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Building A Sustainable Future: Permaculture In El Salvador

The Permaculture Institute of El Salvador is re-building sustainable agriculture in a country devastated by years of violence and environmental degradation.

Black bee on gandul

Photo: Alex Smith

Black bee on a gandul plant. Gandul (or pigeon peas) are a grain legume crop common in Central America.

It’s 9:00am in El Salvador, and I’m breaking rocks with a hammer.  I am on “the land”, a small test farm run by the Permaculture Institute of El Salvador.

This is the dry season, so the only plants bearing fruit are coconut palms, citrus trees, and the irrigated garden next to the house.  That makes it a good time to work on farm infrastructure, doing things like building stone paths.  Hence me and my hammer.

I’m not alone – two other, more seasoned members of the Institute are here as well.  They both grew up as campesinos (subsistence farmers) in the Salvadoran countryside, and somewhere along the way they learned how to find the hidden fault lines in stones and crack them open with incredible ease.

First Experience

I’ve never done this before, so I whack away without a lot to show for it.  Eventually I switch jobs, the work moves along, and pretty soon we’ve amassed an impressive pile of rocks.

This is my first experience with local agriculture, or local food, in El Salvador. I have spent the past month living in San Salvador, the sprawling city that is home to approximately half of all Salvadorans.

Though there are still many campesinos eking out a living in the countryside, and many large plantations growing coffee and sugar cane for export, virtually none of the food in San Salvador is local.

Vendors at the bus station hawk fruit from Guatemala, fried meat from Nicaragua, and sweet bread made with flour from the United States.  It’s worse in the supermarkets, which stock all the familiar US brands, and little else.

In order to explain how this came about, and why I’ve left the city to help people smash rocks, it’s necessary to go into a bit of history.

Conquistadors and Plantations

After this land was taken over by the Spanish, El Salvador meant Indigo.  The conquistadors came looking for a gold mine, but what they created was a country-wide plantation producing one of the most valuable dyes in the world.

The indigenous Salvadorians, known as the Nahwat people, were conscripted to work as slaves in these plantations.  Much of their culture, and their knowledge of how to sustainably work the land, were lost under the whip.

Eventually the power of the crown waned, and the handful of land-owning families who controlled El Salvador gained their independence.

Around this time, synthetic purple dyes that could cheaply replace indigo were being invented, and North Americans were developing an insatiable thirst for coffee.  This prompted the land owners to convert El Salvador from an Indigo state to a Coffee state.

For the people who worked on the plantations, now called “peasants” instead of “slaves”, little changed.

Through most of the 20th century, the people and the land of El Salvador were locked within a rigid power structure.  Every acre of suitable land was planted in coffee.

Here, the campesinos worked much of the year for a pittance.  After the coffee harvest they would try to grow some corn and beans on a small piece of earth rented from somebody else.  This cycle kept most of the people in El Salvador poor, and it put a terrible tax on the land.

A Hard Life Becomes Harder

Most of the country is hilly, often very steep, and the peasants were forced to work whatever land they could get.  The plantation owners, for their part, were eager to plant every inch of soil in coffee.  Forests were cut down, and crops were planted on too-steep slopes, causing serious erosion.  As the fertility of the soil was washed away, a hard life became harder.

Then, in the late 1970s, the civil war broke out.  Inspired by liberation theology, many poor people had decided that God did not intend them to be serfs.  When their protests were met with brutal massacres by government troops, many decided to take up arms.

The war lasted for 14 years and left much of the countryside depopulated.  Most campesenos fled to bordering refugee camps, or to the cities. After the peace accords were signed in 1992, many people found that they had nothing to come back to.

Opportunists had seized many of the “abandoned” lands, and other areas had returned to forest (a strangely positive outcome from an epoch of violence).   A land-redistribution program was sabotaged by the government tasked with administering it, and most returning refugees were forced to take up residence in growing urban slums.

Difficult To Compete

For the past 20 years, this migration has accelerated.  It has been spurred on by trade agreements such as CAFTA, which opened up the Salvadoran market to food imports from the United States.  US corn and wheat is often sold at less than the cost of production due to subsidies from the federal government.

Faced with these ultra-cheap imports, it is impossible for Salvadoran farmers to compete.  The campesinos that leave the countryside usually end up in areas like Soyapango – an expanse of sheet metal shacks and tiny row houses just outside of San Salvador.

Far away from their networks of social support, they are forced to fend for themselves in a chaotic, alien world.  Crime is rampant and jobs are scarce.  With little to grow up for, many of the youth join violent gangs, and their communities become battlegrounds between the maras and the police.

Permaculture Institute of El Salvador

This is the situation facing the Permaculture Institute of El Salvador.  They’re a group of Salvadoran campesinos and a few gringo volunteers (like myself) working to make life in the countryside livable.

They focus on practices for conserving the soil, composting, increasing the diversity of crops and the quality of the diet, and finding ways to save labor for those without access to expensive technology.  They also work to spread ecological awareness and encourage an appreciation for biodiversity.

In many of the rural communities where they work, local groups have formed to promote sustainability at the grass-roots level.  The movement is growing fast, but there’s still a long way to go.

A Lot To Learn

I have a lot to learn here. As Thomas, a veteran of the Institute, took me on a tour of the land, I pointed to a common tree and asked its name.  He told me (chaparro), and I asked “is it useful for anything?”  He said “yes, it provides food for the birds.”

I had been looking at the land a bit like the Spanish conquistadors, defining its value by what it can be made to produce.  Thomas, on the other hand, saw value in all of the connections that make up the ecological web, of which we form only a small part.

When we think about poverty, or urbanization, or violence, it’s easy to forget that these social forces are part of a bigger picture – one that includes all living things.  I hope that as we open our eyes to this broader perspective, we will be able to find better ways to live on this planet.

Alex Smith

Alex Smith is an Earth Eats contributor, student of sustainable agriculture and CSA Project Manager for Stranger's Hill Organics in Bloomington, Indiana. He has a masters degree in biology from Indiana University where he studied ways Indiana farmers can create habitat for native bees that pollinate vegetable crops. In 2010 he will be visiting El Salvador to study sustainable farming practices.

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  • Jessica Felix -Romero

    thanks for this fantastic post. I worked with IPES in August of 2009 and I am writing my doctoral dissertation on sustainable agriculture as an environmental peacebuilding tool. The work being done by IPES is rather revolutionary and I encourage anyone to go see for yourself this hands-on solution to creating a sustainable society.

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