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Food-for-work program allows families in El Salvador to recover from disaster

By Tjarda Muller
Workers from La Pelota clear debris from the channel that drains Olomega Lake, to reduce the threat of flooding.

Nestled between Olomega Lake and the lake’s natural drain channel in eastern El Salvador is the small community of La Pelota, home to 67 families. Many who live here depend on small plots of farm land or work as day laborers—with little to fall back on if things go wrong.

That’s why an Oxfam America emergency response launched in La Pelota last October sought not only to meet people’s immediate needs, but to help them mitigate the risks of their community for the future.

When it rains hard, La Pelota is one of the first communities in the area to flood, in part because a vigorously growing plant called la ninfa clogs the local waterways. The plant is a sign of another problem people face: poor infrastructure for sanitation. Most families rely on pit latrines whose contaminants feed the growth of la ninfa.

In October, Tropical Depression 12-E hit. It rained for almost two weeks straight. On one side of La Pelota the lake overflowed, and on the other side its natural drain spilled its banks.

“It began to rain quite a lot. Little by little, the lake drained, but then the water level rose as it continued to rain,” said Juan Francisco Flores, a 32-year-old community member. “The lake doesn’t flow fast enough through the channel. The water backs up and that’s what floods the community… The stream was flooding on one side and the lake on the other. We were isolated.”

The response from the community to the flooding was well planned and evacuation was timely, due to preparedness work that had been done by Oxfam partner Fundación Maquilishuat (FUMA), in recent years. However, damage to crops was severe.

Together with FUMA and the World Food Programme, Oxfam America launched a food-for-work initiative that not only helped families in La Pelota survive in the first months after the emergency, but reduced the risk they would face in the future. FUMA and citizens of La Pelota decided to clean out the channel to allow the water to flow more easily and prevent flooding. Oxfam provided material to do the work, FUMA provided monitoring and technical assistance, and the families carried out the work.

The project provided people with 100 pounds of corn, 33 pounds of rice, 20 pounds of beans, and a gallon of cooking oil, in exchange for 80 hours of work a month.

“The food-for-work project has been well received. It was very effective to implement this project at this time of year, when people usually don’t have work,” says Sandra Quinteros of FUMA. “There’s been a selection process for the FFW program, with several criteria—that they lost at least 50 percent of their production; that they live on less than two dollars a day; that they have many children or older adults to care for; that they are day laborers; and that they are willing to work.”

The food-for-work project has been implemented in 99 poor communities like La Pelota, in 15 municipalities throughout El Salvador. A total of 3,800 families earned a three-month supply of corn, beans, rice, and oil for a family of five, enabling them to recover from their losses and now live in better prepared communities.