On its surface, the town of Ciudad Romero, El Salvador is a lot like others around Central America. Small homes line dirt roads, walking and biking are the main forms of transportation, and most people smile when you walk by with a friendly “Adios.” Each afternoon, as the sun starts to set, herds of cows take over the streets, a bovine rush hour with moo’s instead of car horns.
When you start talking to people who have lived here since the early 1990s, their astonishing story of courage and determination comes alive. Their journey from landless farm workers to refugees to a self-sustaining community gives hope for areas of conflict around the world.
Last summer I led a small group of travelers to El Salvador to see first-hand the cultural and natural revival of Jiquilisco Bay, the country’s largest wetland, and its surrounding communities. We were hosted by EcoViva, a US non-profit that works closely with local partners to support community development and environmental restoration. During an intense week, we learned about the struggles of these rural communities to recover from civil war, seek out livelihoods from overused lands, create new infrastructure and restore natural areas devastated by years of abuse.
The civil war in El Salvador was one of the most violent in Latin America. The seed of this conflict was stark inequality; the vast majority of land owned by a small group of families and the majority of people relegated to poverty. From the late 1970s until the Peace Accords in 1992, at least 75,000 people died and more than 700,000 people were forced to leave their homes, including the residents of Ciudad Romero.
On our first day in the town, we met Marta Alvarenga, a community elder (and wonderful cook), who shared their heartbreaking story with our group. Marta’s gentle smile belied the emotional history that she shared about her community’s survival. She told us about the town’s namesake, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was a hero to the poor for speaking out against the atrocities of the government. In March 1980, he was assassinated while giving mass because of his actions.
Not long after that, the army arrived to the original Ciudad Romero, then located in the southern highlands and burned down the town. Fleeing through the jungle in the middle of the night, the survivors hiked four days to Honduras. Not wanted in there and with little food, the group accepted an offer from Panama and left after six months. The several hundred refugees were given land in the Panamanian jungle to build a new community, surviving from food they grew.
After a decade in Panama, the residents of Ciudad Romero were ready to go home, though the war had not yet ended. Panama’s government was reluctant to let the Salvadorans return to a warzone but their determination to return home was too unstoppable. More than 600 people trekked across the jungle to Panama City and held a hunger strike at the Embassy of El Salvador. After two years of pressure, they were finally given permission to return home.
Once they picked out their land where they would build a new community, a small group returned to start building the new Ciudad Romero. The land was a huge former plantation for cotton and sugar not far from the Lempa River that was abandoned by its wealthy owner. Though peace talks were taking place in San Salvador, the group still faced danger just getting to their land. Several times on their journey, the first group was harassed by police and the army, one time facing down tanks that stood in their way. As other refugees returned home from across Central America, the new Ciudad Romero became a home base as new communities were created in the agricultural fields.
Marta’s storytelling was accompanied by two murals which brought alive the struggles and emotions of the residents. One that hangs in the town church depicts the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the violence that the people fled and was carried back from Panama by hand. The other mural, on the outside wall of the town’s communal kitchen, shows the move to Panama and their decade in the rainforest.
Though the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, the problems didn’t end there. Violence and poverty continued to plague the area for several years until leaders of 14 communities (including Ciudad Romero) organized to improve their communities. The start of the revival was the creation of a plan to respond to major floods that covered fields and damaged the fledgling towns and fields. This group blossomed into an organization known as La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa (Coordinator of the Lower Lempa), which now involves nearly 100 communities in the region and is a major political force in the country’s government.
One of the most impactful meetings of our group’s visit was a discussion with leaders of one of the most active local groups, Asociacion Mangle (website in Spanish), formed to manage new programs for La Coordinadora. Among their long list of successes include a radio station that reaches more than 200 communities, providing opportunities for young people to develop life skills and an agricultural program that is reducing the use of toxic chemicals and improving soils. Their environmental programs are helping to protect endangered sea turtles and end the destructive and dangerous blast fishing (the practice of using homemade bombs to kill fish).
During the week, we visited a number of community development projects and met many leaders young and old, male and female, working to improve their communities. Our group tested out a high efficiency woodstove in action, which helps reduce deforestation and improve air quality while making delicious tortillas. We also visited the area’s clean water project, which provided drinking water for more than 13,000 people, created and managed without any government support. One especially hot day, we spent a couple of hours helping out at a local farm, adding organic compost to fruit trees.
I’ve led a number of tours to Latin American countries that have inspired people, but none that had the impact of the incredible story of Ciudad Romero. Parts two and three of this story will follow soon, focusing on local efforts to transition to organic agriculture and protecting the area’s incredible natural resources. Learn more about trips to El Salvador to support community development and sea turtle conservation.
Photos provided by Brad Nahill