Land is a scarce commodity in El Salvador. Large fincas cultivating coffee, sugar and cotton monopolise the best spots and, in Central America’s most densely populated country, there isn’t much left over for the little guys.
Traditional subsistence farming methods using milpas (small plots traditionally used in Mesoamerica to grow beans, corn, squash and other necessary food crops) are still going strong, but because of economic pressures many farmers are converting what little land they have to cash crops like sugarcane. This is leading to soil degradation as monocropping takes the place of the diverse multicropping milpa approach.
Further environmental damage is done by the method of hand harvesting sugarcane. In the harvest season the fields are burnt to burn dry leaves and kill any venomous snakes without harming the stalks and roots of the crop. Harvesters then cut the cane just above ground-level using machetes. Our friend Korla told us that in Suchitoto ash literally falls like snow during this time.
Deforestation is also a huge issue, largely due to the growth of the aforementioned farms. A poultry 17% of the El Salvador is forested, with only 2-5% of this primary forest. This is the worst record in Central America.
Tackling some of these issues from the bottom up is the mission of the Permaculture Institute of El Salvador, based in Suchitoto. Founded in 2002 the Institute works with local communities to teach them permaculture principles in the context of their Salvadorean lifestyles.
Started by a Salvadorean, the Institute in not like a lot of other NGOs, Ally (permanent volunteer, and fellow Brit) told us. Many locals are wary of foreign NGOs that parachute in promising the earth, but fail to deliver. The Institute is homegrown, as it were.
There is also the added bonus that subsistence scale agriculture seems perfect for experimenting with permaculture. Lots of small, diverse plots tended by families reliant upon them for daily sustenance. The farmers have a deep connection, and reliance upon the land, a great springboard for the application of permaculture.
The Institute is funded by European and USA foundations and seems to be doing well. It is now established and respected enough for its results that requests are coming in for assistance, rather than the staff having to go out and extol the virtues of permaculture to secure projects and education courses. For El Salvador’s rapidly depleting soil quality, maybe permaculture is the answer.