Community leadership from the Mangrove Association and La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa y Bahia de Jiquilisco–alongside the Mayor of Jiquilisco–convened a meeting on Tuesday with the Minister of the Environment and the Minister of the Interior, to discuss local concerns about unregulated agricultural and development activities that threaten mangrove and coastal areas critical to local livelihoods in the Bay of Jiquilisco.
Also present was the Chief Commissioner of the Environmental Unit of the National Police, and a member of the Legislative Commission for the Environment and Climate Change.
From the community of La Tirana, leadership detailed concerns about a sugar cane producer with intentions to expand their operation some 500 acres to within unlawful limits of coastal mangroves. According to leaders, this sugar cane threatens to encroach upon already fragile coastal ecosystems, degraded by both coastal and upland sedimentation processes. Unregulated practices that correspond to sugar cane in El Salvador, including indiscriminate aerial spraying and pre-harvest burning, would also negatively affect their community, water supply, and livelihoods.
Other examples of land use encroachment and conflict under discussion included an expanding local corn plantation near the community of La Chacastera, and unpermitted residential expansion in a peri-urban housing site called “La Florida” in the municipality of Jucuapa. In this instance, local authorities reported that the developer did not apply for the proper environmental permits, even though 240 trees had been cut down, and over 18 acres of hillside terraced. According to officials, the developer even threatened the mayor’s office and his family if the project was not allowed to progress.
Land use conflict is by no means a new phenomenon in coastal El Salvador. Large scale growers and cooperatives, community and urban land use, family agriculture, tourism, and the need to preserve critical coastal ecosystems constantly push and pull against each other. The signing of the 1992 Peace Accords included broad agrarian reforms to re-distribute land to small holders and ex-combatants from both sides of the conflict. Since then, El Salvador has been struggling to improve the function and coordination among a disparate set of land management and property agencies. An overall territorial zoning and development framework was passed in the legislature in 2012, and although a good first step, this law lacks clear rules for interagency coordination, and enforcement by local authorities.
In recent years, a World Bank-funded project attempted to delimit coastal ecosystems like mangroves in the Bay of Jiquilisco that are protected by the country’s environmental law. This project identified numerous cases of both community and large-scale agricultural encroachment into mangrove forests and their buffer zone. Moreover, a lack of consistent data on forest cover and land use prevented a clear means to assess historical precedent.
At a national level, authorities are taking notice of these concerns—as exhibited by their presence in the Bay of Jiquilisco on Tuesday. The Ministry of the Interior, recently reformed to include “territorial development” under its purview, has been conducting a broad public consultation process in order to align government agencies with visionary local solutions to problems such as those seen in La Tirana and La Chacastera. Last week, the Minister of the Environment convened authorities from USAID and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to launch the country’s first online environmental permitting portal. President Salvador Sanchez-Cerén was also in attendance, and spoke about the importance of improving a broken permitting system that had left projects languishing for years in the approval process, and often enabled developers—such as the one in Jucuapa—to move ahead regardless, without proper oversight.
Locally in the Bay of Jiquilisco, communities of La Coordinadora have been organizing to improve regulations that protect mangroves, and create working relationships with authorities to successfully enforce rules against overfishing and unregulated timber harvesting, through a community-led framework known as the “Local Plan for Sustainable Use.” Together with municipal and national authorities, members of the Mangrove Association and EcoViva support the Bay of Jiquilisco Environmental Roundtable, a multi-stakeholder space to improve conservation of the Bay and coordinate with authorities in the region.
After leadership from La Tirana expressed their concerns about sugar cane at the Environmental Roundtable, leadership from the Mangrove Association traveled to the site in question to quantify the problem, and map the area. The Environmental Roundtable also wrote a letter to the Mayor of Jiqulisco and national authorities. In response, and at the communities’ behest, the delegation of officials arrived on Tuesday to see the problem firsthand. In the wake of this visit, much will depend on how local and national authorities continue to dialogue about addressing not just community concerns in La Tirana, but all aspects of land use conflict.
Armed with objective information that accurately quantifies these problems, local communities are able to dialogue with authorities to jointly overcome such environmental and social concerns. The local structures led by actors like the Mangrove Association empower communities to constructively express their concerns to government officials as well as orient the support of such officials in a coordinated and effective manner.
At EcoViva, we have worked to support these local processes, and help facilitate a joint action plan between community leadership of La Coordinadora, and the Minister of the Environment. Early in 2014, EcoViva supervised a remote sensing project with masters students at California State University—Monterey Bay to quantify land use change throughout the Bay of Jiquilisco. This study and future work can empower local communities and authorities to approach land use issues with the correct information, and to add value to national efforts in coastal zoning. Engendering the appropriate social spaces to address the legal challenges is fundamental to manage present conflicts and balance the needs of agricultural development and environmental conservation.