After hours searching for the endangered blue crab throughout the Xirihualtique-Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve in late spring of 2018, a joint team of environmentalists and officials from a local mayor’s office ran into a child no older than ten. The boy approached the group along the banks of the Aguacayo River—where photographers had begun to document the deterioration of the mangroves—and delivered a concise and candid message: “Leave.”
César Artiga, an environmentalist who has spent more than a decade working with Salvadoran youth, responded gently to what he thought was the outburst of a troubled kid. “Hey, is something wrong, or are you here with someone?” he remembers asking. “No, no, I just came to tell you to leave,” the boy said. After the photographers took a few more pictures, a knot in Artiga’s stomach told him it was time to head out. As the group climbed into the trucks and drove away, he says a group of muchachos—teenagers even less welcoming than the boy—emerged from the nearby rows of sugarcane.
It’s unclear who authored the apparent threat; El Salvador’s mangroves and arable lands are home to complex human ecosystems involving corporate agricultural developers, gangs, drug traffickers, local farmers, and their communities. Artiga interpreted the incident as hostile because of a longstanding pattern of unchecked aggressions toward Salvadoran environmentalists amid deepening environmental deterioration and the encroachment of global climate change in the region. A coalition of leading environmentalists is calling on the Salvadoran government to substantially upgrade the country’s environmental protections by adopting the 2018 Escazú Agreement, an ambitious international environmental treaty, before its September 26th opt-in deadline. Thus far, though, the Bukele administration has largely ignored or deflected invitations to publicly broach the treaty.
“The chief stumbling block, we believe, is that there’s no sense of commitment or understanding of the importance of civic participation,” Artiga told the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA). Artiga heads the Escazú Advocacy Team, a cooperative network of Salvadoran environmental organizations advocating for the country to sign and ratify the Escazú Agreement, which 22 countries from Latin America and the Caribbean negotiated and finalized in conjunction with the United Nations in the Costa Rican canton of the same name in 2018.
“We’re in critical condition regarding environmental degradation, the loss of biodiversity, the accelerated effects of climate change. We’re seeing many extreme natural disasters affecting countries of the global south like El Salvador,” he continued. Even so, Artiga and his team see the Escazú Agreement not as a radical panacea for all of El Salvador’s long-standing environmental struggles, but as a critical step along the path toward a more sustainable and environmentally just future.
“With Escazú, we would make our existing institutional and public policy framework more robust. It would mean equipping our environmental institutions with better tools to carry out their work, and other countries and international actors wanting to invest could set criteria and say, ‘We want to check on how El Salvador is implementing the Escazú Agreement’,” he argued.
A Region Besieged
El Salvador is facing multiple systemic, overlapping—and, in certain cases, underreported—environmental crises: degradation of lands due to deforestation, proliferation of monocrop agriculture, and the adverse effects of climate change on both crops and wildlife; failure to investigate violence against environmentalists; and underinvestment in environmental protection. These crises reflect broader realities across Central America—a region which has become one of the most dangerous places for environmentalists on Earth and which experts say will acutely experience mass disruptions from global climate change in the decades to come.
“Central America is one of the regions of the world most exposed to climate phenomenon, and its societies and ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change,” wrote the U.N. Economic Commission for Central America & the Caribbean in 2018. This July, the non-governmental organization Global Witness identified Central America as one of the most dangerous regions in the world for environmental and climate change activists, noting an emerging trend: in 2019, Honduras rose to become the most dangerous country per capita for land and environmental defenders. Nicaragua came in third, and Guatemala fourth.
But the Global Witness report, according to Artiga, has one major shortcoming: “It’s extremely dangerous to be an environmental activist in El Salvador, despite the fact that Global Witness and the United Nations don’t mention El Salvador in the list of murders and other grievances in the region.” A major reason for the undercount of violence against Salvadoran environmentalists is the process by which their deaths become eligible for inclusion in the report: they have to be correctly identified as environment-related in credible investigations as well as appear in multiple national news accounts.
“When we find a homicide, people’s knee-jerk reaction here—and I think the news media and the successive administrations have played a major part in this—is to automatically ascribe it to the gangs,” he argued. The Escazú advocacy team is currently working to produce reliable estimates of violence against environmentalists in the country.
Government regulators have registered 2,152 complaints of violations of the country’s Environmental Law since 2016, according to the Environmental Complaint System maintained by the Ministry of the Environment and National Resources (MARN). The largest complaint categories are ‘construction and activities in endangered areas,’ with 15 percent, and ‘deforestation,’ with 12.
In response to an information request about the ministry’s response to these complaints, MARN outlined regulations designed, in theory, to protect the environment. “The Environmental Law establishes environmental audits as the mechanism for ensuring the applicant’s fulfillment of conditions outlined in the environmental permit,” responded information officer Ethel Elizabeth Cabrera Tobar, in reference to provisions in the 2012 Environmental Law, specifying that applications pass through an environmental impact evaluation and then through MARN’s approval process.
But these regulations are designed to curb future abuse, not to offer redress for existing violations—the kind that might result in an environmental complaint. In the same response, Cabrera Tobar cited sanctions outlined across multiple environmental conservation laws for perpetrators of certain environmental crimes, including the provision that perpetrators “shall be obligated to restore the affected environment or ecosystem. In the case that such restoration is impossible, they shall pay damages to the state and affected parties for the harms caused.”
Shortfalls of El Salvador’s Current System
El Salvador has two main environmental justice institutions tasked with reviewing MARN complaints and issuing protective orders for the environment, its human defenders, and other species: three environmental courts and an appellate chamber that, in theory, takes action when courts’ environmental protection orders are violated without redress.
But these bodies are chronically underfunded, said Artiga, and the Attorney General’s Office is currently not required to investigate whether persecution is related to environmental defense. As a result, when threatened environmentalists report their agroindustrial aggressors, the cases often drag on under a heavy caseload with limited resources to conduct investigations. Delays and non-investigation often result in death.
“We’ve documented cases of people who have disappeared after opposing rural development megaprojects,” said Artiga. “It’s sad to recognize that such an important ecosystem to the country—that is, the mangroves of the Bosque Salado—have become clandestine graves for activists because we lack a mechanism to ensure that the state sees the urgency of protecting them.”
The failure to reform the environmental laws and regulations on the books is partly the result of cozy alliances between agroindustrial lobbyists, the legislature, and the executive, according to Ricardo Navarro, director of CESTA Amigos de la Tierra, an organization of academics and environmentalists based in San Salvador whose work extends throughout the country. “Economic forces have been too strong, and have gone unchecked, and so we’ve had problems. But now, even more so,” Navarro told me, citing the administration’s cuts to the budgets of MARN, the Ministry of Health, and the National Association of Aqueducts and Sewage.
The state’s prioritization of elite economic interests, often to the detriment of the environment, is far from a new problem. It has deep historical roots in El Salvador’s political economy.
The state has a longstanding precedent of turning over the country’s most fertile lands to agroindustrial groups for the purpose of monocrop farming—such as coffee, indigo, cocoa, cotton, and, most recently, sugarcane—that fuels export revenue. Environmentalists and rural communities have had little place to turn when they face threats from agroindustry or criminal groups encroaching on their land. The state has not only been historically absent in protecting the environment; it has also been an accomplice in the despoilment.
“With the goal of bringing monocrop coffee farming to the country, they stripped away our communal lands by legislative decree,” said Abel Bernal, resident and environmentalist whose ancestors have worked the land of Usulután for generations, in a video published by Movimiento Enlaces por la Sustentabilidad in January of 2017. “We’ve inhabited this territory for more than 200 years, specifically in Usulután, where lands were allotted to ranchers, and the ranchers have been responsible for the plundering of our land and the environmental deterioration.
“Then the cotton industry is born, followed by sugarcane. And of course, it’s an observably rural phenomenon, in the sense that the state’s policy is crafted with the function of using rural territory to meet the needs of the whole population,” he continued. Rural and indigenous communities, like that of Bernal, are the targets of constant threats from agroindustrial companies looking to encroach onto their lands, according to both the Escazú Advocacy Team and CESTA. The encroachment of sugarcane, in particular, has reduced the space for communities to grow corn, beans, squash, and other foods.
The dangers small farmers face from monocrop agriculture, though, go beyond political bullying and crop encroachment. Navarro and Artiga noted that crop-dusters spray growth hormones such as glyphosate on monocrop lands, leading to chronic kidney disease and cancer in local communities, as well as far-reaching contamination of El Salvador’s water supply and aquatic ecosystems, including the coastal drainage system and mangroves of Jiquilisco.
“Some people and NGOs, and even some public officials...are concerned about the environment. But there has been no backing at the political level,” adds Navarro. He says that even the FMLN, the predominant left-wing opposition party which has historically allied itself with CESTA in advocating for legislation such as the Law Prohibiting Metallic Mining, has been slow to invest its political capital on environmental issues in recent years. “There have been deputies who have told me, ‘I get the whole thing about the environment, but we should focus on more serious problems.’”
Escazú Advocates Look to Settle a “Historic Debt”
A historic, multi-pronged legal framework developed by the United Nations for environmental protection, the Escazú Agreement seeks to cement a relatively new concept—that of environmental justice, or the right to a clean and sustainable world and protections for those fighting for such a world.
The agreement, which negotiators from 22 governments in Latin America and the Caribbean approved on March 4th, 2018 in the canton of Escazú, Costa Rica, is the culmination of decades of frustrated regional efforts to upgrade international environmental law—the non-binding resolutions of the 1992 Río Summit and, two decades later, Río+20, to name but two.
“Above all, this treaty aims to combat inequality and discrimination and to guarantee the rights of every person to a healthy environment and to sustainable development,” writes António Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, in the agreement’s foreword. “The treaty devotes particular attention to persons and groups in vulnerable situations, and places equality at the core of sustainable development.”
Beyond the carefully curated and finely tuned rhetoric, though, Escazú would substantially reorient El Salvador’s laws and regulations in relation to the environment, according to Artiga. It would expand the scope of the country’s freedom-of-information laws to include environmental information collected by government agencies and organizations receiving public funding, require grassroots involvement in the approval of development projects, and establish explicit legal protections for environmentalists and a unique complaint mechanism for related threats. The treaty also offers international consultation in the process of implementing its provisions. That said, the ultimate burden of enforcement and continuity would remain at the feet of participating governments.
On June 4th, the Escazú Advocacy Team published an open letter to President Bukele expressing its “interest, commitment, and willingness to accompany the State of El Salvador in the process of signing, ratifying, and implementing the Escazú Agreement.” It’s not the first time the organization has reached out to the executive. In January, they proposed a working group of representatives from the executive branch, the United Nations, and the Escazú Advocacy Team, with the goal of crafting a joint proposal to bring to the Legislative Assembly. To date, Artiga says, the Bukele administration hasn’t responded.
I sent an information request to the Presidential House’s Public Information Access Unit on July 7th, asking that the administration specify the date in which it plans to sign the accord or, in the case that it is not planning to do so, to indicate that decision. At the close of this article, the Presidential House had yet to respond.
El Salvador isn’t the only Central American country to put off signing and ratifying the accord. Of the seven countries in the isthmus, only Panama and Nicaragua have signed and ratified the accord; Guatemala and Costa Rica have signed but not yet ratified; El Salvador and Honduras, both negotiators of the treaty, have done neither; meanwhile, Belize took no part in the negotiations. To date only nine of the 22 negotiating countries have taken both steps. For the agreement to enter into force, 11 of the 22 must sign before the September deadline.
Artiga claims that the Escazú Agreement can help to settle the “historical debt” of the Salvadoran state—not only toward its human inhabitants, but to all living creatures—due to past and current systemic abuses. CESTA cites numerous species that are gradually disappearing from the Jiquilisco Bay and the system of rivers that discharge into it—among them oysters, shrimp, turtles, and the evasive blue crabs that confounded Artiga’s team.
In El Salvador and beyond, creatures like blue crabs rarely take center stage in journalistic investigations, let alone in public debate. “With such environmental challenges it’s very difficult for judges to pay any mind to that, especially when it hasn’t garnered national attention,” said Navarro. “It’s easier when they’ve killed an environmentalist or destroyed huge ecosystems that people can see. Standing up for tiny critters is a tough sell.”