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Salvadoran Farmers Stake Their Bets on Sustainable Development

Peasant farmer Brenda Arely Sánchez uses her machete to clear a blocked canal in the Cuche de Monte swamp in Jiquilisco bay on El Salvador’s Pacific coast. Sediment blocks the canals, endangering the mangrove ecosystem. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

JIQUILISCO, El Salvador , Sep 12 2014 (IPS) - Peasant farmers from one of El Salvador’s most fragile coastal areas are implementing a model of sustainable economic growth that respects the environment and offers people education and security as keys to give the wetland region a boost.

The Mangrove Association has been carrying out the plan in the southern part of the eastern department of Usulután, in a region known as Bajo Lempa, for 14 years. A total of 86 farming and fishing communities on Jiquilisco bay are involved in the project.

The Bajo Lempa region is home to just under 148,000 people, according to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources.

“We have worked with different actors, local groups, youth and environment committees, and park rangers to get this platform of local economic development off the ground,” Carmen Argueta, the president of the Mangrove Association, told Tierramérica.

“For the first time, we peasant farmers, who are poor people, are producing improved seeds; the business used to only be for rich companies.” -- Héctor Antonio Mijango

Economic growth with a social focus, education and security are the three main focal points for the government of left-wing President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, in office since June.

And these are precisely the three elements that the communities of Bajo Lempa are focusing on in their sustainable development plan.

“Our project is in line with the government’s five-year plan, and we want it to know that this has worked for us – people can see the results,” Argueta said.

She added that they hoped to obtain government financing for some projects.

Respect and care for natural resources is essential for implementing this model of development, added the peasant farmer, who has been a rural community organiser for decades.

The 635-sq-km area around the bay is one of El Salvador’s main ecosystems, home to the majority of marine and coastal bird species in the country and the nesting grounds of four of the seven species of sea turtle, including the critically endangered hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata).

The area, peppered with mangroves, was added to the Ramsar list of wetlands of international importance in 2005. The Salvadoran state has also classified it as a protected natural area and biosphere reserve.

It is one of the parts of the country most prone to flooding during the rainy season – May through October – which means local crops and infrastructure are periodically destroyed, and human lives are even lost.

Three members of the La Maroma cooperative in El Salvador’s Bajo Lempa region care for sprouts from improved maize seeds. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Three members of the La Maroma cooperative in El Salvador’s Bajo Lempa region care for sprouts from improved maize seeds. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

To bolster economic development, some local communities have opted for diversification of agricultural production, leaving behind monoculture.

Some families have been producing pineapples and mangos, not only for their own consumption but also to bring in a cash income, however modest.

At the same time, aware of the need to protect the environment, local communities have carried out organic fertiliser projects, with the aim of gradually eliminating dependence on chemical fertilisers.

The Romero Production Centre in the village of Zamorán in the municipality of Jiquilisco produces Bokashi organic fertiliser using eggshells, ashes and other materials to provide a cheap, healthy alternative to chemical fertilisers.

In addition, the Xinachtli seed bank preserves seeds of basic grains, vegetables, forest and medicinal species since 2007. There is also a school of agriculture which promotes environmentally-friendly farming techniques.  Xinachtli is a Nauhatl word that means seed.

One of the most profitable undertakings for the small farmers grouped in six farming cooperatives is the production of certified maize seeds, which the government has acquired every year since 2011 to distribute to 400,000 farmers, as part of the Family Agriculture Plan.

Poor rural communities have thus become involved in the seed business, which was a private sector monopoly for years. An estimated 15,000 small farmers are now working in that area.

“For the first time, we peasant farmers, who are poor people, are producing improved seeds; the business used to only be for rich companies,” Héctor Antonio Mijango, a member of a cooperative in Jiquilisco, told Tierramérica, while pulling up maize sprouts from the soil, to allow the strongest to flourish.

The poverty rate in El Salvador, a country of 6.2 million people, is 34.5 percent overall, and 43.3 percent in rural areas, according to the 2013 Multiple Purpose Household Survey carried out by the general statistics and census office.

“The seed business is an important source of jobs and income for local families,” Manuel Antonio Durán, the president of the Nancuchiname Cooperative, told Tierramérica.

The cooperative, which has 8.3 sq km of land, produced 460,000 kg of improved seeds in the 2013-2014 harvest.

Aquaculture, especially shrimp farming, is another important business in the Bajo Lempa region.

“The aim is to go from artisanal shrimp farming to semi-intensive production, while respecting the environment,” the mayor of Jiquilisco, David Barahona, commented to Tierramérica. He is one of the local leaders most involved in the sustainable development plan in the area.

For weeks now El Salvador has been suffering from severe drought, and according to official estimates, some 400,000 tons of maize have been lost so far.

But the production of certified seeds in the Bajo Lempa region has not suffered the impact, thanks to irrigation systems.

The community organisers have also reached agreements with educational institutions such as the National University of El Salvador, and obtained scholarships for young people from the area. Some youngsters have completed their higher education studies and returned to the Bajo Lempa region to work.

“These are young people who weren’t involved in the wave of violence that is sweeping the country, because we have worked a great deal in prevention, with sports programmes, for example,” said Argueta.

The idea is to extend the efforts made in Bajo Lempa, which initially covered six municipalities in the area, to the entire region and put in practice the Lempa River Hydrographic Basin, involving 14 municipalities.

In August, Environment Minister Lina Pohl visited several Bajo Lempa communities to see firsthand what the communities and organisations are doing here.

“We cannot put forward ideas if we don’t first know what has been done in our country, what local people are doing, how they are organising to set forth their proposals and agendas,” the minister told Tierramérica.

The level of organisation in the area “is impressive” and is a model that could be replicated in other parts of the country,” she added.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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