El Salvador Blog: First Impressions

El Salvador Blog: First Impressions

First published in Blogs St Albans & Harpenden Review: Photograph of the Author by

Hola! I will be spending the next 10 weeks in El Salvador on an environmental project with International Citizen Service, a government-funded scheme that sends 18-25 year olds to volunteer in developing countries. The charity I chose to work for is called Progressio, which uses what it calls “people powered development”, meaning that it works alongside local people to support them in projects such as HIV awareness, women’s participation and environmental sustainability.

The first two weeks have been a bit of a culture shock as we adjusted to the sweltering heat, speaking Spanish and freezing (I mean refreshing…) bucket showers in the community where we will be living and working, Nuevo Gualcho. During orientation we learnt about the community’s history: during El Salvador’s violent civil war during 1979-1992, refugees fled to Honduras in order to avoid a massacre they had heard was being planned against them. In Honduras they learnt to organise themselves and returned to found a new community, Nuevo Gualcho, 23 years ago. It is a closed community; meaning that all the land is communal and the gangs that have so frequently put El Salvador in the headlines don’t operate there.

I think that what makes this programme really unique is that the 11 British volunteers will be working alongside 11 Salvadorian volunteers in their home community. National and international volunteers will do the same work, receive the same allowance and live in the same conditions - many will live with the families of the local volunteers. Of course, the British volunteers will go home after 10 weeks, but the idea is that the youth group is given that extra push it needs to complete the project and continue when we’re gone. Similarly, the British volunteers will obtain the skills and inspiration to continue development work in their own community.

The national volunteers designed the project plan: they identified rubbish as one of the biggest problems in their community. Unlike in St Albans where rubbish is collected every week, including separated rubbish to be recycled by the council, in Nuevo Gualcho it is only collected once a month to go to landfill. As it piles up, many people burn their rubbish to get rid of it, creating a toxic smoke that causes respiratory and sight problems. I can see that plastic bags, bottles, cans and sweet wrappers line many of the streets.

The youth group we are working with would like to create a recycling centre where residents can bring their rubbish to be reused or made into products to sell. They are also keen scout out an eco-tourism trail to take tourists and generate some much-needed income for the young people. They would display the recycling project and take them to the community’s beauty spots such as the “posa”, a natural pool with a waterfall, (which we discovered is great for jumping into!). Another aim of the project is to become an example to other communities about how waste can be managed in a country where rubbish is increasing as consumerism takes hold. In order to do this, we will not only be building the entire recycling centre out of rubbish, but will also be holding workshops and talks to gain the support of the rest of the community and to raise awareness of the benefits of recycling, instead of throwing rubbish into the streets or rivers.

During this last week we have been discussing exactly how we will do this, as well as carrying out surveys to discover the community’s current attitude towards and knowledge of recycling.

Watch this space for how we get on next week, as well as local people’s impressions of the Presidential elections that will be taking place on Sunday in El Salvador!

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