Conservation by local women and fishermen in Barra de Santiago has had a significant impact on the environmental and economic resilience of the coast.

By Julian Reingold

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

Near the border with Guatemala, a two-hour drive from El Salvador’s capital, lies a tropical coastline of mangrove forests where crocodiles, coral and fisheries thrive. Barra De Santiago is a habitat for numerous threatened and endangered species, including four species of sea turtles: the hawksbill, olive ridley, leatherback and green turtles, and the yellow-naped parrot, which is critically endangered due to its commercial value in the pet trade.

Mangroves act as a barrier against tropical storms, and prevent sea level rise caused by climate change in El Salvador, a country at high risk of natural disasters. Despite the damage that Hurricane Julia caused across the country in 2022, heavy rains around the Barra de Santiago mangrove forest caused only limited flooding.

But for the past 30 years, unrestricted urbanisation and cattle ranching, the expansion of the sugar cane industry and increasing demand for timber have led to deforestation and alterations in the area’s hydrology. Although designated as a Ramsar site, a wetland whose conservation and sustainable use is governed by international treaty, the mangrove forest has been reduced by an estimated 50 per cent in 2018.

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

Crocodile sighting in the Zapatero channel within the Barra de Santiago mangrove (Image: Julian 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 great interest in their use as a way to mitigate global warming. But 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 socio-economic benefits of mangrove restoration

The degradation of this mangrove forest began with Hurricane Fifi in 1974, which wiped out much of the ecosystem and the main street in the town of Barra de Santiago. Heavy rains in the deforested areas in the upper reaches of the Paz River basin caused the rivers to overflow downstream. Despite the dredging of the mangrove channels, it could not absorb all the water and flooded.

The Association of Women in Community Development of Barra de Santiago (AMBAS) and other local NGOs willed themselves to raise community awareness of the importance of the mangrove ecosystem in the Paz River estuary in 2004. They rolled up their sleeves, put on rubber boots and made 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 forest by 2024.

María Magdalena del Cid Torres, one of the community leaders of Barra de Santiago (Image: Julián Reingold)

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

“The men in this region don’t want the women to go to the field alone,” says Luis Quintanilla, an AMBAS technician, “but the women are the ones in charge of mangrove restoration, managing a nursery of 10,000 plants.

But the restoration of depleted mangrove areas alone does not solve the environmental degradation in the bay of Barra de Santiago. According to several local sources Diálogo Chino spoke to for this piece, sugar cane plantations have been dumping agrochemicals into the Paz River for the past few years, affecting numerous watersheds and reducing the flow of water into the mangrove, causing it to partially dry up. Plastic waste from factories and households has 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 remediate the contamination, and there is no legal regulatory framework,” says Fátima Romero, a biologist and environmental technician with Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (UNES), a local NGO partner of IUCN. Romero said the country’s new water law also gives a green light to large industries to extract water from aquifers.

Economic growth could reduce emigration

Salvadorans are the second largest group of migrants moving from Central America to North America, mainly because of lack of job opportunities and gang violence, the remnants of a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. There is an urgent need for vulnerable communities to find sustainable economic opportunities that allow them to remain in the country.

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

Francisco Pineda holds blue crabs collected in the mangroves of the Paz River basin (Image: Julián Reingold)

According to Wilfredo López, a biologist with El Salvador’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), over four years, the Coastal Biodiversity project has managed to reduce pressure on the marine-coastal resources of this region in two ways. Socioeconomically, it has provided guidelines for the management of crab populations and mangrove restoration, as well as improving biocommerce (commercial goods and services based on the sustainable exploitation of biodiversity) and the establishment of successful beekeeping businesses.

In terms of biology, it has contributed to research through studies on bay species such as commercial fish populations, corals and seahorses.

Resilience for the future

Back at the IUCN office in San Salvador, Zulma de Mendoza, biologist and regional coordinator of the Coastal Biodiversity project, reflects on conservation efforts. For De Mendoza, the resilience needed to regenerate this ecosystem is like walking on mud and mangrove roots.

“The passion for conservation clashes with the idea of profitability, and that’s hard for both environment ministers and fishermen to understand. You can slide, sink or learn to walk,” she says. He refers to the non-violent 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 major achievements of the Coastal Biodiversity project is that it has been able to verify and demonstrate the threats to biodiversity in vital coastal mangrove and reef ecosystems.

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 bio-trade initiatives, an alternative way to strengthen the livelihood options of these communities, to regain their self-esteem and help them become more resilient”.

Zulma de Mendoza, regional coordinator of the IUCN Coastal Biodiversity project, points to a map of priority areas for forest restoration in Central America (Image: Julian Reingold).

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

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

The original article can be found here