El Salvador's mangroves are a stunning sight to behold and the backbone of hundreds of communities who live on the coast of the country.
Mangroves act as vital shoreline protectors; buffers between the sea and dry land. Against rising sea levels mangrove forests and estuaries act to prevent coastline erosion whilst numerous fish breed within their majestic roots.
Saving these forests from extinction is a monumental task. According to government stats, over the next decade the country will lose between 10 and 28% of its coastal territories as a result of rising seas caused by climate change.
For those who etch a living from the mangroves, preservation is key. Fishing is tightly controlled. For the local community in La Tirana, local government has restricted the amount of crabs that can be caught to seven dozen a day. Each dozen crabs are sold for 2 dollars, then taken to market.
Over the last ten years fishing communities say there has been a marked decline in numbers: not just in the crab that is the speciality of La Tirana, but in shrimp and other fish. Many local people blame the frequent flooding that occurs as the tides bring chemicals and too much fresh water into the delicate eco-system.
Flooding is a major problem in the area, and one the government has been criticised for not doing more about. Arturo Romero Argueta, co-ordinator of an emergency group set up to help vulnerable people during times of flood, says the intensity of the flooding is changing how rivers flow - sand and debris has been brought down the rivers which threaten to inch into people's food crop fields.
Though the government has been doing little to combat flooding, the area has been earmarked for investment recently from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the US aid
agency, which is funding FOMILENIO.
In the first round of investments the government received $575 million from investors from agribusiness and tourism sectors: the northern region of the country benefited from $460 million in aid. The second package seeks to develop the coastal areas, but for the farming and fishing community of La Tirana, news they are on the investment list is not all welcome.
The plans primarily focus on opening up the area to private investors. US aid can come with heavy conditions; favourable terms being offered to US corporations, and a heavy focus on joint public private partnership initiatives. Ricardo Navarro, director of CESTA, explains:
The El Salvador Government, following US government indications, have issued a law where the natural resources of El Salvador are opened to private-public partnerships, where in order to apply for the US Government funds they have to show that they can also bring large amounts of investments, which means only large corporations are allowed to apply.
The El Salvadoran government could sign up as soon as September.
Though many would welcome the infrastructural investment the aid package should bring, the tourism developments could threaten disaster for many of the farmers already struggling to cope with rising sea levels and flooding. They say the private investment will open the area to more pollution, and threaten the survival of the mangroves.
Their greatest fear is that they will be expelled from their communities. There has so far been little transparency and grassroots organisations working across the Lower Lempa report great fear and uncertainty.
In its effort to develop the tourism industry and the benefits it could bring to the local economy, it seems the government is risking destroying the primary attraction: the stunning mangroves.
The communities that rely on mangroves fear that this development will trigger others. Such development means those that have been living within and working to protect the tropical forests could be forced off their land and prevented from continuing their vital work.
El Salvador’s Tourism Minister José Napoleón Duarte told IPS News Agency
that he would not back any tourist project that did not meet minimum environmental requirements, but so far there has been no external agency to oversee these
standards, and the worry is that even minimum damage is irreversible. As Navarro explains:
The whole of the marine coast of El Salvador is at risk, because although the actual project is limited in funds to the eastern part of the country, it could trigger other potential private funders to cover all of the country. This would affect tens of thousands of people. No plans have been made for alternative accommodation.
The future of the mangroves must surely be decided by those who know best how they can be protected and maintained, nurtured and conserved. The communities of the Lower Lempa , on the front line of the fight against climate change, know what type of development would benefit them. Their experience is vast and their knowledge of their precious mangroves great.
The government should respect not just their rights and land entitlements, but also their expertise and experience.