world. So I think that natural capital that we have here, that we are conserving, is going to continue to be the draw for why people want to come. And I see our little business of more education and, you know, more study abroad options available to people – I think it is going to grow. And I believe that as Belizeans become more and more savvy on how to win more of the tourist purse, we are going to see more innovation in the communities and from small business owners. Like Vitalino, that guy, I mean that’s an entrepreneur right there taking you guys up on the zip line. He’s a real great example. He started off as a cook in a resort and now look what he has done with just his passion and his willingness to work hard.

SB: He is one step ahead of the rest of them. Even talking about his flashlights and his helmets.

MM: He is!

AW: And he knows his target audiences appreciate quality of service more than anything.

MM: And, you know, he is a great communicator. Martin called his office and he wasn’t in and his office called him and said that somebody from Monkey Bay had called him and they didn’t get their number. So he then called me and asked who would have called him from Monkey Bay and I said that it was Martin and I will tell Martin that you called him back. And then Vitalino called me back and said “no, give me Martin’s number and I’ll call him directly”. So, you know, he really worked it. And that was simply after having you guys come down for an interview.

SB: And then he spent half an hour to forty-five minutes with us.

MM: Yes! And, I mean, you weren’t customers but he gave you a great rate. Twenty bucks a head when it would cost the cruise passengers sixty-five bucks to do what you all did. But he realises that that’s an important service and that you are all an important audience – so he goes out of his way to make it work and that’s what an entrepreneur has to do and not many people are willing to work it to that degree in order to make it successful.

OE: Do you think that, as a country, Belize can eventually go away from the cruise ship industry?

MM: Oh yes. I think that they can live just fine without it. I don’t think that it is doing us any good over the long term. As a matter of fact, it might be keeping some people away that might not want to travel to a destination where they are going to run into one hundred cruise ship passengers getting off of a bus to visit the Mayan ruins. It may be tarnishing that same image of, you know, a natural destination that the BTB is promoting.

SB: Vitalino said that on a busy cruise ship day, on Wednesday he can have five hundred people there, whereas a normal day he would see fifty people. So for us to go on a Wednesday, with five hundred people as well would be no chance. It would be unbelievable.

JM: It would be good to see what the people [unrecognisable…]. Because, obviously they’re benefiting a great deal from cruise ship tourism, so it would be good to get a balance.

BG: Yes

SB: Because so far everyone has been against cruise ship tourism.

MM: Oh good, so you get some positive feedback on why they are good.

AW: Well we thought that the port today would give us some positive.

SB: Can you think of anywhere else that might give us more positives towards cruise ship tourism?

AW: Where’s somewhere that really appreciates the cruise ship?

MM: You know, I don’t really know what destinations that they go to – I know the cave tubing and Altun Ha. When you get to Altun Ha, I imagine that you are going to see local wood carvers out there selling their craft, they’ll be food vendors but they may not be doing much because I think most of the tours include a little packed lunch and they have probably already encouraged you on the boat not to eat out because you might get sick! There will be guides, there will be people that are drivers, but do find out. “Do you guys live within a twenty mile radius of here?”, “Do you come from far?”, “Are you chasing that cruise ship dollar or is it coming to you and you are modifying your work life in order to capture some of that impact?”. It would be really interesting to find out where the local people are actually from that are interacting with the tourist and doing business. Give me an update tomorrow evening!

All: Thanks very much Matt.


Sister Hermana María-José López

Interviewee: Hermana María-José López
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth and Alice Klien
Location: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Date: 27th July 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC



Sister Hermana María-José López (MJ): With Médicos MUNI, as far as health goes, we made an agreement for 2 or 3 years – they made a clinic with both conventional and alternative medicines. We have one sister who studied natural medicine and she trains many women in the communities. And now it’s the women from the communities who run the clinic with the alternative medicine. There’s a small laboratory and a big room for conferences and work. We’ve got a laboratory to make micro-doses of pills and a different laboratory to take samples of blood and urine.

We coordinate with other NGOs and groups and we have people who come as volunteers or through other NGOs – for example with ASTON. They do agreements for a year or two. Médicos MUNI make their agreements for two years, so they built an apartment which serves as a hostel for cooperantes [development workers].

Martin Mowforth (MM): Is that the programme of training for indigenous leaders?

MJ: That’s the one close to the city and the one that I work on. It’s with another congregation. I’m full time with them as a cooperante. It’s different from what the group of other sisters do.

Then we have a project of grants for youths – those who receive the grants make a commitment with their community areas. Developmentally and educationally our commitment to the youths is very strong – it’s important to have trained and professionally educated people for their work and community. The group with grants is less than it is in Nicaragua – there are about 70 supported youths.

The IGER educational system, which is a Guatemalan popular education project, is in a zone where the Sisters have full responsibility for carrying out the project. They have teacher coordinators, youth coordinators and they have adults who study. Their school-leaving qualifications are validated by the Ministry of Education and they can then go on to university.

Regarding Antigua Guatemala – they have a well-organised system for the reception of tourists, for the cleaning of the streets, for the tourism infrastructure of the streets, and there’s no violence – there’s nothing like the violence in Guatemala [City]. I’ve walked around at 9 or 10 in the evening in Antigua and everything is easy, people are in the streets, everywhere is still open, restaurants, internets, cafes. Antigua is very impressive – you can stroll around – they know how to look after their space.

INTERVIEW 2: Translation of Transcript 2

MJ: I’d like you to know about our project. Part A is what we’re working on right now; Part B is our proposal for workshops. Part A is a bit of history, motivational, which we’re currently doing through workshops. Part B is our new work, a bit on the big side, but I wondered if Martin could collaborate with the trainers, which is where we have problems. Each year it costs about $1,200 and we support the person who gives the workshops with about $100. This is in Guatemala.

MM: [explained that the SRF articles of constitution do not allow us to work outside of Nicaragua.]

MJ: The problem for us is that the trainers have to go out from Guatemala City to other places. At the moment I’m using all the fund for material. It’s a small fund and it’s just that we need funds for the trainers and their work.

MM: [explained re Gangsters and that we have sent the questions to MJ by email.] First, is it possible to define or list the factors which prevent development and the alleviation of poverty in the Central American countries?

MJ: From my experience at the national level, when you see the reality of poverty the development that you can try to create is at a minimum. I’ve seen development when I’ve been immersed in smaller, more focussed group; for example, en Colomba here in Tacuca, the Sisters work more directly with small projects like those that you know in Nicaragua. So we see the people generate their own process of development at a minimum level but with hope for the good of their children. When you organise a limited group, say of 15, 20 or 30 families, you can see a bit of development …, so that the conditions of health and nutrition improve for the women and education for the children.

In Colomba, the Sisters have an alternative clinic with projects for making soya bread and alternative medicine products, and they’ve created a community organisation. There are 200 women organised in this project. It’s not just one of the Sisters’ projects, we also cooperate on it with social organisations – it’s not just our work. But we give accompaniment with the work and it gives a bit of hope in the long term.

If you measure the reality of poverty and you want to see results in a year or two, I don’t know whether we would see any change.

Guatemala has a huge problem in that its wealth is in the hands of ten families and it’s these ten families who influence the government. Before the signing of any democratic law it passes through this group of families: businessmen, military personnel – it’s a social group which here we refer to as the bourgeoisie – it’s very strong and the politicians make agreements and alliances with these families. At the national level we are dominated by this group of families, and right now with this situation of crisis the issues are getting worse particularly in the cities where the population is now greater than it is in the rural zones. The rural area is not experiencing the crisis in the same way as the urban area.

The current government already knows this and has put into operation its programme called ‘Social Cohesion’ which is a system of family assistance. It has helped a lot of the population, but as well as its positive characteristics it has some negative ones too. The project uses Lula’s idea from Brazil – ‘Zero Hunger’. Nicaragua has a similar project called ‘Zero Famine’. Here the programme is directed by President Colom’s wife and for this has faced severe criticism. The president’s wife here is holding political office without having been elected by the people. For me, democracy here is very difficult to understand – that is to say, she is someone who has not been elected by the people, so politically she should not have any authority. She is Sandra Torres.

MM: In England we have a similar system – the House of Lords. It’s well established in our political system – none of them have been elected.

MJ: the Social Cohesion project has three lines: ‘the solidarity bag’, which includes the basic foodstuffs: beans, maize, sugar, milk and other things which I can’t remember. Another line is ‘the school napsack’, which is for the childrens’ schooling and gives something like 300 quetzales to each family.

In campesino areas, the average wage of a campesino is 600 quetzales. So they are seeing that with what the government gives them, Q300 worth of basic foodstuffs plus their quota for the childrens’ schooling, this comes to more than Q600, which is the basic wage for picking coffee and working in the plantations or the mines. So this is generating a conflict between the workers, because if the government gives them more money than they can get by working, they don’t work.

Others have a more critical awareness – if the government gives me Q600 because I’m not working, then if I am working my wage should be higher than Q600. The Social Cohesion programme is leaning more towards the campesino areas. In the city the problem is different because everybody works in services such as banks, retail, markets, maquilas – many maquilas – and they all earn less than what is needed to cover the basic necessities of life in Guatemala.

Do you know how much the Director of the National Library gets? Q1,300 – 1,400 per month – something like $100 per month.

MM: Less than the ‘canasta basica’?

MJ: Yes, less. In my case, I don’t get much, but wherever I go I have my car and I can buy things … When I go out of the country, my commitment is that I pay. But compared with a Director of a National Library, that is despicable.

There’s a very big contrast between the urban area, the campesino area and the indigenous campesino area. It’s not possible to solve the situation in Guatemala City at the same time as the campesino area and with the indigenous campesino area. They are three separate worlds. In my opinion, only one thing unites them all: violence, in all three areas.

Two colleagues, one an Italian missionary who had spent 40 years in Quiche province, were assassinated. Supposedly, it was a common highway robbery. There were three missionaries. Then others, from Germany and Spain who were in Quiche, one in Alta Verapaz and another in Quiche, were also assaulted and robbed. There’s supposedly more to this.

MM: I heard of the assassination of four priests in the north of the country several months ago.

MJ: The violence if generalised. Here there is so much social violence in the city. It’s not a city to walk around in. At 9 at night there’s nobody on the streets, and the last bus runs at 6 pm.

MM: It’s the same in Tegucigalpa too. But because of the gridlocked traffic the buses finish at 7 pm.

MJ: Guatemala has another problem which is a product of its poverty; that is, emigration to the United States.

MM: And that causes what kind of problems?

MJ: The family remains in debt because they take out a loan for one of them to travel to the States. If they get caught by the immigration laws, they have to return. On being returned back here they take out another loan to pay off the first. So the economic situation gets ever worse. At the social level, it causes family breakdown; the family role breaks down in the rearing of children. …

Then we have human rights violations of all types. There’s a strong group working at the frontier, a group here in Guatemala City and another at the frontier with Mexico. There are agreements between the NGOs which are working with refuge houses for emigrants, at least seeing that their human rights are not violated. It’s called ‘Human Mobility’. It’s very interesting because they analyse all types of human mobility, and within the broad group they have found that there is not only movement for work, but that there’s also a lot of trafficking of persons, especially women, who are deceived. The woman says, ‘Is there a job?’, to which they are lied – and it later turns out to be prostitution. The data show that there is also beginning to appear male prostitution, where before there was none. Right now it appears that within this trafficking of people there is male prostitution and child prostitution, the majority being children.

Alice Klein (AK): Is there prostitution in the city?

MJ: Well, above all it’s at the frontiers, but it’s also in the cities.

MM: Because there are loads of lorry drivers there – that’s where the clients are.

MJ: It’s by the frontier roads where there are lots of drivers. The network [of traffickers and trafficking] has been discovered throughout Central America. Sister Rosario was in a meeting about human mobility in Costa Rica in which there were groups of people making presentations about the work of ‘Human Mobility’.

Other people enter and chat.

MM: Can you tell us a little about the programmes of the nuns?

MJ: Our mission has similar characteristics to others throughout Central America. We always work with the most impoverished populations, those with very few economic resources. Our idea is to look for alternative solutions to situations of impoverishment or to situations in which people cannot live a dignified life with their rights. So we work on projects such as agricultural development – crop production or cattle ranching – health and education.

Where we work here in Guatemala is in the rural areas, with the impoverished, the campesinas, which is different from Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, they at least own their land; here where we are the majority do not own their land; here we have only two communities where the finqueros [small farmers] are re-conquering their land, as they call it.

There’s one community more developed which for me is an experience. It’s like a torch in that it helps us to see what we want for all the communities. They’ve taken over their lands, and they own their own coffee. Each family already has its own hectares of coffee, but they sow communally. They have a very good organic coffee project. Everything is decided communally, their sowing, their harvesting, their storing. But within all the communities with which we deal, there is only one in this situation. The others are communities of campesinos who are still living in the land owner’s finca. So their reality is more difficult. With them we have emergency situations, like Hurricane Stan. The Sisters built 15 houses for these families. Stan was in 2005, and the zone where we work was really badly hit.