‘An uphill struggle’: El Salvador’s green activists see a darker future

An increase in building projects, poor water management and a potential reversal of the country’s mining ban are concerns as President Nayib Bukele’s second term unfolds
<p>A coffee farmer in La Concepción, in the western department of Ahuachapán, El Salvador. Coffee production is important for the Salvadoran economy, but extreme weather events such as droughts and floods have impacted output in recent years. (Image: <a href="">Maren Barbee</a>, <a href="">CC BY</a>)</p>

A coffee farmer in La Concepción, in the western department of Ahuachapán, El Salvador. Coffee production is important for the Salvadoran economy, but extreme weather events such as droughts and floods have impacted output in recent years. (Image: Maren Barbee, CC BY)

In early February, Nayib Bukele was re-elected as El Salvador’s president by an overwhelming majority, despite various complaints of voting irregularities. They began even before polls opened: that Bukele even stood as a candidate was controversial, with no fewer than six articles of the country’s constitution banning incumbents from a second consecutive term. Having managed to strengthen central control over state institutions since taking office in 2019, he found little opposition domestically to his unconstitutional move.

Bukele’s second term is causing concern for El Salvador’s environmentalists, who told Dialogue Earth of their unease over actions taken during the president’s first five years in power, and of a challenging future in a country that is especially vulnerable to climate change.

On assuming the presidency in 2019, Bukele had initially proposed to strengthen systems for environmental risk monitoring and mitigation, but this has been one of the areas largely dismantled during his administration: budgets for the monitoring of logging in protected natural areas and of environmental degradation, as well as those for measuring rainfall, among other activities, were reduced to practically zero during the last year.

“The environmental policy of this government is to have no policy,” said Luis González, spokesperson for the environmental NGO Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (UNES). Amid widespread crackdowns in the country, it is one of the few organisations that have remained vocal on environmental issues, criticising a lack of transparency and human rights violations that have also been denounced at an international level, including by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Activists also described feeling abandoned and unrepresented under recent policies in other areas of the country facing critical environmental challenges, among them 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.

The environmental policy of this government is to have no policy
Luis González, Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (UNES)

They told of setbacks, such as threats to protected natural areas and displacement of communities due to government-backed construction, reduced access to water, and concerns over a wave of authorisations of environmental permits for new projects.

During its first term, the Bukele administration simplified the procedure for environmental evaluations. According to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources’ most recent work report, between June 2022 and May 2023 alone, it issued 1,398 resolutions for works and projects that involved a reported USD 1.27 billion of investment.

Agriculture in decline

El Salvador has historically been an agricultural country, with its economy long reliant on coffee production, though industrial sectors have gained ground in recent decades. As of 2020, agriculture was reported to employ at least 18% of the population and account for almost a quarter of the country’s exports.

Recent years, however, have seen drought wreak havoc on production: during 2023 the Salvadoran Chamber of Small and Medium Agricultural Producers (CAMPO) reportedly recorded total losses of 1.8 million quintals (around 180,000 tonnes) of corn, with dry conditions driven by the El Niño weather phenomenon, and harvests subsequently battered by torrential rains.

man cutting down tall stalks of sugar cane
A sugar cane plantation in La Libertad, El Salvador. Agriculture has long formed an important part of the country’s economy, but producers complain about a lack of planning for droughts and floods that are hitting their crops. (Imagen: Keith Dannemiller / Alamy)

Luis Treminio, CAMPO’s president, 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.

Amid these droughts, which are not limited to, but rather intensified during El Niño periods, Treminio said that “the government’s environmental policy has not been the most appropriate”. Assistance for farmers, he highlighted, has mostly been led by international organisations. Since 2018, groups such as the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme have provided guidance and economic resources to El Salvador to develop a contingency plan to address water issues in Central America’s Dry Corridor, a large arid region stretching from Panama to southern Mexico, where climate vulnerabilities are intensified due to its more drought-prone conditions.

But these programmes were only partially implemented: there were some seed deliveries and training offered, but Treminio said no longer term plans were laid out by the government.

“It was the last year of President Sánchez Cerén [2014-2019] and he did nothing. Bukele came in and did nothing either,” the CAMPO president said. “We do not have a contingency plan for the Dry Corridor even though 95% of the Salvadoran territory is within it.”

As was forecast in late 2023, El Niño has persisted throughout El Salvador’s dry season, which usually occurs between November and April, with minimal rainfall and further impacts felt from recent heatwaves. Treminio said he laments that, unlike its neighbours 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. To date, only localised reserves have been created, or initiatives based on imports rather than domestic production.

Natural areas

Despite its small size and high population density, El Salvador hosts significant biodiversity, with wealth of different species and ecosystems, among them cloud forests, alpine páramo and mangroves. The country is also home to extensive wetlands, covering more than 5% of its territory, and containing genetic resources of regional and global importance.

Una garza azul sobre un cuerpo de agua
A blue heron in the Barra de Santiago mangrove swamp, a natural protected area and Ramsar site located in the departments of Ahuachapán and Sonsonate. The Bukele government has, in some cases, permitted projects in protected natural areas. (Image: UNDP El Salvador / UNDP Climate, CC BY-NC)

The preservation of these areas is essential to ensuring the sustainability and conservation of El Salvador’s rich biodiversity, but 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 is a biologist and environmental defender who 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.

Sorto 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.

He says he has made complaints about these developments to the environment ministry, but that no action to limit developments follows: “What happens is this: the ministry acts against the little ones.”

The biologist says that to date the Salvadoran Water Authority (ASA) has managed to monitor and collect data on the water use of the rural communities that live around Lake Coatepeque and depend on its water, but claims that it has done little against the mansions and private businesses around it.

After facing growing criticism over the impacts of these developments, and questions over irregularities in their construction, in February 2023, El Salvador’s environment minister, Fernando López, declared Lake Coatepeque a protected natural area. While being welcomed by many, 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

In 2017, two years prior to Bukele’s election, El Salvador banned mining of all metals. At the time, Canadian company Pacific Rim had plans to exploit the large gold deposits at the El Dorado mine in the central department of Cabañas. The company had been granted a licence to explore the site in 2002, but never successfully mined, facing intense and long-running opposition from local communities due to concerns over public health and water contamination.

The Economic Development Association of El Salvador (ADES) was a key player in bringing about the approval of the law. An activist organisation made up of leaders previously linked to El Salvador’s left-wing and social movements, it has campaigned for more than 30 years on a range of development causes, and was at the epicentre of the discussions over the mining ban with the Salvadoran government and the Canadian company. Having sued the country for losses and the refusal to grant a permit to mine, Pacific Rim ultimately lost its case against the Salvadoran state in 2016 following international arbitration.

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. Elsewhere, anti-mining activists in the country have recently faced arrests.

Morales herself has close experience of these detentions: 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 arrests came amid the Bukele government’s ongoing state of exception, declared and repeatedly extended since March 2022 in its attempt to crackdown on gangs, efforts which have won support domestically but faced international condemnation for reported human rights violations.

Although the environmentalists are currently under house arrest, Morales believes that the detention was a government strategy to silence those who denounce environmental destruction: “In environmental issues and specifically in the mining issue, I think we have gone backwards enormously. It is a clear criminalisation of human rights defenders. The clearest case is ours.”

The ADES president highlights El Salvador’s rejection of the Escazú Agreement as another problem for the country’s environmental defenders. Created in 2021, the regional treaty seeks to provide access to justice, protection and participation in environmental matters across Latin America and the Caribbean, and has so far been signed by 25 countries, and ratified by 15. El Salvador has never signed, with President Bukele saying that several of its clauses “do not apply to the reality” of the country.

Morales explains that her organisation is concerned over the creation of the mining directorate and the potential authorisation of hydrocarbon exploration, in a country where there is no record of such deposits. The only explanation they can find, she says, is that of a gradual strategy for the return of mining.

As she looks to the future, Morales offers a bleak outlook for the road ahead in El Salvador: “The struggle to defend our territories and our environment seems to be going uphill.”

Several approaches were made to government departments for comment on the issues raised in this article, but no responses were received.