Climate Change El Salvador: The Work Of UNES

We’ve met a number of inspirational groups so far in El Salvador, but UNES (Unidad Ecologica Salvadorena), A Trocaire-supported, San Salvador-based climate change charity are perhaps the most impressive. We met with UNES employee and climate activist Lewis Gonzalez at their quiet central office, to discuss their ‘Campana Mesoamericana de Justicia Climatica’ (campaign for climate justice. Their acheivements to date are quite incredible.

Lewis identified three main areas that are currently key to El Salvador’s climate issues: heat, drought and floods. These often have a direct knock on effect on the country’s population, especially those who make their livelihoods in areas like farming and fishing. While UNES have done a host of climate change related ground work (I’ll be writing about their help in the tiny community of Los Angeles, in San Julian province, before too long), it’s their political acheivements that are perhaps most impressive.

There are four main tennets to the campaign:

– To defend the rights of people against climate change

– To pressurize northern, developed nations into stabalizing their emissions at 350ppm of CO2, and to avoid further global temperature increase beyond 1.5C.

– To ask for a strong reduction in the use of nuclear energy, agro fuels and other practises which are having a very serious impact on climate change.

– To demand recognition of an ecological debt from developed economies to poorer countries, and to request the resources needed, which should not be managed by an organization like the IMF or World Bank.

Meeting with UNES in San Salvador

UNES demands are based on a number of well-researched facts, including research that suggests that even if recently signed climate agreements from conferences in Durban would still – if fulfilled – result in a temperature increase in 4 degrees by 2100, a temperature which would make adaption to climate change in El Salvador impossible, with catastrophic consquences.

“Climate change is like the Titanic experience. We know that those at the bottom will suffer first, but things are going up, and everyone will be effected eventually. If you take one message back to Ireland, that’s the one” – Ana Maria Vasquez, UNES

Of course, in order to make such demands on other countries, UNES realizes that it also has to do a lot at home, and the results in El Salvador have been hugely impressive.  Most of these local changes come in the country’s legal system, work that’s been taking place since 2009.

UNES global warming projections for 2011, with a successfully implemented Durban agreement (click to enlarge)

Climate change was added to El Salvador’s school curriculum in 2010 as a result of work from UNES and their partners. Environmental courts are expected to be added to the system for the first time as a result of similar pressure later this year, and only last week seven articles were added to the country’s legal books, obliging the government to have an adaption plan for climate change issues. There’s also a push for an agreement about agricultural chemicals by December the 3rd, which is a designated international day against the use of agricultural chemicals. Earlier today, we accompanied UNES to the community of Los Angeles in the San Julian district of El Salvador, where we met an entire community who’s houses and school suffer heavily from the helicopter spraying of chemicals over sugar cane feels that edge against their property. The spraying comes unannounced and has serious health consequences; in 2011 the field nearest the school was coated during school lunch hour.

There’s also a heavy push for access to water to be made a human right in El Salvador. Recently, water has become fiercely commercial and often been controlled by factories and corporations, resulting in limited access for individuals. Reforms have been presented to the government, alongside a ‘right to water’ march that took place on the 4th of October this year, though results are hard to come by as the government has commercial concerns at heart.

UNES members Carolina Amaya was able to give us a personal example of the issues: she comes from an area called Nejapa, where Coca Cola have opened a factory and a community that previously had comfortable access to drinking water has seen their supply disappear, or become contaminated over the past few years. Water has become smelly and made showering – let alone drinking – impossible. Both congress and individuals are dominated by economic power; a Mexican juice factory is causing similar problems in other areas of the country. Locally, water has become known as ‘blue oil’ as a result.

“In El Salvador, we say a contaminated river is a sign of a successful business” – Lewis Gonzalez, UNES

If there’s any doubt that this is a serious issue for El Salvador, rural communities offer the proof. Early this year, a group of rural communities walked 100kms in five days to the capital to protest a dam construction which would take away their water supply. The idea of the green economy, which can be seen as a huge positive in Europe, is treated as a commercialization of natural resources in El Salvador, and greeted with huge sceptiscism.

UNES’ political role, then, is hugely active. Their outline of El Salvador’s climate change problems – both internal and consequences of actions outside the country – was truly harrowing at times, and a wake up call even for the hardened climate change activists amongst us. Personally, I felt like signing up on the spot. People like this might just save the world.

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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