The roots to the crises in El Salvador
RESPONDING TO NATURAL DISASTERS- EL SALVADOR PAYS FOR THE FAILURE TO LEARN THE LESSONS FROM MITCH
This week some of the world's richest donors and Europe=B4s wealthiest businessmen gathered in Madrid with their Central American counterparts for a Consultative Group meeting planned to review the situation in Central America, two years after Hurricane Mitch devastated the region. With hundreds of delegates already in session the Spanish government called off the meeting as a mark of respect for the hundreds of Salvadoreans killed by yet another earthquake. The theme for the Madrid summit was " Central America - a fertile land of opportunities" and the main focus of the event was to move from aid to trade and show off the opportunities for renewed investment in an area desperate to access the global market. Ironically, El Salvador was to have been the showcase for the region demonstrating the entreprenurial spirit of this plucky country and its hard working people. Only weeks ago El Salvador, anticipating its pivotal role as a motor of change in Central America, dollarised its economy and declared the euro a working currency . But all that was underminded when a week ago today a 50 second earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale shattered the illusion that reconstruction had been successful in Central America and that it was business as usual.
Tucked in between 2 major oceans, surrounded by a string of photogenic but highly active volcanoes, the 37 million people of Central America live in one of the most disaster prone regions of the world. Hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts and floods are regular occurances. But it is not just mother nature that renders the region the most vulnerable in the Americas. Vulnerability to natural disasters in Central America is determined by mass poverty. Florida and California are subject to the same forces of nature but the average death toll from a hurricane in Miami is half a dozen people whereas in Central America it runs into thousands of victims. Hurricane Mitch killed more than 18,000 people and less than a handful of these were from middle income families. Poverty is the killer, not nature. After almost three decades of work in Central America Trocaire has concluded that there are five variants which render people helpless in the face of natural disasters - none have to do with geography and all are man made. These are lack of access to land, foreign debt, income inequality, ecological degradation and inadequate participation of civil society in the democratic process.
A lack of access to land is critical. Because of the gross inequality in the distribution of land the poor are forced into destructive agricultural practices on marginal soils and poor land and to migrate to the cities putting immense pressure on resources. While the average population density in El Salvador is 228 per square kilometre some of the neighbourhoods in San Salvador flattened by the earthquake had a density of 11,000 people per kilometre. The crippling burden of foreign debt has deprived governments in the region of the resources needed to invest in social services, roads and other infrastructure which could save lives in time of crisis. Seven days after the Salvadorean quake the people are still using their bare hands to drag bodies from the rubble and thousands of small villages off the main roads remain isolated. The contradictions between the dual realities of the "modern" El Salvador communicating the news of the disaster to the world by mobile phones and villages an hour away from the capital have never had access to fixed phones, running water or electricity, sums up the divide between the life chances of the haves and havenots.
Throughout the Central American region efforts to erradicate poverty over the last decade have failed to tackle the problem of income inequality. The free market policies warmly embraced by the governments of the regions and pushed by the key multilateral agencies and donor countries, has ignored the growing evidence of concentration of income. Structural adjustment, privatisation and other policies have generated a strongly regressive trend in income distribution. An official survey in Nicaragua in 1998 just weeks before Mitch, revealed that the poorest 20% of families received a negligible 0.4% of total income while the richest 20% garnered an extraordinary 68% of the same total. On those kinds of incomes not surprisingly the poor construct homes of cardboard, rubbish and discarded materials that demolish with the first tremor or a mere blast of wind.
Despite the millions of pounds and huge energy invested in multiple conferences over the last 15 years dealing with the environment, the fact remains that in poor countries soil erosion, deforestation and pollution continue to increase. It will continue like that as long as there are low prices for primary agricultural products and protectionist measures blocking Central American exports to lucrative world markets. A decent price for coffee - at an all time low this year- or a lifting of the EU quota on Honduran bananas would mean the differnce between being winners or losers for thousands of small farming families and plantation workers.
In the rush to reconstruct Central America after Mitch all agreed that consolidating democracy with the active participation of civil society was a key goal. Without the involvement of citizens in scrutinising the use of reconstruction funds the chances are that large amounts of aid simply fuel the corrupt practices and impunity which governments have failed to tackle. Despite the electoral trappings of democracy Central America has failed, a decade after ending its civil wars and military regimes, to construct effective democratic institutions capable of providing justice, protecting rights and delivering better livelihoods for the poor. For ordinary Central Americans democracy has not yet paid off.
Once again this week the staff of Trocaire have begun the arduous task of distributing food and shelter materials to terrified families on the roadsides of El Salvador. Grateful as we are for the generous solidarity of Irish people willing to repond to the emergency, it will not be enough to end this vicious cycle of poverty and powerlessness. The Madrid summit will reconvene in six weeks and European NGOs will have an opportunity to confront directly those with the kinds of resources that could make a difference. Among those participating will be the European Union whose bureaucratic delays have failed to deliver funds committed two years ago for a Regional Reconstruction Programme for Central America ( PRRAC). Increased European public pressure is needed to ensure that promises and pledges made to the people of Central America two years ago will be honoured. The announcement of these resources for the reconstruction and transformation of Central America raised expectations among devastated communities about the amount of aid available to rebuild their lives. The failure to deliver these resources fosters suspicion of corruption, bitterness and distrust. It is also a major scandal that European institutions are incapable of delivering resources quickly in a situation that requires prompt action. Who knows how many lives could have been saved in El Salvador if the funds for improving infrastructure and disaster preparedness had been put in place after Mitch. It is already too late for the people of San Augustin, Santa Tecla and Nueva Armenia but this is a timely reminder that as the rubble is cleared away our overriding goal has to be reducing social and ecological vulnerability. Political will and humanitarian aid are required for the daunting task of rebuilding lives on more solid structures of social justice.