And then Suchitoto Voted “Yes”
Author: Évora Barreiro, consultant for the accompaniment of partners of the Women and Environmental Justice Program.
“This referendum is a good thing because water is not a commodity. They have to ask us [what we think]. Access to water shouldn’t cost a lot, and it should be available to everyone.”—Woman voter. Agua Caliente, Suchitoto.
At five in the morning on Sunday, October 27, you could sense the bustle of the street. There, in the distance, close to Lake Suchitlán—located between the departments of Chalatenango, Cuscatlán and Cabañas in El Salvador—the sky began to grow light little by little. If you were at the central park, you could hear the steps of the first street vendors getting off the buses from the countryside and untying their bundles to begin their work day. A sweeper was cleaning the cobblestone road and there, in the middle of one of the main streets, a white banner read: “This October 27, go to your polling place and vote YES for the Human Right to Water.”
At the same time, in the Casa de las Mujeres, a communal space for community management, a group of a hundred people—made up of members of the Water councils, the Community Development Councils (Cocodes), the Municipal Police, feminists, members of the Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local (Feminist Collective for Local Development), the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Municipal Council officials, and the Mayor’s Office, as well as election observers from different parts of Central America—were diligently carrying the materials and boxes for the referendum on foot or loading them onto pickup trucks or makeshift cargo beds so the vote on whether water is a human right could take place. You could hear many voices asking, “Where’s your polling place?” “Where are you going?” “Run! The ones headed for the canton of Copapayo are leaving!” “Who’s going to Los Almendros?” Within half an hour, the materials had been delivered to ten polling places at the municipal level and twenty-four polling stations (JRV).
At seven, the second popular consultation to recognize water as a human right in Suchitoto—located in the department of Cuscatlán in El Savadlor—officially began. Behind the excitement in the air and among the enthusiastic chats around the morning’s first coffee with pupusas, that were years of hard work in the communities, of collective efforts, and of resisting private companies that, once settled in the territory, siphoned off the water and polluted it. The contradictions generated by their activities have limited the communities’ access to water.
This was the second time an effort had been made to organize a popular referendum at the municipal level. The first time had been two years ago, and, although it had fallen four hundred votes short of becoming binding, it had ignited an impulse to survey as well as a desire to get involved, participate, and believe that water is both a right and a collective responsibility. “If we want to have water, we are going [to have to] to protect it”; that was the campaign motto
Two years later, the same attitude, the same desire, plus a lot of learning and a review exercise with a network of public institutions, grassroots organizations, women’s organizations, civil society, and the accompaniment of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal served to prove that Democracy is built through partnerships, dialogue and negotiation skills, plus trust and respect.
Within minutes of the polls opening, the faces of peasant women and men began to appear. They came from rural communities near the municipality and, therefore, had to vote in urban polling places (the largest of which held thirteen JRVs). Filled with excitement, they identified themselves and asked which station was theirs. “That’s it!” they said when they were done. When asked what they thought about the referendum, they talked about the previous one and how people then were not worried about the water and hadn’t voted. Most of the ones who exercised their right to vote could be heard saying “water belongs to everyone, but, if we do not protect it, we will be left with nothing,” “over there, at the Water Council…” “In my Water Council…” “At the community assemblies…” That’s when you realized that these people are not only organized in community structures because of the water, but that most of them are women.
As the clock ticked by, the mood began to lighten. In between chortles, a woman was trying to find her name on one of the lists to figure out where her polling station was. She said it was her first time voting, and she was not concerned at all if everyone heard. Someone asked if she was an anarchist; the chortles quickly became a loud guffaw: “An anarchist? Me? Well, that’s debatable, but the reason I have come to vote for the first time in these fifty years since I was born is because I think, for once, it is worth it.” Another woman, clearly in a rush to get to work, said: “You can’t leave us without water! Preposterous! Now I’m headed to my office,” she said laughing, “I sell cakes downtown, but before that I wanted to come and vote. This is good! Excellent!” Others were enthusiastic but cautious: “I think the referendum is a good idea. What scares me, and this is something that’s been nagging on me, is that a corrupt mayor might come and disregard the results. During the test runs, there were some people who voted “no.” These people are crazy. How can you vote against your right to water?”
It was almost noon, and the sun was beating down, but the movement remained constant. If you entered the polling place, you could see the JRVs distributed alphabetically, journalists, polling-station attendants, and members of the logistics team, women’s organizations, and the election observation mission. If not for them, you could be fooled into thinking this was any other Sunday in the city of xoxhitototl, or birds that look like flowers, as its Nahuatl name indicates. Suchitoto, a small town in El Salvador popularly known for its historic center, which has been acknowledged as a site of national interest. What we didn’t know then was that the results of the referendum would set a precedent in the struggle for women’s and water rights, both locally and nationally, in a country without water laws and with a 10-year-old proposal buried in the Legislative Assembly—a conflict between the economic and more conservative elites that are committed to the privatization of the service, to the commercialization and speculation of the resource, and civil society organizations and their push for a recognition of water as a human right that involves all citizens.
At three, euphoria had colored the afternoon; the required minimum of 3,830 votes needed to make the referendum binding had been surpassed (the municipal code establishes that 40% of the votes of the previous vote are required) and a municipal ordinance was passed in which all community actors participated. The final scrutiny was made public at the Casa de las Mujeres with a total of 4,788 votes in favor of recognizing, ratifying, and defending the human right to water. Voters demanded that water be administered by water councils as opposed to outside consultants because they see water as essential for life and the environment that sustains us. They overcame gender gaps with regard to community management, acknowledging the contributions of women as water protectors, plumbers, firefighters, and decision makers. They recognized women and did not exclude them. This is a struggle that has been taken on by social movements, but it is also a struggle that has historically been shouldered by women.
And then a voice was heard: “Suchitoto has made history by conducting a popular referendum for the human right to water . . . the municipality is aware that water must be a common resource . . . participants have mostly been women . . . Long live people power!”
Since 2016, the Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local has been one of the Central American partners of FCAM’s Women and Environmental Justice Program. From then on, defending water from a feminist and environmental justice perspectives has been part of their political commitment, which is why they have focused on the contributions and work of women as well as their ability to adapt and their resilience in the face of structural violence and the ever-present climate emergency.
Pushing for and accompanying popular referendums is not only an exercise in citizen participation, but also one of the few instruments with which women can influence the approval of municipal public policies and take on the role of political subjects.