“Peace is not built, peace is something within us. What we need to build are the processes to manifest it. We cannot buy or obtain it, because peace is inherent.”
Marta Benavides was born in El Salvador, in 1945. The eldest daughter of four girls, her family was comfortable and educated. Marta sees her upbringing, during this period of military dictatorship, as the beginning of her activism. “All my life, I have been part of a family that was concerned about others. Not only talking about others as ‘others’, we were raised to understand we were all the same. Rural people were always despised in El Salvador. But my mom would take us into the countryside. She told us about the indigenous ways. All our medicine was from medicinal plants. She told us the names and how to use them. Whenever poor people in the community got ill, they would come to my mother. And my father too, encouraged a lot of reading. I always read, and then I could talk it over with him. He taught me about geography and history with an atlas, and this developed a kind of love for my country. We were told we should always serve our country, but the country is the people, not the government. My mother had a great sense of justice. She would say that ‘the people are not poor, they are made poor’.”
During her school days, Marta became involved in social issues, and just before graduating, she trained in teaching literacy. When she went into the countryside to teach however, she found that it was impossible to learn there. There were no chairs or any facilities, and women had to care for their babies in the classroom. She saw that people wanted to learn but they were exhausted and distracted. “So I figured that they just needed to have fun, and so I created opportunities for them to do that”. The creation of spaces and opportunities for people to laugh, to play, to be creative and to connect with one another, in spite of suffering and repressive conditions, became an enduring and important element of Marta’s work in conflict transformation.
In the 1960s, Marta went to the USA for tertiary studies. While she studied, however, she worked with migrant farm workers in the USA to help them claim their rights; an activity regarded as highly subversive in the Cold War climate. In 1967, she completed her studies at the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminar, in Pennsylvania, with an MA in Theology, and returned to El Salvador, which was still being governed by a military dictatorship that served the interests of the landholding elite.
Shortly after her homecoming, she was contacted by wealthy Salvadorans who were aware of her work with migrant laborers in the USA, and who warned her that it was illegal to form unions or to organize groups to claim rights in El Salvador, especially with peasants. Marta felt she had to leave the country again, and although she remained closely involved in social justice activities in El Salvador, she often had to base herself outside the country, for her own safety.
Social restlessness escalated during a period of the 1970s; a result of most Salvadoran’s experience of increasing poverty, landlessness, or their inability, as small-scale farmers, to subsist on poor and eroding land. The military regime that had ruled the country for nearly half a century responded by heightening and broadening the repression. Death squads were created, and encouraged to not make any distinction between armed FMLN resistance guerrillas and dissenting civilians. Over the next 12 years, the USA provided US$6 billion in military aid to support the dictatorship’s war against ‘communism’. 750,000 refugees fled El Salvador, with two thirds fleeing to the USA itself. Over 75,000 Salvadorans were violently killed during the war. In addition, many of the richest and most fragile parts of the country’s eco system were severely damaged by the military’s ‘scorched earth’ policy.
During the 12-year war, Marta was forced to live in exile in Costa Rica, then Nicaragua, and then Mexico and was able to work inside El Salvador only with the protection of the ‘accompaniment’ of others. Between 1980 and 1982, at the request of Archbishop Monsignor Oscar Romero, Marta voluntarily directed the Comite Ecumenico para la Ayuda Humanitaria (CEAH) – Ecumenical Committee for Humanitarian Aid. Under her direction, and with the participation of representatives from the various church denominations along with the Catholic Church, and members of social services from both the secular and religious sectors, CEAH opened the first refugee centers and related service centers, also providing support for refugees in other countries and for the sanctuary movement.
Between 1982 and 1992, Marta was the Director of the Ministerios Ecumenicos para Desarrollo y Paz (MEDEPAZ) – Ecumenical Ministries for Development and Peace, a program directed towards ending the war. From her exile base in Mexico, she worked at both national and international levels. This work encompassed family level violence and trauma, violence against the environment, accompaniment programs involving non-Salvadoran citizens, and education and advocacy for peace. “During Salvadoran peace process, I was involved in a complicated process. My responsibility was to filter information both down and up, so that people at all levels understood what was happening and supported dialogue and negotiation.”
When the Peace Agreements were signed in 1992, Marta was finally able to return to El Salvador. However, while the Peace Agreements ended the armed conflict, the causes of the war remained very real, and the situation for most Salvadorans was worsened by the destruction of the environment, which reduced the productivity of their small farms, and by their individual traumas. The war had ended, but peace did not exist. “The people had endured terrible hardship. The government has not given a lot of support to the people. Many of the young people have been left to fend for themselves, and there are still a lot of guns around. Marta decided to put into practice her knowledge of conflict transformation at a community level. She moved to Sonsonate, one of the most violent cities in El Salvador, and established the International Institute for Cooperation Amongst People – Ferias Siglo XXIII.
Otherwise known as the Institute for the 23rd Century, Marta’s brainchild enables time and spaces for people to practice the values of a culture of peace. Activities include programs for reconciliation and reconstruction focus training on identity with attention to culture, violence - particularly against women and children - sexuality, ecology, rural development and human rights, and a people’s museum of art that questions the lives that people are leading.
Under Marta’s direction, the institute has been facilitating cooperative exchanges amongst rural and urban areas, universities and communities of youth, senior citizens, indigenous people and other groups, and has been building a community for everyone that manifests peace. An important part of the Institute for the 23rd Century is the Ecological House, founded by the group in the countryside, which provides trainings and workshops, and a space for people to meet. Once a week, elderly women from the surrounding communities come to the Ecological House to meet socially.
The Permaculture Farm, founded by the group in San Salvador, provides training on soil and water conservation, and also serves as an air purifier system for the capital. It raises awareness of the very real threat of desertification, and shows how each person can reverse this process.
Over the nine years during which Marta has worked in Sonsonate, an openness and interest in peace has gradually developed. While Marta and her colleagues had to move slowly at first, she says they now hold peace fairs, museum exhibitions and celebrations with communities.
“Now people from the Universities and NGOs are coming here to see and to learn from us. Usually, there is so much classism in El Salvador that people do not socialize with each other. But, in our Ecology House, everyone who comes gets to meet the neighbors and to work in the streets together. We are creating a more horizontal society. Our activities are done in partnership with churches, the Mayor, students – anyone who wants to learn.”
In some ways, Marta Benavides’ decision to move to an unknown and very violent town to work with local communities, in a very low-key approach, was strange. She has, for the past 12 years, been a high-profile woman, active in the UN on national and international levels. She could have taken a position in the new government or another position of authority. However, she chose to take a very different approach. Her reasons are reflected in her description of what her mother taught her; “My mother was always showing me how to be responsible and how to act. It is one thing to have the Vision, and it is another to actually show the way. Intentionality and constancy are the keys to transformation.”
There have been moments, when things are very difficult, that Marta has wondered if she should join the government, or become an Member of the Parliament, but she says, “The big mistake is to think you have to have power, and to be voted in order for change to happen. In reality, you just need to join the people and look for the best solution, and not think who might benefit politically from it.”
At the heart of Marta’s work is a spiritual approach to peace, achieved through conflict transformation. “I understand now that you cannot force things, you have to work with problems. Things simply do not change from one day to another. You have to transform from one stage to another, by always focusing on what form you want to take. It’s not about fighting and living, it’s about living and being. How can we work to create conditions so that the best of everyone is evidenced? The Decade for Peace was not good enough, we need to educate for peace. So all of our work in the community has to include discussing peace and showing the transformation we desire.”
One simple and creative representation of her work in conflict transformation is Marta’s ‘Butterfly Gardens’. For the last few years, Marta has been showing groups and communities how to plant ‘butterfly gardens’, which are found in various places around El Salvador, often in very violent places. She explains that the butterfly gardens teach people about learning to live and to respect life. To make them, you need local flowering plants, which support diversity, have a low maintenance cost and attracts butterflies.
Marta Benavides is one of the few remaining activists in El Salvador from her original group of human rights activists. Almost all of them were either assassinated by death squads or the military, or forced into exile. Marta has faced great danger, threats, extreme stress and trauma. “During the revolutionary period, we were told that we should give our lives for the revolution. I felt within myself, ‘NO” – I don’t want to die for the revolution; I want to LIVE for the revolution. Martyrs were celebrated, but I felt that recognition was not important. I recognized instead that I wanted to live to be an old woman, to plant gardens and to play with the children. And I realized that this was a manifestation of peace. I knew that there were tortures, rape, murders – very difficult things to face in El Salvador. But at the same time, it’s one thing to think about these things, it’s another thing to live it.” Once she was in that particular situation, after being captured by the military in a failed accompaniment mission.
“I really thought it was my end, because there were only two of us. The thing that helped me the most was that I looked at the soldiers, and I realized that they were just young men. I realized they probably had been forced into the military, that they had no options in life, that they might be the only breadwinners in their families. I thought ‘these are not bad people, but the situation is bad’. It’s not that they hate me; it’s just that this is all so wrong. I was able to see them in their humanity, so whatever happened to me, it had another dimension. The situation was inhumane, but I didn’t see them with fear anymore. I felt compassion. I knew it would be hard for me – this was a very intense moment in my life. But when I questioned myself: was it a mistake to do what I had done in my life? I knew that it wasn’t, I had made no mistake and I would it all again.”
“Some people will tell me that I am losing, but I say that it takes time, and you just need to figure out how to manifest peace. Peace is a given possibility for each one of us, which doesn’t mean you will do it. But it does mean you can do it. You are a human being, therefore you can be humane.”
Marta began working with marginalized communities as a student. Since then, her work has evolved into conflict transformation. Marta understands that one cannot force change: “You have to work with all the problems, because things do not change from one day to the next. Instead, we have to intentionally move from one stage to another according to our dreams. It is not about fighting and surviving. It is about living and being.”
Due to assassinations and exile, Marta is one of the few remaining from her original group. During the war in El Salvador, Marta used ‘accompaniment’ to enable her to work inside El Salvador. One time, she was accompanied by only one person when they were captured by the military. “The thing that most helped me through that was that I looked at the soldiers, and I realized that they were just young men. I realized they probably had been forced into the military, that they had no options in life, that they might be the only bread-winner in their families. And I no longer saw them with fear. I knew it would be hard for me–this was a very intense moment in my life–but, when I questioned myself, I knew that I would choose to do the same again.”
Marta says that her love for El Salvador keeps her going. “Sometimes I wish I could stop because it is so difficult to see your country bleeding. There have been moments when I thought I could work within the government, or take a position of authority, but nobody is doing what I am doing. People have to see that transformation is possible. It will take a long time, and there is no glory in it, but it has to be done.” Marta draws strength from her creativity. The butterfly gardens represent her love of life and El Salvador.
From 1980-1992, El Salvador was crippled by a civil war. During the 1980s, the military dictatorship received US$ 6 billion in military aid from the USA. Peace agreements, signed in 1992, ended the armed conflict, but have not addressed the causes of the war or healed the society.
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International | El Salvador