Groundbreaking Agreement between Conservation Group and Real Estate Company Solves Financing Problem for Park in El Salvador

A $500,000 donation and an agreement between a leading real estate firm and an environmental group in El Salvador mark a conservation milestone in Central America — the first time a private company has given such a large grant earmarked for one nature reserve, in this case an area known as Los Volcanes (“the volcanoes”).

Illustration by Allan Núñez ('Nano')Through an alliance between the Roble Group and SalvaNATURA, a conservation group that already administers several parks in El Salvador, the firm has agreed to provide at least $100,000 a year for five years for Los Volcanes’ management. SalvaNATURA executive director Juan Marco Alvarez says the commitment will cover about 75% of the reserve’s operating costs and solves “a critical long-term financing problem.”

The agreement is part of a larger initiative, launched by SalvaNatura and the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN, for its name in Spanish), to establish an endowment fund guarantying conservation of El Imposible and Montecristo National Parks and El Jocotal Wildlife Refuge, as well as Los Volcanes. Some 92 percent of tiny El Salvador is deforested, so its handful of reserves is especially precious.

According to Alvarez, SalvaNATURA previously has received sizeable donations from private companies dedicated to the protected areas administered by the conservation group. For example, Philip Morris International has donated $145,000 to buy land added to El Imposible National Park. Nonetheless, he believes that there’s much greater potential to involve El Salvador’s private sector in public conservation efforts. “We think this kind of alliance is the only solution for protecting our natural areas, since the government has other funding priorities,” he says.

While Ernesto Zepeda, director of Natural Patrimony at MARN, concedes that the government “invests very little in protected areas,” he adds: “the true reason is that our renewable natural resources policies call for participation from civil society, since natural resources like water and biological diversity are owned by the public, and we all have to participate in their conservation.”

The general manager of commercial development for the Roble Group, Carlos Figueroa, explains that the company has a vision of not only being a business leader but also of “contributing to the sustainable development of our society.” He points out that the Poma Group, which owns Roble, has supported various health, education, and environmental initiatives in El Salvador.

In the case of Los Volcanes, Alvarez points out that the Roble Group first got interested in the idea of supporting the reserve because it is a “national emblem.” The three imposing volcanoes that dominate the reserve — Izalco, Cerro Verde and Santa Ana — provide one of the most famous and spectacular views in El Salvador. In exchange for “adopting” Los Volcanes, the Roble Group will receive its share of positive publicity, since the company’s logo will appear on all of reserve’s signs and related promotional and educational materials.

The donation allows SalvaNATURA to purchase needed equipment, develop infrastructure, such as building nature trails and erecting signs to mark the reserve’s borders, and hire personnel, including guards and nature guides. But there’s still a major problem to resolve. In spite of the fact that it encompasses nearly 5,000 acres of state-owned land, Los Volcanes is not an officially declared protected area.

But Zepeda points out that the reserve has an advantage over scores of natural areas in other Latin American countries, where legal decrees for parks exist on paper, but most of the land inside the declared borders remains in private hands, with few funds to purchase them. Conservationists call these reserves “paper parks.” Los Volcanes, at least, is owned by the government, though the official paperwork is lacking. Zepeda reports that a proposal will be sent to the Legislative Assembly that would result in official protection for 30 different areas, including Los Volcanes.

Corridors, coffee & conservation

In addition to the 5,000 state-owned acres, about 11,000 acres in private hands might be incorporated into the Los Volcanes area through promotion of sustainable, low-impact activities. Principal among these is coffee, says Alvarez, since soils in the area are believed to produce the best-tasting coffee in El Salvador. SalvaNATURA hopes to establish a wildlife habitat corridor that would connect Los Volcanes with El Imposible National Park and feature forested, sustainably managed coffee farms.

In El Salvador, nearly all the coffee is grown the traditional way – under the shade of tropical trees. To encourage proprietors to maintain the trees on their land, SalvaNATURA will work with the Rainforest Alliance, an international conservation group, to bestow a seal of approval on those farms that follow the groups’ guidelines, which outline how to cultivate coffee with minimal impact on the environment and maximum benefits to communities and workers. The sustainability label can earn farmers a premium from eco-conscious coffee guzzlers, especially in the United States and Europe. (Read more about the Alliance’s sustainable coffee program.)

Another low-impact activity SalvaNATURA hopes to develop in Los Volcanes is tourism, since the area is both beautiful and close to the capital city of San Salvador. Part of the Roble Group’s donation will go toward construction of a nature center in the reserve, the biggest and best equipped in the city, according to Alvarez. “We hope that sustainable tourism can contribute economically to the park’s operations,” he explains. The area, long popular among Salvadoran tourists, was hit hard by a powerful earthquake in 2001, but will soon be ready to again receive visitors.

Los Volcanes’ natural assets start at sea level and extend skyward to misty cloud forests. One rare bird found in the area is the rock wren (Salpinctes obsoletus), which hops about the hardened lava flows of Izalco Volcano. Other wildlife species found in the reserve include the banded anteater (Tamandua mexicana), ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), coyote (Canis latrans), black crested eagle (Spizaeus tyrannus), and emerald toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus).

— Diane Jukofsky and Katiana Murillo

Contacts in El Salvador:

Juan Marco Álvarez
SalvaNATURA
33 Avenida Sur #640, San Salvador
tel 503/274-4230
fax 503/279-0220
jmalvarez1@hotmail. com
www.salvanatura.org

Ernesto Zepeda
Director de Patrimonio Natural
MARN
Alameda Roosevelt I-55 Av Norte
Torre El Salvador, Edificio IPSFA
3er nivel, San Salvador
tel 503/260-8901
fax 503/260-3117
zepedae@marn.gob.sv

Carlos R. Figueroa
Grupo Roble El Salvador
tel 503/257-6000
cfigueroa@roble.com.sv

Read more about this project in the Eco-Index:
www.eco-index.org/search/results.cfm?ProjectID=369.

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