Holding onto the mangroves

By Coco McCabe
A mangrove sapling takes root along the coast of El Salvador.

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We are sitting in a dusty park at the edge of an estuary in Barra de Santiago in the Ahuachapán Department of El Salvador. On the far side, a bank of mangroves marches into the water, and as the tide ebbs their roots, thin and dark, rise from the mud and crowd the shore. From a distance, they look like a wall that could stop anything.

We have been hearing a lot about the mangroves on this trip to the Pacific coast where countless families are struggling against a poverty that forces them to live where no one else will: in low-lying areas prone to flooding and along the sides of dirt roads that become hard to negotiate during heavy rains.

South of here, in a town called Metalío, we have just met with Francisco Calzadilla, a member of the technical team for Caritas, which, together with Oxfam America and three other donor groups, as well as six local non-governmental organizations, has joined a consortium called PRVAS—or Programa Reducción de Vulnerabilidades Ahuachapán-Sonsonate. One of its goals is to help communities carry out mitigation projects to reduce their risk in disasters. And that's where the mangroves come in.

"They serve as a natural barrier—to the waves and the wind off the ocean," says Calzadilla. "They also provide a food source. They serve as an ecosystem for shellfish."

The strip of mangroves Calzadilla is particularly concerned with, stretches for about 20 kilometers around Metalío. He estimates that about 50 percent of that stretch has been deforested as people cut down the trees for both construction material and firewood.

But in August, with support from PRVAS, community members took steps to recover some of those losses, said Calzadilla. They collected, sorted, and planted 20,000 mangrove seeds—they look like long, slender pods—along a two-kilometer deforested strip.

It will be a while—10 years predicted Calzadilla—before the seedlings mature enough to serve as a barrier against the onslaught of Mother Nature. In areas where the mangroves have disappeared and there is nothing to break the force of winds, small houses have blown away, Calzadilla said.

In some neighborhoods around Acajutla, El Salvador's largest port, mangrove forests have been severely reduced—replaced by fill and the simple homes of some of the country's poorest residents.

Further east in the department of Usulután, preservation efforts are underway for some of the mangrove forests in Jiquilisco Bay, where Oxfam America is helping local fishermen organize themselves to improve their production and protect their livelihoods. They depend on the resources that flourish in the dense tangle of roots, mud, and tidal water.

Deep in the pre-dawn gloom of one protected area in the bay, we can just make out a platform where watchmen keep round-the-clock guard over this watery haven supported by funds from the United Nations. Here, mollusks can get a solid start and help to increase the catch that local fishermen need to feed their families.

Later, after the sun is up and the tide has receded, the mangrove forests in Jiquilisco Bay come alive with the chirping and scrambling of wildlife. Herons pick their way over the mud flats. A raccoon darts through the exposed roots. A vulture studies us from his perch on a branch.

Juan Larín Rojas, a 54-year-old fisherman, eyes each one of them with delight. He knows many of their scientific names. This is his turf, and despite the challenges of making a living from these mangroves and the sea around them, he wouldn't give up this life for anything.

"I love fishing. I love the sea. I love feeling free," he says.