'Without a bicycle, there is no planet'

Saúl Martínez
For the women of Guazapa, El Salvador, the bicycle has become a sign of freedom, sustainability and empowerment.

As well as revolutionising transport, the project has empowered women, delivering increased autonomy and sustainability.

As a 51-year-old cancer survivor in El Salvador, María Catalina Pacas is not necessarily a typical bicycle enthusiast, but her perspective began to change when she learned how to repair her own bicycle. 

Pacas lives in Guazapa, a municipality 24 kilometres north of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador. With few public transportation options, residents had been looking for sustainable ways to get around. 

Booming  

“The bicycle means a lot. Using it saves energy, protects the environment, improves health and limits greenhouse gases,” she says. “It takes up less space and does not ruin the streets.”

In September 2019, the municipality of Guazapa approved an ordinance to promote the use of bicycles, and allocated resources to make the roads safer for cyclists. 

“Bicycles are booming in the municipality,” says Héctor Salguero, the mayor of Guazapa. 

Autonomy  

Founded in 1980, Friends of the Earth El Salvador (CESTA) was the first environmental organisation in the country. It currently works on seven different programmes, including a bicycle project that has proved popular among the Salvadoran population, ‘Sin Bicicleta No Hay Planeta’, which translates as ‘without a bicycle there is no planet’. 

The programme promotes the use of bicycles and organises bicycle repair workshops, like the one Pacas participated in, with the support of CESTA’s Ecobici workshop school. As well as revolutionising transport, the project has empowered women, delivering increased autonomy and sustainability. 

Children 

Ruth Consuelo Ortiz is a 46-year-old mother of six children, and she started working at a young age. She is another Guazapa resident who has seen her life transformed. Alongside her normal daily responsibilities, she has taken up work in bicycle repair. 

She emphasises that her ability to move freely by bicycle is a big change, and through doing repairs she makes an income that contributes to satisfying the basic needs of her family. 

“Clients always come for patches on their tyres or general greasing,” she says. “I am also teaching bike mechanics to my children. When I am not there, they still repair the bicycles. One of my daughters often does the repairs.” 

Network 

Ortiz learned to read and write in her twenties through a local literacy programme, but her myriad other skills have helped her get by. She knows how to cut and sew, she sells fruit, and today she is an active woman in a space called ‘network of workshops’, which brings together more than 50 people who work to promote bicycle use.  

Working with these programmes taught by CESTA has been a blessing for these women, she says.  

During Covid-19 the demand for bicycle repairs increased, as people adopted bicycle travel as a way to maintain social distancing. 

As well as revolutionising transport, the project has empowered women, delivering increased autonomy and sustainability.

Generations  

The bicycle in Guazapa is a means of transportation that can be used at all hours, whether to go to the store, to the market, to work or to school or, of course, for recreation. 

As bicycles are now becoming commonplace there, the hope is that a project like this can serve as an example for other parts of El Salvador. 

The country has 14 departments with 262 municipalities, but so far only 12 municipalities have approved ordinances for the promotion of bicycles. 

Salguero expects the efforts in Guazapa to continue. He hopes future generations will embrace transport that contributes to health and to the family economy. 

Mass cycling 

Along with the Committee of Women Cyclists, the municipality has organised a mass cycling event to promote awareness and strengthen respect among motorists for those who travel by bicycle.  

 “By 2023 we hope to have a wider cycle path,” he said. “With this, the population helps to take care of our environment. We hope to enable bicycle parking in educational centres.”  

Salguero is also hopeful that the ministry of transport will help organise mass cycling events throughout the country. 

Indeed, there are signs that others are taking notice of Guazapa’s success. On 27 August 2020 the legislative assembly approved the Framework Law for the Use and Promotion of Bicycles as a Means of Transportation in El Salvador. 

To date, the central government has already enabled bicycle lanes and has begun to limit the speed limits of automobiles on some roads to 30km/h, with the hope that this will be the maximum speed in the municipalities that have approved the municipal ordinances. 

Breaking norms   

Rosa Isabel Trejo has just finished her second bicycle repair and assembly workshop. She has a 17-year-old daughter who is blind and has cerebral palsy.  

Rosa found out about the workshops through a TV report. She now has her own bike shop, which provides her with a source of income while she looks after her daughter. 

Jesús López, coordinator of the programme ‘Sin Bicicleta No Hay Planeta’, listed the programme’s three fundamental components: work with the municipality, work with educational centres, and implement activities to engage women. 

The programme has managed to motivate women to break norms, earn much-needed income, and gain some financial independence, he says. 

“Young people from educational centres are demanding the right to safe travel by bicycle, and people from the municipality are reacting. The municipality now promotes bicycle transport to go to work, shop or simply take leisurely bike rides,” he adds.  

Through CESTA’s programmes, many women in Guazapa are reaping the benefits of cycling, but they are increasingly asking for still more action from the municipality, demanding safer spaces for bikes, including better, cyclist-friendly road signs. 

Courage  

“The National Civil Police has given us security to carry out our events. Radio Guazapa and the House of Culture have promoted these spaces,” says Pacas. “It’s safe for those who accompany us to ride a bicycle.” 

Pacas also notes how much these programmes have helped her develop new skills, while serving to break the stereotype that bicycle-related jobs can only be done by men. 

“What I didn’t like and what stressed me the most was putting the spokes on the bike, but disassembling, greasing and getting to know each piece became very pleasant and important.  

“As a woman, it is not accepted to say that I stained myself with grease, or broke my nails, because we even dirty our faces. “We women have to face all these challenges and take them on with courage.”  

This Author  

Saúl Martínez is a Salvadoran writer and journalist.

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