|Local boys fish from their boat in the mangrove forest in El Salvador.|
AHUACHAPAN El Tamarindo and Hacienda el Zapote are located in the southern region of the state of Ahuachapan, on the banks of a mangrove forest that separates the Paz River from the Pacific Ocean. In recent years, villagers from these communities have experienced troubling changes in their local environment: annual flooding, well-water coming up laden with salt, and, most alarmingly, the land beneath their feet slowly disappearing, sinking into the mangrove water.
The villagers make a meager living in their tin homes by fishing and hunting shellfish to sell to local restaurants, and they are watching their life-source dwindle. “The flooding, the rising water levels—we had to know what’s going on,” says Maria Dolores de Rodriguez, a representative of the Civilian Protection Task Force and a resident of the area. “This is serious for us.” They appealed to the Salvadoran government, who in response assembled an investigation team to look into the problem.
The team, composed of the Salvadoran Ecological Organization (UNES), World Geologists, and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID,) began to examine the waterway’s location and appearance over time using aerial images from as early as 1949. What they found are serious problems in the way that people are interacting with their local ecosystem, which -- when coupled with the river's natural movement over time compounded by rising sea levels as a result of climate change -- is causing systemic degradation. Who is being affected, and why, are also systemic pieces of the puzzle: the fallout of injustices rife throughout the country’s history.
|Homes in the threatened village communities of Ahuachapan, El Salvador.|
The Paz River has moved nearly 800 meters west in the past sixty years. It, like all rivers, must change its route over time to maintain its biological health. The Paz tapers into a mangrove forest as it nears the Pacific Ocean, which is a unique ecosystem of its own—a mixture of salt and fresh water, host to many species of fish and plants that thrive in this brine environment, which the villagers make their living by selling. Local residents benefit from the mangrove’s ability to moderate temperatures, and—until recently—have enjoyed its capacity to temper another of the necessary characteristics of a river: annual flooding.
Civilizations that live near riverbanks have throughout history organized their life rhythms around the annual flooding. For thousands of years, Egyptians even regarded the Nile’s summertime flood as a gift, since it would leave behind a fresh layer of extremely fertile soil. Riverbank populations knew how to take advantage of the river’s natural cycles—including where and how it was safe to live. Today, most human floodplain communities of the global north enjoy a complete system of floodgates and levees, but as demonstrated recently in the Southern U.S., sometimes even these safeguards cannot overpower flooding, and floodplain populations therefore live at risk.
El Salvador is the most overpopulated nation in Latin America, and its inhabitants—especially the majority poor—do not have many options for living spaces. There is no national levee system, and the few that were installed at particularly critical points in the largest river, the Lempa, were quickly damaged to the point of ineffectiveness. In this country, those who live in disaster-prone zones cannot simply pick up and find somewhere safer.
Added to these logistical struggles, the investigation team pointed out a major difference between the Ahuachapan photographs from 1949 and more recent years: the number of trees. As the village population has grown over time, they have increasingly chopped down the mangrove forest for firewood, grazing land, and housing space—causing deforestation that has left the mangrove unable to help control the annual flooding. And as sea levels continue to rise world-wide, the encroaching salt water on Ahuachapan's coast threatens to overpower the delicate brine water balance, threatening the existence of the mangrove forest, and therefore the villager communities themselves.
One theory that can help explain sudden environmental changes is known as Systems Ecology. This theory points out that ecosystems are exactly that: systems, in which all physical and biological components that reside there affect, and are affected by, each other. If all organisms in an ecosystem are healthy and present, the system works well. The contrary is also true: a critical absence of trees in a mangrove impedes it from controlling flooding. The humans who cut the trees, if they do not reforest, set the system off-balance. So, why are the villagers deforesting their lands to such a critical level?
Throughout Salvadoran history, the systemic impact that one being has on the rest is nowhere truer than within the human population. For instance, the Ahuachapan villagers are relatively recent inhabitants of the coast, refugees who fled there in the late 1980’s in a wave of internal migration during the Salvadoran Civil War. Thus, while the Egyptian floodplain dwellers benefited from ancestral knowledge about their local ecosystem, their Salvadoran counterparts do not. They are originally from the mountainous North. “The villagers’ ancestors were crop farmers, not fishermen,” explains Oriol Pedraza, a geologist with World Geologists and member of the investigation team. Thus, the people’s response to their new environment was to continue surviving the way they had always known: to deforest in order to farm and raise cattle.
|Oriol Pedraza, Geologist member of the investigation team, explains the results of the scientific study he helped carry out. The waves of the Pacific Ocean roll in behind him.|
As a response to high indigo prices on international markets in the mid-19th century, the small elite took over the southern coastal lands, which were hospitable to indigo because of the hot, tropical climate. Vast indigenous populations which resided in that area were either forced into near-slavery or had to abandon their lands, migrating to the northern mountains. With the invention of synthetic dyes in the late 1800’s, indigo was no longer profitable, so the landowners turned their attentions to coffee. Once again, this would necessitate wide-scale migration: coffee needs high elevation and cool temperatures to grow, which the northern mountains offer. The landowners thus took control of the north, and the remaining free indigenous fled.
The chain of social inequality would continue in the ensuing century, and by 1980, social tensions broke into Civil War. The villagers of Ahuachapan are just a few of the many thousands that fled the war’s violence, eventually rebuilding their lives on different land—and in completely different ecosystems—than where they had started.
Present-day El Salvador is the most vulnerable country in the world to natural disasters, according to a 2010 report from the United Nations. From the viewpoint of ecological systems, this makes perfect sense. Years of ecologically unfriendly practices—monoculture agriculture, constantly migrating populations, a decade of scorched earth war tactics, overpopulation—have set Salvadoran ecosystems off-balance. At the root of all this is the way that people’s actions have impacted each other, especially in terms of the landed elite’s attitudes toward the majority population. And thus, for countries like El Salvador, the solutions to today’s deep-rooted ecological struggles will not be easy. “A rural farmer once told me, ‘I take care of the earth because it takes care of me,’” says investigation team Education Technician, Margarita Diaz. “I saw great wisdom in that man, and I think we will not find the answer to this problem without a wide-spread awareness and attitude change, so that we’re more like him.”
The investigation team is seeking a solution though education. They have produced popular education-style books about healthy river and mangrove behavior, with suggestions on how to mitigate the impacts of flooding. Engaging cartoon images spread messages about being mindful to not extract too many natural resources. The manual suggests that the single best solution for the villagers, given the ecological context of the area, is to put their houses on stilts.
“Our objective is to strengthen the communities’ understand of the problems they’re facing,” says the investigation team Coordinator, Benjamin Coreas. “We’re offering workshops for community leaders so that they know what’s happening, and can explain it to others. It’s important to open spaces of conversation and debate among villagers, because it empowers them to push local government to make good decisions.” Geologist Pedraza adds, “The information is here now; if nothing changes, it’s the fault of those above us. We all have a role to play in solving this—you, me, local communities, and governments.”
 Equipo Maíz, Historia de El Salvador (San Salvador: Asociación Equipo Maíz, 1989), 54-110.
(Danielle Marie Mackey is a freelance journalist and interpreter living in El Salvador. All photos credited to author.)