‘An Uphill Struggle’: El Salvador’s Green Activists See a Darker Future

Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, has been re-elected by an overwhelming majority, despite complaints of voting irregularities. This decision was controversial due to six articles of the country’s constitution banning incumbents from a second consecutive term. Bukele’s second term is causing concern for El Salvador’s environmentalists, who have expressed unease over actions taken during his first five years in power and the challenges they face in a country vulnerable to climate change.

During his administration, Bukele initially proposed strengthening systems for environmental risk monitoring and mitigation, but this has been largely dismantled. Budgets for monitoring logging in protected natural areas, environmental degradation, and rainfall measurements were reduced to practically zero during the last year. Environmental NGO Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (UNES) spokesperson Luis González stated that the government’s environmental policy is to have no policy.

Activists also described feeling abandoned and unrepresented under recent policies in other areas facing critical environmental challenges, such as disputes over water access amid increasing development on the shores of Lake Coatepeque or conflicts and impacts linked to mining in the central department of Cabañas.

During its first term, the Bukele administration simplified the procedure for environmental evaluations, issuing 1,398 resolutions for works and projects involving a reported USD 1.27 billion of investment. Agriculture has been declining in El Salvador, with drought wreaking havoc on production, with the Salvadoran Chamber of Small and Medium Agricultural Producers (CAMPO) recording total losses of 1.8 million quintals (around 180,000 tonnes) of corn in 2023.

Luis Treminio, president of CAMPO, said that El Salvador had not experienced such significant losses in seven years, since the 2015-16 season that was also hit by an El Niño pattern. He argued that the government’s environmental policy has not been the most appropriate due to the intensified droughts. Assistance for farmers has mostly been led by international organizations, such as the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme, which have provided guidance and economic resources to El Salvador to develop a contingency plan to address water issues in Central America’s Dry Corridor.

However, these programs have only been partially implemented, with seed deliveries and training offered, but no longer-term plans have been laid out by the government. El Niño has persisted throughout El Salvador’s dry season, with minimal rainfall and further impacts felt from recent heatwaves. Treminio laments that unlike its neighbors Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador does not have a centralised programme for building strategic reserves of key food crops, on which it could rely during periods of decreased output.

El Salvador, despite its small size and high population density, is home to significant biodiversity, including cloud forests, alpine páramo, mangroves, and extensive wetlands. The preservation of these areas is essential for the sustainability and conservation of El Salvador’s rich biodiversity. However, the Bukele government has, in some cases, directly permitted the destruction of protected natural areas. Last year, the administration gave the green light for the construction of the Airport of the Pacific, in the eastern town of La Unión, turning its back on technical opinions that advised against part of the airport being built on a protected natural mangrove area. The construction is also reportedly causing the displacement of nearby communities.

In the country’s west, close to the border with Guatemala, activists say such problems are being encountered on an ever more regular basis. Rubén Sorto, a biologist and environmental defender, is part of the Coatepeque Foundation, which seeks the care and conservation of Lake Coatepeque, a volcanic crater lake, located in a protected natural area in the department of Santa Ana. He says the authorities “are practically developing whatever they want on the shore of the lake and in plain sight of everyone.” A number of luxury housing developments have been built in the area in recent years, with some reported to have flouted environmental regulations and destroyed local landscapes.

In February 2023, El Salvador’s environment minister, Fernando López, declared Lake Coatepeque a protected natural area after facing growing criticism over the impacts of these developments and questions over irregularities in their construction. The move also attracted scrutiny from journalists, with suggestions of the announcement being used to “cover up” for López’s reportedly negligent activities and involvement with a controversial building project.

Fears of mining reversal are also growing in El Salvador. In 2017, El Salvador banned mining of all metals, with Canadian company Pacific Rim having plans to exploit the large gold deposits at the El Dorado mine in the central department of Cabañas. The Economic Development Association of El Salvador (ADES) was a key player in bringing about the approval of the law. However, Vidalina Morales, president of ADES, fears that recent steps taken by the Bukele government are paving the way for a return to metal mining. In October 2021, the General Directorate of Energy, Hydrocarbons and Mines was created, seen by some observers as a sign the government is preparing to oversee new extractive activities.

Morales herself has close experience of these detentions, as her son was arrested in May 2023 following the capture of five other leaders and environmentalists linked to ADES, allegedly for their participation in guerrilla movements in the 1980s. The ADES president highlights El Salvador’s rejection of the Escazú Agreement as another problem for the country’s environmental defenders.

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