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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.

Image: James Redmond

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.

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