Near the border of Guatemala, a two-hour drive from the capital of El Salvador, lies a tropical coast lined with mangrove forests. The Barra de Santiago is abundant with crocodile, coral and fish – and is a habitat for numerous threatened and endangered species, including four types of sea turtle: the hawksbill turtle, olive ridley turtle, leatherback turtle and green turtle. It is also home to the yellow-naped parrot, which is severely threatened because of its commercial value in the pet trade.
In a country at high risk of climate-driven tropical storms and rising sea levels, mangroves function as a barrier. Despite the damage caused by Hurricane Julia in 2022, severe rain around the Barra de Santiago’s mangrove forest only led to limited flooding. But in the past 30 years, unrestricted urbanisation, cattle grazing, the sugarcane industry’s expansion and increasing demand for wood, have caused deforestation, alterations in the hydrology of the area and pollution. This mangrove forest, although a designated 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 grassroots organizations led by local women and fishermen — and some with international support — have started to restore the mangrove ecosystem, creating new livelihoods for residents, such as crab farming, while also protecting the area’s biodiversity.
Despite results being limited so far, the success of these organizations provide a model for how this type of ecosystem can be restored globally.
Mangroves are important carbon sinks — they can sequester four times more carbon than rainforests. Therefore, there is significant interest in their use to mitigate global warming. However, 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 the Barra de Santiago’s mangrove forest began with Hurricane Fifi in 1974 which devastated a large part of the ecosystem and the main street of the town. Heavy rainfall in deforested areas in the upper part of the Paz river basin caused rivers to burst their banks downstream. Despite the dredging of the mangrove forest channels, the wetland was unable to absorb all the water and flooded.
In 2004, 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. They rolled up their sleeves, put on rubber boots and shoveled 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.
These organizations 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.”
But the restoration of depleted mangrove areas alone doesn’t solve the environmental degradation in Barra de Santiago bay. According to local sources, 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 — this causes it to partially dry up. Plastic waste from factories and homes have also contributed to the pollution.
Despite local concerns that these chemicals are negatively impacting people’s health, community members say that 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). 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 their 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 also addressing the lack of job opportunities for local people. 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).
According to Wilfredo López, a biologist at the Salvadoran Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), the Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project has sucessfully reduced pressure on marine-coastal resources in this region in the last four years. It has done this in two ways: Socioeconomically, it has provided guidelines for the management of crab populations and mangrove restoration, as well as 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, coral 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 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 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.”
UNES hopes that the smaller NGOs involved will continue to prosper once the project concludes in 2024 — they hope to leave these organizations with the resilience to flourish on their own. But 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 support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Diálogo Chino on February 3, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: A fisherwoman in the bay of Barra de Santiago / Credit: Julián Reingold.