A ray of hope in Bay of Jiquilisco, El Salvador

In 1998, El Salvador was a country still suffering from a 17 year period of political turmoil and civil war, when the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record, Hurricane Mitch, nearly wiped out the remaining mangroves on the southern coast. This special coastline, with the most extensive remaining mangrove forest and area of international importance in Central America, is located in Jiquilisco Bay, El Salvador. The vital remaining 2,000ha of mangroves would provide essential habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife, but would also protect communities living along the coast by providing a natural buffer to storms and coastal erosion.

Having lost 60% of mangrove cover since the 1950s, people started to see the links between the huge amounts of deforestation, more frequent flooding and storms, and unprecedented loss of mangroves in the region.

In response to this devastation to the Lower Lempa region, a group of concerned citizens, with the support of national and international partners, decided to turn the tide on mangrove deforestation and attempt to return a sad swath of destroyed forest to its former natural glory. Local communities came together and formed a coalition, called the Mangrove Association, to help protect and expand the region’s mangroves.

“That’s where the punche are hiding. When we started the mangrove restoration there were barely any here, but now they are all over”. The punche crab is an important local food source. ©Martha Psowski

Nature recovery through People Power

“Participation is key, it’s at the foundation of what we believe in. Everybody in the region, young and old, is aware of the effects of climate change and how it is impacting us. We need to be ready to mitigate the negative effects”.

The formation of the Mangrove Association allowed people to plan, not just to survive natural disasters, but for their future. Around 80 communities are now working hard to reduce the level of mangrove loss of existing forest while restoring areas of degraded mangroves. The Bay of Jiquilisco was named a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 2005 and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2007, as they started to receive international support.

In 2011 Mangrove Action Project led a successful workshop with partners EcoViva on Community Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration (CBEMR) alongside the Mangrove Association.

This included a three-day training workshop to help the community restore their lost mangrove forests. The work resulted in the Minister of Environment, Sr. Rosa Chavez, declaring the community led EMR method as the one to follow in El Salvador's National Environmental Plan for mangrove conservation and restoration.


CBEMR is a holistic long-term approach and mangrove restoration technique that involves local stakeholders right from the outset, and encourages the facilitation of natural regeneration where at all possible. It always starts with a detailed investigation of the proposed site to understand the reasons for previous mangrove losses and why mangroves are not naturally regenerating. Implementation can therefore take many forms, from digging to improve site hydrology, to agreements to divert more fresh water into a site, or community mangrove management rules about harvesting of mangroves. Natural regeneration has the advantage of not only producing a more biodiverse mangrove, which increases its resilience to climate change, but also potentially more economical as it avoids the costs of nurseries and planting out. And most importantly, it becomes community-led, people taking ownership of their regenerating mangroves and future.

Connecting mangroves to the sea

Sometimes, progress means helping nature do what it does best.

This seems to be the case for a once-barren 200-acre piece of land surrounded by lush mangrove forests in the western zone of Bay of Jiquilisco. After failed attempts to plant in the desolate land, the CBEMR training in 2011 kick started a period of natural regeneration. In an area known as El Llorón, mangroves were dying due to sedimentation and blockages in sea water flow caused by human development.

Community volunteers connected mangroves to the sea by rebuilding canals and natural waterways to restore water flow. As the tides rise, they carry mangrove seeds through the newly created canals and trenches, allowing them to recolonize and restore the forest. There are now four varieties of mangrove trees in El Llorón, and the new trees are growing quickly. Some of the mangrove species can grow up to 30 meters (100 feet). Their aerial roots that reach above our heads. Black mangrove (Avicennia germinans), white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa) buttonwood mangrove (Conocarpus erectus) and Rhizophora racemosa trees all grow in Jiquilisco Bay.

By using these techniques, the communities that form the Mangrove Association are seeing huge successes in restoring their mangrove forests and the technique is spreading across the region. Mangrove areas that had been decimated previously are now returning; new mangrove seedlings can be seen sprouting from the ground. Birds can be heard cackling in the canopy. Delicate animal tracks dot the muddy landscape. And from the satellites above, we can see new green growth taking root along the edges of the once-barren patch of brown.

United communities for sustainable livelihoods

“The mangroves support the crabs, sea turtles, fish, mussels, and birds. It’s an ecosystem that’s so full of life, and nature. And that’s what allows us to sustain our families.”

The Mangrove Association helps local communities design resource management plans and set catch limits for crabs, fish and mussels.

There was a time when blast fishing was used to kill and capture fish in the Bay at Puerto Parada. “I was famous for making the most potent and effective bombs, they would resonate around the bay.” The use of explosives as a fishing practice became common during the civil war, when residents learnt to build explosives, and has caused a huge decline in mangroves, fish populations and the critically endangered hawksbill turtle. Not only is it a threat to marine life, blast fishing is also incredibly dangerous to the fisherman that use it. Some residents have lost limbs or eyes or suffered bad burns due to this destructive practice. Over the last decade, the Mangrove Association has been working hard with government officials to put a stop to blast fishing practices. They have introduced a creative alternative in the form of artificial reefs to replenish marine life and improve fish stocks. Today blast fishing has declined by 90 percent and the communities are marketing their seafood as “clean fish” at a premium price to improve income. The area is now a fishing reserve and is patrolled by the Wetland Rangers who work to promote sustainable fishing and no fish zones.

Jiquilisco Bay also provides a vital habitat for green (Chelonia mydas) and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) sea turtles to feed and nest, yet these endangered species face harrowing threats to their survival. Due to the destruction of their coastal habitat, climate change, and entanglement in marine litter, their numbers have declined by at least 30 percent in recent decades. They face extra peril in El Salvador, where the consumption of turtle eggs is a long-standing culinary tradition and people comb the beach collecting eggs to sell at local markets. In the beautiful region of Isla Montecristo the community has been protecting sea turtle eggs and providing income to local egg collectors, known as tortugueros, for over ten years. With support from the Mangrove Association, the community runs a sea turtle conservation program where they pay collectors for their turtle eggs and then incubate the eggs in a hatchery on the beach. They guard the hatchery meticulously, wait for the turtles to hatch and return them to the sea. In 2014, community members incubated 125,000 eggs and released 100,000 baby sea turtles. Isla Montecristo is just one of hundreds of small Salvadoran communities that rely on the mangrove forest and its riches for their survival. Without the trees and their enormous root systems, the ocean would wash the town and its turtle hatchery away.

The inhabitants of Jiquilisco Bay are continually lobbying for a sustainable management model that not only protects the biosphere reserve for future generations, but also makes sensible use of the precious natural resources which the local communities depend on for their survival.

Threats to communities and mangroves

Unfortunately, El Salvador continues to lose its mangroves at a rate of 681 hectares (just under 7 square kilometers) each year (MARN 2014). Climate change, deforestation, pollution, large-scale agricultural development, and over-exploitation of natural resources continue to threaten this critical resource. This loss threatens the livelihoods and safety of the communities and wildlife that depend on the health of this ecosystem for their survival. The mangroves of Jiquilisco Bay are also under pressure from shrimp farming which has posed a significant threat to mangrove forests in El Salvador over the last few decades. Mangroves are commonly cleared for shrimp ponds because of their location in the intertidal zone. The tidal nature of these areas means that water exchange, oxygen dynamics and nutrient cycling, which are all essential for farming shrimp, are achieved with minimal effort. However, this means that mangroves are cut down and then contaminated waste from shrimp operations is released into coastal waters which further endangers coastal ecosystems. Eventually many of the ponds become abandoned due to intensive farming and extensive use of pesticides.

These abandoned ponds are being restored back to mangrove forest by members of the Mangrove Association and in recent years they have taken steps to reduce the environmental impact of shrimp farming, such as introducing the use of organic fertilizers, the implementation of reforestation programs, and training to improve the knowledge of sustainable farming methods.

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