The tiny and isolated community fo La Tirana – located on the Pacific coastline of El Salvador’s Jiquilisco municipality – gives an idyllic first impression. At a drive of nearly an hour from the nearest tarmacked road, it’s home to just twenty four families, sectioned off into simple, sandy-floored housing areas. The community traditionally lives from crab fishing in the mangrove swamps that border the village. La Tirana is simple but welcoming, with an enveloping sense of community and a sunny disposition. Get into a discussion with local leaders about climate change, however, and things become animated. The village president even describes the issue as “not about adaption, but about survival”.
The main issues in La Tirana centre around those neighbouring mangrove swamps. Traditionally the mangroves serve a number of important purposes. They’re a happy but delicate mix of salt and fresh water, offering a home to a vast array of animal life, from a nursery for shrimp, to a home for crocodiles, herons and those community-fished crabs. Mangroves also protect the land from the moderate local tsunami risk. At present, the mangrove system near to La Tirana is the largest found anywhere on the Pacific coastline.
Over the past decade, however, local villagers have begun to see problems with the mangroves that are far outside of their control. The sensitivity of mangrove systems means sea level rises have a catastrophic affect. While there’s plenty of discussion over the extent of sea level rises, there does seem to be a scientific consensus that a rise of around 20cms over the past century has been recorded (on average globally), and that the rate of sea level rise has increased over the past 10-15 years.
Local estimates suggest La Tirana’s sea rises are above average, resulting in the flooding of the delicate mangroves with an excess of salt water, the washing of seriously damaging and drying sand into the heart of the eco-system, and a beach at the edge of the mangroves that currently looks like this:
These beaches should – and not so long ago did – look more like this (pictures taken inside the La Tirana mangroves). There’s a real possibility these beautiful and ecologically important locations won’t exist in the not so long-term future:
What you’re seeing in the first two photos is the haunting sight of perhaps 30 metres worth of mangrove destruction across the extensive length of the beach, all of which has taken place over the past ten years. The outer line of trees clearly marks the previous location of the mangrove forest, and the gap to the current position, developed over such a short time, tells its own story.
For the community of La Tirana, the death of crabs in the mangroves that’s resulted from the accompanying increase in salt water has severely damaged their livelihoods. Of course, CESTA – the El Salvador branch of Friends of the Earth supported heavily by Trocaire – can’t stop climate change, though their programs do include government lobbying and awareness work. While work to put pressure on developed countries to reduce climate change damage continues, however, they have taken a practical approach in helping the community of La Tirana adapt.
As one of the poorest communities in El Salvador, the 24 families were previously dependent entirely on the now unreliable crab fishing stock to survive. Local expert Ricardo Navaro described the local impression that inside El Salvador they are a forgotten community, and disappointment with the current government, who they hoped would provide improvements. Describing Mauricio Funes presidency, he adds “the government promised to be a government of change. The only change we’re seeing is climate change”.
CESTA – supported by Trocaire – has provided practical solutions to the health problems resulting from the communities lack of medical care, as well as land and teaching to assist in the production of alternative crops. New land from CESTA – in addition to the hard-won post-war land claim the community endured when the El Salvador civil war ended in 1992 – was necessary as the community’s land is sandy and impossible to grow much on. The new land has enabled a strong maize crop, diversifying the community from a reliance on crab fishing. Several La Tirana residents told us that the local “crab economy” was potententially disasterous, and that support in the form of land and crop diversification was “incredibly important, both now and for our children’s future”.
There have also been a host of practical solutions provided by CESTA to the community’s homes, each assisting residents in dealing with their biggest issues. With the local school only operating up to 6th grade and featuring one teacher for the entire age range (the next level, attended by just two village children, involves a four hour round trip on foot), heavy flood risks and the risk of eco-system damaging tourism development, these solutions are just the tip of the iceberg, but make life substantially easier. A few of CESTA’s additions are shown below in the home of local resident Nuam Diaz:
Not pictured: solar panels, allowing for the charging of a telephone that enables the alarm to be raised during times of emergency, and also allows modern lighting in the Diaz home, reducing a prior health risk from the long-term inhilation of candle smoke.
It’s clear that as sea levels continue to rise, the delicately stunning mangrove environment is in extreme danger and La Tirana’s survival will depend more and more on forced lifestyle changes. While crab fishing remains a core part of the community’s lifestyle, the clock seems to be ticking on the village’s traditions, and perhaps on their ability to survive here at all.
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