Global Policy Forum

Forgotten People of the Border Pact

The former disputed border between Honduras and El Salvador is bulwarking social and economic projects from reaching impoverished citizens living in disputed territories. Although these countries battled hard to acquire territory, residents claim that the respective governments are now depriving communities of basic infrastructure, medical provisions and even citizenship rights. This article highlights how communities feel abandoned by governments who have exclusively been addressing territorial interests.

By Edgardo Ayala

March 29, 2011

Salvadorans who were transferred to Honduran jurisdiction following an international court decision in 1992, which settled a long-running border dispute between the two countries, are still calling for implementation of social and economic development projects needed to conquer poverty.

"Unfortunately, the Honduran government is apathetic towards us. After fighting so hard for these territories, now it ignores us completely," Eleutorio Gómez, leader of the community of El Zancudo in Nahuaterique, whose 162 square kilometres make it the largest of the six territories that used to belong to El Salvador, told IPS.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague settled the century-old border dispute, shifting some 12,000 Salvadoran citizens and the six pockets of land they live on into Honduras.

Two-thirds of the total of 450 square kilometres in dispute were transferred to Honduras, becoming part of the southwestern departments (provinces) of Ocotepeque, Lempira, Intibucá and La Paz. Conversely, some 3,000 Hondurans found themselves living in Salvadoran territory.

Border disputes in Central America began in the early 19th century, shortly after the region won independence from Spain. For El Salvador and Honduras, friction peaked in the misnamed Football War - which was really based on social and economic issues - in July 1969.

A 1980 peace treaty between the two countries reached agreement on seven disputed areas, but left pending the six pockets of territory whose fate would later be decided in The Hague.

The population affected by the ICJ ruling has felt unprotected and abandoned ever since, by the government that took them and by the authorities of their country of origin.

The traditional occupation in these communities of Salvadorans, especially Nahuaterique, was the lumber trade, but when they were transferred to Honduras, they became subject to much more stringent forest conservation laws. Unable to fell lumber and sell it, poverty became more acute in the area.

Attempts by some people to carry on the lumber trade, which is now clearly illegal, caused friction between them and the military border guards. In January, Salvadoran soldiers killed two people who were allegedly trading in lumber, in a confused incident that is still under investigation.

"We get no support at all from the Honduran government," Gómez complained. Nahuaterique, made up of 21 villages, has only three health centres and just one doctor.

Some local people prefer to travel several kilometres on foot or, if they are lucky, hitching a lift, to Perkín in El Salvador if they need medical help. An estimated 20 percent of patients seen in the clinic there are Salvadorans who have come in from Nahuaterique.

The situation in terms of education is somewhat better, as Nahuaterique has 17 schools, staffed by 40 teachers.

But the poor state of the dirt roads, which are practically impassable in the rainy season, is another complaint.

Gómez said that because Nahuaterique is not a municipality, the national authorities do not send in heavy road-improvement equipment. Nor do they include the local people in Honduran social programmes.

"The Honduran government helps the nearby municipalities of Yarula, Santa Elena, Marcala and Cabañas," in La Paz province, but not Nahuaterique, complained Gómez who, with other local community leaders, is fighting for this area to be given the legal status of a municipality.

Gerardo Alegría, assistant for civil and individual rights at El Salvador's Human Rights Ombudsman's Office, attributes this indifference on the part of the Honduran authorities to the fact that the local population still cannot vote.

"Honduras has not done enough for these people and I think the reason is that many of them are still not citizens, so they cannot vote" and therefore are of no interest to political leaders, he told IPS.

The overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009 further affected the Salvadorans in Nahuaterique. Antagonism against them increased after the coup government of Roberto Micheletti said they were involved in demonstrations in Tegucigalpa and other cities, organised by groups protesting against the dictatorship, Alegría said.

"After the coup, there was more hostility towards them, and more reluctance to provide the programmes they need," the assistant ombudsman said.

In Alegría's view, the government of leftwing Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, of the ex-guerrilla Farabundi Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which took office in June 2009, has not had a more supportive policy than that of Honduras, although it too is obliged to support the Salvadorans who are no longer within its territory.

"In addition to meeting social needs, people need employment programmes that will bolster local production," he said.

Both countries ratified the 1998 Convention on Nationality and Acquired Rights, which sought to resolve legal problems derived from the verdict in The Hague, such as guaranteeing legal land titles and nationality for both Salvadorans and Hondurans.

Honduras had to reform the constitution so as to permit dual nationality, for the benefit of Salvadorans in the reassigned areas. El Salvador already had provision for dual nationality.

In the 1990s, the population of the area resisted adopting Honduran nationality, especially the elderly, because of their cultural roots in their country of birth. But in time they came to understand that nationality could bring benefits enjoyed by Honduran citizens.

In any case, the process of obtaining Honduran nationality has been a slow one for the Salvadorans, involving a great deal of red tape, Alegría said.

However, Oscar Chicas, a Salvadoran delegate on the bilateral Monitoring Commission, said that since the FMLN administration took office in El Salvador, after 20 years of rule by the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), a greater effort has been made to address the problem.

"For example, in Nahuaterique under the former governments, only 200 Salvadorans were able to get Honduran identity documents, while with the new administration the paperwork has been completed for 1,500 people. Now we hope Honduras will hand over the identity documents soon," Chicas said.

But that is still a low figure, given that 12,000 Salvadorans need documents.

On Apr. 11 a registration drive will begin for Honduran nationality in other ceded territories, Chicas said.

He added that some basic services are provided by El Salvador, and for the rest of 2011 a series of medical visits has been planned under the Fosalud programme, that includes mobile clinics.

Children on the Honduran side of the border have also been given school supply packs, like the ones distributed throughout El Salvador.


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