By Parker Townley
Eight coastal communities in El Salvador, organized as the Western Bay de Jiquilisco Environmental Committee, have taken a major collective step towards environmental sustainability. As part of what they call the Local Sustainable Use Plan (PLES), the members of these communities pledge to adhere to self-imposed limitations on the use of various natural resources in the area. The agreement was forged with the communities’ shared interest in mind, ensuring the future use of critically threatened resources.
The Bay of Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve is the largest protected area in El Salvador, and its lush wetland mangrove forests are the nesting ground for numerous species of economic value, including shellfish, shrimp, crabs and fish. Much of the bay has experienced overharvesting of these species and their numbers are dwindling. To respond to this problem, eight local communities, with the support of EcoViva and its local partner organization the Mangrove Association, forged an agreement to regulate the activities of local fisherpeople.
They worked with scientists from the University of El Salvador to maximum harvest quotas for each species for each season, and the geographic areas where those species should remain undisturbed so that their nesting grounds are able to recover. Trained local community members called Wetlands Rangers (or Mangrove Guardians) patrol the area to enforce the regulations. The agreement received legal recognition by the Salvadoran government in February 2011, so that the communities now have the backing of the police and local authorities to enforce the regulations.
This new relationship between the communities and the government was put to test this last month. On June 23rd, local Wetlands Rangers discovered twelve poachers from the nearby community of Herradura had been illegally harvesting crabs, potentially damaging the fragile balance achieved by the PLES. The poachers had been harvesting quantities of crab on “an industrial scale,” according to Walberto Gallegos of the Mangrove Association, violating the communities’ agreements. Acting quickly the communities alerted national police who then apprehended the trespassers. Meanwhile the communities and Mangrove Association staff together released all 1800 illegally harvested crabs back into the mangroves.
This event represents a significant victory for the environment, with important implications. In holding trespassers accountable the communities send a clear warning to would-be poachers. Also the communities have demonstrated their willingness to conform to the strict standards agreed to in the PLES. The experience has provided a prime example for community-level organization, demonstrating that often the most efficient protectors of natural resources are those whose livelihoods are tied to the resource. On June 23rd, environmental stewardship won the day.
Parker Townley is a volunteer with EcoViva living in the Bajo Lempa over the summer.