Day Three: Report from El Salvador from Ari Weisbard

Today, we rode down into the valley to meet some amazing women who are leading the effort to develop their community. One of these women, Ebelia, came to the community eight years ago when it was just a dirt path with eight households and a couple of shacks. Back then, there was no running water, electricity, or street lights. They had to walk long miles even to get water from a river, which they did once every eight days. Most of the men work on farms, typically for less than $100 a month.

Over the past several years, Ebelia and other community leaders have managed to accomplish an amazing amount of development. First, they had to navigate the cumbersome legal process of officially incorporating their village and demonstrating that each family owned the plots of land they inhabited. After this critical and difficult legal step, they were able to start partnering with Habitat for Humanity El Salvador, which has built 96 simple yet high quality homes in the community and sold them to the families along with subsidized mortgages. Each home costs about $7,000 to build, plus $2000 for the land if the family doesn’t already own it. But thanks to the subsidies from Habitat partners, the families only have to pay about $20-$40 a month for 15 years and then own their home.

EJC staff and volunteers meeting with leaders of the Yosemite Project

EJC staff and volunteers meeting with leaders of the Yosemite Project

We also met with two Salvadorans who work in small maquilas, or textile factories, making lab coats and boots for export, mostly to the United States. They typically earn $155 a month, but at some maquilas, workers are forced to work double shifts every day, while never receiving the additional promised pay for working extra shifts. Unfortunately, it’s a story of wage theft that is all too familiar to us at EJC. And, like so many places, workers are usually fired if they try to form unions.

But Habitat doesn’t stop at building homes and infrastructure. Habitat has provided seed funding and training to community members in order to form a community cooperative. Each member of the cooperative pays $4 a month in dues and is able to take out low interest loans to invest in their businesses, typically running small shops, baking and selling tortillas, or manufacturing and selling jewelry or clothing. They also receive financial training and are encouraged to build up their savings.

One of the key lessons of the day was how important access to credit is for running even small businesses and for being able to buy homes as these families try to work their way out of poverty. While Habitat is fairly accommodating when families have unexpected difficulties, banks and other lenders are not. We learned from Habitat staff members that even being 30 days late on a home mortgage payment can cause the typical bank to foreclose and that the family can get stuck paying for the bank’s legal fees as well.

Finally, many of these families rely on remittances from family members living and working in the United States in order to make their mortgage payments, so the visit has really underscored how damaging it is when Salvadoran workers in DC, and around the country, have their wages stolen.

Despite some of the difficulty of seeing the challenges they face, it has been a real inspiration to see these community leaders work together and stand up for their communities.