The Pope, the Activist, the Martyr – And the Organization Putting Their Words Into Action

“The future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives” – Pope Francis at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Thursday, July 9, 2015.

If you believe in the ecological and moral mandates of Pope Francis, activist-author (and EcoViva Advisory Board member) Naomi Klein, and beatified Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, then you should be pleased to learn there is an organization of communities in El Salvador putting their message into practice. These great leaders have coalesced around the priorities of saving the earth, fighting climate change, and working to lessen the gap between the wealthy and the poor. In El Salvador, the Mangrove Association, a grassroots organization based in the Lower Lempa region, has created a remarkable movement that brings together the environment and the fight against poverty. Their model of action is beginning to influence the country’s direction as it fights to escape a legacy of conflict and corruption that predates the civil war.

As one analyst of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “Laudato Si’” wrote, “The real problem, [Pope Francis] insists, is the myopic mentality that has failed to address climate change to date. The rich world’s indifference to the despoliation of the environment in pursuit of short-term economic gain is rooted in a wider problem. Market economics has taught us that the world is a resource to be manipulated for our gain.”

Naomi Klein echoes this message in her recent book, This Changes Everything. She writes that solving climate change must include helping the most oppressed first and that restructuring society to prioritize people and the environment over profits and exploitation is the solution to both climate change and the income gaps between rich and poor nations and people.

Of course, Archbishop Romero’s commitment to the peasants fighting for freedom and economic justice against the brutal repression of El Salvador’s oligarchy is legendary. Since his assassination by a right-wing death squad in 1980, his message has been reborn in actions and struggles across El Salvador. Nowhere is this more true than in the work of the Mangrove Association, a group dedicated to protecting the earth and building sustainable and egalitarian communities.

Pope Francis and Naomi Klein also agree that there is hope if humankind accepts and acts on some basic principles. One is that we are all part of the environment. Our world is connected. What we do to the earth affects the climate and conditions we live in. As Pope Francis says, we did not inherit a world that could be endlessly ravaged without paying the price of damaging our planet and creating climate catastrophes for present and future generations, including possible extinction. Both Pope Francis and Naomi Klein urge us to accept the moral mandate to be caretakers of the earth, and not assume we can continue to plunder nature without consequence.

In This Changes Everything, Klein chronicles the misperception of Western civilization that we can endlessly exploit the earth, atmosphere, and oceans without paying a price. Nature always has the last word, she writes, and if we don’t quickly end our consumption of and dependence on fossil fuels and reduce the amount of carbon we are putting in the atmosphere, future generations will face a world of increasing climate disruption and chaos.

Pope Francis and Naomi Klein agree that economies dependent on maximizing profits for the private sector, never-ending consumption, and the continued use of fossil fuels produce today’s greatest risks: runaway global warming and increased income inequality. Archbishop Romero gave his life challenging El Salvador’s ruling families’ brutal repression of the poor, who were seeking the most fundamental economic and political rights and self-determination over their lives.

The Mangrove Association was formed by peasant farmers who fled the repression that Archbishop Romero decried. They returned to the country at the end of El Salvador’s civil war to rebuild their lives on land granted to the displaced after the 1992 Peace Accords. They named the heart of their new territory Ciudad Romero, and have sought to create an egalitarian civil society where local democracy and environmental stewardship are key principles. In 1997, they declared their area a Zone of Peace, and have worked hard to find nonviolent ways to handle the conflicts which arose between former combatants in a civil war.

Since its formation, the Mangrove Association has grown to include more than 100 communities and over 12,000 people. They are governed by representatives selected at local councils who then elect a Board that promotes the goals of environmental protection, sustainable development, and a fair distribution of resources.

What have the communities that make up the the Mangrove Association done, to be a model for implementation of the difficult, but not impossible, imperatives that Pope Francis, Naomi Klein, and Archbishop Romero set forth? Their accomplishments include:

  • Building a network of municipalities to introduce and teach the most effective methods of protecting the natural resources found in Central America’s largest mangrove forest;

  • Organizing a system of local beach and boat patrols, which has, among its other achievements, helped the communities on the Bay of Jiquilisco convert from unsustainable blast fishing to sustainable line fishing practices. Local communities have built an aquaculture economy that markets sustainably caught local fish and crustaceans and have also learned to protect endangered sea turtle species by gathering and incubating eggs in local hatcheries until hatchlings are ready to be released;

  • Diversifying local agriculture from pesticide-intensive mono crops to organically-grown fruits and vegetables, while advocating for a landmark national ban on 53 dangerous agrochemicals in a country where Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) is an epidemic;

  • Playing a key role in organizing corn growing co-ops to bid for and obtain government contracts for local seeds as an alternative to genetically-modified seed from Monsanto-backed competitors, who used to dominate seed supply;

  • Introducing a law to the Salvadoran Legislature making clean drinking water a human right and implementing policies and initiatives throughout El Salvador to deliver potable water to thousands in rural areas;

  • Creating a local egalitarian civil society, which is becoming a model for providing community solutions to environmental and egalitarian issues, including the empowerment of women in communities that are part of the Mangrove Association to take leadership in the local councils. Proudly, Estela Hernandez, the former executive director of the Mangrove Association, is now a popular Salvadoran legislator advocating for environmental protection versus unchecked development.

  • Promoting youth leadership and developing projects for youth entrepreneurship and employment, including a youth-operated radio alert system, which mobilizes area communities hit hard by hurricanes and floods. In fact, this initiative has prevented any loss of life, while less organized adjoining communities have suffered extensive fatalities.

  • Developing public sector and civil society partnerships to confront vulnerabilities exacerbated by climate change.1 Local coastal populations, like those in the Lower Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco who have already suffered intense drought and flooding, are living the reality of higher average temperatures, more frequent and intense storm events, and longer dry periods or drought. Local communities developed their own network of emergency response to make their communities more resilient to climate change. Thanks to those concrete plans and actions, the government of El Salvador completed an innovative public policy process that will integrate climate response across the majority of its public agencies. Today, El Salvador has reduced its vulnerability rating– thanks in great part to the heavy lifting done by civil society in coordination with the public sector. There is much work to be done, but much to be learned from El Salvador’s continued struggle.

So, while we can and do look to Pope Francis, Naomi Klein, and the memory of Archbishop Romero for inspiration and direction, we have an example of a local organization that is applying their principles in its everyday work.

Pope Francis and Naomi Klein talk about the climate debt we owe those communities who are already experiencing climate change without having contributed to the global warming that is causing it. A good way to recognize that debt is to support an organization of communities that are suffering from extreme weather and flooding resulting from climate change, but also finding ways of building a resilient, sustainable society in the face of these challenges.

My organization, EcoViva, based in Oakland, California, supports the Mangrove Association and its exemplary programs we recognize as a model for El Salvador, Central America, and the world.

This post was contributed by EcoViva’s Board Chair of six years, Jeff Haas. Jeff was active in Central American Solidarity and Sanctuary work in the 1980s and has visited El Salvador 12 times. He is a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago and defended Mora County, New Mexico, from being sued for passing an ordinance banning fracking.