By: Ted Wysocki
Don Antonio Amaya welcomed us to his village on a sunny November Monday morning and shared the story of its residents and the tribulations they have endured over thirty years. Don Antonio, now 75 years old, is one of the founders of Ciudad Romero as he and others resettled there in 1991 after 12 years of exile in Honduras and Panama. Named after Archbishop Oscar Romero (who was assassinated while celebrating mass on March 24, 1980), the village has been built over 20 years from abandoned lands that were granted as part of the 1992 Peace Accords.
Don Antonio referred to the mural behind the church altar where we gathered as he told his personal story. It brought home the ravages of the brutal civil war in El Salvador that raged from 1979 to 1992. At least 75,000 people were killed, and over 700,000 people fled to exile. When I asked, he explained that the church was not yet named because the village was waiting for the Vatican to canonize Romero as a martyred saint.
There were eight of us on a Community Empowerment Tour in mid-November sponsored by EcoViva.
Their primary focus is on supporting locally-run, ecologically sustainable community development in approximately 100 rural communities on the eastern side of the Lower Lempa River and surrounding the Bay of Jiquilisco, on the southern central Pacific coast of El Salvador. This is a beautiful country with exceptional community development.
EcoViva provides funding and ongoing technical assistance to their local partners, the Mangrove Association and its affiliated social movement, La Coordinadora, to help them implement sustainable development projects and environmental policy initiatives. They organize these Community Empowerment Tours to learn about what is happening today in El Salvador and build grassroots support for their work in the United States. I highly recommend booking a tour in your travel plans.
That first afternoon we met with Mangrove Association board directors who shared how they had started in 1994 with 5 communities and today have organized nearly 100 communities into 9 local groups of 8 to 15 communities each. Over the course of the week, we learned just how unique their key program areas are as a model of sustainable community development.
We take it for granted whenever we turn on the water faucet but not so when flooding contaminates the wells with pollution so that communities are plagued with kidney health problems. In the village of Tierra Blanca, Rosa Rosales is a member of the local water committee, which started bringing clean water to two communities in 2004 and now has pipes serving 370 families in ten communities.
With assistance from EcoViva, Rotary International, and Engineers Without Borders, their goal is to expand to serve 500-600 families. Currently they are building a “gravity” back-up system in case electricity is lost for the water pumps and implementing the Ministry of Health’s recommended improvements. They are seeking funding to run more pipes to more homes and to build a second tank
Juan Luna, coordinator for the Mangrove Association’s School of Sustainable Agriculture, described the many agricultural challenges the area faces from its historical use for cotton plantations, left abandoned during the armed conflict; subject to harsh chemicals for pest control and fertilizer; sugar cane damaged irrigation; and floods wiping out the annual corn corp.
The school works with 20 farmers per year picked by their communities for a day every two weeks on how to diversify their crops with plantains, mangos, passion fruit, cashews, and vegetables to provide year-round sustenance as well as more crops that can survive flooding. They rescue native seeds for a seed bank – the beginning & end of sustainability – so that when harvested, they can be planted again without having to buy new seeds. They are also promoting alternatives to chemical fertilizers and pressuring the government to minimize harsh chemicals especially used for sugar cane.
ENVIRONMENT & RISK MANAGEMENT
While we continue to politically debate climate change, the Mangrove Association is striving to adapt to its flooding and drought. They have initiated emergency preparedness drills in 60 communities, scheduling one in Isla de Mendez during our visit. In the fall of 2011, they successfully provided early warning to 84 communities, resulting in no deaths from that flood.
Youth leaders from seven different communities are launching Mangrove Radio not only to provide music and news of community activities but also to be the source for early warnings of any pending threatening weather.
The biodiversity of the Bay of Jiquilisco is critical to the future of the area. Our tour guide José María “Chema” Argueta was raised fishing and now manages environmental conservation projects at the Mangrove Association. He helped to organize the first Sustainable Fisheries forum on November 16th, 2012 to open up dialogue between community members and local leaders about the importance of sustainable fishing in the Bay of Jiquilisco. Blast fishing, or fishing with explosives, has long been a method used to increase the catch. But fishing with explosives has immediate consequences to the ecosystem and is also extremely dangerous. Over 135 people from fourteen local fishing cooperatives participated in the forum to learn about sustainable fishing.
Designated a Biosphere Reserve in 2007 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Bay of Jiquilisco includes the El Llorón mangroves, which are within the largest mangrove forest in Central America. Their restoration is another fundamental environmental initiative of the Mangrove Association. The Wetland Rangers – in which everyone is a “promoter” whether paid or volunteer – steward this heritage.
Last year over four kilometers of channels were hand-carved out over three months to restart water flow to assure correct hydrology balance of fresh and salt water for new growth. An eco-tourism nature trail will be ready in another year where by one can hike through the mangroves as we did and then catch a boat ride at the end of the trail out to the bay.
As sunset approaches so does the major eco-tourism experience at Isla de Mendez — releasing baby turtles back to the sea. Four species of sea turtles nest here, including the most endangered species in the world.
FUTURE OPPORTUNITY OR THREAT
This September, El Salvador officially completed its first compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. foreign aid agency. This five-year, $461 million venture expanded rural development across a broad swath of El Salvador’s Northern highlands.
Now El Salvador is negotiating a second, $270 million compact with the MCC, slated for priority coastal areas like the Bay of Jiquilisco. The Mangrove Association, with the support of EcoViva, believes that local development processes, proposed and overseen by community and local government actors in the region, can offer important lessons to consider that add value to this U.S. foreign aid investments.
Estela Hernández is the past president of the Mangrove Association. In March 2012, she was elected as the first woman to the Salvadoran National Assembly from the department of Usulután (which includes the Lower Lempa and the Bay of Jiquilisco). She is adamant that the implementation of these funds must be based on community inclusion and guarantee sustainable development and the protection of ecosystems in the Salvadoran coastal zone.
The Mangrove Association’s organizing will be essential in achieving the opportunity of sustainable eco-tourism over the threat of high-density corporate tourism. The people’s resilience will be paramount again in determining the future of their land.
I look forward to returning. For your own interest in sustainable community development, support EcoViva at www.eco-viva.org and sign up to visit this beautiful country and its resilient people.