El Salvador’s environmental crisis

Communities and officials demand that government protect the people from poisonous industries.

Sugar cane processing plant in El Salvador. [Photo: Erika Blumenfeld]
Boanerge Lovo, president of his Community Development Association, says he is working to preserve local ecosystems for future generations [Erika Blumenfeld/AJE]

Boanerge Lovo lives in a subsistence community on Isla de Monte Cristo near the central coast of El Salvador. His community is self-sustaining and relies on fish, crab, and growing cashews for its survival.

Lovo is president of his community development association, a position that carries the responsibility of watching out for the wellbeing of the 27 families in this community.

Along with weather events like floods and hurricanes of increasing extremes that are attributed to climate change, he and two resource rangers in his community do what they can to stop poverty-stricken residents from nearby communities from cutting down trees in their nearby mangrove forest, poaching iguanas and parrots from the same area (which is a UN protected Biosphere), and try to prevent overfishing.

“We’re trying to change their habits and ideas,” Lovo told Al Jazeera, “We are working to find what we want to leave for future generations.”

Violence and inequality

Lovo’s ideas might stem from the hardship he and so many Salvadorans have been forced to bear in recent decades. The country is still recovering from a brutal civil war that raged from 1979 to 1992.

The root of the conflict was something that persists to this day – a deep, systemic economic inequality within Salvadoran society where the vast majority of the population lives in great poverty, while a privileged few live with opulent wealth.

While the economic elite managed to maintain power by installing military governments from the 1930’s until the 1990’s with US backing, the inertia from those decades of rule continues to this day, wracking the poor who struggle to maintain land and enough natural resources to survive.

In the past the economic elite used the military and U.S.-backed death squads to disenfranchise the poor and less privileged. Today the rich use massive water releases from dams to flood people off land granted to them as part of the UN-brokered 1992 Peace Accords, or simply by ignoring the crisis of climate change and the increasing natural disasters that are slowly but surely creating climate change related refugees in El Salvador.

But community organizing on a mass scale in one area of El Salvador could be turning the tide.

After the war ended in 1992, thousands of Salvadoran refugees who had fled the country returned. Rather than returning to their original communities, however, many settled on coastal lands in the Lower Lempa region that was formerly cotton and sugar cane plantations. It was there that each family laid claim to agricultural plots that were granted to them as part of the Peace Accords.

However, many of these communities were never granted land titles, and most of the areas were not provided basic services such as roads, electricity, sanitation, water, schools, or clinics. These areas are also the most vulnerable to climate change. As is the case throughout most of the world, those living in the most extreme poverty tend to inhabit the areas that are the hardest hit from climate change related extreme weather events.

Environmental emergency

A few years later, in response to this, subsistence farmers and fishermen/women whose livelihoods depended on the viability of these local ecosystems threatened by both climate change and the unsustainable practices of the sugar cane industry formed The Mangrove Association. This group works to support a grassroots coalition of community groups called La Coordinadora, which today includes more than 100 communities.

This community organising has formed into a resilient social movement that has created both a new way of organizing and viable alternatives for environmental sustainability.

In direct contradiction to the monoculture farming of sugar cane that is so destructive to the environment, as well as a crop that is easily destroyed during the extreme weather events associated with climate change, an example of this new model is how the region is shifting to diversified farming.

In an area that was previously a monoculture area of corn, Jesus Fuentes now runs his diversified farm on two hectares.

“Our efforts to counteract this regions vulnerability to climate change caused severe weather events have resulted in this farm for me,” Fuentes told Al Jazeera, “So now, one species may be damaged by a storm or flood, but not all of them.”

In that way, he grows grain, fruit, vegetables, raises cows and chickens, and grows cashew nuts to augment his income. His family is fed entirely by what they grow themselves. When the area floods, at least one of his crops, such as cashews or mangoes, survive to provide food and income enough for the family to live on.

Not far from Fuentes’ farm is the Bay of Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve that holds the nesting grounds for four species of endangered sea turtles. Commercial fishing coupled with their eggs being sold as a delicacy on the black market has caused a perilous existence. Recent studies show that between 70 and 90 per cent of all Eastern Hawksbill nesting areas are found in the Bay of Jiquilisco.

To date, the Mangrove Association, through working with local communities, has created turtle hatcheries that have released over 750,000 sea turtles.

Yet along with these success stories, major problems continue.

Alonzo Sosa works in the environmental unit of the mayor’s office of the Municipality of Tecoluca. He blames industrial sugar cane production, and the toxic agricultural chemicals it uses for many of the environmental and economic problems that beset the poverty-stricken communities.

“If they’re polluting our water and land, and our land no longer produces, they give us no other options,” Sosa told Al Jazeera, “We need government support to struggle to have enough food. People go out to find food, and instead they find death.”

Rigoberto Herrera Cruz, the Deputy Mayor of Jiquilisco, along with the Mangrove Association, is working to pressure El Salvador’s Ministry of Environment to declare a State of Environmental Emergency for the Jiquilisco Bay area due to its ecological importance which is being assaulted by toxic agro-chemicals from the sugar cane industry, sediment run off from up-river deforestation, and major releases of water from the 15th of September Dam.

The 15th of September Dam, run by the Lempa River Hydro-electric Commission has been blamed for flooding farm land and displacing poor El Salvadorans [Erika Blumenfeld/AJE]

“We believe the CEL [Lempa River Hydro-electric Commission] who runs the dam do massive water releases because to allow the water out little by little means they would earn slightly less profit,” Cruz told Al Jazeera at his office, “But we also think they are doing it intentionally to flood people off the land so the rich landowners can get their land back.”

Cruz believes his country is in a crisis where nothing short of a revolution will correct it.

“The government must serve the people, the walking people, the sick people, the working people, the barefoot people, and people needing healthcare. We need a true perestroika, a true restructuring of the state.”

Cruz said his municipality is actively pressuring the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Environment to enforce El Salvador’s already existing laws that would force the CEL and the sugar cane industry to adopt safer, more environmentally friendly practices.

Preserving land

El Salvador’s Minister of Environment, Herman Rosa Chavez spoke with Al Jazeera at his office in San Salvador, the capital. He is aware of Sosa and Cruz’s concerns about the environmental problems in their region, as well as the problems with the dam.

“The Lower Lempa does have serious problems,” Chavez explained, “We still are paying the price of not having had these types of considerations in previous decades. You have to remember that that was the area where we had this big expansion of cotton cultivation. Pesticides were sprayed in massive amounts. The result is that that is the area of the country where we have the highest prevalence of kidney disease, because those pollutants which are very persistent, are still there.”

Of Cruz’s work to have the effected area declared a state of environmental emergency, the Minister of Environment said, “We have been discussing the possibility of doing that, but we haven’t yet had a decision.”

Chavez said that his Ministry is actively monitoring the Lower Lempa region’s air, water, and soils for toxic chemicals from the past and present industrial agriculture businesses, and added, “Regarding health monitoring, the Ministry of Health is taking kidney disease very seriously, and it has a special unit for the Lower Lempa.”

He said that “of course water quality is our biggest concern,” and that his ministry is putting together a water observatory for the area that “will be in charge of monitoring both surface and groundwater”.

About the ongoing issue of downstream flooding due to CEL’s huge water releases, sometimes unannounced, by their dam, Minister Chavez said that the Lempa River Hydro-electric Commission “is now under much closer scrutiny. Not only by the people, but also by the rest of the government”.

While many of Minister Chavez’s statements are hopeful, those living amidst issues like increasingly severe weather events caused by climate change, the degradation of their environment by industrial sugar cane farming, and overfishing caused by economic inequities, are all too aware of the need for immediate comprehensive actions.

Those most effected continue to take matters into their own hands as much as they are capable.

Lovo, being one of these people, is clear about why he is doing his work to protect the environment in which he lives.

“We have no other alternatives for our survival than to take care of this place,” he said, “If I finish off all the crabs now, what are my son, and grandson going to live on? If we don’t take care of our resources, there will be nothing left for those who come after us.” 

Source: Al Jazeera