El Salvador’s Climate Change History: Dr. Angel Ibarra

Shortly after the Trocaire delegation arrived in El Salvador, we visited Ecocentro Las Animas (Las Animas Ecological Centre), to be greeted by an impressive array of 17 different groups that Trocaire is supporting in climate change efforts here. One man, UNES leader and climate change expert Dr. Angel Ibarra, stood out above an impressive crowd in delivering a full-on, emotionally charged tale of just how changes in environment are impacting upon his country.

It’s a long and complex history which I’ll try my best to summarize below, but as an introduction is suffices to say that this small, poor corner of Central America has suffered hugely above average from the effects of climate change. Given that only 0.3% of the world’s greenhouse emissions emerge from Central America, and that climate change here primarily impacts the poor peasant farmers who live off the land, it’s easy to understand why people like Dr. Ibarra – hugely influential in winning climate change battles in his own country – looks elsewhere and despairs.

Dr. Ibarra begins his introduction right back in the times of colonialism. Historically, El Salvador treated its landed collectively, with the idea of property ownership bought to this part of the world as a result of Spanish colonialism. In post colonial times, El Salvador’s land came to be owned almost entirely by just 14 families, who forced the indigenous people from the land they had traditionally worked. This and was largely used for coffee production and export – still a huge industry in El Salvador – with the low-level farm workers the victims of the production. Almost all the coffee was exported to the US and Europe.

Natural resources in Central America are largely exported, and not for the benefit of locals – Dr. Angel Ibarra

Inevitably, this resulted in political uproar. This goes back as far as 1932, when in just ten days, 2% of El Salvador’s population – largely peasant farmers – was killed off. Later, small localized farming diversified into heavy sugar cane production, also for exportation, and many people fled rural areas to Honduras. Forced migration eventually lead to a war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 (a war commonly thought to be over football – it was nothing of the sort!). Things came to a head again in a big way in 1979, with the twelve year El Salvador civil war.

During the 1950s to 1970s, El Salvador underwent a ‘green revolution’, a heavy adjustment of the way farming took place to include chemicals that increase production per area. Privatization’s main problem was that it simply didn’t benefit the locals – apart from those at the very top – producing sweat-shop-like work environments as well as sweeping farmers from their land. Migration to the US became common, and to this day 15% of the country’s GDP comes from remittances by expats resident in the US. Even San Salvador’s gang-warfare can be linked back to post Rodney King issues in Los Angeles (see gangs MS-13 and Mara 18). Families often used their networks to escape north as far as possible in a search for a better life. A survey recently showed 70% of today’s youth would seriously consider emigrating to the US.

Dr Angel Ibarra presents on El Salvador's climate change history

The bloody civil of the 80s and early 90s eventually overcame the 14 ruling familes, who had previously criminalized any kind of social protest, but sadly modern day El Salvador leans towards the financial benefits of big business at the expense of poor locals. Big businesses are effectively allowed to run free, with an estimated $1 billion per year (hugely signficant in a small country with a poor population and low tax income) thought to be involved in big business tax evasion. ‘Iron fist’ laws have also repressed protests from the young, who are treated as social outcasts by their elders, in part due to that hefty gang violence problem across the divided streets of the capital. With corporate control dominating the land, wealth distribution has scarcely improved.

Bizarrely, with sugar cane and coffee taking up huge areas of agricultural land, land that previously supported its own population, maize, corn, red beans and a range of other fruit and vegetables have become major import products. With less than 3% of the original woodland remaining and cash crops dominating even the most severe slopes of the country’s hilly landscape, resources are all but gone.

El Salvador’s resources are history – Dr Angel Ibarra

Another consequence of the cash crops is that around 90% of El Salvador’s already limited water run off (less than 1,750l per person per year) is too contaminated by agricultural chemicals to drink. Rural life comes with huge pressures and offers few options, and weather conditions mean lower yields year on year. A lack of rural investment, mining of gold and silver leading to contamination, hydroelectric dam products resulting in the drying out of rivers, and new roads damaging water catchment areas are all adding to the strain.

Climate change conference at Ecocentro Las Animas, where chemical-free farming techniques are taught to the local rural community

External effects are still clearer to see. In the whole of the 60s, El Salvador suffered only one climatic event that could be classified as ‘extreme’, but there have been five extreme events between late 2010 and November 2012. Weather maps show Pacific storms moving ever closer to the coast, while figures from Durban and Cancun international climate change conferences suggest a temperature increase of 3-4 degrees by 2100, a fatal figure for rural El Salvador.

The country’s main water ‘artery’, the Lempa, is responsible for 62% of all El Salvador’s surface water. In the past few years US corporate money has been used to build a damaging water basin road, and a touted hydroelectric damn project by an Italian company has been pushed ever closer through alleged corruption. In October 2011, the community of Octavia Ortiz in the Lower Lempa Valley has to be evacuated when tropical storm E12 hit, taking the Lempa over its banks and to head height in the nearby village. and obliterating the town’s crops and livelihoods. Mining adds to agricultural chemicals in making the water that does come less and less drinkable.

These days young people’s dreams can be bought. What they don’t seem to realize is that if the predicted 6 degree temperature increase in El Salvador by 2100 takes place, their children won’t have any dreams to think of. This country needs to be in intensive care. We’re taking water from the fish. It’s not a question of adaption, climate change is about survival – Dr. Angel Ibarra

The water issues is also surrounded by an effective privatization. By allowing companies to control water rather than allowing poor communities to access now-depleted resources, El Salvador has recently prompted a campaign to have water become a legal human right. The next threat, in Ibarra’s view, is agro-fuels. While the idea of running a car on crops rather than oil might seem a positive one, locally it’ll mean more land dedicated to exported agriculture and still less for essential, already neglected local needs, especially as many rural communities live on the same land they have for many years, but don’t have any legal ownership.

2009 was supposed to be a turning point for El Salvador, with the election of a new left-wing government that led to a street party in capital San Salvador that spread along 5kms of the capital’s streets. While Ibarra acknowledges small improvements since 2009, the country’s main issues can only be dealt with in part internally. El Salvador has been ripped apart by external, corporate forces. Only our actions can start to put it back together.

Take a small but vital step in helping with  Trocaire’s vital climate change work in El Salvador: signing their petition, here.

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