Environment and social justice in El Salvador


Dr RICARDO NAVARRO, president and executive director of CESTA (the Salvadoran Centre for Appropriate Technology), is being toured around Australia and New Zealand by the Overseas Services Bureau. CESTA was founded in 1980 in response to the profound economic, ecological, social and political problems in El Salvador. CESTA's major goal is to develop participatory projects in the poor communities to tackle these problems. While in Melbourne, Navarro spoke to ROBERTO JORQUERA.

What are the major environmental problems facing El Salvador?

The environment continues to deteriorate due to the military confrontation and the lack of information regarding environmental issues. People are more worried about the military confrontation, and therefore the environmental situation is of lower concern.

An example of the crisis is the situation with water. In our country we are running out of water. Every day, everywhere, water is available only for a few hours. For example, in the CESTA office in the capital city the water is turned on at 5 a.m. and gets turned off between 8 and 9 p.m.

The decrease in availability of water has mainly been due to deforestation. Running water does not have the chance to return to the water table because the forest cover has been destroyed. It is estimated that the water table in El Salvador is going down by one metre per year.

You find pollution just about everywhere. This includes chemicals dumped by factories and water sewerage from the cities. This water gets into lakes and systems were people fish, swim and use the water for irrigation of vegetables. Vegetables in a number of city markets have been found to be contaminated with human faeces and industrial chemicals. The only treatment people use is that they boil the vegetables, which then lose their nutrition, and boiling does not get rid of the chemicals.

The air has become one of the major causes of death among children as a result of careless discharge of hazardous chemicals and gases.

Is the government doing anything to control pollution?

Industry is allowed to pollute anywhere without government interference or prosecution. The Salvadoran government does not do anything because a number of government officials are part of the economic elite which rule El Salvador and will not attack their own interests. As a group, we have been exerting pressure over the past five years but have been successful only a few times.

In response to environmental protest, the government started up a centre for ecology two years ago. They are trying to generate an environmental image for themselves; they organise parades with primary school children and the military carrying trees. But they refuse to stop enterprises that cut down forests and pollute the water and land.

At present there is a US company which is working with a Salvadoran company that wants to generate electricity by burning 500 tonnes of used tyres per day. Two years ago we were able to stop a similar project.

The system in El Salvador looks after the economic profits of a few and forgets about the rest of the people, and so in order to maximise profits nature is destroyed.

In summary, in El Salvador ecological problems are social problems.

What level of consciousness do the progressive parties and social organisations in El Salvador have in relation to the environmental crisis?

The level of consciousness is certainly increasing. We have run an ecology awareness campaign for the past seven years, and we are trying to get all the social organisations (unions, student groups, etc.) to realise that all the social problems that they are experiencing have some ecological links. For example,

the unions struggle for a better salary, $25 per month more, but that might not even be enough to take care of the children when they get cholera or some respiratory disease or when the beans go up three times in price.

We just point out the linkages which have always existed. Some people naturally have understood them; we have just put names to them.

When we go to the rural areas a lot of the peasants will tell us that the fish in the rivers which were there before are no longer there. This is because somebody upstream is polluting the rivers. The soil is no longer as fertile as it used to be and so harvests are much smaller. This is due to the erosion of the soil, which we explain to the people.

The major problem is with land ownership. All the demobilised military personnel and FMLN combatants are now demanding land, but there is not enough land to go around. Twenty-five years ago the land would produce twice as much food as it is able to do now, so now you need twice as much land. For a small country with a large population, this creates big problems.

Can you give an outline of the work which CESTA does and the reasons for its formation?

We were founded in 1980, but it was not until 1987 that we started to work in the field. Before that, we were mainly a group of university professors. Now it is more like a foundation — a non-profit organisation that promotes sustainable development projects. Projects must be socially, economically and ecologically sustainable.

There are many different problems that need to be addressed. In one community we work to help people organise to solve their social and ecological problems. In some rural areas you have latrines that are basically just holes in the ground which pollute the underground water which drains into wells. This creates a vicious circle that produces disease. It has led us to work with dry composting latrines, which produce dry human faeces for fertiliser and thus, instead of polluting the underground water, you get a useful product.

We have uncontrolled pesticide use throughout the country, and whenever pesticide content is measured, large amounts are found. It has been detected in pork fat, beef and also in mother's milk. We are working in the community to develop alternatives to these toxic pesticides from organic material.

There are also nutrition projects which are trying to combine the local diets with highly nutritious food, like soya beans for example, but in a way that is not going to change the people's food habits.

We also work with programs to develop stoves that are more energy efficient, that consume less firewood or that use solar energy. We have projects in the communities dealing with deforestation.

In Wacapa there used to be a mountain covered with trees, but during the war it was bombed by the army, which resulted in the destruction of most of the surrounding forest, which then led to the drying up of a number of waterways.

We are starting projects to help rehabilitate areas such as these. Our goal is to plant one tree for every person who was killed during the war; this adds up to about 75,000 trees. This idea is being used to help generate momentum in reforestation.

Throughout El Salvador, it is estimated that up to 85% of the country is deforested. The government every year has a campaign to plant trees using school children. But on the other hand, the government refuses to stop the destruction of the forests, which are still being logged by multinational firms.

There are a number of other problems that the communities face. We have developed bicycle carts that can be used to transport goods from the markets. The latest invention, which we are very happy about, is a bicycle cart that will be able to pick up garbage, which is a major form of pollution. Garbage is not being collected because it is too expensive and there are not enough trucks.

Other inventions are pedal-power machines, including a machine that mills grain, water pumps, machines that can generate electricity and air compressors. The idea

is to use these technologies so that people are not dependent on electricity, which is difficult to get and very expensive.

Finally we have the ecology awareness campaign. With this we are trying to change the way people think about resources and their usage.

Last year the United Nations held a conference on the environment and development which some people expected a lot from. What are your views of the conference? Do you think that anything has changed for the better since then?

The major problem was that the big economic powers, though acknowledging that there might be a problem, refuse to do anything about it.

The big economic powers seem to think that simply putting some money here and there will bring back the forests that have been destroyed, or that some engineer will be able to put a stop to pollution with some wonderful new invention.

There is a very little understanding that the ecological problem we are facing is a result of our way of life, our civilisation, the way we use resources. We cannot continue to use the resources the way we have been up to now. A large ecological crisis has developed and that will also lead to a social and political crisis.

How can the Japanese government tell you that you should reduce the use of cars and increase the use of bicycles, when their whole economy depends so much on the use of cars? How can the United States tell people that they should consume less when they depend on this consumption?

The main cause of the problem is present economic structures. To maintain their privileges, governments and the ruling elites try to portray a green image, but the "good" things they do are only short-

term remedies. If we do not change the economic structures, the way we use resources, we will not be able to stop the ecological crisis.

Governments are not interested in changing the way

resources are being used, because they represent the interest of the big companies. What we need is massive organisation and mobilisation of ordinary people, mass movements, popular organisations that I hope one day will be big and strong enough to be able to stop this deterioration of the environment.

Governments won't do it. The US government did not want to sign the bio-diversity treaty just because 50 or so companies, mainly US companies, pressured not to sign it. It is not fair that 50 companies have the power to decide something that will affect the whole world. This brings us also to another point: we can not solve the ecological problems if democracy does not play a role.