Climate and Energy

El Salvador – a blueprint for mangrove conservation efforts worldwide?

Grass-roots conservation by local women and fishermen in Barra de Santiago, near the Guatemala border, has had a significant impact on the coast’s environmental and economic resilience
<p>A fisherwoman in the bay of Barra de Santiago (Image: Julián Reingold)</p>

A fisherwoman in the bay of Barra de Santiago (Image: Julián Reingold)

Near the border with Guatemala, a two-hour drive from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, lies a tropical coast lined with mangrove forests where crocodiles, corals and fisheries thrive. The Barra de Santiago is a habitat for numerous threatened and endangered species, including four species of sea turtle: the hawksbill sea turtle, Olive Ridley Turtle, leatherback sea turtle and green sea turtle, and the yellow-naped parrot, which is severely threatened because of its commercial value in the pet trade.

The mangroves function as a barrier against the onslaught of tropical storms, as well as rising sea levels caused by climate change in a country that is at high risk of both. Despite the damage Hurricane Julia caused across the country in 2022, severe rain around the Barra de Santiago’s mangrove forest only led to limited flooding.

But for the past 30 years, unrestricted urbanisation, cattle grazing, the sugarcane industry’s expansion and the increasing demand for wood have caused deforestation, alterations in the hydrology of the area and pollution. This ​​mangrove forest, although designated as a Ramsar site, a wetland whose conservation and sustainable use are governed by an international treaty, has shrunk by 50% according to 2018 estimates.

Since 2012, several local women’s and fishermen’s organisations – some with international support – have started to restore the mangrove ecosystem, creating new livelihoods for residents, such as crab farming, while protecting the area’s biodiversity.

Cocodrilo en el canal Zapatero
Crocodile sighting in the Zapatero channel within the mangrove swamp of Barra de Santiago (Image: Julián Reingold)

Results have been limited so far, but the success of local organisations provides a model for how this type of ecosystem can be restored globally.

Mangroves are important carbon sinks, as they can sequester four times more carbon than rainforests. Therefore, there is significant interest in their use as a way to mitigate global warming. Some government policies in El Salvador, particularly in agribusiness development, are not aligned with conservation efforts and pose a threat to the continuation of this work.

The socioeconomic benefits of mangrove restoration

The degradation of this mangrove forest began with Hurricane Fifi in 1974, which devastated a large part of the ecosystem and the main street of the town of Barra de Santiago. Heavy rainfall on deforested areas in the upper part of the Paz River basin caused rivers to burst their banks downstream. Despite dredging of the mangrove forest’s channels, it could not absorb all the water and flooded.

The Women’s Community Development Association in Barra de Santiago (AMBAS) and other local NGOs set out to raise awareness among communities of the importance of the mangrove ecosystem on the Paz River estuary in 2004. They rolled up their sleeves, put on rubber boots and shovelled their way around the swamp to dredge new water channels to improve the hydrology of the site, planting mangrove seedlings in the fertile mud. Their goal is to restore 42 hectares of the forest by 2024.

María Magdalena del Cid Torres
María Magdalena del Cid Torres, a Barra de Santiago community leader (Image: Julián Reingold)

These organisations have managed to restore nine hectares of mangroves so far with the support of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global environmental network running field projects and producer of the Red List of Threatened Species.

“Men in this region do not want women to go to the fields alone,” says Luis Quintanilla, a technical officer at AMBAS. “However, women are the ones who are at the forefront of mangrove restoration, as they manage a nursery of 10,000 plants.”

Un trabajador en un campo de caña de azúcar en el municipio de Tonacatepeque, al noroeste de San Salvador, la capital de El Salvador.
Read more: Sugar strengthens its dominance in agriculture in El Salvador

But the restoration of depleted mangrove areas alone doesn’t solve the environmental degradation in Barra de Santiago bay. According to several local sources Dialogo Chino spoke to for this piece, sugarcane plantations have been dumping agrochemicals in the Paz river for the past few years, affecting numerous river basins and reducing the flow of water which reaches the mangrove, causing it to partially dry up. Plastic waste from factories and homes have added to the pollution.

Community members say that despite their concerns that these chemicals are having a negative impact on their health, the government has ignored their demands to clean up the river.

“There is no project or intervention to remedy the contamination, and there is also no regulatory legal framework,” says Fátima Romero, a biologist and environmental technician at the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES), an NGO and IUCN’s local partner. She says that the country’s new water law also gives the green light to large industries to extract water from aquifers.

Economic growth could reduce emigration

Salvadorans comprise the second-largest group of migrants moving from Central to North America. The main reasons for migrating are a lack of job opportunities and gang violence, the vestiges of a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. There is an urgent need for vulnerable communities to find sustainable economic opportunities that will allow them to remain, rather than flee the country.

The Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project is an umbrella scheme that aims to strengthen local economies through artisanal fisheries, support existing efforts to reduce water pollution and protect the mangrove ecosystem while addressing the lack of opportunities for local people to make a living. Planned to run from 2017 to 2024, this project is also being implemented in other coastal sites in Guatemala and Honduras, and is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Hombre sostiene cangrejos azules
Fisherman Francisco Pineda holds blue crabs collected in mangrove forests of the River Paz Basin (Image: Julián Reingold)

According to Wilfredo López, a biologist at the Salvadoran Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), over four years, the Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project has managed to reduce the pressure on marine-coastal resources in this region in two ways. Socioeconomically, it has provided guidelines for the management of crab populations and mangrove restoration, as well as by improving the biotrade  (commercial goods and services based on the sustainable exploitation of biodiversity) and establishing successful beekeeping businesses. Biologically, it has contributed to research through studies carried out on the species in the bay, such as commercial fish stocks, corals and seahorses.

Resilience for the future

Back at the IUCN’s office in San Salvador, Zulma de Mendoza, a biologist and the regional coordinator of the Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project, reflects on the conservation efforts. For De Mendoza, the resilience needed for this undertaking is like walking on the mud and roots of the mangrove swamp.

“The passion for conservation collides with the idea of ​​profitability, and that is difficult to understand for both environment ministers and fishers alike. You can slide, sink or learn to walk,” she says.  She cites the non-native Pacific parakeet (Psittacara strenuus) that is thriving in this environment as an example of how important it is to be adaptable.

For De Mendoza, one of the greatest achievements of the Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project is that it has been able to verify and demonstrate the threats to biodiversity in the vital coastal ecosystems of mangroves and reefs.

Still, “the key to the success of these actions is that they are based on constant coordination with local communities,” says De Mendoza. “We have been forming biotrade initiatives, an alternative way of strengthening the livelihood options of these communities, to restore their self-esteem and help them to become more resilient.”

Zulma de Mendoza señala mapa en la pared
Zulma de Mendoza, regional coordinator of the IUCN's Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project, points to a map of priority areas for forest restoration in Central America (Image: Julián Reingold)

UNES hopes all the smaller NGOs involved will continue to prosper once the project concludes in 2024. They hope to leave these organisations strengthened so that they can flourish on their own. There is still a lot of work to be done, and for communities without local and national government support, the challenges will be great.

This story was produced with a story grant from Internews’s Earth Journalism Network’s Coastal Resilience project.