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Wetland rangers patrol the waters of the mangrove. Image courtesy of Diego Vivanco.

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The Guardians of the Bajo Lempa

February 26th, 2013

by Diego Vivanco

Environmental sustainability, economic self-sufficiency, democracy; Diego Vivanco reports on a model for conservation and grassroots participation that is unparalleled in most parts of the world.

The mangroves rise majestically, their shade perpetually enveloping the waterway below. Intertwining aerial roots probe the water; their eerie immobility creates a surprisingly inviting atmosphere which calls for further exploration.

Dense foliage envelops the travellers as they continue down the water channel, which occasionally seems to reach a dead-end, only for a sinuous turn to appear and open up the single route available.  

Adding to the tranquillity of the expedition are the sporadic sounds of egrets, and regular paddling from the dugout canoe stern, by wetland ranger Manuel. He comments that although the area was mostly dry, now it’s completely restored; but further on there are 70 hectares of dead mangrove, destroyed before the community reacted. 

With over half of the world’s mangroves vanished, and El Salvador only retaining two percent of its original forest ecosystem, it’s difficult not to admire the surrounding wilderness. Yet the monumental trees give no indication of the problems once faced by this tract of mangrove forest and the feat of community-led restoration in recent years.

El Llorón, as this area of the Bay of Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve is called, was dying as a result of water stagnation. Blockages in sea water flows caused by human developments nearby were destroying the mangrove. But a dedicated group of conservation practitioners and local leadership introduced a project to restore the normal hydrological flow and revive the forest. 

Incorporating communities as key players, local residents laboured assiduously for months, digging up the three kilometre channel, transporting bags of mud, enduring insect bites, cuts and injuries to return the waterway to its former glory as a major fish, crab, shellfish and bird-nesting area. 

The successful implementation of this project in is typical of the extensive community collaboration, sustainable development and environmental awareness that pervade the peoples’ spirit in the Bajo Lempa region. Its inhabitants and those of Jiquilisco Bay are continually lobbying for a sustainable management model that not only protects the biosphere reserve for future generations, but also makes sensible use of the precious natural resources which the local communities depend on for their survival. 

La Coordinadora (the Coordinating Network of the Bajo Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco) works hard to raise awareness of climate change, and promote sustainable agricultural and fishing practices. It provides Bajo Lempa’s population, which is dominated by fishermen and subsistence farmers, with the means to live, whilst guaranteeing the viability of local ecosystems. 

Environmental officer Geovanny explained that a few years ago the residents of Montecristo became tired of outsiders coming to exploit their natural resources. People from Jaltepeque on the other side of the estuary came to cut down mangroves, overfish, take cashew nuts, and spend days crab-hunting.  As this left the locals with little to survive on, they decided to put a stop to it and, together with another eight communities, restricted access and enforced a ban with the hope of restoring the wetland.

What began as a set of regulations established by the villagers themselves ended up being an official local sustainable use plan. A Ministry of the Environment decree formally monitors and controls the removal of fish, crabs, shellfish and wood in a 2,000 hectare portion of wetland, allowing only local residents to make sensible use of the resources. Although the decree lasts only until 2013, everyone is optimistic about its renewal and improvement. 

All wetland rangers are from the area, and are trained by the Ministry and the Mangrove Association. Only seven are currently employed, far short of the sixteen deemed necessary to protect the whole area. However, despite such limitations the rangers are pleased to be involved, as in the Bajo Lempa almost everyone shares the same vision.

Further examples of how the local population is adapting its lifestyle to climate change include the nine emergency radio towers. Built and maintained by the local communities, they were constructed as part of the area's early warning system for the evacuation of areas at risk. Each tower is run by a member of the local community where it’s built, and the towers’ loudspeakers have a two kilometre reach; when an emergency occurs, a radio notifies the population of the necessary action. 

La Coordinadora’s efforts to develop grassroots contingency plans for emergencies have paid off, as since they were gradually introduced after hurricane Mitch in 1998, not a single person has died in the region as a result of a natural disaster. This was true even during Tropical Depression 12-E of October 2011, the worst event that anyone in the region could recall.  In the Ciudad Romero community, one of the hardest hit by the floods, the roads became rivers, with people and supplies being carried in boats.

The problem was probably caused by the dam operators releasing too much water during the tropical storm, inundating everything. Crops and animals were lost, homes were damaged, and people were evacuated to improvised shelters. Locals believe that CEL, the corporation managing the hydroelectric dam upstream from Bajo Lempa, failed to release enough water in the early part of the storm.  Instead, it released extremely large volumes later on, resulting in severe flooding which devastated the region, destroying homes, roads and infrastructure.  

Many residents also think that dam releases are influenced by commercial corporate interests, such as energy production and the desire to induce people to abandon the area to land speculators. But local communities have shown immense resilience, advocating reconstruction, and planning how to protect themselves against future storms – building flood shelters, setting up drains, repairing levees and building river bank protection walls.

The events of recent history explain why most people of the Bajo Lempa hail from other regions of El Salvador.  Its deeply rooted societal inequalities led to the 1970s uprising against the ruling military regime. Guerrilla movements rose to counteract the violent actions of soldiers and right-wing death squads; the Government responded with even more violence, burning down entire villages, destroying families and communities suspected of sympathising with the guerrillas.

Over 700,000 fled to exile, many granted political asylum in other Central American countries such as Panama.  After ten years they returned to El Salvador in 1991, but were afraid to re-settle their villages. Instead they went to the coastal lands of the Bajo Lempa, which had been private cotton plantations. They laid claim to the lands, which were finally granted to them as part of the 1992 Peace Accord.

But Bajo Lempa has problems.  For example, renal disease is the leading cause of hospital deaths, and the region’s second most common cause of deaths in men. The likeliest explanation for excess kidney damage in the rural population is their overexposure to agro-chemicals, especially on sugar cane plantations.  In general there has been pesticide spraying on farms without appropriate protection. Additionally, groundwater was contaminated by excessive use of chemicals on the cotton fields, which covered the region before the formation of the existing communities.

The prolonged drought of 2012 brought destruction to the corn crops. Aware that they must move on from monoculture, communities have been spurred on to start such businesses as aquaculture cooperatives and cashew nut processing plants - in an attempt to diversify and reduce vulnerability.  

La Coordinadora has also been lobbying for local organic seed production, the implementation of seed banks, and sustainable agricultural techniques. It believes that so long as people are given support and technical assistance, local small farmers can move away from dependency on multinational seed companies such as Monsanto, towards greater food security. 

With the support of local fishermen, women, and cooperatives, sustainable fishing practices are being promoted in the bay. Since before the civil war, blast fishing has been harming fish populations and the local subsistence livelihoods on which they depend. The current aim is to persuade blast fishermen to abandon this destructive practice, encouraging dialogue rather than persecution.  

The conviction is that the remaining blast fishermen of Puerto Parada will only give up their illicit practice through awareness and the offer of alternatives. Although blast fishing guaranteed returns in difficult conditions, in the long run it was destroying the habitat and affecting fish populations.  Most fishermen have agreed to make the transition to less harmful practices in exchange for fishing gear and immunity from past actions. 

The pledge to fish sustainably happens one step at a time, as until recently blast fishing was the mainstay of many fishermen in the bay. Eleuterio, now a wetland ranger, used to be a blast fisherman, using grenades to make his catch. Decreasing fish populations made him aware of the destructive nature of blast fishing, so he abandoned the practice and became a pioneer in sustainable fishing through angling.   

Eduardo Zapata’s home-made bombs were made from ingredients including chlorate, benzoate, sulphur, and sugar; he was famous for making the most potent and effective bombs – the explosions would resonate around the bay. As a former blast fisherman, he currently chairs the Grupo de Ex-Bomberos (Group of Former Blast Fishermen), created in an attempt to move forward and leave behind the illegal fishing practice. Besides harming fish populations, blasting was affecting local sea turtle populations, and maiming numerous fishermen in explosive-related accidents.  

Eduardo says that he left behind a profitable practice and resorted to net fishing, but goes on to explain his Group’s efforts to comply with the law, and move away from a profession which was environmentally hazardous and dangerous.  It received money which allowed the Group to buy eight dugout boats and 12 trammel nets between all 56 members.  As there are 20 more fishermen thinking of joining, it clearly needs more resources, such as motors and nets, which would allow fishing in the sea instead of the bay.

Moving on from blast fishing is not proving an easy task; Isla de Méndez is the cradle of this once widely practised method. Not long ago up to 70% of Isla de Méndez families depended directly or indirectly on blast fishing, a deeply rooted tradition in the local population which started before the civil war and cemented itself when ex-combatants continued using grenades to fish. The inhabitants earned a living as blast fishermen because they believed it was the only option available to them, and the practice was encouraged from one generation to the next.

Eduardo and two colleagues go fishing to demonstrate the jalaría, a practice which involves surrounding the fish with a trammel net whilst one of the fishermen dives in to close the circle down. The process is laborious and precious time is spent rowing to find the ideal fishing spot.  

Unlike many of his colleagues from the community, Herbeth Fagoada never resorted to blast fishing, and has played an important role in encouraging others to stop using explosives. He was very supportive when they decided to form the Group of Former Blast Fishermen, and felt that its decision to move forward was an achievement. The situation had been difficult, but in the long run everyone benefits.

In some cases, change did not have to be instigated, but was brought about by the individuals involved. Boanerges Lovo, a former sea turtle egg collector from the age of 12, now runs an Olive Ridley sea turtle hatchery in Isla Montecristo.  He and his family made a living collecting and selling turtle eggs on the black market, until one day he realised that the number of nests and eggs had declined and that they would not have enough to live on.  So he has been running the hatchery for six years in an attempt to conserve the species.

By paying each tortuguero $2.50 for 14 eggs, they are guaranteed to reach the hatchery rather than the black market. Boanerge is convinced of the importance of conserving sea turtles and the ecosystem to ensure his community's future survival. Local families can make enough income to survive while protecting – not destroying – the sea turtle population. The situation of semi-isolation has made the 36 families of Montecristo aware that only through organisation and community participation will they survive, and that they must rely on themselves to defend their natural resources, starting with turtle conservation.

There are 10 turtle egg collectors in Montecristo community, but another 70 make an appearance from other communities, as the beach runs for 7km. Although it’s midnight, moonlight reflecting on the crashing waves provides surprisingly good visibility, and every 30 metres groups of tortugueros sit together, waiting for the turtles to come ashore.  

There are unwritten rules on how to share the same space and time when collecting eggs; despite the need for money, there is little competition and it is done in a respectful, amicable manner. The Olive Ridley sea turtle season starts in mid-August, but a few turtles are already nesting.  Egg collectors expect the turtles around 1am, when they will all get up and patrol the beach, waiting for the arrival of the precious animal.

The scene repeats itself throughout Jiquilisco Bay, as the Biosphere Reserve contains the nesting grounds of four species of endangered sea turtles, and nowhere more so than Punta San Juan, where the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtles lay eggs. Fewer than 500 nesting hawksbills remain in the entire eastern Pacific, with nearly 50% of these nesting in Jiquilisco Bay. There, they continue to be killed at an alarming rate by illegal and irresponsible fishing, so the Punta San Juan hatchery plays a vital role in protecting and guaranteeing the survival of this critically endangered species. 

Former fishermen and turtle egg poachers Vladimir and Emilio run the hatchery. They have been trained and employed to track and tag sea turtles and work in the nursery, where they look after the eggs that are retrieved by local turtle egg collectors, provide optimal conditions for hatching, and release the newborn at night time.  

Since the turtle conservation programme was introduced throughout the bay, 450,000 sea turtle have been incubated and released. Although only 1 in a 1000 reaches adulthood, the outlook is brighter for both the species and turtle egg collectors.  

Vladimir represents the bay’s new generation, but La Coordinadora is concerned that people like him could end up being an exception, and that all the efforts carried out to strengthen the social movement could disappear in future generations. Thus attempts are being made to make younger people aware of the work that is taking place in the Bajo Lempa, and to encourage them to take an active role in something that forms part of their future.  

Consequently, La Coordinadora and its partners are providing high school and college scholarships to a new generation of youth leaders, with the goal of preventing gang violence and youth migration, whilst also guaranteeing sustainability and social justice. The closely knit structure of the Bajo Lempa is guaranteeing community progress, and solidifying its convictions and commitment to economic self-sufficiency through environmental accountability. 

The Costa del Sol area on the other side of the River Lempa represents exactly what the people of Jiquilisco Bay want to avoid. Privatised beaches, luxury apartments, upscale beach homes and ranches, vacation rentals and large hotels share a 7km strip in Jaltepeque. 

There, the mangrove forest has been affected, and the much promised job opportunities for locals, who sold or lost their land, are few and far between. 

The people of Bajo Lempa seem to be well aware of this. Jiquilisco Bay was surveyed by developers, who bought land with the clear intention of developing luxury tourist resorts, much in the same style as the Costa del Sol. A struggle ensued, where locals teamed up with conservationists to lobby for a different model; for the time being they have stopped wealthy developers from destroying major parts of the mangrove forest. 

It’s impossible not to recognise the dominance of an almost unanimous belief that the region’s future lies in ecotourism and sustainable development. Fully aware of the immense biological diversity of the Bay, residents understand that they need to look after it in order to subsist, and they are determined to ensure that happens.

In an era of increasingly extreme weather and more frequent and devastating natural disasters, and with perennial social inequalities worldwide, people in a small redoubt of El Salvador are showing more climate change awareness and more willingness to adapt their lifestyles than most people in the self-proclaimed developed world.

Their future is uncertain, but if one thing can be guaranteed it is that the people of the Bajo Lempa will fight, like they have done all their lives, for the development of sustainable, resilient communities.

Diego Vivanco is a photographer, videographer and writer who lives in Zaragoza. He is also one of the founders of Kauri Multimedia, a company that focuses on multimedia storytelling and web documentaries. Find out more about his work at www.diegovivanco.es and www.kaurimultimedia.com.

A Bajo Lempa photo essay related to the above article can be viewed here;

http://diegovivanco.es/portfolio-item/guardians-of-the-bajo-lempa/

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