Protecting Paradise: Community Engagement in Sustainable Development | El Salvador


El Salvador is one of the most densely populated countries in the Western Hemisphere. It exhibits deforestation rates comparable to those of countries like Haiti. As with much of Latin America, historical land use patterns and ownership have favored large-scale, singular landholdings, for which regulations or management regimes were nearly nonexistent. Today, authorities are attempting to reform and implement a functioning environmental permitting system, even as new investments in sensitive coastal areas will substantially increase over the next five years. The discussion will outline the challenges facing countries like El Salvador with evolving institutions and rule of law concerns. It will consider the role civil society can play in forging real development compliance–no matter the country—and will highlight the work of a visionary Salvadoran community-based organization, La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa, whose vision and practice of rural development stand in dramatic contrast to conventional ”know-how.”

11 thoughts on “Protecting Paradise: Community Engagement in Sustainable Development | El Salvador

  1. The talk this week was interesting in that the idea of a studio may come out of it and a potential studio field trip. Given that the planning stages are still early I have maybe more concerns then there is excitement about the topic. Whenever you have a bunch of outsiders coming in with a set of expectations and goals the thought of trust comes to mind. Even if the intentions are good and there is an urgency to want to help. I believe that it is important that the helpers keep in mind the thoughts, beliefs, and wishes of the locals. It appears that that is also important to Adele and Nathan, but then again there is also a hierarchy to everything. I am just concerned that even though they set out to help, who is to say that other more powerful organization will not come in and completely change everything about the area. Yes, the area already has its issues, but I am just concerned that other issues will be added if and when tourism starts to take hold. This presentation reminds me of what happened to the Garifuna in Honduras. They were included in the early process, but somehow ended up being displaced slowly in the end. Since things are in the early stages still and tourism will take hold one day, it will be interesting to see how tourism will be designed to fit into its surrounds and take into account sea level rise and other local environmental issues.

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    • Your concerns as a matter of principle are very well founded, but in this case, the work that we have been doing for the last 8 + years in El Salvador is no longer that of “a bunch of outsiders.” Our relationship with our partners, La Coordinadora and Asociación Mangle, has a huge built-in reservoir of trust, shared commitment and collaboration. Perhaps we didn’t emphasize that enough in our talk. You said very wisely that “I believe that it is important that the helpers keep in mind the thoughts, beliefs, and wishes of the locals.” That is the essence of our working relationship with the communities. Every year, we design our projects in close and ongoing consultation with the communities and the NGO that services them. It is a slow process, in keeping with the participatory democratic model that governs the modus operandi of our partner communities. The issue of tourism is a particularly thorny one for them, since they have little at this time to counteract the forces of “more powerful organizations.” Nevertheless, the proposed Studio might help provide some “force to content with.” Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

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  2. One of the terms that most interested me in this talk was “co-management.” My time at UC Berkeley has made me think much more critically about doing community-based non-profit work in other places in the world. I think that a major challenge is: how do you ensure that you are not just coming in and telling people what to do? How do you respect and enhance (not override) local knowledge? How do you recognize that your particular cultural biases could blind you to the most suitable course of action for a culture that is not your own? I think that it is important for external actors to recognize that they do not know everything just because they come from a more developed place or have had certain training or education.

    This week’s talk suggested one possible way to approach this kind of work via an interesting analogy of ‘giving slingshots to Davids who are fighting Goliaths’. In other words, the outside actors are not taking over and fighting the battles themselves, but helping to provide tools to the local people who are fighting the battle. The idea of ‘local capacity building’ was also suggested in the talk, and I think that is another important strategy. The goal should not be to set up a situation so that everything would fall apart if you leave, but instead to help build up enough local capacity so that if you leave, the local individuals/groups are able to continue doing their work.

    I believe that a mutually respectful attitude was demonstrated in this talk because the goals that were expressed included making a long-term commitment to the project, enabling community-based solutions, and promoting inclusive growth and benefits.

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  3. Thank you very much for this succinct articulation of a fundamental challenge of development and its potentially viable solutions towards sustainability. For us from the “outside”–but very much implicated in the issues being tackled from the “inside”–a large dose of humility and understanding of the limitations of our role is essential.

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  4. I must admit, I was unaware of ecotourism as a term but upon further research saw that I am familiar with the concept. I think it is a great idea to use tourism for economic growth but one would have to tread lightly. I believe the title of the presentation was most appropriate, Protecting Paradise. How do we use the ecological gems of a place and open them up for others to see without causing more harm than good? While searching to increase revenue, how do we keep pristine the beauty of certain sensitive natural areas, in addition to highlighting them as attractions?

    This presentation brought forth some surprising facts. It was astonishing to hear that only recently was there a first attempt at land use maps for zoning. Due to three families controlling the sugar, “economic interest buddies”, I understand there being no incentive for policy. I think La Cordinadora is doing good work as far as fostering community forum and brainstorming ways to move discussion outside of the walls of a colorfully painted room. I applaud the effort to take public meetings to the vibrant and beautiful settings of El Salvador as a whole and not just an enclosed area for gathering space. Using a project-specific approach to land use planning instead of a “one size fits all” approach is also admirable thinking. I also agree with the co-management process of delegating authority and enabling community based solutions. I am sure the community has much to say and given the proper platform to openly share their ideas will help make informed decisions.

    As far as the possible studio option is concerned, I would be interested to hear more. Due to being pressed for time, it was severely rushed towards the end. I feel there are some strong goals that were presented and plausible enough for a more detailed look. Being able to actually travel to the location is even more cause for interest.

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  5. This talk on El Salvador was interesting. It was essentially a summary of current beginnings into regional planning efforts. Part of what I found interesting was the extremely recent nature of any formal planning attempts. While this might be relatively common worldwide (and within the global south) I was nonetheless surprised.

    From the talk it sounds like the non-profits involved in assisting the Government in the region discussed are doing an admiral job. Their goals of community led development seemed holistically considered. It is interesting though, as one speaker said, that we are still only on the cusp of finding out how this will actually unfold. It is again, a case study of how to best harness tourism, this one perhaps larger than any other we have yet discussed. And once again the question is: is sustainable/equitable tourism even possible? This example in El Salvador will in time certainly have implications and lessons learned, hopefully for the better.

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  6. Hi All,

    Enjoyed meeting some of you at the presentation. I’m Aaron Voit, former Field Coordinator for EcoViva in El Salvador, and current Berkeley Law student. Happy to chat more about EcoViva’s work with anyone who is interested, and would love to learn more about your work in the Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning department and how it relates to the current challenges to sustainable development in El Salvador. I’m always on campus, feel free to shoot me an email at Look forward to getting together.


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  7. Aaron, great to know that you are around and Thank you for sharing your e-mail with the group here.
    Will get in touch with you at the time of working on the short courses or the Berkeley/MIIS Studio in El Salvador.


  8. Ana Negrete’s Presentation was very interesting because her project in El Salvador is aimed at creating a tourist environment that is both sustainable for the environment and the people. Her project calls for a co-management, in which everyone joins in a collaborative effort to show off the already beautiful paradises in El Salvador. This project, by what I understood, wanted to enhance the already beautiful land of El Salvador, and not destroy and create something new and extravagant. Something I really admired of this project was the idea of involving the community in the planning process, which I believe to be essential to a sustainable project because the locals are the ones who know their land and what the best use is for them and the environment in the long run. A key component of a sustainable project is providing social equity, and this project would create jobs for the people of the area and would allow them to collaboratively work together, bringing the community together. I believe this Eco-tourism project is a great way to start working toward more sustainable projects that would benefit the environment as well as society and not just the few that run big tourist corporations.

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    • Alejandra, thank you for your comment. I really liked the fact that you underscored the involvement of the community in the planning process. This is key to any form of development that would be sustainable. Although ecotourism may have the potential for benefiting communities and the natural environment, it also has its pitfalls and challenges that must be identified and understood more deeply.


  9. El Salvador has always been a country that has suffered from a great deal of issues. With problems ranging from deforestation to massive levels of corruption in the government, El Salvador is struggling to establish itself as a safe and fun destination for tourists. They are trying to promote a new form of ecotourism by highlighting their countries intense natural beauty, while still ensuring that it is protected. This has caused some serious issues with local people’s sense of agency and power in the country.
    The speaker put forth some very interesting ideas to combat this issue by suggesting that we basically give slings to the David’s. Their organization is attempting to give the local residents the tools to promote sustained growth and give them the ability to continually grow their country even without their help. This is particularly important in developing countries, as it is very frequent that a foreign power will move in and begins to dictate government policy in the area for a long time after their work is finished. They were trying to avoid that by setting up the population with the capacity to run their government in a sustainable and effective manner.
    I do have trouble believing that her organization is going to be able to empower the people enough and that they will be able to run the government on their own any time soon. It is often extremely difficult to come in and negotiate peace between different factions in the country and the elites who are more inclined to support the current order. I would have liked if she had chatted further about the political elites in the country and the level of political authority they have been given in government. I feel like a discussion on this could better help explain their missions and how they plan to get them done. Without the wealthy and politically powerful behind you, it is near impossible to instill any real long lasting change to a country.
    Despite this small concern, I thought that the lecture was very well presented and was an interesting exploration into the idea of trying to empower the regular people in a government system. Hopefully El Salvador will continue to expand its ecotourism industry while still remaining sympathetic to the issues affecting their people.


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