This site uses cookies to improve your experience and to provide services and advertising. By continuing to browse, you agree to the use of cookies described in our Cookies Policy. You may change your settings at any time but this may impact on the functionality of the site. To learn more see our Cookies Policy.
OK
Dublin: 5 °C Friday 13 December, 2019
Advertisement

This country is worried its water will become a commodity but it has bigger problems

The Central American country of El Salvador is experiencing tidal changes, freak weather and economic disruption because of climate change, forcing activists and social movements to respond, writes Paul Dillon.

Paul Dillon

EL SALVADOR HAS a population of about 6.4 million and an area of approximately the same as the province of Munster. Nestled in the heart of Latin America, the “Land of the volcanoes”, borders the Pacific Ocean to the south, Guatemala to the west and Honduras to the north and east.

The country experienced one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern history. During the conflict in the 1980s, which pitted the US backed military against the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (known by its Spanish acronym FMLN), nearly 2% of El Salvador’s population was wiped out.

The country has also experienced massive deforestation with only 2% of its tropical rainforest remaining.

Country’s gangs hit the headlines 

In recent years, the country’s gang problem has been its most famous feature, with the ‘war’ between Mara Salvatura (‘MS-13’) and the 18th Street Gang (‘Calle 18’), as well as violence visited by these gangs on the general population, hitting headlines worldwide.

During 2014, I visited La Tiarna, a township on El Salvador’s rural Pacific coast. In the community which includes many former guerrilla fighters I met Dr Ricardo Nivarro of Friends of the Earth El Salvador, and Pablo Ramirez, the locality’s elected leader.

Nivarro paints a grim tale of the reality of climate change for El Salvador, with the country at risk of losing up to a quarter of its costal territories in the next century as a result of rising sea levels. Tropical storms and extreme droughts are also playing havoc with the economy.

La Tiarna bears the scars of rising sea levels. Ramirez points to the “cunchas” that are used to trap crabs, an economic staple of the local community. But the local mangrove forest where the crabs thrive is disappearing fast as the sea encroaches. He can recall jaguars once roaming locally, and says the spider monkey population has also declined dramatically as the forest recedes.

Day-6.01_46_52_22 Lourdes Palacio, member of Parliament. Source: James Redmond

Fighting a losing battle 

Nivarro laments that despite the efforts of the local community; CESTA, the El Salvadoran branch of Friends of the Earth; and international partners such as Trócaire, campaigners are currently losing the battle against the effects of climate change.

We have already lost about eight kilometres of mangrove forest since the problem manifested itself. This is recent, and has occurred within the last ten years. We have to realise that this problem is caused by emissions. Emissions created by the wealthy of the planet. Not the poor. But here are the poor people who are experiencing the problems.

The fight to highlight the worsening environmental situation is evident in San Salvador, the nation’s capital city. In the city’s main square, close to the Cathedral, a group of indigenous women are protesting. They have decorated the square with ornate circular arrangements of flowers, plants and vegetables. Their banners demand “an economy for life” and denounce free trade agreements with the US.

One of the leaders of the group, Maria Victoria Chavez, explains that the protest includes representatives from 14 different organisations.

She said:

We are carrying out our ancestral rituals. We believe that Mother Earth and women are sustaining the world’s economies. We are raising awareness about how climate change affects women. It is important that men and women realise they are co-dependent being and interdependent with Mother Earth.

Day-7.01_35_07_16 Dr Ricardo Nivarro of CESTA (Friends of the Earth El Salvador). Source: James Redmond

Chavez, who is in contact with women and environmental organisations across Central America, says they are seeking allies across the world in their campaign to protect the environment and promote women’s rights.

One such ally is CIS, the Centre for Interchange and Solidarity, which originated in the US and has offices and runs language schools in San Salvador. CIS Director Leslie Schuld, who travelled to work in El Salvador after the civil war, says that climate change has exacerbated an already fragile environmental situation.

Worries about water supply

“Mining in Guatemala is causing contamination in El Salvador. There are worries about the supply of water, which falls under the free trade agreement with the US, which could see it made into a commodity.

Nowhere are the effects of climate change on El Salvador’s economy more keenly felt than on the coffee business. Coffee is El Salvador’s main cash crop, accounting for 3% of GNP and 22% of agricultural production.

Officials from Pro Cafe, the agency for coffee development in El Salvador, describe how a disease called La Roja has impacted the coffee yield. La Roja (the rust) is a fungus that eats away at the leaves of coffee plants, preventing them from flowering or producing coffee.

Scientists attribute the disease to climate change, as increased temperatures allow the fungus to thrive.

At Pro Cafe, scientists are working with Finca (plantation) owners, and community co-operatives to roll out strategies to deal with La Roja, including strengthening coffee plants, treating soil and planting varieties of coffee more resistant to La Roja.

Coffee production 

In the rural north eastern community of San Isidro, I visit a coffee cooperative which was founded in the 1980s. The co-op is at the heart of economic life of a local town of about 5,000 people.

One of the local co-op members, Rosa Audelia Orellana, says that La Roya has taken its toll on coffee production. On a good year, the co-op can produce 63,000 sacks of coffee.

In 2013, this fell to just 13,000. “What we do is to produce the coffee so we can provide for our family. Without this we are nothing. In 2013, we earned very little, just enough to cover the costs of the cooperative.

La Libertad, about one hour from San Salvador, is El Salvador’s most famous beach. The area was made famous as a base for surfers almost 30 years ago, during the era of military dictatorship. Decades on, the choppy seas are still attracting their fair share of surfers. But while the surfers have remained ever-present, the turtle population which once populate these waters has declined.

Warmer waters, contaminated seas and the harvesting of turtle eggs (illegal since 2009) have all impacted the turtle population.

At nearby Toluca beach, local man Vincente Guevera is leading a project with CESTA to conserve the turtle population. The project involves collecting as many as turtle eggs as possible and releasing baby turtles into the sea in an effort to boost dwindling numbers.

Day-7.00_24_04_22 Pablo Ramirez, President of La Tiarna, demonstrates how to trap a crab, an economic staple of the community.

Saving turtle eggs 

Guevera buries the turtle eggs in a protected area, he releases the baby turtles when they are old enough.

They say, for every 1000 only one makes it, but for me more make it, that is from my knowledge that I say that. I say 100 make it.

Back in San Salvador, I meet Lourdes Palaico, a parliamentary representative for the Cabanas province for FMLN, the former guerrilla movement, which now governs El Salvador.

Straight talking and tough she is downbeat about what she calls “El Salvador’s environmental crisis”.

As always, the most affected people are the poorest. In 2009, El Salvador was ranked as the most vulnerable country in the world regarding climate change. We have less fresh water available than any other country in Latin America. Neighbouring countries in Central America have five or six times the water available.

Palacio says the Government is working with social organisations to “promote a climate change law” in El Salvador, and she is hopeful about deeper cooperation between neighbouring countries in Central America and the Caribbean as “ultimately, the problems and challenges cannot be solved within El Salvador”.

She said:

We are a small country, densely populated, with 350 inhabitants per square kilometre, there is a strong pressure on natural resources in El Salvador. The emissions we produce are insignificant and yet we experience loss of lives, property, crop losses and the fragility of the territory. We are not the polluters but suffer the effects.

This country is worried its water will become a commodity but it has bigger problems
1 / 22
  • El Salvador

    Leslie Schuld, Director of CIS, the Centre for Interchange and Solidarity.
  • El Salvador

    Juna Valenica at the ruins of San Luis church in Aguacayo canton at Guazapa, the site of a bomb attack during the civil war. "So this is what is left. And this little cross over here remind us the more than 120,000 Salvadorians that killed each other. The worst part, think about it… Each Salvadorian was somebody’s son, was somebody’s brother, was somebody’s father."
  • El Salvador

    The ruins of San Luis church in Aguacayo canton,Guazapa, central El Salvador. The church was bombed during the civil war.
  • El Salvador

    Community activist Manuel Ortega, in his office, in Suchitoto, in central El Salvador. "El Salvador is a country having more problems than before. In the past we had problems, now we have bigger problems and these are bigger socially talking. The insecurity in the country means many young people do not find opportunities or an appropriate environment to stay and they decide to emigrate."
  • El Salvador

    Community activist Manuel Ortega, in his office, in Suchitoto, in central El Salvador. "Here we have our itinerary. It is a timetabling of activities we do in a specific time. A timetabling we use as a structure of our work. We build our work with all the communities. We organise per week, per month and per quarter. It´s our working plan and we built it in a very artisanal manner."
  • El Salvador

    Community activist Manuel Ortega, in his office, in Suchitoto, in central El Salvador. Ortega leads a community organisation called the CRC. "It is a reconstruction communities committee and our role is to work for the development of the more vulnerable communities. Young people, women and adults work together in projects for fresh water, energy, roads, housing and education."
  • El Salvador

    Lourdes Palacio, member of Parliament. Palacio says the Government is working with social organisations to “promote a climate change law” in El Salvador, and she is hopeful about deeper cooperation between neighbouring countries in Central America and the Caribbean as “ultimately, the problems and challenges cannot be solved within El Salvador."
  • El Salvador

    Lourdes Palacio, Member of parliament: "We are a small country, densely populated, with 350 inhabitants per square kilometer, there is a strong pressure on natural resources in El Salvador. The emissions we produce are insignificant and yet we experience loss of lives, property, crop losses and the fragility of the territory. We are not the polluters but suffer the effects."
  • El Salvador

    Lourdes Palacio, parliamentary representative for the Cabanas province. "As always, the worst affected people are the poorest. In 2009, El Salvador was ranked as the most vulnerable country in the world regarding climate change. We have less fresh water available than any other country in Latin America. Neighbouring countries in Central America have five or six times the water available."
  • El Salvador

    Pablo Ramirez, President of La Tiarna, demonstrates how to trap a crab, an economic staple of the community. "At this moment in the community there is a population of 116 people and 24 families. There are ex-combatants of the armed revolutionary forces, ex guerilla members, as well as people who were born in the community."
  • El Salvador

    Pablo Ramirez, President of La Tiarna community, demonstrates catching a crab, a staple of the local community. The crab population is in decline, as it's habitat, the mangrove forest, recedes.
  • El Salvador

    Pablo Ramirez, President of La Tirana community. " In the region there is an renal failure pandemic as a consequence of the water problem. That has been the problem in the area, some people have already died as a consequence."
  • El Salvador

    mangrove and you had all the nutrients on the ground. Now the waves are replacing those nutrients and you have sand their. So the trees with sand, they can not survive. And this happened in the last ten years. perhaps a little bit less. And now a lot of the area is like a beach. It used to be mangroves."
  • El Salvador

    Dr Ricardo Nivarro of CESTA (Friends of the Earth El Salvador). "This should ring a bell for everyone on the planet. The sea level is rising. All the coats like the one we have here will be gone. If we don't stop climate change. So this an urgent matter for everyone on the planet will be to stop climate change. An urgent task is to reduce emissions through the world. That's an urgent matter for the survival of humanity."
  • El Salvador

  • El Salvador

    Dr Ricardo Nivarro of CESTA (Friends of the Earth El Salvador).
  • El Salvador

    Activist Juan Valencia, on the San Salvador volcano, looks down on his native city. "In El Salvador, natural disasters don't exist. The disasters here are social. They have more to do with social exclusion, with the gap between rich and poor."
  • El Salvador

    Social activist Juan Valencia. "20 years ago, ecologists struggled to protect the Espino plantation, which was the last green lung of the city, that not only gave air to the city but absorbed excess rain water. "
  • El Salvador

    Social activist Juan Valencia, the coffee co-op in San Isidro. "We can say each member of the cooperative is the owner of operative. There is no single owner."
  • El Salvador

    Photo co-operative in San Isidro, a coffee town in rural El Salvador. Plant yields have been badly hit by La Roja. La Roja (the rust) is a fungus that eats away at the leaves of coffee plants, preventing them from flowering or producing coffee. Scientists attribute the disease to climate change, as increased temperatures allow the fungus to thrive.
  • El Salvador

    Leslie Schuld of CIS (Centre for Interchange and solidarity), at the CIS HQ, off Boulevard de Los Heroes, San Salvador. "In the past few years we have taken on a programme for clean water. We are seeing that the environment is a grave issues in El Salvador. There are companies that want to mine El Salvador is such a small country and the water is already contaminated so that would take away what little clean water is left in the country. So we started a campaign for clean water."
  • El Salvador

    Maria Victoria Chavez speaks to demonstrators at an environmental rally in downtown El Salvador. "It is important that men and women realise they are co-dependent being and interdependent with mother earth.”

  • Share on Facebook
  • Email this article
  •  

About the author:

Paul Dillon

Read next:

COMMENTS (14)