- William Shakespeare
Peacebuilding in El Salvador
Former CRS Mediator, Chicago Office; Private Mediator; President of Conflict Management Initiatives
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A: In El Salvador... I work with a group in this country called the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America. I'm on the board of that group. It's chief executive is a former Salvadoran priest named Jose Alas, but he's called "Chencho." When he was a priest he was working with the compasinos (peasants). He was in exile during the civil war in El Salvador from 1980-92 › twelve years › and then returned after that to work with community groups and set up this foundation, which I work with now on a pro bono basis. We had a request from the group we work with in El Salvador in the Usulutan region. Usulutan is a rural area, largely in poverty, and we're working in about 26 communities there. The group is called Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa ey Bahia de Jiquilisco or the Coordinating Committee, of the lower Lempa River and the Bay of Jiquilisco. To support their work in building a self-sufficient, environmentally sound economy, through agricultural and fishing projects and other projects, they wanted to address the extensive post-war conflict in El Salvador by declaring their region a local zone of peace. They set up a series of peace committees, a major peace committee and then local groups in the communities to work on conflict issues.
Q: How did they come up with that idea?
A: Chencho, I think, introduced someone who brought that idea to them, someone who's now in the Philippines, and it rang a true note because they're very conscious of the conflict, which is extensive in El Salvador. I went down to meet with and work with some of the leaders in Coordinadora. They wanted to pursue this. I don't speak Spanish, so we recruited Mark Chupp, who is a Mennonite trainer, who has worked in El Salvador and other parts of Latin America extensively, and is fluent in the language and the culture. Mark and a few others came in to help us out, and he worked with the peace committee of Coordinadora to help set up circles of dialogue and reflection, using a local model. where local community folks would come together to talk about their conflicts and ways they might address them and in fact begin to deal with some of them. And they did this through their own local community structures and the peace committee had trained faciliators who met with them once or twice a week and work with them.
Q: What does it mean to have a "zone of peace"?
A: They try to create a region or a zone, a geographic area, where they can live in peace and not be threatened, whether it be by overt violence, such as through weapons, or through denial of human rights or inability to live a just life, to do their farming and raise their crops or do their fishing, and without fear of harm.
Q: But those things sound like elements that anybody in El Salvador would want.
A: I'm sure people everywhere in the world want that.
A: But this became an integral part of the structure of the work of Coordinadora, to make this available, and to actually publicly declare this a zone of peace and to create a culture of peace, getting people to address conflicts, many for the first time. Prior to the war, in 1980, the political climate was such that there was a veil of silence. You could not speak out and people didn't talk up. This has changed. Now the environment is such that they can work together in their small groups, and begin to address some of their interpersonal conflicts, community conflicts, business conflicts, there are a wide variety of them. Some are drug and poverty related, some are alcoholism related. So they're beginning to learn techniques of dialogue to respond to these.
As I said, we retain some trainers, including Mark Chupp and some of his colleagues to come in and work with the community groups, and he made several trips down there, which were very profitable, and the groups were very receptive. I go down from time to time to evaluate the project or meet with the peace committee and visit some of the circles of dialogue and reflection. On my last trip, which was in the early part of 2003, we went out to an area called the Isla Mendez. In that region, working with another training group, Coordinadora's peace committee has set up a continuing program in the school system with the teachers. They close down the school one day a month on the third Friday of the month, and at that time the facilitators come in and work with the teachers.
Q: Every month.
A: Once a month. And the teachers work, and they've been doing this for a year. I met with the teachers who come together for this project, and they sit in a circle and talk about some of the problems that they're encountering and how to deal with them. And then they use some of these techniques in their work with the students and parents. In addition, they've set up student groups that meet at the same time, the same day, and the parents of those students also come together. These were children who they perceived to be at risk because they were overly aggressive or they were very quiet and hardly spoke up at all. From the students' perspective, they felt that the parents and in some cases the teachers didn't care about them at all, and by meeting with the parents, they've helped the parents to address some of these problems, and the students as well, and the teachers have changed their own behavior to be more responsive, a little less harsh as disciplinarians, but still maintaining control and working with the young students more effectively than ever. These teachers, as you might imagine, are role models in the community. They live in the community of Isla Mendez, and are highly respected. Some have been in that school system for many years, and they have improved it as you might imagine, because the students now like their teachers, they care about them, and the parents are appreciative of the work these teachers are doing. The central school system isn't happy on the island, on El Salvador, because they think the teachers belong in the classroom with the children and don't want to let them break for this, so that's a hurdle that we're working on. Hopefully they'll be able to continue.
Q: When you hear zone of peace, it sounds like, okay, so we declare the zone of peace and all of a sudden no rebels, no army can come in here, everything's great. But really what it is, is a commitment to develop the skills to deal with conflicts in such a way that will allow for peace.
A: Yes, to deal with it. And to deal with violence in their own communities, not with outside military force. They're working with police on some projects, and trying to get the police to be more responsive. There was one case in that region where there was an awfully aggressive police officer, and they brought in police from outside the region, a commander, to look at the situation, and he came in and surveyed it and made some changes, and assured them that this won't continue. So the police patrolling and police protection has improved considerably. In another part of the Usulutan region they work with some gangs, and this led to setting up some programs in many of the communities, including an art program where the youngsters come together with a trainer who gives them instruction in art. They'll soon be making T-shirts and printing logos on T-shirts to sell at a roadside stand that Coordinadora has set up for its agricultural produce, or is in the process of setting up. So there are a lot of interesting things happening down there. There are a lot of projects in this region, mostly agricultural, that are sustaining the area, and they're striving for self-sufficiency and moving in that direction.