Erica Terence works with Klamath Riverkeeper and the Waterkeeper Alliance. She traveled from her home watershed in the Klamath River Basin of southern Oregon and Northern California to spend six months in Mexico and South America between October and March. Her last stop was El Salvador, where she aimed to exchange stories, strategies and other ideas about defending water resources at home and around the world. Below are excerpts of a blog she wrote about her experience with our partners in El Salvador. You can find the full post here.
By Erica Terence
The people of the Lower Lempa River in Southeast El Salvador have survived civil war, exile, hurricanes, gang violence, water pollution, over fishing and the manifestations of climate change. How? By getting organized, staying organized, and learning to adapt. The rest of the world can learn a lot from the intricate yet extraordinarily effective systems they’ve put in place in their communities.
To understand their multi-layered organizational scheme and why it works for them, you must first understand the incredible history of the people and place.
In the last week of my six-month Latin American sojourn, upon recommendation by a friend, I stopped over in Ciudad Romero, the heart of the zone where the La Coordinadora holds forth. It is a council of representatives from dozens of smaller, more localized community councils. I hoped to learn the how and why of what they’re doing, and I quickly found that the answers to those questions are rooted in their past.
In the 1980s, when a coup and civil war consumed El Salvador, some groups and people became the targets of political violence and their villages were burned. Many people fled, seeking exile first in Honduras, and eventually landing in Panama for more than a decade. The group of exiles were allowed to settle in a remote, rugged jungle in the mountains of Panama. To survive, the exiles built communal housing structures and organized themselves into groups to perform basic, essential functions. Cooperative existence wasn’t always easy, but in that time the Salvadoran exiles came to recognize and appreciate the benefits of working together. When they eventually received news from home, via some visitors, a few decided to brave the trip back home to El Salvador, and soon the rest followed.
In Honduras, the refugees had been stripped of all documentation, including identification that would have legitimized their claims to the land where they had previously lived. Instead of returning to their original homes, exiles coming home settled small plots of land the government granted them in the river delta where the Lempa River enters the Bay of Jiquilisco on the Pacific Ocean. Though the land should have been some of the most fertile in the country, it had been contaminated, overworked and stripped of nutrients by cotton plantations there in an earlier era.
So, the homecoming diaspora struggled to make their livings in difficult circumstances. To make matters worse, the area was subject to extreme flooding during hurricanes and tropical storms, and younger generations began migrating north to the US, bringing back gang allegiances and violence. Bad farming practices were eroding mountainsides, carrying soil from the fields to the bay, plugging up canals in the estuary and changing the delicate salt-water fresh-water balance. Mangrove forests were dying, sea turtles and fishing stocks were in jeopardy, and most communities didn’t have access to potable water. A disproportionately high rate of kidney problems is surfacing in medical facilities in the area, a probable result of the water contamination there. These social, environmental and infrastructure challenges called for people to once again get organized….
…One of the most memorable was a day spent visiting farmers in the upper watershed who had taken it upon themselves to implement anti-erosion projects, organic methods and other sustainable agriculture techniques to demonstrate to their communities the viability and value of those alternatives. After touring berms, swales, diverse native reforestation plantings and community water systems, we arrived at a crystal-clear pool down slope.
Local people swam there, splashing and laughing. A few women did laundry on the edge, while a baby sat in a gently bouncing chair on the bank, facing the water. The level of the pool had come up substantially since the upslope conservation projects had been implemented, my guides reported. Clearly, there was much pride taken, not only in the conservation projects and the benefits the producers could reap from them, but also in the net positive impacts on the community at large. People of all ages downstream got a relatively clean swimming hole and were taking full advantage in the unrelenting Salvadorian heat. It was a good example of the way that the Coordinadora has managed to integrate economic, social and environmental programs. That integration showed through in every project I learned about there…
…Outside of the Klamath Basin, I have rarely heard the word cuenca (watershed) slung around so often. In the Lower Lempa, the watershed defines their existence, and through their existence in a smart, organized, collective way, they are redefining their watershed. The idea of a waterkeeper fits right into this place, where tributaries are sometimes referred to as ojos de agua (eyes of water).