EF Photo / Inequality
Fishing for Garbage in El Salvador's Cerrón Grande Reservoir
Carlos Barrera

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Carlos Barrera

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The Cerrón Grande reservoir is El Salvador’s largest continental body of water. It has an area of 135 square kilometers and extends to the departments of Chalatenango, Cuscatlán, and Cabañas in the north of the country. The town of Potonico, Chalatenango, sits at the reservoir's basin, the area most heavily affected by the large amount of improperly managed waste arriving from tributaries like the Acelhuate River that flow into the Lempa River. Currents carry the garbage from the capital city of San Salvador and spit it out at the mouth of the river in Cerrón Grande.

In 2005, the Cerrón Grande reservoir was named a Ramsar site —as part of an international protocol to defend and protect the world’s wetlands— because of its biodiversity and importance as a source of life and work for the surrounding populations. Nevertheless, photographs of this part of Cerrón Grande show birds paddling through floating islands of garbage.

According to data from the Ministry of the Environment, El Salvador generates 4,226 tons of waste each day. 80 percent of that garbage ends up in sanitary landfills, while the rest is not disposed of correctly. In other words, nearly 845 tons of waste end up polluting the country's rivers, lakes, and beaches.

At the beginning of 2022, the extinction of the water hyacinth, an invasive plant that used to cover the surface of the reservoir’s shores, exposed the amount of mostly plastic waste, as river currents swept garbage to the Cerrón Grande reservoir (also known as Lake Suchitlán) in the department of Chalatenango. For residents who are used to seeing waste arrive every year, that was nothing new. But as the weeks went by, they saw that the amount of garbage had increased to the point that it precluded artisanal fishing, one of the jobs that generates the most income for local families.

According to community leaders, at the end of August of this year, Potonico’s situation became untenable. Even the region’s cattle ranchers had to start removing garbage as their cows and horses became sick from ingesting pieces of plastic after drinking water from the Lempa River. Spearfishermen had to stop harpooning because of the water’s poor visibility, and everyone in the municipality was aware of the massive amounts of waste on the shores of the reservoir. Since then, community leaders have formed a cooperative of ranchers and farmers called Piedra del Idioma, which works Monday through Friday from 5:00 a.m. to noon to try to clean up the trash. But, as they point out, the task never ends, and the mess is still there the next morning.

In 2019, El Salvador enacted an Integral Waste Management Law that holds people and corporations —the public and private sectors— responsible for waste consumption and management. The legislation includes a range of fines from light to severe: the lightest do not exceed twice the minimum wage; moderate fines can be up to 20 times the minimum wage; and the most severe fines amount to 21 to 40 times the minimum wage. 

Nevertheless, the waste still arrives in Potonico, and the fishers, cattle ranchers, and farmers continue to remove the garbage, the arrival of which they blame on people in the city: “Up there, they throw the garbage wherever they want, and it comes here to screw us,” said one leader of Potonico’s cattle ranchers.

 

 

Thousands of small expanded polystyrene (plastic) particles are swept along by the Lempa River’s currents, caking the Cerrón Grande reservoir in Potonico, Chalatenango. The particles are so small that fish and other local animals can easily ingest them. Expanded polystyrene is non-recyclable and primarily used in fast food and for protecting electronic equipment.
 
Thousands of small expanded polystyrene (plastic) particles are swept along by the Lempa River’s currents, caking the Cerrón Grande reservoir in Potonico, Chalatenango. The particles are so small that fish and other local animals can easily ingest them. Expanded polystyrene is non-recyclable and primarily used in fast food and for protecting electronic equipment.

 

 

Waste is a perennial problem in Potonico. According to community leaders, in previous years, when the reservoir water receded in the summer, the garbage was deposited on land used for planting corn and beans, forcing the farmers to burn the plastic in order to harvest their crops. This year, because of the amount of mostly plastic waste, residents have organized to remove the garbage from the water.
 
Waste is a perennial problem in Potonico. According to community leaders, in previous years, when the reservoir water receded in the summer, the garbage was deposited on land used for planting corn and beans, forcing the farmers to burn the plastic in order to harvest their crops. This year, because of the amount of mostly plastic waste, residents have organized to remove the garbage from the water.

 

 

Every day, Liliana Tobar and Sonia Pérez wake up at 4:30 a.m. to remove plastic from the reservoir. They’ve been following this routine for nearly a month: “It’s been difficult work for us because no matter how much garbage we remove, the same amount will be here tomorrow,” said Pérez.
 
Every day, Liliana Tobar and Sonia Pérez wake up at 4:30 a.m. to remove plastic from the reservoir. They’ve been following this routine for nearly a month: “It’s been difficult work for us because no matter how much garbage we remove, the same amount will be here tomorrow,” said Pérez.

 

 

Potonico has cooperatives of farmers and fishers who work from 5:00 a.m. to noon cleaning the reservoir because the Lempa River is one of their families’ main sources of income. According to one of the community leaders, they started working to remove the waste even before the Mayor
 
Potonico has cooperatives of farmers and fishers who work from 5:00 a.m. to noon cleaning the reservoir because the Lempa River is one of their families’ main sources of income. According to one of the community leaders, they started working to remove the waste even before the Mayor's Office and the Hydroelectric Executive Commission (CEL) did.

 

 

The Piedra del Idioma ranching cooperative gathered 50 people together to remove garbage from the reservoir. During the first few weeks, they paid for their own food, oil, and gasoline for the boat motors. Thereafter, the Lempa River Executive Commission (CEL) gave them garbage bags, gloves, and whatever else they needed to operate the boats: “With or without help, we will continue to remove the garbage because it’s important to us; here, we share the common struggle of recovering the sources of our employment,” said leader Carlos Orellana.
 
The Piedra del Idioma ranching cooperative gathered 50 people together to remove garbage from the reservoir. During the first few weeks, they paid for their own food, oil, and gasoline for the boat motors. Thereafter, the Lempa River Executive Commission (CEL) gave them garbage bags, gloves, and whatever else they needed to operate the boats: “With or without help, we will continue to remove the garbage because it’s important to us; here, we share the common struggle of recovering the sources of our employment,” said leader Carlos Orellana.

 

 

The most garbage that Potonico’s fishers have removed from the reservoir on a single day was 500 bags that weighed approximately 20 pounds each, for a total of 5.5 tons of recyclable and non-recyclable waste. After the residents pick up the garbage, CEL trucks take it to different landfills.
 
The most garbage that Potonico’s fishers have removed from the reservoir on a single day was 500 bags that weighed approximately 20 pounds each, for a total of 5.5 tons of recyclable and non-recyclable waste. After the residents pick up the garbage, CEL trucks take it to different landfills.

 

 

Óscar Menjívar, 45, eats his breakfast in a boat surrounded by bags full of garbage on the shore of the Cerrón Grande reservoir. Since the waste has polluted the water, his workdays as a spearfisherman have been reduced: “Spearfishing is impossible. In order to shoot, you must be able to see your target, and the garbage has created a layer so thick that not even light enters the water in many places,” he said.
 
Óscar Menjívar, 45, eats his breakfast in a boat surrounded by bags full of garbage on the shore of the Cerrón Grande reservoir. Since the waste has polluted the water, his workdays as a spearfisherman have been reduced: “Spearfishing is impossible. In order to shoot, you must be able to see your target, and the garbage has created a layer so thick that not even light enters the water in many places,” he said.

 

 

Potonico residents’ cleaning efforts seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of garbage dragged in by the river currents. They say that day workers from the Ministry of the Environment once tried to place a trammel net to collect more garbage, but it gave way under the weight, so the labor of picking up vast amounts of waste must be done by hand.
 
Potonico residents’ cleaning efforts seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of garbage dragged in by the river currents. They say that day workers from the Ministry of the Environment once tried to place a trammel net to collect more garbage, but it gave way under the weight, so the labor of picking up vast amounts of waste must be done by hand.

 

 

Mauricio Orellana is a fisherman from Potonico. He does his work by diving into the Cerrón Grande reservoir water and shooting fish with a harpoon. Since the plastic garbage arrived at his fishing area, he has had to reduce his workdays to make time to clean up the trash. “Before the garbage arrived, I used to Catch 14 dozen tilapias a day; after expenses, that left me with $30 to $40 a day; now, I don
 
Mauricio Orellana is a fisherman from Potonico. He does his work by diving into the Cerrón Grande reservoir water and shooting fish with a harpoon. Since the plastic garbage arrived at his fishing area, he has had to reduce his workdays to make time to clean up the trash. “Before the garbage arrived, I used to Catch 14 dozen tilapias a day; after expenses, that left me with $30 to $40 a day; now, I don't even make half as much, because you can't see anything underwater due to the amount of garbage,” he said.

 

 

In 2005, the Cerrón Grande reservoir became a protected Ramsar site because of its biodiversity and importance as a source of life and livelihood for the surrounding populations. Cerrón Grande is El Salvador’s second largest wetland after Jiquilisco Bay. The wildlife there must now live alongside floating trash.
 
In 2005, the Cerrón Grande reservoir became a protected Ramsar site because of its biodiversity and importance as a source of life and livelihood for the surrounding populations. Cerrón Grande is El Salvador’s second largest wetland after Jiquilisco Bay. The wildlife there must now live alongside floating trash.

 

 

Members of Potonico’s Piedra del Idioma cooperative of farmers and ranchers note that illnesses among their horses and cows have increased. They say that their cattle are experiencing stomach infections from drinking water containing pieces of plastic, which the animals are unable to expel.
 
Members of Potonico’s Piedra del Idioma cooperative of farmers and ranchers note that illnesses among their horses and cows have increased. They say that their cattle are experiencing stomach infections from drinking water containing pieces of plastic, which the animals are unable to expel.

 

 

According to community leaders, four months ago Potonico residents filled 1,500 bags with plastic they removed from the reservoir over the course of a single week; each garbage bag weighed approximately 20 pounds, making for nearly 30,000 pounds of waste: “We didn’t think that the garbage crisis would escalate so much here. Now, look at us. Here we are, cleaning every day only to have the seasonal rains bring more plastic every night,” said Carlos Orellana, a member of the ranching cooperative.
 
According to community leaders, four months ago Potonico residents filled 1,500 bags with plastic they removed from the reservoir over the course of a single week; each garbage bag weighed approximately 20 pounds, making for nearly 30,000 pounds of waste: “We didn’t think that the garbage crisis would escalate so much here. Now, look at us. Here we are, cleaning every day only to have the seasonal rains bring more plastic every night,” said Carlos Orellana, a member of the ranching cooperative.

 

 

The water currents that flow from San Salvador through the Acelhuate River and into the Lempa River continue to carry plastic waste to the Cerrón Grande reservoir. The amount of garbage on Potonico’s shores keeps growing.
 
The water currents that flow from San Salvador through the Acelhuate River and into the Lempa River continue to carry plastic waste to the Cerrón Grande reservoir. The amount of garbage on Potonico’s shores keeps growing.

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