Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 198 | Enero 1998


El Salvador

A Tiny Endangered Country

The Salvadoran revolution in the imminent 21st century must be an ecological revolution, an environmental revolution that boldly and radically reverses a long history of greed. If action is not undertaken immediately, the country will perish.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

"We have the right to live in a clean country, one with cool, leafy forests and crystalline lakes and rivers. We have the right to clean beaches, to pure air, to abundant marine life in our oceans. We have the right to space and to healthy recreation, to housing and to jobs. We have the right to procreate children who are healthy and happy and to have grandchildren who inherit a sane, fair and wise country." This quote comes from the Creed of the Biological Rights of Salvadorans, drawn up by the University of El Salvador's Biology Department some three decades ago.

A Time Bomb

This tiny country, with its globetrotting, "do-it-all" children who travel with their pupusas (corn pancakes with meat or cheese) from the Río Bravo to the Patagonia, from where the sun comes up to where it slips out of sight, turning any space on the planet where they find themselves into a creative and productive one; this diminutive country, which in the past few decades turned the world upside down with its stubborn struggle to become a more shared country; this Tom Thumb of America is today a valued continental species in danger of extinction. The Cuscatlán—"land of riches"—of past centuries has faded away and goes on fading, just like the life of the majority of its inhabitants is fading away.

Two decades ago, in 1977, Salvadorans were already beginning to worry about their country's future in an environment of mounting socio-political conflicts. They were alarmed by the disaster of the national ecosystem. At that time the conviction began to take root that the environmental destruction was profoundly linked to Salvadorans' growing social discontent.

There was already talk in those years that the country had reached the limit of its environmental resistance, since its small physical territory, its high-density population, its unequal land distribution and its growing ecological deterioration were tightly linked factors being pushed to the breaking point. This reality already appeared then as a time bomb.

Some 500 Years Ago...

The ecological imbalance began precisely where the root of many of our ills began: with the conquest by the Spaniards and their inexhaustible model of plunder. First were the haciendas of the invaders who seized the indigenous lands in the north of the country. Almost immediately began the large-scale cultivation of indigo, our first export product, which turned the abundant native population into a slave labor force. Indigo covered all the hills in the north, especially in Chalatenango, Cabañas, San Vicente and Zacatecoluca. To grow it, first the Spaniards and later the locally born promoted large-scale deforestation of the forests that extended between those of Honduras and those in the center of the country. In 1783, El Salvador was the number one indigo exporting country in Central America. But by then greed had been sown in Cuscatlán. "The land of riches" achieved that record at an irreversible ecological cost: the northern hills had been clear-cut and so much topsoil had been washed away that nothing could be produced there, ever. Right up to today, the sun shines down on bald hills.

From Indigo to Coffee

The price of indigo bottomed out around 1850 with the discovery of synthetic dyes. The country experienced its first great economic, political and social convulsion, the inauguration of the chain of crises and conflicts that culminated in the recent and barely concluded civil war.

In 1833, not many years after the country's independence from Spain, the indigenous peoples of the north and central zones of the country, led by Anastasio Aquino, engaged in important uprisings. They were protesting their eviction from their lands and the growing unemployment and poverty to which they had been relegated by the commercial crisis of indigo.

The crisis itself and the revolts it was triggering pushed the local ruling class to seek an alternative product. Coffee production began in 1856. The expansion of this crop required state measures geared to abolishing the indigenous communal and ejido (public) property system. The coffee avalanche and the land tenure changes led to the deforestation of the central mountain range, especially the high volcanoes, which rose over 500 meters above sea level. Hand in hand with that began the gradual concentration of land into the hands of a powerful few, which ultimately evolved into the legendary structure of the "fourteen families."
The erosion caused by coffee fever was even worse than that caused by indigo in the north, since the deforestation affected steeper hillsides. The coffee plantations quickly spread to the best lands in the country, but the luck of nature is that coffee cultivation requires shade, which prevented the nation's best topsoil from coming to rest at the bottom of the ocean. This need for shade saved the country from a premature ecological hecatomb, but couldn't save it from another hecatomb: enormous contingents of people were thrown off their land and pushed into corridors of the territory where poverty and marginalization awaited them.

The Point of No Return

The structural avarice continued functioning. The variations and imbalances in international coffee prices, on top of the economic depression that battered the world capitalist system in the first decades of the century, led the Salvadoran oligarchy once again to seek alternatives to its mono-crop.

By that time the peasants, who were again suffering serious unemployment and poverty, began mobilizing to demand respect for their rights. The 1932 peasant uprising, so violently put down by the military regime of dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, came almost exactly a century after the indigenous uprising led by Aquino and his warriors. This time the power of the agroexporting families in their infamous alliance with the military was ushered in over the cadavers of thirty thousand Salvadorans.

Cotton and Toxin

The events of 1932 laid the basis for the country's ecological future since they defined the absolute control of a minority over the land, waters, flora and fauna. The plans, policies, visions and actions of this small but powerful oligarchic-military structure decided absolutely everything.

Cotton was definitively established as the alternative or complementary crop to coffee in the 1950s. The only forests remaining on the Salvadoran coasts, those in the southern Pacific, were razed. Growing cotton required huge amounts of insecticides, which accelerated the damage to the ecosystem, dramatically altering the natural biological control of the coastal lands and leading to the poisoning of hundreds of people, massive deaths of domestic animals and annihilation of the wildlife. The toxins that ran into the sea also seriously affected its fauna.

Such abrupt changes in the ecosystem of the southern coast had direct effects on the life of the population living in the cotton zones. Instead of increasing employment, the cotton industry reduced it. The majority only worked the three or four months that the harvest lasted. And by then, most of them had been forced to sell their lands. The displacements were again massive and unstoppable. The peasants went where they could, since anyplace was better than staying to die of hunger or poison on the land where they had been born.

Coming Full Circle

These displacements detonated another ecological disaster. Urban overpopulating turned the municipalities of Greater San Salvador, in particular, into marginal zones for the poor, the structural expression of a model of exclusion.

That completed the cycle of the tragedy. It began in the north, in the hills of Chalatenango, Cabañas and San Vicente, crossed the passes of the central mountain range, demolished the coasts, contaminated the country's only seacoast, where thousands of tons of extremely rich topsoil had also ended up, and spawned massive population concentrations in hovels on the hillsides and ravines of the capital. Five centuries of disaster have been played out by the grandfathers and fathers of those who today wash their hands of it all by symbolically planting trees on some avenue. Throughout these five centuries the logic was always the same: maximum profits in the minimum time possible, without caring a whit about the future.

Dramatic Indicators

These are some indicators of the current disaster:
*A country with a population density that makes it one of the most overpopulated countries in the world, as well as the one with the least territorial space in the whole continent.

*A country that competes for the world cup in indiscriminate pesticide application and in the per unit use of agrochemicals by crop area, permanently affecting the environment.

*A country with three-fourths of its territory seriously eroded—which, obviously, drastically reduces the productivity of the land—and some regions that have already experienced irreversible desertification.

*A country with over 60% of its rivers highly contaminated or already "dead."
*A country that has preserved the lowest percentage of original forests in the continent in relation to its territorial surface. Each year 4,500 hectares of forests disappear due to urbanization and the felling of trees for commercial purposes. Less than 60% of the 560 hectares of annual reforestation is successful. Some 67% of this national deforestation has occurred just in the last 40 years. At this rate, all the forests will disappear in 8 more years and all the water-bearing surfaces will be eroded before the year 2020.

The Water Crisis

This history of deforestation, contamination and erosion has had devastating repercussions on the Salvadoran population. The uncontrolled migration to the urban centers has affected such vital resources as water and air. The toxic waste from factories, the accumulation of garbage and the proliferation of vehicles without any emissions controls have severely contaminated the air and water in the capital.

According to a national environmental publication, the three factors that have had the strongest effect on the water crisis are:
*The dramatic changes in the human settlement patterns in El Salvador, expressed in a growing population concentration and massive and unplanned urbanization, above all in the metropolitan area of San Salvador and its surrounding areas.

*The urban economy boom based on industry, commerce and services, stimulated by the abundance of foreign currency and the economic policies of the 1990s.

*The crisis of the rural economy since the 1980s, with the consequent collapse of the means of traditional rural life and new survival strategies for the poor of the countryside.

The new urban settlements have had no other plan than improvisation and survival. Today, the rapid urbanization and growing population concentration are occurring on or near the last areas with any significant forest coverage—mainly shade-grown coffee farms. Since these farms are the only remaining substitute for the tropical forests and, as such, help retain the water, their rapid disappearance is severely diminishing the underground water sources.

Industry or Life

The zone of Greater San Salvador contains the population most seriously affected by the environmental disaster. The urban disorder also does its part to worsen the situation. In addition to the serious water problems and contamination caused by factories, there is also a major garbage problem. The levels of waste exceed the collection capacity of all the municipalities in the capital. An example: in San Martín and Ciudad Delgado, two populous municipalities of the metropolitan area, only 7% and 10%, respectively, of all the trash generated was picked up in 1995. Added to that is the fact that some 65,000 of the approximately 160,000 cars on the streets in the metropolitan area should be out of circulation because they do not meet even the minimum safety and hygiene requisites. These two aspects alone lead to the conclusion that San Salvador is undoubtedly the dirtiest and most disorganized capital in Central America.

An environmental bill that would regulate industrial activity has been gathering dust for some time since large Salvadoran business interests have always been obstinately opposed to any such regulations. The legislators, closely tied to these business people, have been postponing passage of the bill with foot- dragging tactics and the false argument that incentives must be provided to industrial investment without causing an exaggerated increase in their costs and that environmental conservation must be harmonized with industrial progress. But environmental deterioration obviously knocks any harmony out of tune. There are no compatible chords: it's either the factories or life.

By this point, any attempt at "balance" could end up in a greater and more accelerated disaster. To be just, the environmental laws must include drastic industrial control measures. National industry, particularly that located in Greater San Salvador, is still a contaminating factor. If the environmental laws put a priority on the interests of industrialists— who do not hesitate to poison the little river water remaining by throwing untold chemical waste into it daily—it will be the same as legislating in favor of a foretold catastrophe.

Dams a Failure

In March, the weekly publication Proceso, put out by the Central American University of San Salvador, published the results of an analysis of the dams that have been built in the country over some decades. The article states that, rather than being an effective response to the need for water and energy in the rural communities, these dams have meant the massive displacement of the population, the loss of productive land and infrastructure, and alarming damage to natural resources. The dams and other large infrastructure works are always built without taking the environmental impact into account.

Acelhuate: The Worst of All

The Acelhuate River begins some meters south of the National Zoo, in San Salvador, running south to north until emptying into the Lempa River. On its way it carries what is thrown into it the length of its 62-kilometer trip. Its basin occupies barely 3.5% of the national territory, but over 30% of Salvadorans—some two million people from 18 municipalities of San Salvador, Cuscatlán and La Libertad—live around it. This population deposits some 1,600 tons of fecal waste in the Acelhuate basin every day. Although its name means "irrigation river" and "river abundant in lilies" in Náhuatl, the Acelhuate stopped being a river many years ago because it is not a current of continuous water. It has turned into a sewer, which also receives massive industrial residue and enormous quantities of sediment coming from the erosion caused by urbanization.

Studies done in recent years conclude that potable water no longer runs in any of El Salvador's rivers. Their waters can only be classified between "mediocre" and "wretched." Not even the worst possible classification fits the Acelhuate. Its trench collects just about any putrefaction but water. Of the 40 rivers that the Secretariat of the Environment examined in 1993, the Acelhuate was the worst. According to the experts, at least a third of the water that the inhabitants of Greater San Salvador use comes from the underground reserves located in the area of influence of the filth that this "river abundant in lilies" has become.

According to the 1994 census, 225 factories that produce liquid waste empty it into the Acelhuate basin with no treatment whatever. This waste includes caustic soda, detergents, resins, sulphur, chromium, tannin, phosphates, etc. The river also receives two major discharges of residual water. The first comes from the eastern municipalities and the second from San Salvador itself. These two discharges, together with another 125 unacknowledged ones, deposit close to 15 barrels of runoff into the river per second.

This drama turns into a fullfledged tragedy when one considers that uncounted numbers of people live in overcrowded hovels perched along the edge of the nauseating Acelhuate drainage channel or closely piled up the sides of its ravines, hidden from the view of those who ride through the brightly lit avenues of Greater San Salvador. Tens of thousands of boys and girls, descendants of the losers of this long history of human and ecological disaster, play in this trench.

A Gamble Against Time

The protracted and growing process of forest destruction, the ongoing soil erosion, the alarming contamination of the water and air, the extinction of all kinds of species of flora and fauna, the shrinking yield of harvests and the uncountable health problems growing out of the negative environmental conditions make El Salvador's ecosystem a structural disaster that is already showing various irreversible symptoms.

Any measure by the government, the private sector or society as a whole in favor of the environment is already a gamble against time. Only the consciousness that we must act, even if it is already too late, can assure urgent, profound, radical and bold actions. There will always be a countercurrent running against any attempt to totally repair what has been destroyed, but continuing with the same logic and apathy will only bring ruination nearer. The Salvadoran revolution of the 21st century must be an ecological one, a revolution capable of subverting disaster and reversing such a long history of unbridled greed.

Some revolutionary steps have already been taken. We will speak of them next time.

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