There is no shortage of environmental policy in the Lower Lempa and the Bay of Jiquilisco. Between multiple international environmental designations, landmark national environmental laws, progressive municipal ordinances, and unprecedented local community plans, Central America’s largest mangrove estuary has come a long way since the signing of land reform in the 1992 Peace Accords. Nevertheless, bridging the distance between political discourse and the actual rules we live by requires much more than the political will to simply do the right thing. It requires the capacity to convene a broad cross-section of stakeholders to examine problems, educate the public and decision makers, and forge alliances to enforce specific rules and regulations.
In El Salvador, and particularly the Bay of Jiquilisco, this capacity has been growing from the bottom-up. Central government agencies, under-resourced and over-burdened, simply cannot take on every aspect of the rule-making process. Someone has to bridge the gap between the rhetoric and reality on environmental and rural policy. El Salvador’s national government is ill-equipped to solve these immense problems alone.
In the Bay of Jiquilisco, local community leadership is working hard to fill this void in order to preserve the livelihoods of thousands of families and hundreds of rural cooperatives that farm, fish and steward Central America’s most prominent coastal ecosystem. One example is the small-scale fishing sector. Five sustainable fishing cooperatives and over 200 fishers from the bay-side communities of Puerto Parada have taken it upon themselves to patrol the Bay of Jiquilisco and its mangrove forests, to prevent the exploitation and degradation of the country’s most prominent inshore fishery and shellfish grounds. These cooperatives are composed of fishermen and women, many of whom used to employ explosives to fish and understand well the ecological destruction and personal risk of sometimes fatal injury that blast fishing inflicted on them and their communities.
As an alternative, they decided to provide a sustainable solution for their livelihoods and the natural resources on which they depend. Beginning in 2008, cooperatives began institutionalizing sustainable practices of hand line fishing adjacent to artificial reefs that have been strategically constructed in various parts of the Bay. These practices mutually enhance livelihoods and the environment, providing bountiful catch for the fishers while affording species a refuge to spawn, mature, and repopulate –mimicking the role of the mangrove forests that continue to disappear, leaving fisheries vulnerable and compromised.
The life-giving resources of the Bay of Jiquilisco continue to be subjected to logging, blast fishing, and other illegal resource extraction practices. In order to protect their environment and preserve their way of life, the sustainable fishing cooperatives of Puerto Parada provide 24/7 enforcement, stationed at 4 different outposts throughout the Bay. Each member of the cooperatives spends one day and night at the outposts every two weeks, often sacrificing a much needed day’s pay, enduring plagues of mosquitoes and sleeping on the floor of the huts to ensure laws against blast fishing, regulations on the size of fishing nets, and policies about the protection of mangroves are enforced. While they are unable to make arrests or even detain violators, they have been the first on the scene to catch and stop a wide range of harmful practices, and have been instrumental in saving distressed wildlife, like endangered sea turtles. Working in tandem with local wetland rangers, fishers focus on educating the people who committed the infraction and raising awareness about alternative, more sustainable ways to make a livelihood.
Local efforts have not gone unnoticed by the authorities. With the help of EcoViva and the Mangrove Association, fishers and communities have begun a dialogue with the Ministry of the Environment, the National Police and the fishing authority CENDEPESCA to clarify the legal framework for the cooperatives’ patrols and community policing, bolster communication and cooperation, and coordinate enforcement efforts between wetland rangers and police officers. Sharing resources, expertise, and authority, this coalition in the Bay of Jiquilisco provides the enforcement backbone for current and future regulations as effective tools to sustain livelihoods and protect the environment along the Salvadoran coastline.