Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Politics, Economics and the Mangrove Forests of the Bajo Lempa
By Ross Thornburn
During our time in Amando Lopez, we had the opportunity to gain a first-hand perspective on the lives of those living in cooperative communities in the Bajo Lempa and develop a greater understanding of issues in the region. On Wednesday, March 26th, we travelled the short distance from the homes of our host families to another cooperative community on the coast: La Tirana. Our morning began by taking a short journey in canoes through the waters of the mangrove forest. The saline waters of the mangroves allow for a particularly diverse marine ecosystem in the region, designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere reserve and RAMSAR site, a wetland of international importance. Despite these international designations, local communities are concerned that these will not provide protection from overdevelopment, but simply help market the location for tourism projects. Overdevelopment from tourism is arguably the biggest threat to the survival of this incredible ecosystem, with international investment projects that look set overwhelm large areas of the forest. Our guide from La Tirana explained his fears that the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant of $284 million would pave the way for massive scale hotels, resorts and infrastructure projects. Additionally, he explained that the Vice President Elect of the FMLN had purchased large areas of waterfront public land, prime for development along the coast. Upon hearing this, I was quite shocked at the possibility of politicians setting a policy agenda that would allow them to reap massive personal gains at the expense of natural resources and the Salvadorian people. This level of political corruption would also set a disconcerting precedent for all areas of domestic policy in the upcoming term of the FMLN party. While eco-tourism projects have the potential to help develop the nation’s economy and lift thousands out of poverty, they must be implemented in an appropriate manner that meets the demands of the Salvadorian people, as opposed to a small number of politicians.
After our short trip through the waters of the forest, we took a journey through the trees towards the beach at the edge of the forest. After some difficulty making our way through the trees, we finally reached the Pacific Ocean and the eerie sight of rows of decaying mangrove trees at the waterfront. We soon learned that tourism does not represent the only threat to the mangroves; climate change and natural disasters have also caused massive habitat destruction in recent years. In particular, hurricanes Stan and Mitch caused significant flooding in the region, destabilizing the balance of fresh and salt water in the forest and leading to the death of flora and fauna. As we made our way along the beach, I was struck by the very real threat presented to the communities of La Tirana who depend on the mangroves for their entire livelihoods, including providing their families with nutrition and shelter. It seems clear that El Salvador faces a very real trade-off in balancing the need for tourism to spur economic growth and protecting the communities that currently depend on the mangrove forests. While the Millennium Challenge Corporation will bring much needed infrastructure and development to the region, it is essential that the Salvadorian government engages with the Salvadorian people in a transparent, democratic process that takes into account all of the relevant factors in the debate. This overwhelming challenge will face these communities, the people and policymakers of El Salvador for many years to come, yet our group remains optimistic that an optimal solution that promotes economic growth and benefits the local population is possible. Reflecting on the political issues we encountered during the course of our travels, I realized that the issues facing policymakers El Salvador are similar to those facing many developing nations in attempting to develop their economy in an ethical manner, while protecting the interests of their domestic constituents.
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