Disaster-prone Central America shows it means business on climate legislation

by Nelson Rentería | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 30 May 2014 10:09 GMT

Forest ranger Juan Calderon patrols on top of a hill to make sure no one starts fires near the Montañona park in El Salvador’s Chalatenango hills. TRF/Oscar Garcia

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Threatened by climate hazards and deforestation, Central American nations are passing laws to protect their people

SAN SALVADOR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In El Salvador’s Chalatenango hills, hit hard by civil war in the 1980s between the army and Marxist insurgents, many trees were damaged or destroyed in the hail of bombs and bullets.

After the conflict ended in 1992, the inhabitants of Montañona, a small town 98 km north of San Salvador, began mobilising to restore the 21 hectares they owned, and to protect the surrounding forest landscape of more than 1,400 hectares.     

These days, however, the local vegetation has a new enemy: ranchers. Some are starting fires on hillsides to clear the land so they can grow grass there to feed cattle. Sometimes the fires burn out of control, affecting wooded parkland.

For that reason, Juan Calderon, a 50-year-old ex-guerilla who is now a forest ranger, walks every day into the pine woods to make sure no one is cutting down trees or lighting fires there. “This (conservation) project is effective - it is the best, because before many people were coming into the woods to fell trees, hunt or do whatever, but now it is not possible,” Calderon told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Montañona reserve is the biggest in the northern department of Chalatenango. Not only does it help keep the air clean and healthy, but the 70 water sources in its river basin supply at least 70,000 families in nearby urban areas.

The forest protection scheme is part of the first phase of a national programme to restore ecosystems and natural landscapes, launched by the government in May 2012.

Across Central America there are similar initiatives to preserve forests and coastal mangroves, which protect against storms, landslides, rising seas and soil erosion.

Central American nations have been hammered by extreme weather and climate change impacts in recent years, including floods from heavy summer rains, strong winds, persistent drought and climate-sensitive plant diseases such as coffee rust.

This is an unfair burden, experts say, because Central America produces such a small proportion of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions - less than 0.5 percent of the global total, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in 2012.     

“Central America is a zone with low emissions - however we are very vulnerable,” said Alfonso Pérez, a Costa Rican member of parliament until his party lost national elections in April, and former head of the local chapter of the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International). “Our principal cities, our factories, our crops, our population are all at risk.”

This has forced governments to search for home-grown solutions to climate stresses, and find ways to cushion their citizens, resources and food supplies from the worst effects.


Guatemala and Honduras have played a pioneering role by introducing overarching legislation aimed at adapting to climate change and shifting to a low-carbon economy.

Guatemala’s framework law, which came into force in September 2013, calls on government agencies to formulate policies to tackle emissions from land use, create a carbon market and raise public awareness, among other things. It also mandates the creation of a national climate change information system and a national fund to finance projects to manage climate risk, adapt to climate change and lower emissions.

In addition, it asks the government to adopt regulations on transport pollution, and paves the way for a national energy plan focused on renewable sources.

Before April’s elections, Costa Rica had also been debating a draft climate change law to establish an institutional framework for developing public policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The unseating of the governing National Liberation Party by the centre-left Citizen Action Party (PAC) for the first time has cast doubt over whether the law, submitted by Pérez, will be approved in its current form.  

Laura Garro of the PAC party, who is also a member of the Costa Rican parliament's Environment Commission, described the law as “very premature”. “The (legal) project needs more study. We will consult with many sectors - business owners, academics, jurists, environmentalists - we should hear various opinions,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Environment Commission will meet to analyse different aspects of the law, and discussions on it could take the rest of the year, Garro added.

Costa Rica’s new ruling party has also suggested that the target date for the country’s publicly announced plan to become “carbon-neutral” by 2021 may need to be put back. A ministerial decree adopted in September 2013 has already laid the foundation for a voluntary carbon market.


El Salvador and Nicaragua, meanwhile, have national strategies in place to develop renewable energy, limit emissions and help communities become more resilient to disasters.

In 2012, for example, the Salvadoran Congress modified the country’s environment law to include a climate change adaptation programme. Since then, the authorities have included education on climate risks in the school curriculum, assisted farmers to adopt new methods, and invested in a modern meteorology centre.

“We have three pillars in our strategy: adaptation, implementing policies to resist damage from climate change, and reducing our emissions that harm the atmosphere,” said Lina Polh, the country’s vice minister for the environment and natural resources.

El Salvador has begun modernising its public transport system, and investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as curbing environmental degradation. A low-carbon urbanisation programme has also been launched.     

In Central America, governments aim to make the most of their bond with communities to ensure climate action is well-organised, because of the valuable knowledge citizens hold about their own territory, Polh added.

That means involving indigenous and Garifuna people, as well as farmers, who receive economic incentives - such as direct compensation, grants and technical support - in return for administering their resources sustainably.  


Even though Central American nations face similar risks when it comes to climate change, and are introducing laws and national plans in response, they rarely present a joint position in the U.N. climate negotiations.

According to Nelson Cuellar, an expert with the Salvadoran Research Program on Development and Environment (PRISMA), this is because governments have differing development visions, with some focusing more on climate mitigation policies and others prioritising adaptation.

“(Central America) is divided - each country moves individually in international negotiations,” he said.

This remains so despite the launch of a regional climate change strategy in 2010 by the Central American Integration System (SICA), which comprises Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panamá and Dominican Republic.

Nicaragua and El Salvador are members of the group of “Like-Minded Developing Countries on Climate Change” at the U.N. climate talks. This group has argued that richer nations should ramp up ambition to cut emissions due to their historical responsibility for atmospheric pollution. But it does not include any other Central American nations.

“We must take into account the institutional characteristics of each country that make us different, despite being small nations. And we must not forget that the political situation is changing,” Pérez said.

He hopes Central America will be able to bring more coordinated proposals to this December’s U.N. climate conference in Lima, Peru. GLOBE’s upcoming World Summit of Legislators in Mexico City offers a good opportunity to work on a shared position, he added.  

Nelson Rentería is a journalist based in San Salvador.

This story is part of a series of articles, funded by the COMplus Alliance and the World Bank, looking at progress and challenges in developing nations’ efforts to legislate on climate change, ahead of the June 6-8 World Summit of Legislators in Mexico City, organised by the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International).

For more pictures from the Montañona forest conservation project, see our slideshow: El Salvador protects its forests from onslaught by ranchers

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