Step 2: Establish local organization

The progress in Tasajera Island has been consistent, but a bit slow. This is not something negative, because community engagement should not be rushed; enough time should be allocated to engage with all people in the community. It is important to understand their issues, needs, and priorities.

I’ve been in El Salvador for one month now, and I believe I’ve learned a lot about the cultural and social issues affecting Tasajera. It is important to know the way they operate and how they’re organized. I concluded there is a lack of organizational capacity and poor self-governance within the community. Therefore, a multisectoral committee, under the authority of the Association for Community Development (ADESCO), has been called for. There are a few organizational traits the new committee must overcome, including dependency, information deficiency, and incentives.

– Dependency –

Given the location of Tasajera Island at the lower Lempa River mangroves, there has been great interest in the protection and exploitation of the region. The lower Lempa River is a national protected area and a RAMSAR site. The protection of the biodiversity-rich mangroves has led many external actors to intervene with the small communities that inhabit the region. The relationship between the communities and outside funding sources has caused a side-effect of dependency. A culture of dependency has consequences on the organizational behavior of local actors; people expect to receive help with minimum effort on their side.

Some of the main external actors in the area are:

  1. FUNZEL (NGO – turtle conservation)
  2. CORDES (NGO – agricultural and fishing assistance)
  3. XUNTA de Galicia (Aid from Spain to fishing communities)
  4. Universidad de Alcala (student volunteers – Spain)
  5. American Churches & missionaries (humanitarian donations and constructions)
  6. Klosa & associates (external landowners of Tasajera Island)

– Information deficiency – 

Unfortunately, Salvadorans are not known for their excellent management skills. People often get things done “no matter what”, but fail to keep good records of what was done. Tasajera works very similarly, and people don’t have a mid- or long-term perspective. As a result, they lack the capacity to measure their performance over time. It’s understandable too, because they have lived off the ocean for generations and fish seemed never to run out… until today.

Since one of the principles employed here is to build on local and already existing information structures, I’ve noticed there is some information among local actors. However, the available information is mostly written down on paper and is not being analyzed over time. This information includes:

  • fish catch data (source: Fishing Cooperatives)
  • School attendance data (source: schools)
  • Children census of the community (source: ADESCO)
  • Groundwater sampling (source: CORDES)

In addition, there are some assessments of the community performed by universities and NGOs, but are focus-specific and not periodical. There is also Local Knowledge that may be recorded, like traditions and culture, and intriguing stories about young men and women who are migrating to the United States illegally.

– Incentives –

Community leaders seem frustrated with community members because they say it’s hard to get the people organized to accomplish something. People are not very interested in making an effort or commit to investing time in organizing something. This may be as a result of the previous points on dependency and lack of capacity. Therefore, incentivizing adequate organization and goal-oriented projects is essential to any intervention that is meant to be sustainable.

Communication may be a very important aspect of this, as the benefits of “owning their development” may be explained in a more comprehensive way. Other ways to encourage participation need to be explored as the process goes on.

 

Step 1: Community Engagement – Education

During the period of October 25 – 31 in Tasajera Island,

I set out to investigate the current academic situation in the community. I met with the teacher and the director of local public school and toured the facility. The first-hand experience, besides learning of the teacher’s perspective, reassured me of the urgency in which EMANA has to act. The conditions are so bad that they may be reaching a tipping point.

The plan is to develop strong connections with all actors of the community; also called community engagement phase. November is a very important month in which a multi-sectoral committee, which will oversee the Summer School project, will be formed and meet regularly to determine which way is best to intervene with the school.

The Relation Youth-Education:

“Being a teenager is a sin here in El Salvador” stated Francisco, a member of ADESCO (Community Development Association), as he explained the risk teenagers find themselves in when gangs control certain territories. In several areas of El Salvador, gang members demand students to join their gangs, and if they deny they get shot.

This is a warzone, and young people are the most vulnerable in communities where their parents are afraid of sending them to school, because they are concerned they won’t come back. This is the reason why our project focuses on education, to reach out and empower those young kids who are afraid of learning.

What’s the current condition in Tasajera?

There are 2 schools in Tasajera. One is public (k-9), and is funded by state funds, and the other is private (k-12), and is funded by Christian organizations. It’s worth mentioning that all high school students in Tasajera go to the private Christian school to earn a high school degree.

About the Public School:

  • Infrastructure

Even though the infrastructure of the public school has been recently restored with support of Spanish NGO Ayuda en Accion, it still faces great challenges before it can be considered a safe learning place.

Among the main issues are the lack of general hygiene and cleaning, non-functioning bathrooms, unfiltered groundwater, rundown outer walls, insufficient and broken desks. In addition, I observed a lack of learning supplies (books, notepads, pencils, etc.) and supplies for extracurricular activities.

  • Educational Capacity

In terms of the educational quality of the public school, there are a few issues that were synthesized after several interviews with teachers and community members. A main issue is the fact that there are only 2 teachers in the school (including the Director) who take care of about 120 students. This problem is attributed to the lack of funds of the student families to cover the education cost entirely. In addition, public funds are very limited and according to the Director, Carlos Velasquez, it is only enough to cover a few books and materials, but not enough for every student.

  • Educational Needs

The teacher and Director of the public school expressed the need to strengthen reading and writing in young students, because there are many 6th graders that cannot read properly or write. This is a big concern when it concerns the learning abilities of students and the side-effects poor reading/writing skills have on learning as a whole.

In addition, the Director expressed the concerns about the self-esteem of students and the need for psychological interventions to assess and improve character development counteract the psychological effects of broken families, poverty, and deteriorating social fabric.

About the Private Christian School:

There is less to mention about the Christian School “El Sembrador”, because in a way, they are better suited than the public school. This school is part of a church and is being funded by the central “El Sembrador” church in San Salvador. Thus, it is perceived to have higher quality teachers and education.

However, after interviewing Ernesto Peralta, Director, I found out that in fact the challenges are similar in terms of the students; all students belong to the same community and have the same poverty and social problems. Finally, we agreed that both Directors (Public and Private) will join the Committee to work together on an educational intervention that is community-centered.

 

Arriving to Tasajera

Rain had been pouring in El Salvador for 2 days already by the time me, Carlos Escalante, and volunteers from His Children Foundation, were on the road to Tasajera last Saturday Oct. 17. It had been one year and two months since I last saw Carlos, and he picked me up outside the house I was staying in San Salvador at 5:52am on that day.

With grey cloudy skies and raindrops in my face I made my initial approach to the island; I was walking into my new workplace.

Volunteers of His Children Foundation and the local women’s group Sea Artisans were scheduled to distribute to the community donations from Mansfield University; which included clothing, shoes, and toys. This activity was performed successfully and the donations were given to 200+ families.

Surrounding the donations event, I made my goal to contact my most trusted ally in the community: Pastor Aristides Arce. The report from him was not as favorable as I expected. We sat under the palm hut behind his church, and I noticed he was hesitant to open up directly to me, waiting for me to express my intentions upfront.

After a few minutes, we quickly regain the trust we were used to. He explained some community members were not satisfy with the way I have been helping the community, as they thought I was channeling help for certain groups and not to others. I explained to Pastor that I was aware of my lack of communication with the community, and that this time I intent to communicate well with the community leaders about EMANA and its vision with Tasajera regarding education. After a 1:45 hour long conversation and a hot chocolate and pastry, I was pleased with having his blessing.

Later than evening, I met with Luis Recio, a Spanish student who is living in Tasajera since July and is working in there with a regional NGO called CORDES. Luis is one of the many Alcala University students that volunteer every year in this region, and he is an Environmental Scientist. This was no surprise, as we knew we would meet up since early June when I was visiting Edgar Hita, director of Central America Cooperation program, while in Madrid.

Our conversation with Luis was great, we agreed on working together in developing a waste management plan for Tasajera and carry out organic farming workshops together. Luis also agreed to provide support from his side to EMANA’s project to develop a Summer School Program and improve education in Tasajera. All in all, we are going to make great things together.

Luis Rodriguez, a current EMANA member, was also in Tasajera and we agreed to work together in the development of the Steering Committee and ADESCO.

Right before leaving Tasajera on Sunday, I met with Walter Pena, president of the Local Association for Development (ADESCO) to discuss the development of a Steering Committee with community members, school teachers, and other stakeholders to lead and oversee the School Program and other sustainable development goals.

I left Tasajera Island with a clear vision of the challenges and opportunities ahead of me, and after arranging all the necessary things, I will return to Tasajera to start the implementation process at the end of this week. stay tuned.

Thanks for your attention.