El Salvador: Right blocks reform to make water and food human rights

During the final session of El Salvador's outgoing parliament on April 29, right-wing parties blocked a vote to ratify a constitutional reform that would have enshrined water and food as human rights.

In doing so, the bloc of Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), National Conciliation (PCN), and Christian Democrat (PDC) parties demonstrated their support for elite business interests over the health and wellbeing of the Salvadoran people.

Salvadorans face rising food prices caused by free trade policies that have destroyed local agricultural production and repeated attempts to privatise the country’s scarce water resources. In response, tens of thousands of environmental, religious, labour, community and youth activists have spent the past six years campaigning to get the proposed reform to Article 69 of the constitution approved.

The reform would require the state enact laws and policies to ensure people’s right to clean and sufficient water and adequate, nutritious food. It faces strong opposition from El Salvador's economic elite and transnational corporations.

The reform was approved by the preceding parliament in 2012, but Salvadoran law requires a two-thirds ratification by the subsequent legislature, whose term finished on April 30.

As the window for ratification came to a close, activists united in the broad based coalition, the Environmental Alliance, and carried out weekly mobilisations for the past three months demanding ratification.

The frequency of mobilisations rose even more over the past month, with polls showing that 85% of the population supported the reform.

Responding to the Environmental Alliance’s call for international solidarity, 135 groups from 18 different countries sent a letter to the Legislative Assembly demanding legislators heed the popular outcry and ratify the reform.

Activists from the Committee in Solidarity with the People's of El Salvador (CISPES) also hit the streets across the United States and took to the internet to collect petition signatures. Along with Oxfam, local churches, Salvadoran-American groups and others, more than 5000 signatures were added from the US to the 33,000 collected in El Salvador.

Raising the human right to food to a country’s highest legal status is a central tenet of the food security plan approved by the regional body Community of Latin American and Caribbean States to eradicate hunger.

Stephanie Burgos of Oxfam America said: “El Salvador has made progress in reducing poverty but still faces multiple challenges in achieving sustainable development for all its citizens.

“Recognizing access to adequate food and clean water as constitutional rights will help focus efforts toward overcoming hunger, disease and poverty in the country.”

In El Salvador, impoverished households often spend up to 75% of their income on food, often due to market speculation that puts even the most basic staples out of reach of many poor families.

More than 200,000 households in El Salvador have no running water, while beverage corporations, shopping malls, and luxury housing complexes use thousands of gallons of water daily. The United Nations Development Programme classifies El Salvador as the third most unequal in Latin America and the Caribbean in terms of access to water.

Kristi Van Nostran, of Joining Hands Against Hunger in El Salvador, said: “The majority of families in El Salvador can’t count on consistent access to basic needs like food and water. So a national agreement along the lines of what’s being proposed is really necessary.

“It would also do a lot to increase the country’s independence and ability to weather the storm of the global market.”

Darcey O’Callaghan of Food and Water Watch said: “We are hopeful that this constitutional law would right the wrongs that allow corporate water users to extract unabated while households struggle to brush their teeth and wash their hands.”
The reform is supported by El Salvador’s President Salvador Sanchez Cerén and legislators from the governing left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), as well as the smaller parties Grand National Alliance (GANA) and Democratic Change (CD). The country’s archbishop and the human rights ombudsman also back the reform.

But sadly, but not surprisingly, ARENA, the PCN, and the PDC chose to ignore the voices of the Salvadoran people in favour of the interests of big business, food importers, and an economic elite that hopes to privatise water.

Alexis Stoumbelis, from CISPES, said: “The proposal to ratify food and water as constitutional rights was developed in consultation with a broad representation of Salvadoran society.

“So it’s a big concern to see a number of political parties and their legislators, backed by powerful special interests, simply ignoring their constituents’ demands.”

Faced with the right-wing parties’ actions to block the ratification by denying it its needed two-thirds majority, FMLN legislators introduced an identical reform before the session ended, which was approved by a simple majority.

For it to be adopted, however, it will require its own two-thirds ratification by the new, incoming legislature that took office on May 1. The struggle remains an uphill battle, but the FMLN’s action ensures that the proposed reform did not meet its end on April 29.

The Environmental Alliance is regrouping to chart a new course to fight for the reform’s ratification during the next three-year legislative period. International groups in solidarity with El Salvador will continue to support its struggle.

[Compiled from CISPES.org.]

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