Barely six weeks have passed since the newly elected, right wing dominated legislature took office, but recent frictions between security personnel of the legislature and university students protesting the potential privatization of water already paint a grim picture of things to come for social movements in El Salvador.
During the month of May, parliamentarians moved to ratify the mining prohibition approved in March 2016 and to shelve all pending requests related to the mining file, at the same time, the Environment and Climate Change Commission, ECCC, moved to reopen a long overdue discussion on water legislation, but hinting to privatization.
Since 2006, environmental organizations of El Salvador have pressured lawmakers to approve laws that recognize water as a human right and as a common good that should be publicly managed with focus on sustainability, accessible domestic use and regulation of commercial and industrial use.
The debate has not always been civil, in 2007, 17 leaders of the Association for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES), were arrested and charged under terrorism laws by the government of Elias Antonio Saca, for derailing the launching a national policy for the decentralization of water services. This policy was an escalation of an aggressive neoliberal economic strategy based on the privatization of the public services and natural commons implemented by four consecutive governments of the pro-business ARENA party. During 20 years, Salvadoreans endured the dollarization of local currency and the signing of free trade agreements designed to facilitate the privatization of national assets such as telecommunications, banking, pensions and sugar mills, among others.
Environmental organizations got some reprieve when the left leaning FMLN was elected to the executive in 2009. The new Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources produced a hybrid bill informed by the different law proposals presented by environmental organizations and submitted it to the multiparty legislative Environment and Climate Change Commission for discussion.
In 2012 important advances were made when the Legislature approved a bill to reform to Article 69 of the constitution to recognize food and water as basic human rights, pending a ratification vote by two a thirds majority of the subsequent Legislature. By the end of 2013, members of the ECCC had already negotiated 96 articles covering different aspects of a General Water Law modeled after the proposals presented by environmental organizations.
But a stalemate was reached at the point of negotiating mechanisms for water management.
The laws presented by the social movement proposed an autonomous and inclusive management structure that was publicly appointed and formed by representatives from diverse sectors, including professional organizations, regional water committees, academics and government.
Right-wing parties argued that the private sector should be represented in the water management structure and implemented a series of delaying tactics to stall the debate for more than three years, until a new law proposal was introduced by a block of unified right wing parties in June 2017.
The new proposal was also supported by private sector organizations such as the National Private Business Association ANEP, and Salvadoran Association of Industrialists, ASI, and by the US Embassy in El Salvador that for years has pushed for the inclusion of water management in the Public Private Partnership laws implemented as a prerequisite for the Millenium Fund II Aid Package.
The Integral Water Law proposed by the right was framed to reflect key principles of the General Water Law with a fundamental difference, the main decision making body would be composed by only five members: one appointed by the government, two appointed by municipal governments and two appointed by the private sector.
Social movement organizations responded with a flurry of statements and press conferences denouncing the proposed managing structure could provide the business sector with control of the water governing body and eventually lead to further the privatization agenda of natural resources.
Protests at the time were muzzled by the legislative electoral campaign already in full swing.
The results of the March 4th legislative elections strengthened the balance of power in favor of ARENA and the pro-business right wing block of the legislature. With a total of 61 out of 84 seats, the right has more than 50% of the votes to pass simple legislation without debate and more than a two third majority required to approve the national budget, make constitutional amendments, appoint heads of key government institutions and members of the judiciary, rule out presidential vetoes, and even impeach the president.
Just two weeks after elections and month before the new legislature took over, the American Chamber of Commerce flanked by large multinational corporations called a press conference to announce private initiatives for water conservation in the context of public private partnerships and to ask for continued discussion on water legislation.
On the legislative end, the right wing political parties refused to discuss the ratification of the constitutional reform to recognize the right to food and water before the end of the 2015-2018 legislature, thus killing any possibility of constitutional recognition.
During its first sitting in May 2018, the ECCC moved to shelve all requests related to mining and ruled to reaffirm the mining prohibition. The move took many by surprise, but environmental organizations suspected this was not a simple a gesture of good will but the beginning of a callous plan to further the neoliberal economic agenda.
Emboldened by the new balance of power, the ECCC moved to deny all public requests to submit information and discuss the water laws, including a joint request by the Catholic Church and Central American University that had submitted its own proposal for a water managing institution, furthermore, all 92 articles negotiated by previous legislatures were dismissed. When talks re-initiated, the private sector proposal was taken as a new basis for discussion: eight articles were initially approved, including Article 14 which provides implicit control of water resources to the private sector.
This new way of conducting legislative business, the loss of previously made gains recognizing the right to water and the imminent cession of control of water resources to the private sector has opened a new chapter of a battle that has been latent since 2005.
The swift and unified rejection from the executive government, the Catholic church and civil society organizations that have taken their battle back to the streets, suggest that privatization won’t be easy task for ARENA.
The month of June has seen new level of public mobilizations not seen in decades.
On June 7th, a march organized by environmental organizations to commemorate the World Environment Day drew over 4000 people to the legislative assembly to demand that the environment commission allow public participation in the water discussions, the same day about 1000 union members of the national water distribution system also marched to assembly. A week later on June 14th about 4000 students and faculty of the National University marched to the legislature and also demanded to be part of the discussions as well. The rally turned violent when security of the legislature pepper sprayed students that were trying to gain access to the building. And last Saturday, over 10,000 people marched through main streets of San Salvador in a self-organized march. Tens of decentralized direct actions continue to occurr across the country.
All of these actions are coordinated through a newly emerging coalition called the National Alliance against Water Privatization composed of more than seventy social movement organizations bringing together a range environmental, students, unions, faith, farmers and women’s organizations who have vowed to continue fighting until the threat of privatization has ended.
To this public outcry right wing politicians have responded with high profile public relations campaign promising no to privatize water resources. But in a new political scenario where a strong and unified social movement has found common cause to defend the limited water resources of a country undergoing an ecological crisis, politicians will need more than simple promises to appease activists, they will need legislation that clearly protects water from private interests.