A Tree Grows in San Salvador

As this Central American nation digs out from 12 years of civil war that cost more than 75,000 lives, Salvadorans are boosting the business climate and finding time to focus on the environment

ASCENCION MARTINEZ GONZALEZ is no ordinary garbage man.

For one thing, he does not hang from the back of a diesel-belching truck. Instead, he dons a cherry-red workman's helmet and mounts a matching-hued tricycle cart to make his rounds.

Mr. Martinez is part of Zacamil 2001, a community cleanup program in a working-class neighborhood of San Salvador notorious for its trash problems. With a US$20,000 grant from the Canadian government, local environmental groups are organizing a program which includes private garbage pickup, recycling, and environmental awareness classes in the area schools.

Martinez does not see himself as an eco-pioneer. "I can feed my family [of six children] and I don't have to invest a lot of money to do this business," he explains.

Zacamil residents are a small bud in the postwar greening of the El Salvador populace. It's not that the 12-year civil war completely isolated Salvadorans from the global environmental movement; ecology groups have been active here. But the signing of the peace agreement in January has created a change in mental climate.

"The people have a greater sense of hope and commitment to their lives here," says Ricardo Navarro, director of the Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technology, which makes the Zacamil garbage carts and other non-polluting devices.

"Before we got started, nobody collected the garbage," says Marta Celina Hernandez, director of the Armin Mattli kindergarten. "It smelled awful. There were mini-dumps in the corner of each apartment building,"

People are no longer preoccupied about forced recruitment or bullets ripping through their homes. The fear of being declared treasonous for politically incorrect activity is dissipating.

"People aren't afraid to go out to a meeting now," says Francisco Rosa Chavez, the founder of Zacamil 2001. And as foreign aid for reconstruction starts to flow into El Salvador, fewer people think about fleeing to North America for a better life.

The attitude change manifests itself in various ways.

* The garbage-go-round. Here in the capital, the mayor has tried to open new landfills at two different sites, but community protests forced him to back off. The latest solution is to truck the trash to a new landfill in the town of Apopa, about 19 miles away. But now Apopa residents are starting to organize and protest.

* A reconciliation forest. Instead of memorializing the dead with bronze statues, Mr. Navarro organized a plan to reforest Guazapa Volcano, a guerrilla stronghold decimated by the fighting. A tree will be planted for each of the 75,000 Salvadorans killed during the war. Since March, about 700 trees have been planted. Navarro wants to put a plaque with the name of a war victim at the foot of each tree.

* The El Espino controversy. By bringing this land-use dispute to the attention of the United States Congress in June, environmentalists briefly held up an $82 million US aid package. But this episode also is an illustration of landowners' enduring political clout, and of why land issues have continued to cause great controversy here.

El Espino is a 1,984-acre forest that was expropriated in 1980 from the Duenas family, one of the largest landholders in El Salvador, as part of the government agrarian reform program. The land is now a cooperative occupied by 5,000 peasants. They make their living harvesting coffee which grows on bushes in the shade of the taller trees.

But in 1987, the Supreme Court of El Salvador ruled that the land, near the city limits of San Salvador, had urban and rural utility and therefore should not all be included in the reform program. Ecologists and opposition politicians allege the ruling was achieved with bribes.

On Aug. 24, the government attempted to settle the controversy by buying the "rural" 83 percent of the land from the Duenas family for $11.8 million. The Duenas family is free to develop the remaining 17 percent.

The government plans to give 741 acres to the cooperative and make the rest a state park. But environmentalists are still miffed. What they object to (apart from the purchase price and legality of the decision) is that the 5,000 campesinos are being left without enough land to sustain them.

"Up until now, they've exploited the forest in a sustainable way. But now, to survive, they will probably over-exploit the forest and destroy it," Navarro explains.

Ecologists note that the development is in violation of a 1988 executive decree declaring the area conservation land. (Government officials admit they reversed the decree to resolve the dispute with the Duenas family.) And opponents say the 17 percent being developed into a shopping mall and housing will exacerbate the current water shortage in the area. Indeed, Navarro has copies of letters from government officials stating the locale does not have sufficient water for urban development.

Miguel Araujo Padilla, director of the government's National Council for the Environment, says "development is as necessary as conservation." He pledges the El Espino urban development project must meet the nation's technical standards to be approved. But he rejects environmentalists' claims that the area is important to recharging the underground aquifers.

"This fight is not over yet," says Navarro, a member of the Pro-Defense of El Espino Committee, a group of 14 political and environmental organizations.

Ironically, Navarro adds, the civil war was not all bad for the environment.

"Many of the remaining forests are full of deer and other fauna now. Everyone was afraid to go hunting during the war. It was too dangerous. I don't recommend starting a war to save endangered species, but it is an interesting side effect."

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