CANTON LAS LIMAS, El Salvador – One morning in early 2005, Maria Lidia Guardado was milking her cow near her house, in the tiny village of Canton Las Limas, in northwest El Salvador’s Chalatenango department. The radio was set to the community station, and there was a news story about strange men digging up local farmland. As she listened to the description of the location, Guardado realized they were talking about her land.
“I ran as fast as I could. My land adjoins that of my neighbors, so I shouted to them as I ran,” says Guardado, 57. She was relieved to see that her maize and beans crops were still standing. But when she challenged the men who were drilling on her land, they wouldn’t tell her why they were there. “They were wearing [identical] overalls, which meant they had been ordered by someone else to do that work. I realized there was no point being angry at them,” she says.
The digging continued. The men were boring deep holes, collecting rocks and taking them away on horseback. Some days later, men in suits arrived in cars. As a subsistence farmer with just one manzana (about 1.72 acres/0.7 hectares) of land, Guardado was worried about what it all meant. Her quest to find an answer would lead her first to a personal transformation and then to a new role as a grassroots campaigner and the voice of her community.
When Guardado called a meeting with her neighbors to discuss the drilling, she discovered that farmers in nearby villages had also had their land disturbed. And local farmers had noticed another phenomenon: The trees on their land were being painted orange and numbered – most likely marked for felling. And someone had fixed tin cans to the ground, to mark further sites for drilling.
For Guardado, this was the last straw. She organized the farmers to scratch the orange paint off the trees and uproot the tin cans. “Everyone helped on each other’s farms,” she says. Then she went to the mayor’s office in the municipality of San Jose Las Flores, where she learned that the Canadian mining company Au Martinique had set up exploration sites in various municipalities in Chalatenango.
Learning more about the mines meant unraveling layers of information. But Guardado could barely read or write. She had spent 12 years of her youth involved in the civil war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992, working underground with the guerrilla groups led by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Her duty was to cook for her comrades. “My parents were too poor to continue my education,” she says. “During my spare time, I would trace words with mud on large stones.”
In a country where the illiteracy rate is 18.9 percent in rural areas and 11 percent for women, Guardado’s story is a familiar one. When she found herself going up against a major mining company, it was her daughter-in-law Rubia, who works with an organization focused on empowering youth and women, who encouraged her to pick up her education where it left off. “I became an activist suddenly, and that meant knowing my rights. I began to read and write after the men began to drill into my land,” says Guardado with a wide smile.
Guardado also drew on her previous experience as president of the Las Limas ADESCO, or association for the development of communities. Decentralized ADESCOs operate in sub-municipal neighborhoods across El Salvador and have the legal capacity to organize people for community development. She found that farmers were bypassing the association’s sitting president – a man – and going to her for guidance on what to do next. She also met with ADESCOs in nearby communities and found out that people in seven other municipalities in eastern Chalatenango would be affected by the proposed mines. “I told the community that we should reach out to our mayor to unanimously voice our disapproval,” she says.
But speaking out could come with consequences. In 2009, three anti-mining activists in the neighboring Cabanas department were allegedly murdered. “I told our community members that our fight was worth it,” says Guardado. “The land is all that we have.”
In 2014, with the help of the mayor’s office and other ADESCOs, a referendum was held in four municipalities, including the one in which Guardado lives. All of them voted “no” to the mines. Guardado credits the communities with coming together to protect their land, but humbly acknowledges her part in the victory. “I still cannot be at a table in a huge meeting, but I cooked food for everyone when we held the referendum,” she says.
The decision had far-reaching impact. In October 2016, a World Bank tribunal dismissed demands by Canadian-Australian mining giant OceanaGold that El Salvador pay $250 million in compensation for lost potential profits, after the Salvadoran government refused to allow the firm to dig for gold. Instead, OceanaGold was ordered to pay $8 million to cover the majority of El Salvador’s legal costs.
With her farm and those of her neighbors safe for now, Guardado’s work as an activist has slowed down. But she says people continue to reach out to her whenever they have concerns. When asked about her transformation into a local leader, she gives a shy smile. “People felt that I had the strength to mobilize,” she says. “I think a good leader is one who can bring people together.”
This story was reported with support from the Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.