Shandur is President of the National Federation of Indigenous Peoples of El Salvador, which works to resuscitate the vitality of indigenous cultures in a part of Central America where they have been systematically and brutally suppressed. The challenge is significant:
“We don’t have enough unity, solidarity”, he laments, before returning to the positive: “But now we have a federation, present in 14 departments, with 10,000 members.”
The Federation celebrated its first anniversary on 21 January this year. In addition to its remarkable growth, the indigenous movement has established a small University of the Indigenous Peoples of El Salvador, teaching four courses lasting for three and four years. Students can study courses in indigenous medicine, the Nahuat language, indigenous administration, and biculturalism.
Another development is the Cooperative Association of Savings, Credit, Consumption, Housing and Farming of the Nahuat-Pipil Nation. The Federation, University, and Cooperative make up the three branches of the movement that seek to mobilize, educate, and overcome the economic poverty of the indigenous communities.
According to Shandur an unequal distribution of land ownership limits how much can be accomplished in raising living standards, and the Government has been unwilling to engage in negotiations on the question of returning indigenous land.
“Our philosophy as indigenous peoples is to have our land, as she is our mother”, Shandur says. “We need to have our land, to have our fruit, rather than money.”
The ownership of land lay behind the Pipil uprising of 1932, whose subsequent defeat and repression was one of the darkest chapters of the country’s history. The seeds of that conflict were sewn by the national government’s continuation of land concentration that began with the original conquest and ensuing colonial economy.
The first incursions by the conquistadors into El Salvador had ended in defeats, as the range of indigenous communities – Lencas, Nahuat, Tepezuntes, Pipil, Kakawiras – thwarted colonial advances. The Lenca army under their war leader Lempira repeatedly frustrated the Spanish, who resorted to feigning peace talks in 1536 where they killed Lempira before launching their successful assault. A range of cash crops including coffee and cotton were farmed for export, and indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their lands in a process that continued far into the twentieth century.