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Climate change

Dying Mangroves and Fading Livelihoods in El Salvador

by James Hendicott, Trócaire Supporter

Located on the Pacific Coast of El Salvador, La Tirana is heavily isolated; an hour’s drive from the nearest tarmacked road.

Just 24 families live here, having returned to the territory in 1992 after being displaced during the Civil War. Traditionally, their livelihoods depend on the catching of crabs from the waters of the nearby mangrove forest, the largest on the America’s Pacific coast.

Globally, sea levels have increased by approximately 20cms over the past century. Local experts suspect El Salvador’s rises may be slightly higher.

Mangroves consist of a delicate balance of fresh and salt water. Rising sea levels at La Tirana have increased salt water in the mangrove system. The water is accompanied by sand, which drys the roots and ultimately kills off the trees.

This has led to fewer and fewer crabs.

We witnessed a 30 metre long stretch of dead mangrove trees along a stretch once alive and well; a haunting collection of entangled stumps that sends a depressing message about the future of this community.

Healthy mangrove trees and dead mangrove trees
Left Image: Healthy mangrove trees, which are vital to the people of La Tirana
Right Image: Dead mangrove trees stretch towards the remaining forest; a haunting and stark message about the future of La Tirana.

This damage isn’t isolated. Looking along the beach, we found the same morbid landscape stretched across several kilometres, a scar on an otherwise utterly unspoilt paradise:

Kilometres of dead mangroves
Kilometres of dead mangroves scar an otherwise unspoilt paradise

The president of the local committee, Nuam Diaz, told us that for the people of La Tirana, “climate change is a question of survival.”

Diaz and his community share a sense of abandonment. Help from Trócaire is the only outside assistance their urgent situation has received.

In El Salvador, like elsewhere, Trócaire prefers to work heavily with local groups, ensuring that money is spent in the most efficient possible way, but also allowing knowledgeable locals to implement effective local solutions.

In this case, that has meant helping the people of La Tirana diversify food production to help them survive the increasing sustainability problems of the mangroves.

Diaz invites us into his own house, revealing some typical problems El Salvador’s poor, agricultural and fishing communities face.

La Tirana’s soil is poor quality but with the addition of a hand-pumped well, Diaz has been able to develop a small allotment and grow fruit and vegetables.

Small allotments to grow fruit and vegetables
 Small allotments allow the people of La Tirana to grow fruit and vegetables

The addition of a solar panel has made Diaz’ modest house more environmentally neutral and prevented the dangerous long-term inhalation of candle fumes. A low-smoke cooker offers similar air quality benefits.

CESTA, Trócaire’s local partner, has donated a nearby area of land to allow the people of La Tirana to collectively farm maize, which offers an alternative source of food and income alongside crab fishing. In turn, this has also enabled the keeping of chickens, providing eggs, meat and another source of income.

In a parallel universe – one without these outside influences – the simple yet beautiful lifestyle this small community enjoys would need little support.

Reality, however, persists: La Tirana’s problems all originate elsewhere, and with sea levels and temperatures expected to rise by far more than they already have in the next few decades, the community has more problems just around the corner.

The story of La Tirana’s is far from a one off. In nearly a dozen community visits this week, we’ve seen the extensive and varied problems faced by poor, struggling communities. The stories were all different, all gut-wrenchingly hard-hitting, and all traceable back to the same key factor: climate change.

El Salvador suffers some of the worst climate change consequences found anywhere in the world, yet Central America is responsible for only 0.3% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. The simple fact is El Salvador simply can’t deal with its problems internally.

Ireland, in contrast, has one of the worst per capita Carbon Dioxide emission rates in the world. Change starts small, and after seeing what I’ve seen this week, the seriousness with which I treat my own behaviour starts – and will grow – from here.

If you’d been to La Tirana, you’d certainly be doing the same. We need to think bigger, too. As well as making alterations to your own lifestyle, you can help pressure the Irish government into introducing legislation to reduce the changes we’re inflicting upon others. You can start by signing Trócaire’s climate change petition here

That has to be just the start: we might not be able to point to an individual and we might not personally witness the effects of our changes as strongly as others will, but La Tirana leaves no doubt: collectively,
our behaviour is becoming a death sentence.

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