“This is not Cabañas,” said Shandur Kuátzin Makwilkali, gesturing around the room and out the window at the wooded slope, but meaning the entire region of that name. He had been describing the growth of indigenous associations throughout this mainly rural department in northern El Salvador, adding: “Guakotekti is its true name, not the militarily imposed name of Cabañas. Guakotekti is its good name.”
Shandur is President of the National Federation of Indigenous Peoples of El Salvador, which works to resuscitate the vitality of indigenous cultures in a part of Central America where they have been systematically and brutally suppressed. The challenge is significant:
“We don’t have enough unity, solidarity”, he laments, before returning to the positive: “But now we have a federation, present in 14 departments, with 10,000 members.”
The Federation celebrated its first anniversary on 21 January this year. In addition to its remarkable growth, the indigenous movement has established a small University of the Indigenous Peoples of El Salvador, teaching four courses lasting for three and four years. Students can study courses in indigenous medicine, the Nahuat language, indigenous administration, and biculturalism.
Another development is the Cooperative Association of Savings, Credit, Consumption, Housing and Farming of the Nahuat-Pipil Nation. The Federation, University, and Cooperative make up the three branches of the movement that seek to mobilize, educate, and overcome the economic poverty of the indigenous communities.
According to Shandur an unequal distribution of land ownership limits how much can be accomplished in raising living standards, and the Government has been unwilling to engage in negotiations on the question of returning indigenous land.
“Our philosophy as indigenous peoples is to have our land, as she is our mother”, Shandur says. “We need to have our land, to have our fruit, rather than money.”
The ownership of land lay behind the Pipil uprising of 1932, whose subsequent defeat and repression was one of the darkest chapters of the country’s history. The seeds of that conflict were sewn by the national government’s continuation of land concentration that began with the original conquest and ensuing colonial economy.
The first incursions by the conquistadors into El Salvador had ended in defeats, as the range of indigenous communities – Lencas, Nahuat, Tepezuntes, Pipil, Kakawiras – thwarted colonial advances. The Lenca army under their war leader Lempira repeatedly frustrated the Spanish, who resorted to feigning peace talks in 1536 where they killed Lempira before launching their successful assault. A range of cash crops including coffee and cotton were farmed for export, and indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their lands in a process that continued far into the twentieth century.
José Feliciano Ama was a Pipil indigenous farmer born in Izalco in the west of the country in 1881, who became a leader of the 1932 revolt. He had been radicalised by the expropriation of formerly communal lands, and tortured by forces of the elite before the outbreak ever began. The uprising followed a successful coup against democratically elected president Arturo Araujo, and in the west the Pipil succeeded in taking several towns.
“It was a rising without firearms, just with machetes”, says Shandur. “It was a social rising with the motive of owning their lands for a second time.”
The response of the military under coup leader Maximiliano Martinez was so brutal it has become known simply as ‘La Matanza’ – ‘the slaughter’. A discussion and pardon was promised for the rebels if they attended a town square, where thousands were shot dead. Ama was executed, and over the ensuing days tens of thousands of indigenous Salvadorans – collectively considered communist sympathisers by the government – were killed.
“At this time the government was allied to the US,” says Shandur, “and Maximiliano Martinez said ‘these people are Bolsheviks’. They were just indigenous people, students, small business people. All were termed Bolsheviks and killed.”
Being identified as indigenous, whether through language or dress, became grounds for further violence and persecution, driving the languages to their current state. But indigenous activists are today seeking to reverse the languages decline, and Shandur himself teaches Nahuat in free weekend classes in San Salvador (“We don’t like money, our language is sacred to our people”, he says), and in local schools.
He shows a Nahuat language booklet, filled with classroom songs. Some are vows to study well, while others sing of the countryside:
“Ximutalù ximutalù Kauaxchin,
Kan nemi tèpet…”
Run, run, my horse,
let’s go, my horse,
to the mountain…
The language has around 500 fluent speakers, according to Shandur, and 1,000 more who have some knowledge. Those figures are evident in his observation that “teaching and helping people learn is very good for my language. If I don’t teach, I rarely use it.”
Activists from the indigenous communities are also campaigning on environmental issues.
El Salvador is currently being prosecuted by two North American mining companies: Canadian enterprise Pacific Rim is using the World Bank’s International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes to sue for $77 million after El Salvador ruled the company’s environmental impact assessment was insufficient. Wisconsin-based Commerce Group is also prosecuting the country under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) after the government refused it permission to restart mining at the La Union mine, which it had earlier left poisoning local rivers with acid mine drainage and cyanide.
In October, thousands of demonstrators thronged through the streets of San Salvador to the country’s Legislative Assembly, to demand the country pass laws guaranteeing the human right to safe water and a ban on metallic mining. Shandur was one of the key-note speakers, delivering his address not in Spanish but Nahuat, and it included a condemnation of the government:
“Our needs are not listened to”, he said. “The doors are closed to us. How is this the reality?”
Campaigners from across the country are raising awareness of the whole population’s reliance on an increasingly fragile environment; the majority of whom draw their drinking water from the Lempa river which is threatened by the Guatemalan Cerro Blanco gold mine upstream. At a recent meeting, priest and member of the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining Father Neftalí Ruiz, urged the audience to support a ban on mining by saying: “The earth is our mother, we would not pollute our mother, but that is what the mines would do.”
With a cultural attachment to subsistence farming, the country’s indigenous people are particularly aware of the cost to both society and the environment of extractive industries and the export oriented agricultural model. The ambition of activists such as Shandur to achieve an official recognition and return of indigenous lands to their communities is still a great distance from being realized, however, and the chances that their intimate cultural and spiritual relationship with the land – born of a direct dependence on the earth – can be restored, remain unknown.
Nevertheless, Shandur is not easily discouraged. A short message accompanies his official correspondence and could serve as the motto of the indigenous movement as a whole: “Tupal akwa tukili ka ne tunal musekía”, or in English, ‘our struggle shall continue until the sun stops rising’.