El Salvador's ecological and social crises are rooted in an historical conflict over control and use of land. Both the land use patterns and the conflicts themselves have furthered environmental destruction in El Salvador. This small Central American nation has always been a primarily agricultural country and despite recent shifts, agriculture has continued to be the backbone of the economy. Conflicts and peasant uprisings over land date back more than 4 centuries to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. Since the late 19th century, the most fertile lands have been concentrated in few hands and used to grow coffee for export, forcing small-scale farmers onto marginal quality lands and making their subsistence increasingly precarious. A vicious circle was created whereby concentration of land by the wealthy furthered inequality, which led to land degradation and caused conflict that finally escalated into full scale civil war in 1980. Twelve years of civil war wreaked havoc on the environment, largely a result of the government's 'scorched earth' strategy designed to eliminate the insurgency's base of support in the countryside. The result was a serious worsening of an already degraded environment, more than 70,000 civilians dead, and more than 20 percent of the population displaced from their homes, forcing a massive migration to urban areas which has placed further stress on the country's fragile ecosystem. As a consequence, in the war's aftermath renewed tensions have arisen over land and the ecological impact of its use near urban areas.
The assault on the environment and the people of El Salvador, just as in the rest of Central America, began when the Spanish colonizers identified the region's value in its potential agricultural wealth. Exploitation of the land for the benefit of the empire went hand-in-hand with exploitation of the indigenous peoples. With the introduction of coffee plantations in the 1840's, land holdings became further concentrated and peasants increasingly disenfranchised. In 1881-2, the Salvadoran government abolished all rights to communal land holdings and gave control of over 25 percent of the country's most fertile land to large landowners for coffee production.
This established pattern has continued throughout the 20th century, reflected by the expansion of agro-exports and centralization of land holdings under the control of a small class of wealthy landowners who effectively monopolized the best land and resources. The concentration of the most fertile lands into large holdings for agro-exports pushed small-scale farmers to deforest new areas and occupy less fertile, marginal quality lands, much of it located on hillsides. Deforestation and soil erosion have ensued, causing destruction of watersheds, loss of groundwater, and siltation of waterways. Continued disparity in the size of land holdings has led to over-exploitation of land and further soil erosion. In addition, as small-farmers have become increasingly impoverished, they have been unable to employ conservation measures and cannot afford to let their even smaller plots of land lay fallow.
By 1971, El Salvador had the highest land concentration in Central America: 1.5 percent of farms operated 49 percent of agricultural lands, while at the other extreme 87 percent of farms operated less than 20 percent of total acreage and occupied less than 3.5 hectares (1 hectare = 2.471 acres) each, the average size being 1.2 hectares. (James K. Boyce, ed. 1996: 21-23) While the specific distribution of soil quality of these farms was not known, anecdotal evidence shows that small-scale farms tended to have poorer quality, less productive soil. Government surveys from 1978- 82 showed that only 17 percent of El Salvador's total land area of 2,104,100 hectares could be classified as high quality soil apt for intensive agricultural use, although another 29 percent of varying quality was considered appropriate for agrarian usage. However, 35 percent was shown to be of poorer quality, more susceptible to erosion and best suitable for forest cover and some grazing lands, while another 13 percent was classified as severely degraded (the remainder of the territory was occupied by urban infrastructure or waterways). Yet nearly half of land apt for intensive use was actually underutilized, while three-quarters of crop cultivation occurred on marginal, degraded land. (SEMA 1994: 39) The former category describes land owned by the wealthy elite, while the latter portrays the situation of most subsistence farmers. As a result, subsistence farming was becoming inviable as means to maintain the livelihoods of the majority of the rural population.
The historical pattern of land distribution in El Salvador is clearly a root cause both of environmental degradation and of the social conflict which broke into full scale civil war in 1980. In an attempt to forestall the growing civil unrest in the countryside, a much touted Agrarian Reform program was pushed through in early 1980 with the full backing of the U.S. government. Yet, because the program failed to redistribute the best lands and reorient production, it turned out to be ecologically unsound.
Although 295,000 hectares were redistributed through the Agrarian Reform program, this did not represent a major gain for poor farmers. Under Phase I of the three-phased reform, estates of more than 500 hectares were nationalized and parceled out to new landholders and cooperatives. However, most of the land had been cattle ranchland and 45 percent was considered nonproductive while most of the rest was of poor quality. Phase III, called the 'land to the tiller' program, gave title to some peasant farmers renting the most marginal and degraded land in the country. The program served to exacerbate erosion, reduce yields of basic crops, and trap peasants in a vicious circle of increased inputs (fertilizer and insecticide) and decreased income. The most substantial part of the agrarian reform - Phase II, which would have broken up the large, fertile estates that produced at least 30 percent of the nation's coffee - was never implemented. (Faber 1993: 211) Thus, the 1980 Land Reform program did not resolve the problem of inequality of land distribution in El Salvador. Social unrest escalated, a result of increasing poverty, landlessness and inability of small-scale farmers to subsist on their plots. The military regime that had ruled the country for nearly half a century in service of the landed oligarchy, responded by heightening and broadening the repression. Full-scale civil war had broken out by January, 1981.
Twelve years of civil war further devastated El Salvador's already degraded environment. The 1980 Agrarian Reform program was part of the U.S. sponsored low-intensity conflict strategy which combined limited socioeconomic reforms designed to appease civil unrest with a military effort to defeat the guerrilla insurgency. However, the conflict was only 'low-intensity' for the U.S. government, which spent more than $6 billion on the war effort, accounting for more of the country's budget than provided by El Salvador itself. This U.S. support was a result of foreign policy at the height of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981 pledging to 'draw the line against communism' in El Salvador, thus turning the Salvadoran civil war into a low-intensity proxy war. However, the civil war was extremely high-intensity for the Salvadoran people and their ecosystem.
In its unsuccessful effort to defeat the insurgency, the Salvadoran Armed Forces carried out a 'scorched earth' strategy designed to 'drain the sea', that is, to crush the insurgents by depriving them of their base of support in the countryside. Thus, in effect a war against nature was launched. With U.S. financing, the Salvadoran military bombed and burned forests and fields where the insurgents could hide, razed croplands and villages, slaughtered wildlife and livestock, and conducted military sweeps of peasant communities to kill or drive out the population. These tactics had more than just a casual similarity with those used in Vietnam. Elite Salvadoran troops were trained by U.S. special forces, many of whom were veterans of Vietnam. The most massive counter-insurgency campaign in El Salvador was even named Operation Phoenix and in many ways resembled its namesake some 15 years earlier. (Weinberg 1991: 62-3)
The central tactic used in this attempt to 'drain the sea' was an intensive air war which dropped 250, 500 and 750 pound bombs throughout the countryside. The Salvadoran Air Force dropped 2,829,000 pounds of bombs in 1984-5 alone, according to U.S. military sources, leaving several provinces virtual wastelands with craters 15-feet deep, crops destroyed and forests burned. The Salvadoran military arsenal also included antipersonnel bombs, designed to explode just above ground level. These weapons blasted a horizontal force that, besides clearing the area of human beings, shaved the forest floor and left charred stumps and splintered trees in many already ecologically fragile terrains. Napalm incendiary weapons, capable of setting an area the size of 1.5 football fields on fire in a matter of seconds, were also employed. In addition, white phosphorous rockets were used to set forest fires and mark targets for bombing. White phosphorous ignites spontaneously when it comes in contact with air, and keeps on burning when it enters the body of a living being. Documentation of the social and ecological impacts of these weapons was difficult. An outspoken Salvadoran human rights worker, Marianella García Villas, was assassinated in 1983 while investigating the military's use of white phosphorous and charges that biological weapons were also being used. (Faber 1993: 203-7)
Much of the richest and most fragile parts of El Salvador's ecosystem were severely damaged by the war in general, and the air war in particular. The country's volcanoes and mountainous cloud forests were especially targeted for bombings as they were suspected strongholds of the insurgency. Thus, this scorched earth strategy caused further deforestation, destroyed some of the last wilderness areas in the country and severely damaged agricultural soils and watersheds, contributing to soil erosion, siltation of waterways and loss of groundwater. However, destruction of the environment was not only a result of the air war. Elite, U.S. trained, ground troops also targeted villages suspected of supporting the insurgents. Thousands of civilians were massacred in such sweeps. Yet more often, villagers were forewarned and managed to flee in guindas. Nevertheless, the army succeeded in carrying out its mission by destroying all means of livelihood in the area: croplands were burned, animals were slaughtered and water sources were polluted. The military objective was to leave the area uninhabitable so that the villagers could not return and the insurgents would be deprived of a base of support. Thus was the strategy of draining the sea to catch the fish.
The war caused extensive destruction to the environment as well as to the population. The Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, an international team appointed as a result of the Peace Accords to investigate serious acts of violence which occurred from 1980-1992 and whose impact on society urgently demanded that the public should know the truth, reported to the United Nations Secretary General on its findings in 1993 after 3 months of gathering testimony. The Commission received 22,000 complaints which, it recognized, only represented a sample of violence which took place during the war. Over 60 percent of all complaints concerned extra-judicial executions, over 25 percent concerned forced disappearances, and over 20 percent included complaints of torture. Those giving testimony attributed 85 percent of cases to agents of the State, paramilitary groups allied to them, and the death squads. The Commission reported that anyone who expressed views that differed from the Government line ran the risk of being eliminated as if they were armed enemies on the field of battle. Any organization in a position to promote opposing ideas that questioned official policy was automatically labeled as working for the insurgency. According to the Commission, to belong to such an organization meant being branded a subversive. The inhabitants of areas where the insurgency was active were automatically suspected of belonging to the guerrilla movement or collaborating with it and thus ran the risk of being eliminated. (United Nations 1995: 311)
As the civil war was drawing to a close in 1991/92, inequality of land tenure had worsened as compared with the situation 20 years earlier. It was estimated that 78 percent of the farms larger than 0.7 hectares had an average holding of only 0.9 hectares and covered just over 15 percent of the country's agricultural land. Only 1 percent of farms had more than 70 hectares and occupied 28 percent of agricultural land. In addition, 64 percent of the economically active rural population had little or no land. (James K. Boyce, ed. 1996: 218-20)
The United Nations-mediated Peace Accords to end to the armed conflict, signed in 1992, were not expected to resolve the socio- economic causes of the war. The FMLN (the counter-part to the Salvadoran government in the conflict) recognized that the costs, in human and environmental terms, of continuing the war in an attempt to force the economic elite and landed oligarchy to concede their economic power, were too high. The Peace Accords successfully mandated an end to militarization and an opening of the democratic process, in the hope that future battles would take place in the political arena. While the Accords included a Land Transfer Program to benefit those most directly involved in and affected by the war, the program only involved slightly more than 5 percent of the national territory, most of which did not include the most fertile lands.
Thus, the Peace Accords began the process of reconstruction, reconciliation and democratization in El Salvador. However, they did not significantly alter the unjust economic system based on a highly unequal distribution of land and access to resources. The struggle to change the economic model continues today on the political battlefield, where in the recent March 1997 elections the FMLN (the former insurgency now turned political party) won a significant number of municipal governments, including the capital, and increased representation in the national legislature.
With the war over and the race to enter the 'age of globalization,' new and increasing pressures of urbanization and environmental degradation continue at a rapid pace. Yet according to a recent study, the relationship of environment to democratization and development has yet to be clearly recognized by policy makers in El Salvador. Although the land is degraded to the point at which the country's capacity to renew its most basic resource for development, water, is being lost, measures are not being taken to address the root of the problem. (James K. Boyce, ed. 1996: 233) Compounding the problem is an increasing rural-urban migration, a result of the war and the fact that small, degraded plots of land no longer produce enough for farmers to survive. Between 1971 and 1992 urban population grew by 82 percent, and the majority of the population now lives in urban areas (Vasquez 1994: 5). This situation has led to renewed conflict over land and the environment, illustrated by one case which is pitting environmentalists and members of a coffee-growing cooperative (beneficiaries of the 1980 Agrarian Reform), on the one hand, against the government and wealthy elite, on the other.
This social conflict involves the coffee plantation known as El Espino, which covers 802 hectares on the western perimeter of the country's quickly expanding capital, San Salvador. It is the area's only remaining natural forest, popularly referred to as the 'lung' of the capital because it provides a key source of groundwater replenishment for the area's watershed. Carefully managed by a coffee-growers' cooperative, the land harbors more than 50 species of trees and shrubs, which shelter 70 species of birds, some of which are not found elsewhere in the country.
The El Espino land, held under communal landholdings during the previous century, was acquired by the Dueñas family to cultivate coffee in the late 1800's. Francisco Dueñas was President of El Salvador 7 times in the mid-19th century, and his family was a primary beneficiary of country's most fertile lands, which were appropriated from peasants when the government abolished communal land holdings in 1881-2. However, the property was expropriated from the Dueñas family as part of Phase I of the 1980 Agrarian Reform due to its size, its agrarian potential, and because its soil was classified as strictly for use as forest. Part of the property was titled to a cooperative for the cultivation of shaded-coffee and the rest remained as protected forest. However, the Dueñas family sued in court and won the nullification of the expropriation in 1987, based on the Supreme Court's conclusion that the property should not be considered 'rural.'
Nevertheless, the cooperative members stood their ground. They refused to recognize the Supreme Court decision, citing legal inconsistencies and lack of trust in a Court named by the wealthy elite who were favored by the ruling. They galvanized support from environmental groups, and seemed to be gaining ground in their efforts to have the area declared an ecological reserve. But in September, 1991, the government ordered the return of El Espino to the Dueñas family and recommended the subsequent repurchase of most of the land by the government. Thus, not only was the Dueñas family paid twice for its land (once at the meager value of $2.7 million that it had declared for tax purposes, and later at $12.2 million for only 62 percent of the property), it immediately turned around and sold a portion of prime property for development of a new shopping center and upper-scale residential housing.
However, this new deal still left unsettled the matter of the El Espino coffee cooperative and its 5,000 members, who have actively resisted all attempts at eviction. There have been various mediation attempts, new laws passed regulating use of portions of the property, and extensive government propaganda campaigns asserting that preservation of the environment is its primary concern. The government has proposed giving title to 388 hectares to the cooperative, and turning the rest of the government land into a park. However, cooperativists and environmentalists continue to actively protest plans of the government, the Dueñas family and others involved in the land deals. In addition to opposing new urban construction in El Espino (which has not yet begun), environmentalists oppose the establishment of a public park on the grounds that it would overly develop the area and destroy the fragile ecosystem. While the public park project appears to be stalled, preparations for urban development on land given back to the Dueñas family have progressed.
Clashes have erupted several times between angry cooperativists and their supporters, who have held many demonstrations demanding respect for the cooperativists right to land and environmental protection of the El Espino area, and police have been called in to protect 'private property.' In a recent incident on January 28, 1997, police tried to arrest cooperativists as they were tearing down a fence erected around 150 hectares of land where construction is to begin. Cooperative members defended themselves against the police with sticks and stones, until the police used teargas to disperse the crowd. (El Salvador Proceso No. 743)
As the El Espino case illustrates, land use and inequality continue to be a cause of conflict and environmental problems in El Salvador. Inequality in land distribution exacerbated environmental degradation and led to civil war. The war itself caused extensive environmental destruction. In the post-war period, land use and environmental concerns are causing renewed social tensions.
Continent: North America
Region: Southern North America
Country: El Salvador
The majority of land suffers from serious soil erosion: estimates range from 60 to 77 percent of the country's territory. (Faber 1993: 67; SEMA 1994: 39)
At the current rate of deforestation and land degradation, including destruction of watersheds and siltation of waterways, the underground water tables will be exhausted by the year 2020. (Proceso: June 19, 1996). The level of the San Salvador underground water tables, central to the metropolitan area water supply, has been falling by about 1 meter annually since 1962. From 1972 to 1992, more than half of the land area where the water filtration rate was highest was lost to urbanization of the metropolitan zone, resulting in an estimated annual loss of 16 million cubic meters of rainwater which was not absorbed. (PRISMA 1995: 20)
Act Site Harm Site Example El Salvador El Salvador El Salvador Civl War
Land use and inequality have historically been a cause of conflict and environmental problems in El Salvador. Inequality in land distribution exacerbated environmental degradation and led to civil war. The war itself caused extensive environmental destruction. In the post-war period, land use and environmental concerns are causing renewed social tensions. The concentration of the most fertile lands into large holdings for agro-exports pushed small-scale farmers to deforest new areas and occupy less fertile, marginal quality lands. Small farmers, the majority of the rural population, became increasing impoverished and disenfranchised. As deforestation and soil erosion ensued, environmental problems worsened with the destruction of watersheds, loss of groundwater, and siltation of waterways. Thus, inequality in land distribution both exacerbated environmental degradation and heightened social conflict which led to civil war. The war caused further, more extensive environmental destruction. As a result, many small-scale farmers were no longer able to work their land and migrated to urban areas without a means of livelihood, further exacerbating inequality. In the post-war period, land use and environmental concerns, particularly in urban areas, are causing renewed social tensions.
|----->land inequality --------------> conflict --------------| | | | | |--------------> environmental degradation <---| |_______________________________________|