The world is big, as we all know. But oftentimes its true beauty can be found in the small.
I have just returned from El Salvador, a small country in Central America with very little tourism, no amazing wonders of the world, essentialy a small blip in our American radar. Rated as one of the most dangerous countries in the world right now due to gang violence, and with the recent scars of a violent and cruel civil war, this is a recuperating country far from the eyes of the world. However, I feel moved and changed, rejuvinated and excited after spending the last few weeks working with the Salvadorans. Let me expand on why…
First, a brief description of what this country is facing. Deforestation in El Salvador has had serious environmental, social, and economic impacts, and is something that affects the daily lives of its peoples. Over 50 percent of El Salvador is not even suitable for food cultivation, and soil erosion makes reforestation efforts feel dismal. This affects mostly the rural population, of which there are nearly 1 million Salvadorans living in poverty. Also, with the end of the horrible civil war of the 1980-90s, a huge exodus of El Salvadorans fled and left those behind to scramble with the aftermath. Poverty and economic instability have followed, as well as a social and moral impact lasting far beyond the war’s end in which a remembrance of the death and violence still reigns. To compound this, gang violence has landed El Salvador on the list of countries to avoid per the USA’s travel advisory board, and the little tourism that did exist is all but snuffed out across the entire country. But the amazing thing is that in spite of all of this, there remains an enormous amount of positivity and excitement about the country’s future.
Now, my visit revolved around three environmental groups coming together in an effort to promote organic fruit tree planting and practices as well as a focus on the reforestation of indigenous trees throughout the country. For the next ten years, the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation (of which I was helping out) will be joining forces with an organization working to uplift and connect El Salvadorans in the US with those back in their home country, SHARE, as well as an on-the-ground organization working directly in the field to work towards an organic, sustainabile future for El Salvador’s agriculture, CONFRAS. The project will cumulate with 100,000 trees planted all over the country, and an educational program to improve the environment and nutrition of El Salvador. This first year included 10,000 tree plantings at schools and cooperatives primarily in rural parts of the country, where life is very much influenced by the environment in which these people live. Despite the fact that 46% of the rural population is below the poverty line, doors here are open and hospitality abounds. Coastal homes may not even have their land in 10 years if the current rate of sea level rise continues, but nonetheless we spent an entire day being served free beers and food at the beachside home and “bar” of a friend of one of the cooperatives presidents. We watched the World Cup, talked in Spanglish, laughed, swam, and discussed the future for both this man’s family and for the country.
The Salvadoran people I spent time with did not feel or act in any manner as if they did not have the possibility of a great, meaningful life and future. They know the chance to improve, change, and even reverse the situation of their country is in their own hands. What they do every day with their food, water, and agricultural choices directly affects their country and their families, and they are immediately willing to change, learn, and grow for a sustainable future.
People can get caught up in how trendy being green is the in the States, and even annoyed at some for wearing or doing things because it is cool to be “green.” But down in this little country, people really are doing what is best for the earth right now, in their own backyards, because their actions will directly and immediately affect them and their families’ futures.
We toured the nursery, or vivero, where the 100,000 fruit trees for this project are being grown, and found a multitude of experimental organic growing practices and permaculture ideas being tested for the benefit of the communities and its members. The joy of all those working here and of those receiving the trees was incredible. There were always people around and asking questions, eagerness in their demeanor, in their handshakes, and in their smiles upon leaving with a head full of knowledge and hands full of trees.
My final planting was with a group of community members, representatives of our non-profit groups, and the regional mayor’s office. This was a reforestation effort consisting of the planting of the Ojushte tree (known in English as Breadnut), which was once a staple food for the Mayans. We drove hours into the depths of virgin Central American forest, where the arborists for the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation guided the Salvadoran planters about best practices and gave a hand as these once sacred trees were reintroduced into the forest. It is truly hard to put words to the experience, expect to say that it felt very, very profound. Saying anything else would take away from the simple beauty of the experience.
In closing, I must say thank you to all of the people I met these last two weeks…
To the cooperatives of women who carry water from the creek to wash their clothes and after cook dinner for their three generations of children.
To Don Ivel, president of his cooperative, whose pride in the organic crops his and the other 25 families are growing shown through in the smile that broke across his face each time we drove past the ears of corn on his coastal farm land.
To Luis of SHARE, who acted as our translator of both the language and more importantly the culture. His endearing and vigorous love for his parent’s home country ignited all of us to feel the same while we were there, and whose efforts will provide both a bright future for him and for this country.
To Jorge of CONFRAS, for putting up with my mixed tenses of Spanish and bad jokes, all while manueving through hours of driving, truckloads of school kids, and communication issues with a huge smile on his face.
And finally, to the children of the schools. The energy of these kids is exactly why these projects continue to get done. They will forever remember receiving and planting these trees, and this ensures their success long after we whom came to plant the trees with them are gone.
Gracias El Salvador, nos vemos pronto.