The Pandemic Left the Sapo River Unprotected

19 de Noviembre de 2020
By: Suchit Chávez.

COVID-19 halted the work of environmental organizations on the Sapo River in El Salvador. Their goal was to become familiar with the area through scientific research and activities such as compiling an inventory of flora and fauna and operating patrols to block illegal hunting and logging. Their absence is not the only risk to the region: within a period of two years, the San Miguel Environmental Court ordered cancelation of the permits for two hydroelectric plants: one on the Sapo River and another planned for one of its tributaries. 

When they told him, he did not believe it. They talked about a natural area of more than four thousand hectares where river otters (Lontra longicaudis), king zopes (Sarcoramphus papa) and pumas (Puma concolor) could be found. He was skeptical, because "those species are extremely rare.”  He recognizes it was what he thought at the time.   

This is how Juan Pablo Domínguez describes his first journey to the Sapo River in 1998, when he was working with the Sustainable Tourism and Environmental Unit of the Salvadoran Tourism Corporation (Corsatur) in Morazán, which is the northernmost and easternmost department in El Salvador. It is a place where there was a strong guerrilla presence, as of the1980s, and the population maintains its capacity to organize. 

Juan Pablo was looking for travel and sight-seeing ventures that could focus on a sustainable approach, and he met with people dedicated to that particular type of tourism, who took him to the natural area around the Sapo River.

"We paid a visit and before we got there, while we were still driving, I spotted a king zope on the horizon.  ‘Wow,' I said, 'here we go.’ We got off [and] I started walking. The area was incredibly interesting. I went to the river and found otter droppings on the bank.   ‘So, it’s true,’ I said.  After seeing a king zope and evidence of an otter, I thought to myself, 'Here, one might find anything, since those are some of the most difficult species to spot," said Juan Pablo.

The Sapo River is located in the northern part of Morazán, a department in eastern El Salvador. Several NGOs are involved in trying to protect the river and some six thousand hectares of surrounding forests and tributaries. 
Credit: “Let’s Save the Sapo River” Initiative.

This water resource conservation initiative, first conceived in 1998, took shape twenty years later, in 2018, when three NGOs dedicated primarily to scientific research - Biosystems, Territorios Vivos El Salvador and Fundación Naturaleza - joined forces. 

Before that, the Salvadoran Health Promotion Association (ASPS), the Territorial Water Board Committee, Tourism Development Promotion, and other civil society organizations in the area had done the same from the standpoint of resistance through conservation programs and complaints about deforestation. 

The natural area, which includes a dry subtropical pine-oak forest, is estimated at 6,000 to 6,500 hectares. The Sapo River is 20 kilometers long and connects with other tributaries such as the Torola and the Calambre, which are used by dozens of communities in the region. It also borders Honduras. So, environmentalists believe the area has the potential to become a binational natural zone.

The Sapo River and the adjacent area subject to conservation are situated between the municipalities of Arambala and Joateca (although a portion falls officially within the municipality of Meanguera). All these municipal areas are in northern Morazán, which was an important scenario in the Salvadoran armed conflict and is near the spot where one of the most infamous massacres in Latin America was perpetrated: the massacre at El Mozote in 1981, where 978 people were executed. This figure is recognized as official. More than half of the victims were children. What happened at El Mozote was more or less the beginning of twelve years of armed conflict, a period that ended in 1992 with the signing of a peace agreement. Morazán was one of the few places in El Salvador where there the guerrillas had a semi-stable camp.

"When I first got involved with the issue of communities, I saw there was a fairly strong, organized society, which is what makes this area somewhat different from other parts of the country," says Francisco Samuel Álvarez, one of the founders of Fundación Naturaleza, who works in the Sapo River area on projects that involve species monitoring and scientific research. 

"After the armed conflict, many people who returned and those who had remained began to manage grass-roots organizations to reincorporate themselves into the new reality of post-war life. Many of them were historical leaders, in terms of armed conflict, and some still are, but their fight is now in another field: the environment. They have left weapons aside and turned to the environmental struggle,” assures Samuel. 

The Forest Twenty Years Later

The “Let’s Save the Sapo River” Initiative was launched in June 2019 by Fundación Naturaleza. Territorios Vivos El Salvador, an environmental company, joined in later.  As Luis Girón, a member of Territorios Vivos, recalls, the initiative was started by Juan Pablo when he invited several colleagues to visit the river to collect data.

Juan Pablo and Luis traveled to the area together. One of Luis' areas of expertise is mammals; so, he was invited to go along. "We had done research on bats, spider monkeys and other species. Juan Pablo called me for just mammals, and we set up some camera traps. His idea was to keep them there, while we were in the area, but I told him why not leave them longer and I would check them," says Luis.

While they were there, Luis introduced Juan Pablo to Samuel, who works with Fundación Naturaleza, an organization based near the Sapo River in Morazán. Luis recalls this is how the idea of "coordinating conservation of the site" came about.
 
The most recent list of threatened and endangered species in El Salvador dates from 2015. It includes 174 threatened animals and 115 in danger of extinction. Some of them have been rediscovered or reported for the first time in the Sapo River area. This knowledge has been possible, in part, due to the scientific work that began to be developed to preserve the river. 

According to Juan Pablo and Luis, the initial effort implied a direct bet on establishing a baseline of flora and fauna, so as to have an exact idea of the resources in the area. This was being accomplished through focused studies and the collection of visual evidence using camera traps. The results began to be published and included milestones such as capturing the presence of a puma on video for the first time. However, a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the work stopped. Field inspections were paralyzed, and Samuel says even some funds that already had been approved failed to arrive.  

Using a camera trap, the conservation initiative was able to visually document a puma (Puma concolor) in El Salvador for the first time. According to Juan Pablo Domínguez, there is evidence of at least one group living in the Río Sapo area. 
Credit: “Let’s Save the Sapo River” Initiative. 

The state of emergency instituted because of the pandemic took effect in El Salvador on March 14, 2020. Since then, the country has been among those with the longest quarantine. There are even reports of Salvadorans being detained illegally for allegedly violating the lockdown. 

Despite the quarantine, a study on mammals in the Sapo River region was published in June 2020. Based on data collected between August 2018 and December 2019 by biologists (some from Fundación Naturaleza), community researchers and indigenous residents of Arambala and Joateca, through field inspections and camera traps, the analysis documented the presence of 22 species of mammals, including six rated as threatened or endangered, and a new species registered for the country: the glider squirrel (Glaucomys volans), also known as the shuli in  Potón (one of the languages used by the indigenous Lencas in the area). 

"The longer the data period, the better the comparisons you can make and come to a conclusion about the status of the (flora and fauna) populations and their trends," explains Juan Pablo when talking about the monitoring they did.

Before that, researchers had documented other findings in studies published on the area from the standpoint of conservation. One, which was released in May 2020, concerns the first photographic record of a puma in the region.   There had been only indirect reports of this species between 1984 and 2006. A study on birds, also published in June 2020, registers "a total of 231 species, including  the first published report of a buff-collared nightjar (Antrostomus ridgwayi), which is a new species for the country, as well as the mountain trogon (Trogon mexicanus), which is known in El Salvador only in the hills of Morazán, and new data on national distribution of species such as the black swift (Cypseloides niger), the rufous-necked wood-rail (Aramides axillaris) and the black-throated blue warbler (Setophaga caerulescens)".

Field research, however, languished for about four or five months. "Monitoring definitely had to be stopped; we are not doing it now. I believe some surveillance is still going on, at least a bit," bemoans Luis from Territorios Vivos El Salvador.

Besides the quarantine and not going out into the field, there is also an economic problem. "Precisely, with the issue of the pandemic, we stopped receiving income. People who had committed their support [and] some companies that had offered us financing for these types of activities, all but abandoned us during the pandemic. As a result, there has been no field work during the four months we have been in quarantine," acknowledges Samuel from Fundación Naturaleza.

Resistance in a Non-legalized Natural Area 

The Sapo River area being proposed by environmentalists for conservation has approximately two thousand more hectares than El Salvador's largest protected natural reserve, El Imposible National Park, which is located in the department of Ahuachapán, in the western part of the country. 

The region determined for conservation is based on an estimate made by Juan Pablo himself and a group of biologists who arrived months after their first expedition to try to assess what resources the subtropical forest has. According to Juan Pablo, the area was so uncharted that they were unable to find maps of the territory, with a detailed scale, and that was six years after the signing of the Peace Accords.  

Although the sector has suffered deforestation in recent years and, according to Juan Pablo, "it is not the Sapo River I once knew," he believes its resources can be restored despite the evident loss of forest mass and less water in the tributary. 

"At this point, there are streams that are losing water completely and are entirely dry, which wasn’t the case. The level of the river is much lower and there is less vegetation. We were able to identify a lot of indicators of what is called hydric stress. In other words, the habitat is surviving, but it is at the limit, since it barely has the water it needs," explains Juan Pablo.

The problem is that most of the land in the estimated conservation zone is private property. One of the tasks of “Let’s Save the Sapo River” is to conduct a local survey of the land, which is not being done because the pandemic brought a halt to that process as well.  

The only legally established natural protected area in the estimated conservation zone is La Ermita, which is state-owned. In turn, it is part of the so-called Nahuaterique conservation site, which includes hills and rivers in the departments of Morazán, San Miguel and La Unión, all in eastern El Salvador. These areas are grouped according to their similar characteristics in terms of biodiversity.

Part of the Sapo River conservation initiative involved a proposed private protected natural area to be managed as a land trust. 

The Sapo River: Between Resistance and Extractivism 

Ownership of portions of the forest is one aspect the problem when it comes to the conservation of flora and fauna. On August 27, 2018, the San Miguel Environmental Court, which is the only judicial venue of its kind in eastern El Salvador, ordered the country’s Ministry of Environment Affairs and Natural Resources (MARN) to revoke a permit issued to Eneco, S.A. de C.V. to build a small hydroelectric plant on the Sapo River.  However, the case dates back fifteen years to the time when MARN granted the company an environmental permit to build a hydroelectric plant in 2003. Although it was not possible to locate the document in the Ministry's public records system, references to the Environmental Impact Study presented by Eneco at the time can be found in a 2006 dissertation entitled "Environmental Legal Study of the Construction of the El Chaparral and Río Sapo Hydroelectric Dams in Eastern El Salvador" and in the case file at the San Miguel Environmental Court. 

On August 28, 2017, members of the Salvadoran Health Promotion Association (ASPS), which is part of the Territorial Water Board - a group of organizations involved in defense of the right to water - sent a letter to the court in which they began by saying "the Sapo River is a unique natural reserve in the country, one that is immersed in an environment of extraordinary ecological preservation, since it is the most important river in El Salvador as a source of clean water.” The complaint detailed the risk involved in construction of the hydroelectric plant, starting with a 20-meter dam.

ASPS had already filed similar a complaint a year earlier with the Environmental Court in San Salvador, as the San Miguel court had yet to be established. At the time, that court decided it was not appropriate to revoke the permit, since MARN declared it was still waiting for the company to present an updated environmental impact study (EIA). Part of the problem was that, after the environmental permit was approved, Eneco did not proceed with construction of the hydroelectric plant, precisely because of the protests staged by local communities, who organized to block the project.  The delay forced Eneco to update a number of documents. 

In 2003, the company valued payment of the performance bond at US$3,133.02 to cover measures to mitigate the environmental impact the construction would have. The payment covered the planting of 333 pine trees ($874.74 USD) and $1,714.29 as the highest value for construction of a septic tank, a sump well and an irrigation well, among several other proposed activities. As stated in the case file, MARN even agreed to include an extra item requested by Eneco that was not covered by the original environmental permit; namely, the installation of two small turbines to generate 1225 kW each. The change was approved without additional studies being requested.

The demonstrations protesting the project began the moment it started, as documented in the aforementioned 2006 dissertation by Ada Chávez, Ana Vega and Graciela Rivas. Public consultation on the project, summarized in that dissertation, was conducted in August 2002 in Arambala. It was clear the local communities disapproved of the construction and had sent MARN letters to that effect since 2002. During the judicial process, an Eneco representative also stated there was no "life in the river" and, therefore, no environmental impact. He refused to offer a preferential rate for electricity, because the cost did not depend on the generating company. In May 2006, concern about the project prompted the local communities to secure a municipal ordinance from the authorities in Arambala to protect the Sapo River. 

Although public consultation on the project was carried out in 2002, the Commercial Registry of the El Salvador National Registration Center (CNR) shows Eneco, S.A. de C.V. was founded on July 8, 2005. That same year, it registered "river land in the Poza Bruja district" valued at USD$400,000 as one of its assets. This is according to the balance sheet it presented. The company has not updated its information in the CNR since 2011.

Agenda Propia tried to locate the Eneco, S.A. de C.V. representative, but he was not available to comment on this information. 

The case file also includes the minutes of a judicial inspection of the exact sector where the hydroelectric plant was to operate. The inspection was done on March 9, 2018. One of the resource rangers (as they are known in El Salvador) assigned by MARN explained the natural area was in the process of being officially declared a protected zone. He also stated the communities near the forest are very active in defending the area’s natural resources, and local conditions in 2018 were quite different from those during the year the permit was issued. According to the ranger, the river flow loses one cubic meter every year.

More Threats to the River 

Regino Rodríguez is a facilitator for the Territorial Water Board in the department of Morazán and a member of ASPS. He reports having taken part in activities to protest the Sapo River hydroelectric project but, for the second project in April 2019, he was directly involved as a plaintiff.

The second project, known as the San Martin Small Hydroelectric Plant  and operated by Centrales Hidroeléctricas San Martín, S.A. de C.V., was intended to install a hydroelectric generating facility on the Calambre River, which Regino says is a major tributary of the Sapo River.

"These permits from the Ministry of Environment Affairs and the Office of the General Superintendent of Electricity and Telecommunications (SIGET) were issued before it was announced the project had been approved and work was going to start.  We didn’t know at the time, because there had been no consultation.  They know there is local resistance to building this sort of infrastructure in natural areas. So, there was no open discussion or anything.  All the procedures were completed without consultation," indicates Regino.

He says signatures began to be collected on that occasion and "we also managed to convince the eight mayors in the northern zone (of Morazán) to submit their signatures in a show of support. They are listed in the complaint.”   The mayors of Arambala, Perquín, Joateca, Jocoaitique, Meanguera, Torola, San Fernando and Villa El Rosario joined the petition, along with civil-society organizations.  

Although the project is mentioned briefly in a SIGET activity report, the hydroelectric plant's permit is not publicly available, nor is its environmental permit from MARN or any related documents. 

This year, as with the previous case, the San Miguel Environmental Court ordered MARN to revoke the environmental permit as part of a judicial process that determined, once again, the project would cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem in the area.

Agenda Propia tried to obtain MARN's version of the case, as well as data on the natural area, by contacting the ministry’s communications department. However, there was no response to its requests for an interview.

Eduardo Franco Cárcamo, one of the legal representatives of Centrales Hidroeléctricas San Martín, claims his family has owned property "for more than 40 years" in the area that crosses a section of the Calambre River. "In 2013, someone suggested we become involved in this project," he said, because the government was promoting renewable energy initiatives. According to Franco, his father decided to submit a bid and won the contract. 

Franco insists the project did not have a major impact, since there was no intention of building a dam.  He says they complied with all required documentation and even submitted a corporate responsibility plan. Franco regrets there is resistance to the project and claims there is no conservationist struggle in the area, but rather one of political convenience. According to him, the project was so small MARN waived the requirement for an environmental impact study. 

In addition to the hydroelectric projects, another threat to the Sapo River natural area has been a plague of weevils.

Regino and Samuel agree a major turning point in the push to conserve the area was the bark beetle plague in 2016.  Bark beetles attack pine forests and can be controlled through logging.  Northern Morazán, where the Sapo River area is located, is covered in pine forests. 

Samuel says the plague made it easier for government authorities, donors, and "social organizations, which are different from the community development associations (ADESCO), water boards, indigenous groups, NGOs and financial organizations, such as the Environmental Investment Fund of El Salvador (FIAES), to sit down together for a common purpose. They are the ones who began to finance weevil control.

The group that was created gave rise to the Inter-institutional Commission to Combat Weevils, which operates in the northern part of Morazán. This initiative brought together some 30 organizations and, once the emergency was over, they decided to continue to meet on a monthly basis.  

"I had already worked in protected areas where even speaking with people was a struggle. I would come out of those places scared. It was very difficult to work. Here, the context is different because, after the armed conflict, most of the forest cover in this area grew back, In 20, 30, 40 years, it has recovered. And, that same organization facilitates this to a certain degree," Samuel says.

When talking about accomplishments, Regino mentions a visit by the Minister of Environmental Affairs at the time, Lina Pohl. After the weevil emergency, the group became the Morazán Inter-sector Environmental Restoration Commission.

"It is a process that has simultaneously highlighted the issue of environmental education, through programs and projects," explains Regino.  According to José Guadalupe Argueta, who heads the Environmental Unit at City Hall in Joateca, environmental awareness has become pervasive.  For approximately two years, he has been working with volunteer rangers who reside in the area.   “They used to be hunters,” he says. 

Environmentalists from different NGOs working in the Sapo River area use technology such as camera traps, drones and mobile applications to monitor the habitat and to supply local and international databases with information.
Credit: Fundación Naturaleza.

José Guadalupe is also recognized as a contributor to recent field studies on biodiversity in the Sapo River natural area. 

"Due to the pandemic, there have been no meetings since the start of the year. This is unfortunate, since not everyone has the same technology. So, not everyone can connect via Skype. There are some people who have to climb a hill to get a phone signal," said Samuel.

Owing to the spread of the novel corona virus, all economic activity in El Salvador virtually stopped in March, apart from activities considered to be “essential,” such as the production and sale of food.  The economy began to reopen in August and, by October 17, the Salvadoran government had officially registered 31,666 cases of COVID-19 and 922 deaths from the disease.

“Now, this commission has been reduced to a WhatsApp group and complaints are filed occasionally, but it doesn't carry the same weight.  In the meetings, commitments were made and, sometimes, one had an opportunity to come face to face with the Ministry (of Environmental Affairs). All that has been lost with the pandemic,” adds Samuel.

On the other hand, before the pandemic, the Salvadoran Health Promotion Association also worked with the Inter-sector Commission and with a wide network of volunteers in northern Morazán, carrying out projects on environmental surveillance and education. They have used drones and are regular contributors to applications such as Forest Watcher, feeding the databases on the Global Forest Watch platform through research activities such as geo-referencing forest fires and loss of tree cover.

According to the platform, the municipality of Joateca (4,210 inhabitants) lost 262 hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2019, while Arambala (1,821 inhabitants) lost 117 hectares in the same period.

For decades, El Salvador had been considered one of the most deforested countries in Central America and with least amount of forest cover. A government study in 2018 showed a much higher percentage of land covered by forest than had previously been announced. Some experts, such as Luis González of the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES) question whether the methodology could have favored quantification, and do not believe the sudden increase in forest mass from 14 percent to 37 percent, according to data from the Central American Integration System, (SICA) for 2010.

The same SICA report noted Guatemala's forest cover was 34 percent by 2010 and Honduras’s, 46 percent.

What Happens when there is Nothing Going On 

 A social media post on May 12, 2020, during the COVID-19 quarantine in El Salvador, caused widespread indignation. It contained a photograph of a slain puma, with its front legs severed. The animal’s body was found in the municipality of San Fernando, in the department of Chalatenango, about 200 kilometers west of the natural area around the Sapo River. 

"Hunting has increased. We issued warning on the death of a puma in Chalatenango. It is something that is happening on a fairly large scale, in different places, because of the current emergency. Hunters take advantage of the fact that there are no controls and the authorities are busy with other matters," Juan Pablo Domínguez said at the end of July.

The pandemic prevented activists, advocates and scientists working in the Rio Sapo area from continuing their efforts. The NGOs received alerts on intrusion, deforestation and destruction during the four-month lockdown. 
Credit: Courtesy of Fundación Naturaleza. 

Although none of the environmentalists believes the slaughtered puma was from the Morazán area, they think the situation is serious and have no doubt the lockdown dealt a crucial blow. It is no wonder. A study done in the United States and published at the end of 2019 contains new clues about the role pumas play in their habitat, as "nature’s engineers". The research in question found that 18 remains of prey hunted by pumas were habitats for 215 species of beetles.

"The puma is a predator at the top of the food chain and, in other places, it has been shown that ecosystems begin to fail when predators are lost.  There is no longer any animal to stop those who eat the vegetation.  There begins to be an imbalance in the forest. So, if we lose the plant cover, there will be less room for pumas. If there is hunting and pumas begin to die out, we are going to lose the largest predator species in the country," explains Luis. 

Therefore, loss of the ecosystem in Morazán would imply not only the disappearance of species, but also an ecological imbalance. The Sapo River is one of the few that has repeatedly been a source of acceptably clean water in recent years, according to an analysis of water quality in El Salvador. One of the most recent reports on the surface water quality index published by MARN in 2018 (with data from 2017), indicates only 32 of the 90 sites monitored are rated as "good", including the Sapo River.  However, none of the water sources studied can be made drinkable by conventional methods and very little can be used indiscriminately for irrigation.

Regino says the Sapo River remains a source of water for domestic use by several of the surrounding communities. In 2019, it was still classified as a "good" water source, but "not suitable" for unrestricted irrigation.

"The Sapo River is a tributary of the Torola River, which is a tributary of the Lempa River. If the area is deforested, or other damage is inflicted on the ecosystem, which has fish, shrimp and crabs that serve as food for local communities, they lose a source of food and water, some of the purest water in the country," says Luis, implying a possible chain reaction. The Lempa River is the main source of water for the metropolitan area in El Salvador, and the Sapo River is located hydrologically in the Torola River sub-basin, which is part of the Lempa River basin.
 
In the opinion of Luis González, the UNES project coordinator, poachers and companies are taking advantage of the pandemic to continue to destroy the environment. "For those who degrade the environment, there has been no quarantine," he complains.

This activist also criticized the fact that the sugarcane industry was among those allowed to continue to operate during the lockdown.  In contrast, "leaders who have historically sought environmental protection were locked in their homes. They could not provide the care they once did.  Consequently, on the one hand, we have those who move about freely and harm the environment, without any kind of control, and, on the other, people who advocate from home, without being able to go out," says Luis González.

UNES has been carrying out environmental projects in western El Salvador for years. Like the Territorial Committee of the Morazán Water Board, it has received complaints during the pandemic, but is unable to verify them in the field.  By the end of August, UNES was still trying to confirm those complaints; however, according to Luis González, it had not managed to cover even 10 percent of the area.  

"After four or five months of confinement and quarantine, the issue of deforestation has somehow gained traction.  It's like the issue of opening up roads in forested areas, or the extraction of stone material from some wooded places. These situations occurred and, under normal circumstances, perhaps they would have been less," explains Regino. 

On July 23 and July 28, Regino received complaints from his network of volunteers, along with photographs of roads being opened up and damage to the forest in the municipality of Arambala (Morazán). One of them shows a mound of dry earth and detached stone in front of the forest. According to Regino, although they are investigating who is behind the deforestation, they know there usually is no environmental permit involved.

In July, Regino Rodríguez received complaints of deforestation, road construction and illegal quarrying in the natural area. Local volunteers sent him this photograph. 
Credit: Morazán Territorial Water Board Committee.

For Luis González, the problem they face also concerns the fact that the Forestry Act is too permissive, because it is applied by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG) and not by MARN. According to this environmentalist, when MAG issues a logging permit, it only makes sure the species in question are not protected under any rules or regulations. However, it does not inspect the site afterwards to determine if the amount of timber logged coincides with the permit that was granted. 

Juan Pablo says they had managed to reach an agreement with MARN to increase the number of resource rangers from four to eight, just before the pandemic hit.  The plan is to watch over the entire natural area and not just La Ermita, as four resource rangers had been doing.  The agreement was implemented through a third institution, FIAES, which acted as an intermediary.  FIAES is the entity that disburses the funds MARN receives as environmental compensation; namely, some of the fines and financial claims the ministry collects for violations of the Environmental Act.

In fact, MARN’s annual budget was reduced last year when the government prioritized other types of spending, such as funding for the Ministry of Defense, which was increased. With the pandemic, the amount of money available for natural protected areas was reduced to an almost symbolic amount

According to Juan Pablo, the quarantine did not allow for good coordination between the work of the area's environmental NGOs and that of the rangers. This is happening while the damage continues, as confirmed by figures from El Salvador's Attorney General's Office (FGR), which show that nearly 45  percent of the 103 cases registered between January 2016 and July 2019 with respect to alleged crimes against protected wildlife occurred between January and July 2020 (46 cases).

Mariano Pacas, who is the technical manager of FIAES, confirmed the agreement is being implemented and implies a disbursement of $95,000 USD to pay 20 resource rangers in the country, but only for eleven months. Four have been assigned to the Río Sapo area. Pacas, however, said he could not provide details on whether local coordination has been adequate, since MARN is still in charge of technical management.  

Samuel Álvarez from Fundación Naturaleza says his organization was excluded. "Despite our efforts, I even had to visit the communities personally to help them build their curriculums as a way to encourage their participation.  We made all this effort, then with the contracting, with the other organizations, we were excluded. We have no formal presence through the resource rangers," he said.

After five months of quarantine, El Salvador began to reopen at the end of August. 

So, work in the territory began again. By mid-September, they were "fifty-fifty," Samuel says.  During the last week of September, they were just beginning to resume monitoring the area with camera traps. 

Not everyone is happy about the reopening. On September 24, Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele publicly confirmed the country would not be part of the Escazú Agreement. What little was said openly to justify not doing so is that "one can’t stop building homes”. The Agreement provides a broad basis for guaranteeing public access to environmental information, environmental justice, and specifically the rights of environmental activists.

Far from presidential decisions, but directly affected by them, Regino doesn't take much time to think when asked what the communities of Morazán derive from the natural area around the Sapo River. Although, he says "having basic living conditions" is necessary, he adds that "quality of life is very much related to having a lot of economic resources, which is linked to that. Yet, I believe quality of life implies people having basic elements such as water, air and ecosystems, having land, having output from their land.” 

That's it: quality of life.