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Photo essay: El Salvador’s mangroves disappear as sea levels rise

Dr Oliver Moore travelled to El Salvador with Trócaire to see how rising sea levels have affected this coastal community – and how they can be helped.

Oliver Moore

Disappearing mangroves at La Tirana. © Oliver Moore

THE IRISH CHARITY Trócaire is currently campaigning on climate change, and specifically the climate change bill which Environment Minister Phil Hogan is due to release and recommend to a joint Oireachtas committee before the year is out.

Trócaire invited a small, diverse group of people to show the work they do in El Salvador – In my case, they wanted to connect up with and reach out to someone who doesn’t normally interact with them, but who has some interest in social justice and environmental issues. Their thinking was that I would then communicate what I’d encountered to others in my networks.

The charity actually has a very small presence in the countries themselves. Small, but important. Adan Cusdra is the gel that holds it all together. Former head of the Jesuits in all of Central America, this charismatic and affable man runs the show. Mostly, however, on the ground in El Salvador, Trocaire work with  a range of partners. These partners organise and campaign on issues of livelihoods, environment and social justice. It’s a very inclusive way to work, as the partners know what needs to happen.

One such partner is  Centro Salvadoreño de Tecnologia Apropiada, or CESTA, which is Friends of the Earth El Salvador. A recurring theme of my visit has been that in many cases, there is no distinction between Red and Green or between social justice and environmental movements here in El Salvador.

Members of the La Tirana community. © Oliver Moore

For rural or coastal marginalised communities, communities that depend on a clean functioning environment just to survive, environment is social justice. These include the access to clean water, and the trying to cope with the very real effects of climate change, such as sea level rises, erratic weather patterns, or more powerfully destructively and frequent hurricanes than before.

We visited the small, very remote coastal community of La Tirana on the San Juan del Gozo peninsula. This community of just 24 families have lived here since the 1930s, but were displaced in during the Civil War. When that war ended in 1992, the community returned. They found that their land ownership rights had been removed by a state that otherwise ignore the community and indeed their responsibilities towards that community. With advocacy aid from CESTA, they won back their land rights.

With the exception of trying to take the communities land rights, the state has otherwise paid little attention to this community.  Being so remote, they have been effectively abandoned, other than by CESTA and Trócaire. The community in La Tirana rely on fishing, and, specifically, collecting crabs from the mangroves along the coast.

CESTA have supported them in numerous ways, providing infrastructural help for such as solar panels and water pumps, low smoke cookers, sanitation and shelter. CESTA were the first organisation to bring food and other essentials after the most recent tropical depression E12. They have also helped with crop diversification for a community more skilled in fishing than growing.

Water pump made possible with Trócaire and CESTA support at La Tirana. © Oliver Moore

This is all essential as the mangroves have, in just the last ten years, started to die. Because of rising sea levels, this delicate, complex coastal forest ecosystem is disappearing, dying. And rapidly.

Thriving mangroves. © Oliver Moore

Rhizophora mangle can grow to 25 metres, creating a rare and important coastal forest ecosystem. La Tirana use the mangroves for collecting crabs, while the tress also act as a buffer against the worst of the extreme weather patters that have become all the more frequent. However, with sea level rises, salty water is washing into the mangroves, killing the trees.

The visit to the community itself was to a proud and competent community, one that now had their own diverse food, and excellent fish, to feed us with. We look at the pumps, the panels, the shelter, and we listened to the community talk one by one about what the support has done for them.

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A boat trip out into the mangroves. © Oliver Moore

Then we got onto a boat and rowed out into the mangroves. As snowy egrets fluttered out in front of use, and numerous other birds sang and called from the forest itself, we transferred over to a very small and rickety boat indeed.  We took the last few metres towards the Pacific Ocean, which we could now hear thundering away in the distance.

And then we stepped out onto the beach. Encountering an ocean that I’d never seen before was inevitably impressive and awesome. The water was warm and inviting. But as I looked around, a certain poignant realisation landed. This long wide sandy beach was scattered with stark skinny, streaks of grey, tall leafless trees, and with the stumps of dead trees harvested for firewood. A faultline of tall clustered white trees bordered the green of the mangroves, pushing its deathly way into the into the life of the forest like commuters packing into the Underground at rush hour.

This mangrove forest is dying. It is disappearing. As sea levels rise, the salt in the water disturbs the natural balance of salt and fresh water in the mangroves. In just ten years, many visible metres of forest have receded.

Sea levels will rise by between 18 and 59cm in the 21st century, the IPCC estimated in 2007, although this does not take into account potential shcocks to the system such as climate-carbon feedbacks. More recent predictions suggest a higher sea level rise. Unless urgent action is taken to reduce greenhouse gases, and stave off runaway climate change, sea levels will rise faster and oceans will eat into coastal communities.

Communities like La Tirana, who rely on the mangroves, have had to already start to grow and eat differently. Replanting programmes have happened elsewhere, such as Senegal, but as sea levels rise the mangroves may just get swallowed up again.

Take action on Climate Change here. Remember a Climate Change bill is due very soon. Contact your local politician to pressurise her or him into making it a strong bill. That’s what politicians are there for – to be told what to do by citizens! And finally, helping Trécaire’s fundraising campaigns means helping CESTA and the community of La Tirana adapt to the worst effects of climate change.

Dr Oliver Moore is a writer and associate researcher with the Centre for Co-operative Studies in University College Cork.

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