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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reforestation in El Sauce

By chance, the same week I left for a reforestation project in El Salvador, the drab, grey, dull sidewalk near my subway stop was transformed by the planting of new trees.  What a great way to be sent off!  A while back, the community of El Sauce in Santiago Texacuangos approached Beth asking to reforest the area above their community managed aquifer, which had shown many contaminants in a recent test.  Through fundraising efforts at my work, and with the community’s excitement behind us, we purchased 300 trees and supplies to reforest the hill above the aquifer. 

To kick the project off, CEIBA agronomist and founder, Vladimir Jimenez, joined the community meeting Tuesday to go over some important points.  He gave details on how to space out the trees, how deep to dig the hole so that the primary roots are all facing down, the importance of keeping the space in which the tree is planted flat – but most importantly, he said the community must stay involved with monitoring and caring for the trees.


Reforestation is particularly important for El Salvador because of the country’s extreme environmental vulnerability.  Through extensive deforestation during the war (20.5% of forest lost since 1990) and unmanaged logging, only 2% of the country is covered by primary forest.  It has the second highest deforestation rate in the Western Hemisphere, second to Haiti.  That combined with an already vulnerable climate make El Salvador extremely susceptible to landslides, and “natural” disasters.

Vladimir discussed this with the community, and I was glad to see how invested everyone was, arriving with notebooks and questions.  I was thrilled with the great turn out from the youth as well – and impressed that they took interest in the project.  About 20 community members showed up, including one older woman,, Niña Conchita, who I could tell was sizing up the new gringo during the talk.

Friday afternoon we hired a truck and picked up the trees.  Vladimir suggested the community get five kinds: cerezo, cortez blanco, tamarindo, guachipilin, and ceiba.  These five together would filter water and stablilize the soil through fast growing roots.

Down a bumpy, muddy road, we fetched and loaded the trees, then headed back to San Salvador to pick up bokachi (fertilizer).  If you haven’t ridden on top of a flat bed truck with 800 lbs of fertilizer and 300 trees through the streets of San Salvador, you haven’t lived. 
After cutting through the thick smog and busy traffic, we dropped off the goods to Henry’s home in El Sauce, with the help of community children who formed a fireman's carry.

Early to rise Saturday – the fun began.  As we arrived in El Sauce, the community members were already out hard at work, chopping down vines, and preparing the hillside, Both Beth and I originally thought the area would be relatively flat, and that the we could easily plant the 300 trees, but we quickly found we were totally off.  The area to be reforested is the side of a steep hill, with no path, and loose soil. 

 I again saw Niña Conchita, age 72; this time pulling the cut large vines off the side of the hill, slowly but surely, and with great strength for someone her age.  It was at this moment I realized one of the most important lessons of my trip.  I think of problems on far too large a scale.  But seeing her (and the whole community) work together and focus just on this small hillside, made me realize you have to just focus on one community, one hillside, one garden…and do the most you can there.  Conchita, despite her age and physical limitations, did as much as she could to contribute to the project, and that focus and that work makes the difference to that one area.

With the clang of machetes from the thick vine cover, we learned that the first step, as decided by community leaders and the agronomist, was to remove the invasive vines covering the hillside.  The hillside appears green and lush, but it is really covered with invasive vines that suck up water, and choke the existing trees, killing them, and blocking sunlight for any new saplings.  The roots of the vines are very shallow, providing little to no protection from soil erosion.

What to do? – machete the entire side of the hill to cut out the vines.  I picked up my newly purchased machete (which I was planning to use to cut tall grass in my NYC garden – not one inch thick vines!), and started to hack away at what I could.  I tried to copy the 10 year old kids wielding their machetes with ease, but was getting no where.  What was I doing wrong?  Finally, one of the boys pointed out that mine was completely unsharpened, and basically useless.  Phew, so it wasn’t me who was incompetent, but my machete…or at least that’s what I’ll pretend.

 Fortunately, there were extra machetes, so I was able to hack, hack, hack, and hack the vines down.  You can see here what the area looked like before (not exactly the area, but right to the left of it, giving you the idea of what it looked like before), and then what we were able to accomplish after a day of work.  No trees were planted the first day, but subsequent work days will get them in the ground.

 We were invited in to Henry’s house for lunch, and had the most delicious cheese, fresh tortillas, avocado and boiled vegetables.  As I sat and slowly regained my strength, I looked around, and absorbed their humble existence.  I had to force myself to stay composed, as I was already overwhelmed by the day, and now more so because of the generosity of this family.  I could not believe how quickly and gladly we were welcomed to their home, and offered more to eat than we could finish.

The most striking part for me was the family’s water, a giant blue barrel of murky, silty water feeding into a concrete sink.  This water is what they use for drinking, bathing, cooking, everything.  I immediately thought of my own battle to protect our water in New York state against hydraulic fracturing (a kind of gas drilling), and saw first hand how precious water is.  I felt anger and guilt thinking about how easily we take clean water for granted in the US, and the how often we use it for trivial purposes - but here was a family with no choice.  This is their only life-giving water.

I learned and experienced so much during this action packed week, and am glad we were able to begin the reforestation of this one hill.  I won’t forget the hard work I saw, passion to bring about change, and ability to keep going despite difficult circumstances.  I thank the people of El Sauce for allowing me to join them in this project, and especially the young kids for teaching me how to use a machete.

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