Interview by Diane Jukofsky, Rainforest Alliance
“The donors have to understand that after two earthquakes the country is not the same, nor can you prioritize the problems of local communities in the same way…. Many of the community leaders that were our local colaborators lost their belongings, their homes, and in some cases they lost families.”
Last January, two devastating earthquakes struck El Salvador, causing hundreds of deaths and destroying thousands of homes. Among the towns affected were several outside El Imposible National Park, where the conservation group SalvaNATURA works. Below, Marta Lilian Quezada describes how she and her SalvaNATURA colleagues responded in the days following the earthquakes, how her work on Project AGUA allowed her to help more effectively, and how the objectives of Project AGUA had to be adjusted after the emergency.
Quezada: Project AGUA involves a team of 12 professionals, including environmental eduators, seven agroforesters, experts in community outreach, eco-technicians, and two civil engineers. Three of us were in the field, specifically in the area of Ahuachapán at 11:30 the morning of January 13, when the earthquake struck. Manuel Escamilla and Remberto Erazo, two agronomists, took their motorcycles and went right away to visit 40 farmers who worked in Project AGUA’s model farms, to assess the damage to their homes and families. Homes of two of the farmers were completely destroyed, and the rest were damaged.
I was in the town of Apaneca getting ready for an environmental education workshop when the earth began to shake. The house I was in at that moment shook just a few seconds, and then I and two people who were with me managed to get outside. The ground then shook for a long time and I saw the house collapse and the street undulating. People ran out of their houses, all very frightened, some yelling that it was the end of the world. For at least 45 minutes I was one of the many people that reacted immediately by pulling injured people from the ruins, helping hysterical people, trying to be in control and calm my own fears. For those minutes I forgot my family. I didn’t realize that the earthquake had affected the entire country — I didn’t know that we had experienced one of the most serious earthquakes in the history of our country.
I tried to telephone my daughters without success. By listening to a radio broadcast from Guatemala I learned that the destruction was nationwide, and I decided to try to reach San Salvador. It was a journey of seven hours, with many stops to help people, more strong tremors, and finally I reached home.
Within 24 hours, we were headed toward Usulután, where we also work and where the earthquake damage was really terrible. Hector Aguirre, Ricardo Mejía and Oscar Sánchez left with the first pick-up trucks loaded with food, potable water, and clothes to help the communities of Santiago de María.
What we had seen in Ahuachapán was minor compared to what we saw when we arrrived at Santiago de María. Some 85 percent of the houses had collapsed. Immediately the communities and local governments mobilized to gather clothes, food, blankets, mattresses, medicines, plastic roofing, potable water — we used all our pick-up trucks.
We have also helped organized local organizations and local emergency committees. We helped the committees gather information about the amount of damage in homes and other buildings, the damage to the drinking water infrastructure, environmental damage — where the landslides were located — and helped supply temporary homes and other basic needs.
We are still providing potable water to different communities whose water systems have been damaged. We have started rehabilitating damages systems and rebuilding the collapsed cisterns that collect rain water.
We have developed a campaign in 11 communities to ensure the water quality, to prevent health problems. This campaign, called “secure water” is possible thanks to support from two organizations, the International Center in Washington, D.C. and AHAS in Honduras, which have donated hydrochloride and supported us with their experience in how to establish a chlorine bank and in community training.
Question: How can you incorporate this work in the original project workplan?
Quezada: That’s a problem. Part of our emergency work cannot be incorporated in our objectives. Our donor is clear that it doesn’t want us to work in that way, without meeting the objectives of the project. However, some of our emergency activities can be part of the project, such as ensuring the quality and supply of potable water for the communities, as well as the work to strengthen local organizations and linking these institutions with national and international organizations.
Also what we have done in terms of identifying risks of landslides can be considered part of our workplan, but our work related to housing, which is the most intense right now, is outside our program objectives. All the time and funds invested in constructing temporary shelters, the engineering to develop plans for permanent housing, designing projects to manage the funds for permanent housing, designing plans for health needs, among other things — what we are doing on our days-off, at night, with our own resources, we are doing all this because we are committed to helping the people with whom we have been working almost two years.
Q: But your donor understands that it is impossible to advance the project when people do not have homes or schools?
Quezada: We are negotiating a redesign of objectives, indicators, and funds. The donors have to understand that after two earthquakes the country is not the same, nor can you prioritize the problems of local communities in the same way. In a way, we had to do the emergency response work in order to create the minimum conditions necessary to restart the project; also we had to do an analysis of setbacks to the project. Many of the community leaders that were our local colaborators lost their belongings, their homes, and in some cases they lost families. They don’t have the security of having enough to eat each day; and some have left for other areas. Much of the soil conservation work we had already done was lost in the landslides.
The truth is, people are not ready to think about local development, citizien participation, soil management. In spite of that, we have been able to mobilize, in a sense, some communities. We don’t know will happen tomorrow; each moment is a special situation. We have had two earthquakes and the tremors continue relentlessly. Everyone is uncertain. We have to also deal with peoples’ spirits. People who do not have much formal education tend to believe the rumors that their lives are over, so they are not going to plant crops because they will not be here tomorrow. There is a sense of total hopelessness.
Q: What are the chances that you can continue Project AGUA?
Quezada: We definitely have possibilities — I think we have good opportunities. We are talking about planning and managing micro-watersheds, with the participation of all the key players, and promoting an understanding of the watershed as an area where there are related activities in education and production. With the continual disasters that we have, professionals, academics, and community leaders in El Salvador are coming to understand the relationship that we as a society have with the environment, so this is an opportunity to make people aware. It’s an opportunity for local governments to understand that the need local legislation to conserve natural resources. It is an opportunity for the people to understand the interrelation between natural resources and the way we manage them.
When we talk about developming management plans for watersheds, we are proposing water conservation but also we are seeing the watershed in its totality, with a holistic vision, that also involves disaster prevention.
In El Salvador, environmental deterioration has increased social and environmental vulnerability. Using steeply sloped areas — this is a country with irregular topography — for the production of basic grains and for housing and the resulting loss of vegetative cover in these areas has had a real impact — it is in these areas where we had the most damage in terms of landslides and the tragic loss of human lives. For example, look what happened in Las Colinas: The people bought their houses there because they wanted to have the mountain in their backyards, and it was this mountain that collapsed and buried hundreds of people…there are still people missing.
We can’t predict or prevent earthquakes, but their impact is more serious because we have in one way or another caused the deterioration of our natural resources. It is also our work to make sure people understand this in communities where the educational level is low. So they don’t keep believing that this was divine punishment, so they understand it as a reaction of the earth to the relationship we have established with our natural resources, our mountains, and our forests.