How Do We Make a Country Self-Supporting?
Hurricane Mitch left 250 dead in El Salvador and, as in Honduras and Nicaragua, completely ruined thousands of poor peasants, especially in the eastern regions of San Miguel, La Unión, La Paz and Usulatán. There were wash-outs and cave-ins all over the country, whose tragic ecological conditions accentuated the devastation.
One month before Mitch hit the region, Ricardo Navarro, a prestigious environmentalist from El Salvador, spoke on his country's environmental deterioration at a Latin American seminar in Quito, Ecuador. It was like a premonition. We have excerpted the following thoughts from a synthesis of his presentation prepared by the ALAI Information Service.
El Salvador cannot support itself as a country. Our years as a society are numbered. In an exercise we did we found that El Salvador has environmental problems for every letter in the alphabet: agua, basura, contaminación, deforestación, erosión (water, contamination, garbage, deforestation, erosion), all the way to Z. We've been accused more than once of being apocalyptic, but there is evidence to demonstrate our fears.
Let's begin with A, with the water problem. The water table is dropping over a meter a year in El Salvador. Sooner or later we're going to hit bottom. We get our water supply from the Lempa River, which picks up all the urban and agroindustrial contamination from Guatemala, Honduras and part of our own country further upriver. That's our water source. On top of that, the river is drying up, and now they want to reroute it to produce electricity. They're going to leave 81 kilometers dry. Where will we get our water?
Now let's move on to air. The most common cause of infant mortality in El Salvador is acute respiratory infections, product of the contaminated air. The most dangerous thing that can happen to a child in El Salvador is to start breathing. And the second most dangerous thing is to drink water or eat food, which produce gastrointestinal illnesses. During the war, we had about five hundred deaths a month. Now, we have a thousand from acute respiratory infections and another thousand from gastrointestinal illnesses. Just from these two causes alone, four times more people die than did in the war.
The number of children born with brain damage in our country today is appalling. Since there's no longer enough firewood to go around, many people have stopped using it to cook with; now they burn tires instead. As we know, burning tires emit a series of compounds that have been shown to alter hormones and the endocrine system. Children are born deformed, and cases of cerebral damage are on the rise.
What's behind our environmental problems? They are the inevitable result of a development model that is the main culprit everywhere we look. Appropriate technologies, laws and accountability aren't enough. All of these things are needed and are good, indisputably. Nonetheless, the way our development model is organized leads us logically to environmental deterioration, independent of all that.
The current development model is geared to generate wealth. Everything in it revolves around free competition and free trade. People exploit resources without thinking about others, much less about nature. And the result? Environmental deterioration, social deterioration and violence. In the case of water, the army and the police have been at each other's throats over the issue. El Salvador is going to be the first country in Latin America to have violent internal wars over environmental issues. We're already seeing it. Every day there are problems in the communities because the water doesn't get there, or is contaminated. We're already fighting over water internally; those "wars" have already begun.
The current development model needs to be based on a strong power structure. Every environmental fight is, in the last analysis, a fight against that power structure, part of which is militarism. Do we want to be self-supporting? We have to eradicate armies from the face of the planet. I don't know how, but we have to do it. We can't allow the high military spending we have in El Salvador or all the damage caused by this spending.
The environmental struggle also requires fighting against the mental structure and values that we all have, even the poor themselves. It is saddening to see people from the countryside come in to the city to sell a papaya grown on their land so they can buy "plastic food," because they dream of being part of the system. These values are already so strongly stuck in our heads that the struggle in this terrain is enormous.
In thinking about the supportability of society, we have to be careful with the words we use. We often use "sostenible" (sustainable) and "sustentable" (supportable) interchangeably. But there is one very big difference between them: things are sustained from the outside and supported from within. We want a model that is supportable from within and not only sustainable from outside. We have to begin insisting that development be "unsustainable," to make clear that the object of our fight is to have a self-supporting society.
Becoming self-supporting means changing, not going any further down the same path. The war is now behind us, but we have to remember it. There are rural regions in El Salvador that no one went into at night during the war, because if a bullet from one side didn't get you, one from the other side would. What happened? The deer began to abound; the flora and fauna regenerated. I'm not saying that we should make war to protect the environment. What I mean is that when the development model stopped being applied in some places, nature recuperated. This obliges us to wonder: how do we halt this model of development?
The supportability of society requires many things. There are requirements of an ecological, economic, social and political order. In the ecological sphere, the cycles, the rhythms, the spirits of nature have to be respected. Little is said about this. Nature has a spirit of austerity. Of the 30 million species that live on the planet, all consume from nature only what they need to live. With one single exception: Homo sapiens. We as a civilization have violated nature's spirit of austerity. We have to recover that spirit.
Environmental impact studies are inappropriate. What should reign in all works is the spirit, the criterion, of minimal disruption. We have to recognize that nature has a wisdom superior to our own. Why the criterion of minimal disturbance? Because we should recognize, humbly, that we don't understand what's going on, what's taking place in nature. There was a time, for example, when we belched fluorocarbons out into the air, thinking that was the coolest thing to do, and only afterwards did we realize that we are destroying the ozone.
We believe that other considerations of an economic nature should also reign in a self-supporting model, such as national independence from outside pressure. And those of a social nature, such as the eradication of both extreme poverty and extreme wealth. In the current development model what is generated is wealth, wealth understood as consumption, and consumption that does damage to nature. This "wealth" generates a lot of poverty. And in their desperation, what do the poor do? They fell a tree if they think they can sell it. They kill turtles to eat them. They destroy. They have to live off of something. But to reach or recover environmental balance, we have to eradicate wealth and poverty. Eradicating poverty doesn't meant eradicating the poor. It means eradicating extreme poverty, just like extreme wealth.
We're not going to become self-supporting if we don't start empowering our different communities, in fact all social sectors: women, the indigenous population, the black population. And in so doing, we have to take one thing into account: power is not something that you receive from another who gives it to you; it is something you take, which is a very different thing. Whoever gives power, does so with strings attached. Whoever takes power is empowered. Another thing: taking power doesn't mean grabbing a rifle and killing others. It means beginning to claim and exercise power. If we expect anyone to give us power, we're lost; it will never happen. Having it depends on us.