Seeking Rights for Natural Forests in El Salvador

Figure 1 Photo by Paulius Dragunas on Unsplash

Figure 1 Photo by Paulius Dragunas on Unsplash

Earth Law Center (ELC) and Sí Por La Naturaleza (“Yes for Rights of Nature”) have partnered in a bid to secure Rights for Natural Forests. Sí Por La Naturaleza has already submitted a proposal for the country’s Legislative Assembly to pass a Declaration on the Rights of Natural Forests, which was co-drafted by ELC.

If passed, El Salvador would become the first country to recognize the inherent rights of natural forests, representing a major leap forward in the global effort to reverse forest destruction and degradation.

Introduction to El Salvador

El Salvador, officially the Republic of El Salvador, is the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America with 6 million people. El Salvador's capital and largest city is San Salvador. The country is tucked away along the Pacific Ocean, with Honduras to the northeast and Guatemala to the northwest. 

Cave paintings provide the oldest evidence of humans in El Salvador dating back to at least 6000 BC. From there, the Lencas, Olmecs and Mayans built their consecutive empires until the Spanish arrived, enriching the Spanish Crown from 1528 to 1811 plus the 14 families who later became the coffee oligarchy and ruling class. To shake off the yoke of authoritarian rule, a Civil War raged from 1980 to 1992 claiming 75,000 lives.

El Salvador has emerged to consolidate both democracy and peace, electing five consecutive democratic presidents with peaceful transitions of power. Public services have expanded and inequality has declined, driven by income growth for the poorest 20 percent in 2016. This makes El Salvador the most equal country in Latin America for the same year, after Uruguay (and more equal than the United States).

Layers of a forest

Many layers make up a forest: the forest floor, the understory and the canopy. Each layer has its own ecosystem – plants and animals that differ from the other layers.

  • Forest floor contains decomposing leaves, animal droppings, and dead trees. Decay on the forest floor forms new soil and provides nutrients to the plants. The forest floor supports ferns, grasses, mushroom and tree seedlings.

  • Understory is made up of bushes, shrubs, and young trees that are adapted to living in the shades of the canopy. For young saplings in a deeply shaded part of the forest, the network sustains them. Lacking the sunlight to photosynthesize, they survive because big trees, including their parents, pump sugar into their roots through the network.

  • Canopy is formed by the mass of intertwined branches, twigs and leaves of the mature trees. The crowns of the dominant trees receive most of the sunlight thus produce the most food. The canopy forms a shady, protective "umbrella" over the rest of the forest.

The type of forests depends on the system of classification: the biome in which they life, leaf longevity of the dominant species (whether they are evergreen or deciduous) or type of leaves (broadleafconiferous, needle-leaved, or mixed).

Importance of Forests

Regardless of the type of forest, a recent paper demonstrates the importance of keeping forests intact.  Intact forests help mitigate climate change, maintain water supplies, safeguard biodiversity, and protect human health.

Intact forest landscapes (IFLs), or vast stretches of unbroken forest wilderness, are some of the most important ecosystems in the world. Their intactness makes them uniquely valuable to nature—they regulate temperature and rainfall across continents, provide homes to indigenous peoples, have some of the highest biodiversity rates and store huge amounts of carbon, among other benefits.

Forests host 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and 300 million people. The planet has lost about 80 percent of its native forests, resulting in the extinction of countless species and displacement of many communities, especially indigenous peoples.

Forests protect watersheds which supply fresh water to rivers—critical sources of drinking water. Healthy urban and rural forested watersheds absorb rainfall and snow melt, slow storm runoff, recharge aquifers, sustain stream flows, filter pollutants from the air and runoff before they enter the waterways; and provide critical habitat for fish and wildlife. Forested watersheds also provide abundant recreational opportunities, help support local economies, provide an inexpensive source of drinking water, and improve the quality of life.

Forests absorb water and hold soil in place, thus reducing the risk of mudslides that result from natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. By soaking up excess rainwater, forests prevent run-offs and damage from flooding. When forests release water in the dry season, they also help provide clean water and mitigate the effects of droughts. 

Figure 2 El Salvador Vegetation and Land Use via  Wikipedia

Figure 2 El Salvador Vegetation and Land Use via Wikipedia

Loss of Forests in El Salvador 

While the people of El Salvador has been doing well in recent decades, the forests have not. El Salvador is the second most deforested country in Latin America after Haiti.

Almost 85 percent of its forested cover has disappeared since the 1960s, leaving about 5 percent of the land area forested. Less than 6,000 hectares are classified as primary forest. 

Deforestation in El Salvador has had serious environmental, social, and economic impacts. Today over 50 percent of El Salvador is not even suitable for food cultivation, and much of the country is plagued with severe soil erosion.

Denuded hillsides leave the country vulnerable to devastating mudslides—in October 2005, landslides killed more than 50 and required the evacuation of more than 34,000 residents. Degraded forest areas are more susceptible to fires, as well, with fires in 1998 alone causing more than $172 million in damage. 

Stepping up protection of Nature in El Salvador

El Salvador has lost about 85 percent of its native forests since the 1960s, outpacing the global rate of deforestation. Forests located within the regions of Cordillera del Bálsamo and Cordillera Apaneca Ilamatepec, as well as forests within many other regions, are being destroyed for short-term economic interests. For other forests, it is already too late.

Figure 3  Lookout point  at Parque Nacional El Imposible ElmerGuevara

Figure 3 Lookout point at Parque Nacional El Imposible ElmerGuevara

Fortunately, several forest ecosystems still exist. Take, for example, the tropical mountain forests within Parque Nacional El Imposible, home to more than 400 tree species and many rare and endangered animal species—the Motmot, King Vulture, and Tamandua mexicana (a species of anteater). Another is the cloud and pine-oak forests within Parque Nacional Montecristo, whose wet climate and diverse ecosystems support a splendid variety of orchids, mosses, over 275 endemic bird species, and pumas, to name a few.

Figure 4 The King Vulture, a species native to El Salvador’s forests

Figure 4 The King Vulture, a species native to El Salvador’s forests

El Savador’s government has also stepped up efforts to protect natural forests, committing to a National Restoration of Ecosystems and Landscapes Program. The Plan focuses on four priority areas, with a long-term plan to reforest or restore one million—half the size of the country—hectares by 2030.

Specifically, the program fosters agricultural systems that are both friendlier to biodiversity and resilient to climate change —such as agroforestry— and aims to restore key ecosystems such as terrestrial forests, mangroves, and swamps.

El Salvador also committed to widescale ecosystem restoration, including of forest ecosystems, through the U.N. Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030. This commitment is also in furtherance of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 15—“Life on Land”.

The government didn’t stop there. In 2017, El Salvador became the first country in the world to ban mineral mining.

Despite its history of significant deforestation and forest degradation, El Salvador appears to be committed to restoring its ecosystems to health. Both its social and environmental leaders and its government appear to be ready to embrace a new generation of environmental protections.

Could recognition of the Rights of Nature be their next step in restoring a harmonious relationship with the planet?

Campaign to Give Rights to Natural Forests

System change is possible where there is a dedicated grassroots movements and politicians who are willing to embrace new paradigms. That is what we have seen in El Salvador, where a Rights of Nature movement has gained significant momentum in under a year.

Figure 5 Sí Por La Naturaleza’s first press event, held on March 20, 2019

Figure 5 Sí Por La Naturaleza’s first press event, held on March 20, 2019

The group Sí Por La Naturaleza has been behind much of this progress. It is a new coalition of lawyers, engineers, university students, and others who are united by the belief that nature has fundamental rights that must be recognized in law. And they are already creating change in El Salvador.

"We are more concerned about taking advantage of nature than protecting it for our own subsistence,” says Eneas Wilfredo Martínez Santos on his Facebook page. “But we can still change. Let us say ‘yes’ to the rights of nature.”

The group is focusing its attention on the need to recognize the inherent rights of natural forests in El Salvador. By doing so, the country can begin to protect and restore forests as a right, rather than continuing the flawed paradigm in which forests are treated as mere property to fuel short-term economic interests. It would be a game changer.

Towards this goal, Sí Por La Naturaleza, in partnership with Earth Law Center, has proposed a “Declaration of the Rights of Natural Forests in El Salvador,” or “Declaración de los Derechos de los Bosques Naturales en El Salvador” in Spanish. It states that natural forests are living entities with certain inalienable rights, including rights to life, to integral health, to support native biodiversity, and to independent legal guardianship, amongst others. The proposed amendment also recognizes related human rights, including the right to a healthy and sustainable climate. 

Figure 6 Our partners Eneas Santos and Emanuel Orellana from Sí Por La Naturaleza appeared on the TV program Tu Mañana ("Your Morning") to speak on the Rights of Natural Forests in El Salvador

Figure 6 Our partners Eneas Santos and Emanuel Orellana from Sí Por La Naturaleza appeared on the TV program Tu Mañana ("Your Morning") to speak on the Rights of Natural Forests in El Salvador

The campaign is quickly gaining steam. Over the last month, Sí Por La Naturaleza launched the Declaration of the Rights of Natural Forests, hosted a media event on the campaign to give legal rights to natural forests, spoke on multiple television shows, and appeared in newspapers. There is now a robust national conversation in El Salvador about how to evolve their relationship with forests.

Overall, it seems that El Salvadorians are eager to embrace a new environmental paradigm based on the rights of natural forests and other ecosystems. While the idea of giving legal rights to forests is new, the concept of nature having inherent value is intuitive to local citizens, many of whom already have a deep connection with Nature.

“Giving legal rights to El Salvador’s natural forests is a gift, not only to ecosystems and species, but to all of El Salvador, particularly its future generations,” said Eneas Wilfredo Martínez Santos. “Without thriving natural forests, our planet cannot support humans nor millions of other species.”

What’s Next

Figure 7 Sí Por La Naturaleza handing the Declaration of the Rights of Natural Forests to Deputies of the Legislative Assembly

Figure 7 Sí Por La Naturaleza handing the Declaration of the Rights of Natural Forests to Deputies of the Legislative Assembly

We are confident that El Salvador will take the next step by officially recognizing the rights of natural forests. 

Be sure to follow Earth Law Center’s social media and newsletters for updates.

Also check out the Facebook page of Sí Por La Naturaleza. We also hope that El Salvador will help inspire other countries to evolve their own relationships with their forests while there is still time.

You can act today: