Our country is currently fixated on the crucial election choice we face this fall. But as I am about to complete my first four years here at EcoViva (formerly the FSSCA), I keep being reminded of a phrase from the last election campaign, Hope and Change.
Hope – I now know it is possible to bring a dead ecosystem back to life, even in one of the most deforested countries in the world.
A few months ago I had the chance to revisit El Lloron, a 200 acre tract of mangrove forest ecosystem near the Bay of Jiquilisco of El Salvador that, like the entire country, has been traumatized by war. Mangrove trees, often called “the nurseries of the sea,” thrive in brackish coastal wetlands, and their roots are nesting grounds for a wide variety of fish, shellfish and birds. But in El Lloron, the natural water channels have been blocked over time by many factors including topsoil erosion from nearby sugar cane plantations.
The damage was deeply exacerbated by carpet bombing by the US-backed Salvadoran army during the 1980s civil war, when a hidden, makeshift hospital for wounded guerrillas and persecuted civilians was built in the shelter of the trees. When I went there last November, the devastation felt real – the entire area was dry and brown. The only sign of life were the massive swarms of mosquitoes emanating from small pools of stagnant, fetid smelling water.
Just 6 months later, I walked through the same devastated landscape with the women and men who have been digging out and restoring the water channels. They led me to a small oasis of green trees surrounding a clean, clear pool of water. I could see small fish swimming, and egrets coming back to nest. I have never smelled hope so strongly.
Change – Last year, by sheer luck, I happened to sit in on a meeting of the municipal council of Jiquilisco on the day that a World Bank official came to visit. He was there to ask the council to allow a private company employed by the Bank to demarcate the legal boundaries of the protected area within the Bay of Jiquilisco. The council members politely but firmly told the official that they would be happy to consider such a request, but only once the World Bank produced a document certifying that no community members would be displaced from their homes by this project.
15 years ago, it was unthinkable that a government in El Salvador would look out for the most vulnerable members of society and ensure that large-scale projects would protect their rights. But today, community leaders from our local partner organizations, La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association, are involved at all levels of government – in village committees, local municipal councils, federal commissions, and the National Legislature. They are leading the way towards major policy changes that favor the most vulnerable, such as providing government contracts to local cooperatives to produce seed stocks for the country’s food security, improving levees on the Lempa River to prevent floods, and advocating for a national water law that ensures water access for all.
As we work to get our local partners a seat at the table in negotiations around development projects sponsored by the US State Department’s Millennium Challenge Corporation, I know we are in a position of strength. Our partners know how to negotiate with international institutions – I’ve seen them do it with the World Bank. They will work to ensure that local ecosystems are protected, and that the interests of the most vulnerable members of society are represented. I see hope and change in all that we do.