El Salvador on brink of environmental catastrophe

CUTUMAY CAMONES, EL SALVADOR — CUTUMAY CAMONES, El Salvador -- This is a site of retching foulness, where cows, children and vultures stand side by side, wrenching survival from a mountain of rotting animal corpses and human waste. Where flowering trees once sheltered countless flocks of fabulously colored birds that drank from clear, flowing rivers, a seemingly endless stream of trucks now disgorges cargoes of poisonous trash.

No trees grow here. Streams are clogged with garbage and the eroded silt of barren, chemical-ridden soil. On this site, shrouded by smoke from a perpetual fire, people are not spared: 50-year-old men look 70; teen-agers are the size of 6-year-olds; a cut on the arm can lead to amputation.


Officials call Cutumay Camones, just north of the town of Santa Ana, a landfill.

But it also is a symbol of the country's destruction of its environment -- because of overpopulation, because of a costly civil war, because it is cheaper to pollute, because it is profitable, because officials are ignorant or guilty of wishful thinking.


The damage in El Salvador is so severe that "we are the losing the capacity to sustain life here," said Ricardo Navarro, an ecological activist who heads a private environmental agency called CESPA.

Marisol Ferrer de Toledo, executive assistant to El Salvador's agriculture minister, conceded that "the environment is in extreme chaos.

"Our development," she noted, "never took the environment into account."

The evidence of that is clearly visible. In the town of Ciudad Arce, a cement company flattens mountains for sand without restoring the land or preventing erosion. A landfill in a San Salvador suburb holds radioactive waste. In the city of Perquin, much of the area has been scorched by war, while in the waterfront town of La Union, a housing development is being built on a landfill made up of toxic residue brought from the United States.

By the accounts of environmental groups and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, El Salvador, once a lush, vibrant land, has lost 94 percent of its forests and 80 percent of its natural

vegetation. The resulting erosion has damaged or rendered useless 77 percent of its soil.

L Almost all of the country's water supplies are contaminated.

"In Europe, they bottle water; here, we just destroy it," Ms. Ferrer de Toledo said.


International health groups found in a recent nationwide test of food markets that local vegetables, irrigated and washed with local water, contained at least 2 1/2 times the acceptable level of residue from human feces.

United Nations and Salvadoran environmental groups say pollution has destroyed three species of trees and three species of mammals. Threatened with extinction are 62 species of trees, 63 types of orchids, five species of fresh-water fish, three kinds of frogs, 21 species of reptiles, 68 species of birds and 18 types of mammals.

Human life is threatened, too. Children's Hospital in San Salvador has reported that an average of 50 children die each year of pesticide poisoning in that facility alone.

The human toll of El Salvador's environmental destruction also can be seen less than a mile below Cutumay Camones in the village of Las Cocinas, a ragged collection of broken-down huts lining a stream that runs from the garbage dump. Looming above it is Cerro El Nispero, or Medlar Tree Hill.

There is irony in these place names. Las Cocinas means the kitchens, and it refers to a time when the hamlet was a place where farmers gathered to eat. There are no trees of any kind on Cerro El Nispero. All natural vegetation on the steep, 400-foot hill has been cleared away for crops.

"Every time it rains, the dirt washes down from the mountain," said Dionis Sandoval, 50, a Las Cocinas resident. "Each year the crops get worse. There is hardly any corn anymore."


Ruben, Mr. Sandoval's 13-year-old son, is barely 4 feet tall. Hwore torn boots he had reclaimed from the dump, and his bare toes were swollen and infected.

"He is always sick," his father said. "The doctor in Santa Ana said it is because of the water. We're not supposed to drink it. But what else is there? Sometimes it is so bitter I can't swallow it."

El Salvador's 11-year civil war has added to the environmental destruction by preventing farmers from working their land and driving them to make a living by cutting and selling wood from forests.

Ecologists wonder if there is there any hope for improvement in El Salvador's environmental woes. There is a germ of awareness and concern. but the solutions mentioned by Ms. Ferrer de Toledo of the Agriculture Ministry reflect a lack of urgency and a continuing denial of national responsibility.

Instead of specific projects, she has seen a need for "building an infrastructure to deal with the environment. We first need a specific [government] department to study the problem." When pressed about other concrete actions, she responded: "The government is looking for donor countries."

Experts say that the cost of just making this land basically livable again, without even hoping to restore the country to what it once was, is incalculable.