By Edgardo Ayala and Claudia Ávalos
San Julián, El Salvador, Apr 30, 2012 (IPS) – María Elena Muñoz industriously weeds a clearing in the forest and then digs several holes, where she and another four dozen women are planting plantain seedlings, to help feed their families in this poor farming area in El Salvador. The group is involved in an agroecology programme that has two main aims: achieve food sovereignty, which is at risk in the rural communities of San Julián; and foment the development of energy forests, which provide local families with sustainable energy and help mitigate the impact of climate change.
“The forest belongs to everyone, it gives us fruit and firewood for cooking,” Muñoz, 42, told IPS.
She is president of the Association of Communities for Development in the district of Los Lagartos in the municipality of San Julián, which is home to 19,000 people in the western province of Sonsonate.
These communities, and especially local farms, are hit hard by climate swings year after year, said Mercy Palacios with the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES), a local environmental NGO.
“During the drought, the crops are scorched, and during the rainy season, they are drowned,” she said the day IPS accompanied the local women in their activities in the community forest.
Subsistence agriculture is the mainstay of the local communities, where peasant farmers grow corn and beans on infertile hillsides, and the harvests are steadily declining, due to climate phenomena.
El Salvador, and Central America in general, suffers heavy rain in winter – the rainy season – which almost inevitably leaves a trail of pain and destruction. In October, for example, the rains claimed 43 lives in the country and flooded 10 percent of the national territory.
The cost of rebuilding in Central America in the wake of the October storms will amount to 4.2 billion dollars, according to estimates by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
“We are suffering from climate extremes, something new that we have to adapt to,” Palacios said.
“There are very poor families that subsist on what they get out of the forest,” said Elsy Álvarez, a 37-year-old mother of two. “For example, they sell tangerines in the town, and get a ‘cora’ (quarter – 25 cents of a dollar) for tortillas or to give to their kid when he goes to school.”
Tired of losing the family harvest, the women in Los Lagartos decided to do something to ensure food sovereignty, and began to plant an energy forest.
Food sovereignty refers to people’s right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.
The idea of the project came from UNES environmentalists who were working in the area, establishing an “agroschool” to teach the basic concepts of agroecology. But soon the local women made the idea their own, and have made it flourish, without financing.
The food sovereignty project encompasses one-quarter of the 40 rural villages and communities in San Julián, a municipality 60 km west of San Salvador whose ancestral name was Cacaluta, which means “city of crows” in the Náhuat language.
The project benefits about 50 families – 300 people – and the energy forest component will be expanded from Los Lagartos to other participating communities.
In Los Lagartos, population 5,000, the women work in their family gardens, where they grow vegetables with organic compost that they themselves produce. They also use it in their plots of corn and beans, staples of the Salvadoran diet, and on fruit trees in the forest.
The compost is helping change planting techniques in the area, in favour of the environment. And the women plan to start selling their organic fertiliser in the future, to earn funds for the project.
The forest is less than one hectare in size, but it has a special importance for the women in Los Lagartos because they have managed to regain control over the area and replant it, after a sugar mill destroyed it 10 years ago to plant sugar cane.
“For 10 years we have been fighting for this forest,” said Muñoz, a married mother of four. When she and the rest of the women saw that the forest was being cut down, they complained to the authorities and managed to rescue a small portion – but the damage was already done.
So they began to replant. They planted avocado, mango and nance (golden spoon) trees. And this year they began to grow plantains (cooking bananas), and trees that can be used for their wood, like conacaste (elephant ear tree).
“Now we don’t let anyone cut down our forest,” Álvarez said during a break in the planting work. “We exploit it ourselves, but only the dry branches and what is cut in the pruning process.”
The concept of energy forests followed here is not based on planting trees to cut them down later for lumber, but on the sustainable use of trees, by using dry branches as firewood, and planting fruit trees.
“A tree has a useful life expectancy, and the branches can be used as firewood, while maintaining its capacity to regenerate,” Palacios explained.
In this country of 6.1 million people, some 400,000 families – 25 percent of the population – use firewood for cooking, according to official figures.
The poorest 10 percent of households in El Salvador spend more on firewood (three percent of their budget) than on electricity, according to the 2010 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on El Salvador.
The use of firewood represents a major cost for poor families, which means that having a forest that covers their needs is a big help for the family budget.
Consumption of firewood not only represents an important expense in their budgets, but many households also dedicate a significant proportion of their time to collecting it, the UNDP report says.
In El Salvador, 36.5 percent of the population lives in poverty, and 11.2 percent in extreme poverty, according to official figures from 2010. But in rural areas, the poverty rate stands at 43.2 percent, and 15 percent live in extreme poverty.
Luis González, an environmentalist with UNES, said the Los Lagartos project falls under the concept of climate justice, which indicates that not every region, and not every population group within regions or countries, is affected in the same way by global warming.
“There are sectors that are more vulnerable than others, and different studies show that women are among the most heavily affected groups,” he said. For example, he added, when drought dries up a water source, women suffer the stress of having to find a new source of water, further away from their homes.
A gender focus must be included in this kind of environmental project, to give women a more decisive role, said Ima Guirola, with the women’s group Cemujer. In this part of the country, she told IPS, it is women who are taking the lead in efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.
“The important thing is to see whether women are adopting technological tools and scientific know-how on the environment, and whether they are participating in the decision-making involved in the project,” she said.