In Review: Trocaire, El Salvador and Climate Change.

A quick overview of my experience in El Salvador with Trocaire, and a few of the thoughts it’s brought to the fore…

Trocaire in El Salvador

I must admit, despite my wife Helena being a fairly die-hard campaigner and  supporter over the past few years, I knew relatively little about Trocaire before I was invited on this trip. I knew they were a Catholic church associated organization, and for me I will admit that was a little bit of a turn off, but I researched their projects before I left and came to the conclusion that what they have achieved is far too impressive for my feelings on the church to be a factor. I also learnt that 91% of donations end up on the ground, where they belong, and that figure alone is enough to be a huge convincer.

On the ground, though, it needs to be said that this charity is absolutely exceptional in every way. From simple organization of the trip to the competence of every single partner organization we encountered, there was really nothing on the ground that left even the cynical part of me concerned about the way things work: money stretches to do really life changing things in so many corners of the world. Every community was quite incredibly grateful for what they’ve received, it really has changed tough lives.

The approach is impressively locally focused: Trocaire funds carefully selected local organizations with sensible principles, and allows locals to help themselves. Given the colonial history of countries like El Salvador, this seems an obvious, logical way forward. A huge win for me, I can find charities can turn me off with presumptive behaviour, a poor attitude to donated money and overblown bureaucracy. Trocaire had absolutely none of that and I really look forward to throwing more weight behind them.

Climate Change: the damage is very real, very everyday, and far outside of the control of countries like El Salvador

Call me naive, but before I travelled to El Salvador Climate Change seemed a global issue more than a localised one to me. Obviously I still feel the global element, but what was really quite new to me – and really impossible to deny having seen it in front of you – is just how much it’s also a case of global and social injustice; of the rich once again directly and indirectly bullying the poor into submission for their own ends.

Let’s put it this way. Imagine you were asked to look after a garden, and to feed yourself from it. You start off with adequate space and adequate water supply, but as you don’t technically own the garden – a nasty blip in a local law that historically didn’t need such a regulation – every so often someone from a long way away comes and takes a chunk of it, and exports the product, leaving you with an increasingly small percentage of what you started with. You’re also provided with less and less water per unit area of your garden, and every so often you’re challenged by someone far richer, and pushed to mount a legal defence of your territory from the small amounts of cash you’re able to make with your already reduced output. Those garden invaders are also taking over the rest of the block, pushing up the temperatures to levels that make it difficult for you to continue, and continuing to drain that precious water supply. There’s nothing much you can do about any of this.

It’s simplistic, but the above pressures give a small-scale idea of what’s happening across El Salvador, and the simple fact is that it doesn’t matter – at least as much as it should – what the local government do. We met with the MP who heads up the Environmental Committee from the ruling FMLN Party, Loudres Palacios, and she was impressively candid, highlighting a number of recent environmental improvements in areas like water protection and dangerous fertilizer use, but also pointing to the dire consequences of projected temperature rises on her country. Effectively, even if El Salvador were able to throw out sugar producers, coffee makers and the giant corporate scar on their landscape that is Coca Cola, it simply wouldn’t be enough. After all, while Central America is collectively responsible for just 0,3% of global carbon emissions, they’re already suffering – and almost universally predicted to continue suffering – at the sharp end of the temperature change and enviro-damage spectrum.

If you remain unconvinced of this, it’s only because you haven’t seen the examples I have. We traveled to La Tirana, a spot over an hour from the nearest tarmacked road, and journeyed through a stunning mangrove swamp with people from a tiny nearby community. Their livelihood – crab fishing – had been and continues to be severely damaged by sea level rises taking salt water into the subtle balance of the mangroves, and killing off their stocks. In the community of Los Angeles in San Julian, unprecedented flooding has wiped out entire annual crops, while the locals have repeatedly had to fight off often illegal land-grabbing from large corporate supplies. While the locals grow small scale volumes of coffee and vegetables amongst the forest trees, their land backs onto sugar cane fields that are sprayed by helicopter annually, coating the entire population in toxic chemicals (last year this took place during a school lunch hour). The community of Octavia Ortiz, in Juquilisco province, saw 104 families pushed to their rooftops by a series of ‘never seen before’ tropical storms, events that have become increasingly frequent over the last decade, as water rose to head height. The rest of the year, an ill-advised, European-funded dam, likely backed with all kinds of corrupt backhanders, has meant the area suffers from extreme droughts that make crop-growth extremely tough and living a challenge.

Directly or indirectly, we all hold an element of responsibility for these problems. On attending the Climate Change conference at San Salvador University, we heard highly convincing cases (click into two different speach write ups) for the concept of Climate Justice – the idea that less polluting countries suffering the consequences of the actions of the more developed deserve financial and practical assistance to the tune of a huge amount of money, and that under the current political system it simply won’t happen. I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly extreme in my political views, but surely this is basic logic: the developed, western world can’t possibly expect to destroy the livelihoods of others by our every day actions and suffer no consequences. There are many other reasons why the western world owes poorer nations for their political and economic repression, but for me this is persuasive and obvious of them all. Which can lead to only one conclusion.

Agri-forestry, a local sustainable livelihood iniative in Los Angeles, San Julian, El Salvador.

It’s time for a complete mental reprogramming…

I realize that this can get preachy. There’s no point in denying it; climate change activists are all hypocrites to some extent. I’m fairly new to the idea of just how serious all this has become, and it’s fair to say I’m still at the ‘anger’ phase of coping with shock, so I’ll try not to rant.

The fact is, though, in context I’m dumbfounded by what I had considered to be normal politics. Obviously there are major issues to be dealt with in Ireland at the moment, not least our floundering economy, and the issue of Climate Change is most likely not going to destroy the planet in our lifetimes (though we can expect some pretty serious damage, even by conservative accounts). The fact remains, though, that as other countries develop – something you’d have to be a real political imbecile to want to deny them the right to do – emissions will increase. The same goes for population increase. As things are now, if everyone behaved like your average American we’d need seven planets to host the current population with the same resulting effects; three for your average European. If the entire world’s population lived like Indians, however, we’d be absolutely fine. In fact we’d have nothing to worry about at all, and could cope with several multiples of the current world population if you ignore things more practical than carbon emissions.

Our lifestyles, especially allowing for global development, mean that without a serious change in our attitudes it’s extremely likely we won’t leave a livable planet behind. The first to suffer will be countries like El Salvador – they already are suffering, severely – but others will follow through a series of feedback loops, sea rises and all kinds of other outcomes. 5 degree temperature increases in the next 90 years are not just likely, but in many educated quarters expected. That might sound nice in Ireland until you consider the fact that the corresponding sea levels will put Dublin at risk in a few generations, while we could be  plunging the other way temperature wise, a severe hit of Moscow-like ice, should the Gulf Stream switch itself off, an increasing risk. As Ana Maria Vasqueez of UNES put it, it might hit the bottom first, but like the Titanic, we’re all going down in the end.

Which brings me to my point: why is this not the single biggest issues in world politics right now? Why are we allowing corporations and economy to dominate our discussion – and even appoint highly dubious, bought off experts to try and convince us climate change is natural rather than man made – rather than the focusing on the fact the earth is heading for one monster of a catastrophe?

Like I said, climate change activists are by definitions hypocrites. You simply can’t live a carbon neutral life in the western world, at least no as part of a fairly normal lifestyle, and admiral attempts to do so seem to evoke ridicule. The reality is you can’t affect politics in the slightest by coming from a position of ridicule, so there needs to be an element of moderation to the way the argument is approached. But these facts need to be talked about, and fast .

What next?

This is hard. I’ll be making lifestyle changes. Hopefully big ones, but I have to balance the reality of life and living with what I’ve now seen to be undeniably true: what I do flippantly every day is a small but very relevant part of an affect that’s very really killing people elsewhere in the world.

For a start, I’ve drunk my very last Coca Cola, amongst a whole host of other small but necessary changes that I wont bore you with. Personal changes are important, and I’ll be making them. I need to get past the anger and element of self-loathing that’s crept in since becoming properly awake to the idea that people die because of what we do. I realize that even with changes it’s likely that anything I say about climate change will come with a huge edge of hypocrisy, but I have to fuse that with the practical idea that it’s still better than nothing at all.

I intend to lobby. I intend to bother companies that are doing particular disgusting things as much as I can manage, and I hope that I’ll be able to stick a few of the results up here, if only in the form of letters and replies, and that a few of you might be able to help me pressurize them more. I intend to support Trocaire as much as I can individually, too, and to reassure people that their money is being spent incredibly well. Occasionally, I plan to remind myself when I – more sparsely from now on – use my ample supply of water that every time I do something as simple as eating a meal I’m playing a role in the slow but perceptible deaths of cultures, communities and even people half way around the world.

The fact that this isn’t the world’s most prominent political position disgusts me now. Of course we have to care about economy, education and the rights of the child, but what’s the point in worrying about investment opportunities for foreign companies and informing our children correctly if they’re all heading for certain doom anyway. It’s time to wake up, and that’s what I intend to do. I just have to remember this feeling.

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