Read the original article on SEEtheWILD; This post is one in a series of three posts about the Jiquilisco region of El Salvador written by Brad Nahill, co-founder of SEETurtles.
by Brad Nahill
On the surface, the small town of Ciudad Romero, El Salvador is much like others around Latin America. Small homes line unpaved homes, walking is the main form of transportation, and most people meet your eye and smile when you walk by. As the sun starts to set everyday, herds of cows take over the streets, a bovine rush hour with moo’s instead of horns.
Its not until you start talking to the people who have lived in this town since its founding in the early 1990’s does the incredible story of courage and determination come alive. The journey of these people from landless farm workers to refugees to a self-sustaining community gives hope for areas of conflict around the world and provides a model for others to follow.
I recently led a group of travelers from Portland Community College to El Salvador to learn about the cultural and natural revival of the area surrounding Jiquilisco Bay, the country’s largest wetland. We were hosted by EcoViva, a US-based non-profit that works closely with local organizations to support local community development. During an intense but exhilarating week, we learned about the struggles of these rural communities to recover from war, carve out livelihoods from exhausted lands, build infrastructure, and restore natural areas devastated by years of abuse.
El Salvador’s civil war was one Latin America’s most violent. The seed of this conflict was stark inequality; the vast majority of land was owned by a small number of families and most of the citizens were relegated to poverty. From the late 1970’s until the Peace Accords in 1992, at least 75,000 people died and more than 700,000 people were forced from their homes, including the residents of Ciudad Romero.
On our first day in Ciudad Romero, we met Marta Alvarenga, a community elder (and fantastic cook), who shared their gripping story with our group. Marta’s gentle smile belied the emotional story that she shared about her community’s survival. She told us about the town’s namesake, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was a hero to the poor for speaking out against the atrocities of the government. In March 1980, he paid the ultimate price and was assassinated while giving mass.
Marta’s storytelling was accompanied by two murals (above and below) which brought alive the struggles and emotions of the residents. One, hanging in the town church depicts the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the violence that the people fled, was carried back from Panama by hand. The other mural, on the outside wall of the town’s communal kitchen, shows the move to Panama and life in the rainforest.
Two months later, the army arrived to the original Ciudad Romero, then located in the southern highlands, and burned down the town. Fleeing through the jungle under the cover of night, the survivors made a four-day trek to Honduras. Not wanted in there and with little to eat, the group eagerly accepted an offer from the Panama’s President Torrijos and left after six months. The group of several hundred refugees was given land in the Panamanian rainforest to build a community and they carved out a life in the jungle, surviving from food they grew.
After a decade in Panama, the residents of Ciudad Romero were ready to go home, though the war was not yet over. Panama’s government was reluctant to let the people return to a war zone but the determination of the Salvadorans to return home was too strong. More than 600 people trekked across the jungle to Panama City and held a hunger strike at the El Salvadoran Embassy. After two years of pressure, they finally began to make their way back to El Salvador despite the dangers that still existed.
Once they picked out their land, a huge former plantation for cotton and sugar not far from the Lempa River, a small group returned to start building the new Ciudad Romero. Though peace talks were occurring, the group still faced danger. Several times on their journey, the first group was harassed by police and the army, one time facing down tanks that stood in their way. As refugees began returning from across the region, the new Ciudad Romero became a home base as new communities were created in the abandoned fields.
The Peace Accords were signed in 1992 but the problems didn’t end there. Violence and poverty continued for several years until leaders of 14 communities (including Ciudad Romero) organized to improve their communities. They started by creating an emergency plan to respond to major floods that covered fields and damaged the fledgling towns. This group blossomed into an organization known as La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa (Coordinator of the Lower Lempa), which now involves nearly 100 communities in the region.
One of the most impactful meetings of our group’s visit was a discussion with leaders of one of the most active local groups, Asociacion Mangle, formed to manage new programs for La Coordinadora. Among their achievements include a community radio station that reaches more than 200 communities, a program that provides opportunities for young people to develop important skills, and an agricultural program that is reducing the use of toxic chemicals and improving soils. Their environmental programs are helping to protect endangered sea turtles and end destructive blast fishing (the practice of using homemade bombs to kill fish).
Over the week, we visited a number of these development projects and met dozens of leaders working to improve their communities. Our group tested out a high efficiency wood stove in action, helping to reduce deforestation and improve air quality while making delicious tortillas. Another day we visited the area’s clean water project, providing drinking water for more than 13,000 people, created and managed without government support. One especially hot day, we spent a couple of hours helping out at a local farm, adding organic compost to fruit trees.
Our next posts on this trip will focus on the spread of organic farming and protecting sea turtles and mangroves. Keep an eye out for them soon!