Trees Bring Life, Healing To War-Torn El Salvador

'Forest of Reconciliation' provides hope where fighting once raged

Ten years ago, Francisco Acosta's childhood home on El Salvador's Guazapa Volcano was under siege. A fiery battleground for leftist rebels and government army troops embroiled in his country's long civil war, the once lush, forested mountain north of San Salvador was rapidly being stripped of life - plant, animal, and human.

Today, things are quieter on the dormant volcano. Not only has the fighting stopped, but forest life is also returning, thanks to Francisco Acosta and his wife, Barbara. Struck by the glaring need to heal both people and nature when the war ended in 1992, the couple came up with a plan: They would lead residents of Mr. Acosta's former neighborhood in planting The National Forest of Reconciliation.

Their goal, which they continue to work toward today, is to plant one tree in memory of each of more than 75,000 people who died in the 12-year war. This, the Acostas say, is a practical way to begin reclaiming some of the forest devastated by fighting, fires, and the 4,000 tons of bombs dropped on Guazapa. They also hope that planting these thousands of symbols of new life will help bring peace and healing to people from all sides of the war.

"We knew we had to look at both the human and environmental aspects of the difficulties people faced [after the peace accords were signed]," says Mrs. Acosta, an American who has lived with her husband and two children near San Salvador for the past eight years. The Reconciliation Forest, she stresses, is not the ultimate solution, but a tool to "bring people through the process of anger and grief necessary for the nation to move on."

It's an idea that has been endorsed by Salvadorans in dozens of communities around the Guazapa Volcano; it is also gaining international recognition.

Not just plants and animals

This was evident when the Acostas spoke recently at a gathering of 200 members from more than 30 countries of the Society for Human Ecology at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Their topic included the subject of human ecology, a field adopted by educators and professionals that includes not just plants and animals, but also people studying the environment. Mrs. Acosta, a former student of human ecology at the College of the Atlantic, says it is this holistic view that inspired the reconciliation project.

Richard Borden, administrative dean at College of the Atlantic - a school which pioneered the field in the 1970s - commends the couple's efforts. "The Acostas' work is a perfect example of using the human ecology approach to deal with extremely complex problems. Their ability to think broadly and come up with the necessarily complex solutions to those problems is the key to their success."

So far, Guazapa area residents have planted more than 110 acres of trees in the National Forest of Reconciliation, which is on the highest slopes of the 4,700-foot volcano. Lower down the mountain, they have also begun planting a buffer zone of forest, where people will be able to harvest trees for firewood. This, say the Acostas, is important in El Salvador, where the majority of people use wood for cooking, and deforestation has destroyed all but 3 percent of the original forest cover. Everywhere, they are planting quick-growing, native tree species; tree seedlings are raised in nurseries run by a local agricultural cooperative. The project is coordinated by the Center for Education and Rural Development (CEDRO), a nonprofit organization that the Acostas founded in 1991.

Already, there are signs that Guazapa's forest is recovering. Birds have returned to the area as have other wildlife. According to Stuart Conway, director of the Washington, D.C.-based New Forests Project and advisor of the Reconciliation Forest, new trees help slow soil erosion - a problem across El Salvador.

Mr. Conway says he has also noticed a dramatic change in people's attitudes since his first visit to Guazapa in 1993. Many who fled their homes during the fighting have returned and, he says, "are much more open and optimistic about life than they were four years ago." For those who run the tree nurseries, for example, the project has meant needed income. Others are learning about sustainable forestry and soil conservation at a training center run by CEDRO at the foot of the volcano.

Mr. Acosta is also encouraged by local response to the reconciliation project. He cautions, however, that there is still a lack of tolerance among various groups; the project has yet to be endorsed by national political parties.

Working at the individual level

Mr. Acosta, who participated in some of the first peace negotiations in the 1980s, says that even he sometimes has difficulty getting over the war. This is particularly true when he thinks about the more than 40 relatives he lost, or sees photos of his family's house, which was destroyed. For now, he says, it is important to keep working to heal at the individual level.

This belief in the power of individuals to effect change also inspired another project. In 1994, the Acostas founded Monsignor Oscar Romero University, named for the archbishop of El Salvador who was murdered in 1980. In the northern province of Chalatenango, the university has recently completed its first rudimentary campus. Like Maine's College of the Atlantic, which has begun an exchange program with the school, its curriculum is based on human ecology. Mrs. Acosta says their hope is that this will encourage students to seek creative solutions to what she calls the "formidable challenges" El Salvador faces in the postwar period.

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