Read Part I here.
The Peace Accords and the establishment of new communities and cooperatives
On January 16, 1992, the Peace Accords of Chapultepec were signed and the twelve-year Salvadoran armed conflict was declared over. Despite an average of $1.5 million in aid/day that the United States supplied to the Salvadoran government during the height of the war, a military victory over the FMLN had not been possible; the war finally came to its end through a series of agreements signed at the negotiating table. Although the war was officially over however, most of the underlying economic conditions and inequalities which had caused the conflict had yet to be addressed.
The unequal distribution of resources, such as land ownership, was one of the most profound causes underlying the civil war. The Peace Accords attempted to address this by establishing a Land Transfer Program. They created a fund to enable the government to buy up tracts of land from large landowners, many of whom had fled the country, or had been killed during the war. The land was divided up and then transferred to a long list of those who had directly participated in, or been adversely affected by, the war: demobilized FMLN combatants, ex-soldiers, returned refugees, displaced campesinos, and others who had lost significant numbers of potential wage-earning family members. Each of these individuals was to receive 3 ½ manzanas (approximately 6 acres) per person, most to be held in co-operative ownership.
Throughout the Bajo Lempa, dozens of new communities and cooperatives sprung up and the beneficiaries began receiving legal title to their land: the returned refugee communities of Nueva Esperanza and Ciudad Romero; former plantations, such as La California and Salinas del Potrero were given to the former workers who’d stayed behind during the war; the communities of La Canoa, El Pito and dozens of others were given to former FMLN combatants and their families. The huge cashew nut plantation, formerly owned by the German, Luce Draico, was divided up and turned into four cooperatives; the producers who now form part of Aprainores live in Los Naranjos (where Leopoldo Abrego has his farm) and the island of Montecristo.
Julia and I visited Montecristo to meet with the producers and tour their farms. Once at the office and processing plant in Los Naranjos, you drive another hour or so to the end of the road and then contract someone to take you by boat up the Lempa River to the island. If you go a bit further, you get to the Pacific Ocean. It’s important to time the trip well, as the river becomes too shallow to cross in low tide.
Both the islands of Montecristo and Tasajera had been deserted during the war, and the houses and buildings destroyed. Because of their location and the thick mangrove estuaries which cover the islands, they were very strategic during the armed conflict. Although many campesinos snuck back to the islands to fish, no one lived there permanently.
I remember visiting Tasajera a few years after the war ended. One family had returned and had rebuilt their house and some cabanas. The island was mostly populated at that time by wild horses and white, sandy beaches. I don’t remember how these friends of mine had learned about the island; perhaps they had known the woman who invited them to come out for a relaxing day and a delicious meal of seafood, rice and beans. But I do remember accompanying them several times: contracting the boat, arriving at the cabanas, swimming in the ocean, and mostly lounging around on the hammocks under the gigantic cashew nut trees. In 1995, these same friends of mine got married on Tasajera and the entire wedding party arrived in motor boats for a beautiful ceremony followed by an afternoon on the beach.
And so, it was particularly exciting for me to get back on a motor boat, and head to Montecristo.
Here’s a few photos of the stunning ride over to the island. Don’t forget to click on them for better viewing!
San Vicente Volcano in the afternoon light.
Photographs courtesy of Equal Exchange. Photographer: Julia Hechtman.
Read Part VII (final story) tomorrow!