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.
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