El Salvador. A country that’s situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire (prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions), where 50% of the rural population lives below the poverty line and there are huge rates of underemployment; 40% of Salvadorans are subsistence farmers, 21% are officially employed in agriculture (which accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP), and – not at all unrelated – 45% do not have access to safe drinking water. These are all statistics that revolve around a central theme: deforestation. El Salvador is 97% deforested; only 6,000 hectares of primary forest remain (of the 2.1 million hectares that make up the tiny country). Much of this deforestation has occurred in the last twenty years, as the country’s population has exploded and its income disparity between the wealthiest and poorest has widened. And the majority of this deforestation is a direct result of agricultural expansion. Over 80 percent of El Salvador’s land is under agricultural production, and much of that is subsistence farming, which is being done on marginal lands – lands not particularly suitable for farming. Arable land – land that is very suitable for farming – makes up only 27% of El Salvador’s land, which gives you a sense of how much pressure is being put on the land of this small country.
The choice is between forest conservation and food production, and I don’t believe anyone who is badly in need of food will think twice about clearing some land to plant seeds that will grow crops that will feed them and their family. The cleared trees will be put to use to make a fire that will cook their meals. Fuel wood is the number once source of cooking fuel here, a close second is propane, which is subsidized by the government. And yet the decision that consistently puts food production over forest conservation will ultimately result in the demise of agriculture on these lands. The extreme nature of deforestation here is having serious and long-last ecological effects. Without trees to trap the waters during the rainy season, several things happen. First, the water is swept downhill into the rivers immediately, taking nutrient-rich topsoil with it. Lack of topsoil combined with the traditional slash-and-burn style of agriculture, leaves the ground starved for nutrients and microorganisms. Second, since no trees are trapping the water during the rainy season, very little water is getting absorbed into the land. This means that the land becomes parched much faster when the dry season hits, and even more serious – it’s changing the entire hydrology of the country. Less water during the dry season means the rivers become far lower than they have historically, leaving people without a source of drinking or washing water. Third, as the water washes away quickly (carrying, recall, all that topsoil and whatever else it picks up on the way), the rivers rise quickly during storms, creating more dangerous flooding. Fourth, if the hillsides are steep enough, with no trees to hold things down, severe mudslides are becoming more and more common. This has grave social consequences, as many people and their belongings are buried under these sudden mudslides. And the heavier the rains (such as during a hurricane), the more pronounced all of these impacts are.
So although some people may be able to feed themselves and their family today, and even for the next year or two, the long-term survival of the average Salvadoran subsistence farmer is tenuous at best. There are very few other examples where human survival, agriculture, deforestation, and even climate change are so inextricably linked, and even more than that – the consequences are being seen now, and will only continue to get worse if measures (perhaps drastic ones?) aren’t taken. Growth in food production (in terms of output) has occurred on the large plantations (occupying, as you might have guessed, the most flat and arable land) that grow crops for export. These capital-intensive plantations that grow sugar or coffee or corn (for ethanol) require very little labor forces and have succeeded in pushing farmers to the marginal lands, or into the cities in search of jobs. The solution certainly is not an easy one, but a solution is necessary before crisis hits.