Larry attended a course with me in El Salvador, Peacebuilding and Spirituality, in May, 2013.

The ownership and use of land in El Salvador, as in any nation, is a key element in the quality of the lives of the people of that country. El Salvador, with a high percentage of arable land, has the potential to feed its population well and for a relatively high standard of living to exist for all. This is most certainly not the reality, as the majority of the land, and virtually all of the high quality agricultural land is owned by a small minority, leaving the poorest and smallest amount of the land for the use of the majority of the peasant farmers. This huge imbalance is further exacerbated by the use of this land, predominantly to grow non-edible crops such as coffee, sugar cane and others which will be described in the body of this paper. The issues of destructive land management practices, including deforestation, soil degradation and erosion all compound the inequities of land ownership and use, creating major social justice and nutritional issues for the majority of the country’s population, in the most densely-populated country in Central America. This paper will show that the current and historical land use pattern in El Salvador is unsustainable from several points of view: agricultural, nutritional and human rights.

Canadian theologian Sallie McFague argues that we must live in harmony with the earth:

"Christian discipleship in our time, if it is to express love for God and for the earth, must be one of self-limitation, sacrifice, and sharing so that neighbours, all God’s creatures, might flourish. Christians are called… to embody an alternative vision of the abundant life… also to help move our social, political and financial institutions in this direction."[1]

Our theology and faith only become meaningful when they lead us to engage in a healthful, growth and abundance-oriented life. This is essential to counter and reverse the effects of a selfish, scarcity-oriented model which has led to competition for the world’s resources, depleting the earth and its creatures and peoples as greed tramples anything and anyone in its way. In the face of such destructiveness, Christians must begin to practice a faith in action rather than one of inaction. I was deeply moved by Chencho when he visited Emmanuel last year, and inspired to become a part of this class, and to make this my research topic. Chencho insists that our Paradigm of Wealth, which has made money and power the most evil influences in our world must be transformed into a Paradigm of Life, focusing on the person as a valued member of a community, worthy of God’s love, and therefore of our love.[2] He spoke to us so very passionately that Earth and Ecology must become our primary concerns, and that as Christians we must participate in foreign affairs: “It is a sin not to be informed about what is happening to God’s people around the world.”[3] This plea has affected me powerfully, and having grown up on a farm myself, on land taken from the indigenous peoples of this region, I felt strongly compelled to learn more about this most important life-sustaining topic. Chencho’s speaking of the Mayan people’s creation story, and the giving of corn by God to the people, which is shared with all, provides such a powerful image of how the Paradigm of Life should play out. I am fascinated with the cosmos and with the good earth under our feet with which we too often have lost contact, and the link between these and spirituality. Chencho bids us to stand on the earth barefoot, as the Mayans do, to be truly in contact and reverence of Mother Earth.

Conversely, the effects of the Paradigm of Wealth in El Salvador and the use of its land have been disastrous. El Salvador has the highest arable land percentage in the region: 31.6%, as compared to 13.7% in Guatemala, 14.6 in Nicaragua and for comparison, 4.3% in Canada.[4]

Arable land is cultivated for crops like sugar cane, wheat, maize, and rice that are replanted after each harvest. 12% of El Salvador’s land is cultivated for permanent crops like coffee, citrus and rubber that are not replanted after each harvest, and includes land under flowering shrubs, fruit trees, nut trees, and vines, but excludes land under trees grown for wood or timber, and 57% of the land, not arable or under permanent crops, includes permanent meadows and pastures, forests and woodlands, built-on areas, roads and barren land.

Crops grown/agricultural products in El Salvador, from greatest to least volume are: coffee, sugar, corn, rice, beans, oilseed, cotton, sorghum; beef, dairy products. Cotton was once the second largest crop, but as Chencho pointed out during my presentation, it has been replaced by sugar cane. Cotton production peaked in 1964 with 330,000 480 pound bales and has now fallen to 1000 similar bales in 2012. In the same time period sugar production went from 81,000 metric tonnes to 640,000 MT.[5] Coffee production once was at the core of El Salvador’s agricultural and overall economy.

As El Salvador recovered from the civil war, facing overwhelming poverty, “coffee presented an opportunity to reap a new kind of wealth—socially distributed wealth. Coffee still accounted for half of El Salvador’s GDP (1988 figures). By the 1990’s, 78% of coffee farms and 40% of the total area were in the hands of small producers. Furthermore, coffee trees represented the majority of forested land in the hemisphere’s second most deforested country, and coffee provided direct employment for 155,000 Salvadorans.”[6] Over the past fifteen year coffee farmers, though, have faced the challenge of the world coffee market. Plummeting global coffee prices over the past decade have forced more than 80,000 small scale coffee producers and coffee pickers off the land. Thousands have migrated to the cities in search of work: the great promise held by “el grano de oro” (the “grain of gold”)[7] has largely evaporated.

El Salvador's ecological and social crises are rooted in an historical conflict over control and use of land. Land use patterns and the conflicts themselves have furthered environmental destruction.

El Salvador has always been a largely agricultural country and despite recent shifts, agriculture has continued to be a mainstay of the economy. Conflicts and peasant uprisings over land date back more than four centuries, to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. Since the late 19th century, the most fertile lands have been concentrated in few hands, “An oligarchy known as las catorce (the original fourteen aristocratic families, which has later expanded in number)[8] and used to grow coffee for export, forcing small-scale farmers onto marginal quality lands and making their subsistence increasingly precarious. In the second half of the twentieth century an alliance of conservative civilians (dominated by las catorce) and military officers ruled the country until the late 1970’s. “A vicious circle was created whereby concentration of land by the wealthy furthered inequality, which led to land degradation and caused conflict that finally escalated into full scale civil war in 1980.”[9] The long civil war decimated the environment, a result of the government's “'scorched earth' strategy designed to eliminate the insurgency's base of support in the countryside.”[10] This destruction resulted in large-scale migration to urban areas, which has placed further stress on the country's delicate ecosystem. A long-term result of the war and the ensuing shift in demography has been continuing conflicts over land and the ecological impact of its use near urban areas.

"Whatever may be the incidence of the East-West conflict, the real cause of the civil war in El Salvador is the issue of agrarian reform. The oligarchy tries to prevent it at all cost. The party of the landholding elite has close ties with the death squads. The concentration of the land exists since the colonial era. El Salvador became later a very important exporter of coffee. Even the once commonly peasant-owned lands on hillsides and volcano ground were seized by the landholding class and this led to new concentration of land."[11]

Much of the natural forest vegetation has been removed: “El Salvador… is the most densely populated nation on the American mainland and there are few places where cumulative deforestation is as advanced.”[12] In spite of this drastic situation, in order to clear the decreasing portion of increasingly impoverished quality land in order to make a living, “Salvadoran farmers are constantly clearing new land, more often than not in places with severe erosion and environmental risks.”[13] This loss of forest cover further exacerbates issues of soil erosion and a rapidly lowering water table. More than 95 percent of the original tropical deciduous forests in El Salvador have been destroyed, two-thirds of it during the last 40 years. Less than seven percent of the country remains forested, although another 6 percent is covered by shrubs and coffee bushes. Approximately 4,500 hectares of forest are cut down each year. Reforestation efforts only contribute about 560 hectares/year, of which only 60 percent take root and survive.[14] The majority of land suffers from serious soil erosion.

Population increases haves amplified competition for agricultural land and for employment. Poverty forces Salvadoran farmers and laborers to make decisions that are advantageous in the short term but may cause long-term environmental damage. “Clearing land and harvesting fish will allow Salvadorans to feed their families in a given year but may not be enough to sustain the next generation.”[15]

The poor living conditions of many of El Salvador's people and environmental issues are inextricably linked. Untreated human and industrial waste pollutes ninety percent of the rivers and nearly all topsoil and drinking water in heavily populated areas. Two-thirds of farmland in mountainous areas is eroded, and the resulting pollution and agricultural runoff threaten coastal marine life, the mainstay of fishing and crustacean harvesting.

Much of El Salvador's crop production is in mountainous areas with gradients over fifteen percent. The main crops are shade-grown coffee, sugar cane, citrus and other fruit trees, and staples for local consumption, including maize, beans, rice, and sorghum. The latter are produced on small-scale subsistence farms in mountainous zones characterized by intensive use of the soil and a lack of conservation practices. Some rural development projects have used incentives to attempt to mitigate the effects of the resulting environmental degradation:

"Records for Central America show that approximately 86% of soil and water conservation projects use incentives. Nevertheless, it is rare to observe spontaneous diffusion and medium- or long-term adoption of the technologies promoted through incentives on a significant number of farms or larger areas. Most technologies are implemented locally by a few farmers and are abandoned as soon as the project terminates. Therefore, efforts are now being made in Central American countries to institute payment for environmental services."[16]

As the major coffee and sugar cane operations continue to use water, as do the ever growing cities where so many displaced formerly rural inhabitants have moved in increasing numbers, “at the current rate of deforestation and land degradation, including destruction of watersheds and siltation of waterways, the underground water tables will be exhausted by the year 2020.” [17] Water tables are falling by an alarming rate of about one meter per year, and from 1972 to 1992, more than half of the land area where the water filtration rate was highest was lost to urbanization of the metropolitan zone, resulting in an estimated annual loss of sixteen million cubic meters of rainwater which was not absorbed. Thus farmers’ large and small are all contributing to the growing problem of falling water tables and erosion of the soil which formerly held said waters, held in place by the forests which have been removed to make way for agriculture. Thus a vicious cycle of increasingly desperate attempts to eke a living from the land have conversely contributed to the radical endangerment of the viability of agriculture. This in turn threatens the livelihood of all, rich and poor alike.

Thus a number of efforts have been enacted in order to attempt to counter these declines. Land degradation has led to growing acceptance of environmental importance of the threatened ecosystems. “Their traditional image as producers of food, raw materials, and other products has gradually evolved to one in which they are also seen as providers of environmental value such as preservation of biodiversity, through the protection and sustainable use of species and conservation of ecosystems and ecological processes; protection of water resources in terms of quality and distribution for urban, rural, and industrial use; and production of hydroelectric power.”[18] The importance of the preservation of scenic beauty of forests and natural landscapes teeming with biodiversity that attracts tourists has also served to alter some attitudes. Also of crucial importance is the mitigation of the greenhouse effect through maintenance of forests, marshes, and mangrove tree plantations that also serve to lessen the impact of disasters caused by torrential storms, landslides, and droughts. El Salvador would seem to be a microcosm of the environmental situation of our planet.

Even though we know what is best for the planet, our ecosystems and long term sustainability, we seem doomed to follow our lesser instincts, especially when our survival in the short-term seems so dependent on eking what we can out of the soil, to our own long-term detriment. A key element of my observations and questioning while we are in the country will be the ‘balance’ which has been worked out between preservation and maintenance and the need to continue to wear out the land in order to survive in the face of inequity and injustice in the allocation and ability to live off of the land sustainably.

Not only is the work taking a toll on the land, but studies have shown that the sugar cane workers in lower regions, working in extreme heat and drinking large amounts of water to replace that sweated out results in a spike in kidney disease, a localized phenomenon not found in workers in the same tasks at altitudes in the mountainous, cooler zones higher above sea level. “We documented widespread decreased kidney function in coastal communities related to years of work on coastal sugarcane/cotton plantations.”[19] The study does not discuss the additional element of the quality of the water available to these workers, which may also be significant.

One factor of interest is that the decline in the soil quality in El Salvador owing to deforesting the land and using it for mining and agriculture is not entirely a recent phenomenon, with studies showing an historical use of these activities: “Archaeological evidence has revealed that over the past 3,000 years the residents of Chalchuapa have been full participants in the cultural and sociopolitical developments of greater Mesoamerica, involved in trade in… several valuable commodities, including cacao, hematite, obsidian, and ceramics.”[20] The rich soils of El Salvador have been home to agriculture which sustained large populations for millennia.

A fungus has currently infected the coffee crops of Central America, threatening the crop and the livelihood of all who work in that sector: “El Salvador could be forced to destroy 30 percent of its 161,000 hectares of coffee”[21] This fragile ecosystem is threatened in many ways. The specter of climate change also looms very large, with potentially dramatic negative effects on Central American agriculture. It is estimated by some, for example that, “In some parts of El Salvador and Honduras that have poor soil, where much farming takes place, maize production could drop by around 30 percent by the 2020s.”[22]

These myriad factors facing El Salvador make it imperative that long-term planning, recognition of the rights of all citizens to food, water and safe and meaningful employment be a priority. Inequitable land distribution has been the norm in El Salvador. Recent developments propose a different future. A Territorial Planning Law was passed in 2011 and came into effect in August 2012, which will mandate the regulation of national and local land use planning through the establishment of principles and institutions. “In democratic countries such as El Salvador the ultimate avenue for balancing competing interests over the use of land is through empowerment of the citizenry with reliable information about the use, value and rights attached to the land.”[23] The national interest and the collective interest of all the citizens will best be served by the open sharing of such information.

To what extent these plans for land use reform are viable and sustainable, with plans to be meaningfully implemented, or whether they are a pipe dream or window dressing for the world remains to be seen. The volatility of the coffee market and the threat of disease to the crops, the effects of global warming and the long-term soil depletion gather like storm clouds on the horizon. It is again my hope that in our discussions with Chencho and our other speakers that we will attain a realistic, current and comprehensive view of the issues, the forces currently at work in land use and control, and how all of this is playing out in the lives of the people and their struggle for justice, quality of life and a nurtured and cared for land. Will ethical stewardship of the land be possible, and can our drive to domination be transformed into God-inspired nurturing dominion?

I return to Chencho’s challenge issued to us on January 18th last year in our Emmanuel chapel, that, “We belong to Mother Earth and we must work together with each other and her to produce what we need, doing so as inseparable from our growth of spirituality.” Chencho, you have issued the invitation and set out the goal, and we are coming to be and learn with you.


[1] McFague, Life Abundant, 23.

[2] Jose Chencho Alas, notes taken from lecture and conversations with him on January 18, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Land Use” in The World Fact Book, Central Intelligence Agency, 2013, Accessed April 22, 2013.

[5] Index Mundi, , accessed May 14, 2013.

[6] “History of Coffee in El Salvador”, Equal Exchange: Fairly Traded. , accessed May 2, 2013.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “El Salvador” in Uppsala Universitet: UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia, Uppsala Conflict Data Program (May 9, 2013) UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia:, Uppsala University.

Department of Peace and Conflict Research

[9] Stephanie Weinberg, ICE Case Studies, Case Number: 22, Case Mnemonic: ELSALV Case Name: El Salvador Civil War. May, 1997. Accessed April 25, 2013. (No pagination.)

[10] Ibid.

[11] M. Dufumier, “Reforme Agraire Au Salvador” in Civilisations , Vol. 35, No. 2, Pour Une Conscience Latino-Americaine, Prealable A Des Rapports Sud-Sud: Centre d'Etude de l'Amérique Latine (Institut de Sociologie de l'Université de Bruxelles: 1985), 190.

[12] Claudio Gonzalez-Vega, et al, “Poverty, Structural Transformation, and Land Use in El Salvador” in American Journal of Agricultural Economics. American Agricultural Economics Association, Number 5, 2004. 1367, Accessed April 25, 2013.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Weinberg, ICE Case Studies.

[15] “El Salvador” in Population Today 26, no. 9 (September 1998), 7.

[16] Doribel Herrador and Leopoldo Dimas, “Payment for Environmental Services in El Salvador,” in Mountain Research and Development 20 no. 4 (November 2000): 306.

[17] Weinberg, ICE Case Studies.

[18] Herrador, “Payment for Environmental Services in El Salvador,” 306.

[19] Sandra Peraza, Catharina Wesseling, Ramón Antonio Gardia-Trabanino, et al, “Decreased Kidney Function Among Agricultural Workers in El Salvador” in American Journal of Kidney Diseases 59, no. 4 (April 2012): 538.

[20] Robert A. Dull, “Evidence for Forest Clearance, Agriculture, and Human-Induced Erosion” in Precolumbian El Salvador: Annals of the Association of American Geographers (March 2007), 97 (1), 129-30.

[21] Blanca Morel, “Central America battles to save coffee from fungus” in, January 18, 2013. Accessed May 12, 2013.

[22] Megan Rowling, “Climate Change to hit Central America’s Food Crops,” Thomson Reuters Foundation, 9 Oct 2012.

[23] Robin Rajack and Katie McWilliams, “Expanding Land Supply in Rapidly Urbanizing El Salvador: A Latin American Success?” El Salvador Country Land Assessment. April 2012. Accessed May 1, 2013.