Central American Sustainability

Graphic by Sophie Reichert, Graphics Center

El Salvador’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources announced the discovery of a new tree species in the country identified as Sapranthus pinedai. “This natural jewel was discovered in one of our Protected Natural Areas and adds a unique touch to our biodiversity,” the authorities reported in Spanish on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Sept. 12.

The identification of this new species is a reminder of Central America’s incredibly varied range of tropical landscapes, flora and fauna. The region accounts for “8% of the world’s biological diversity, allocated in 206 ecosystems, 33 ecoregions, and 20 life zones,” according to the Central American Commission for Environment and Development. Central America’s environmental contributions are important for the global discussion around the transition towards a green economy, as its current efforts to deal with the impact of climate change meet its biodiversity and ancient history of sustainable practices and beliefs.

As someone from El Salvador, I think of Central America as a “phoenix” region. Environmental shocks and setbacks are a consistent threat to the region’s wellbeing. 2020 proved to be one of the most difficult years in recent memory, as the sanitary and economic consequences of COVID-19 converged with two destructive hurricanes, Eta and Iota, in November. However, the other constant is the region’s ability to bounce back from the ashes. A joint report by the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration released in December 2021 predicted a faster post-pandemic recovery for Central America than for the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, associating this to growing sustainably-focused investments.  

Climate hazards are increasingly understood to have a possible “multiplier” effect on other concerns in Central America, as they interact with pre-existing socio-political conditions. The consequences of this include increased migration and insecurity rates, as observable immediately after the aforementioned 2020 storms. Despite their high vulnerability, most countries in the area ranked poorly in their level of readiness, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative’s climate change vulnerability index. Readiness is understood as “a country’s ability to leverage investments and convert them to adaptation actions.” Countries like Nicaragua and Honduras are found within the bottom twenty-five of this world ranking. 

One of the efforts being put forward to improve Central America’s climate preparedness is the implementation of nature-based solutions. Nature-based solutions are actions aimed towards protecting natural resources and environments, while also tackling various social issues, such as food insecurity and climate change-related disasters. When it comes to storm management, implementing these solutions means avoiding the negative impacts of man-made infrastructures, while simultaneously addressing the needs of the communities surrounding these projects. For instance, Swiss Info reported in June on the construction of “chinampas” in the Jiquilisco Bay area of El Salvador. These small, floating islands made from bamboo serve as platforms to grow mangrove trees, which will act as a natural barrier from floodings, and simultaneously serve as the breeding grounds for several fish species that aid in the subsistence of local fishermen. 

Central America’s indigenous past could also guide humanity’s approach to handling natural resources today. As per Encyclopedia Britannica, the Maya civilization occupied most of Central America, inhabiting the land from modern Southern Mexico to what is now Nicaragua. According to anthropologist Lisa Lucero, the Maya managed to maintain a sustainable relationship with the environment because they held a “cosmology of conservation,” where all equal things on Earth share equal responsibility in maintaining the planet.

The ancient city of Tikal, located in present-day Guatemala, was home to at least 60,000 Maya at its peak, around 750 A.D. The residents took advantage of the eight-month rainy season to meet their water needs. They build paved reservoirs to hold rainwater to be used during the dry months, as published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As stated by researcher Vernon Scarborough: “These people were able to use their land and water resources in a sustainable manner for as long as 1,500 years without significant interruption… In developing nations where water and energy are scarce, simple solutions may work better than new, costly technologies that are prone to break.”

The limitations that characterize the daily life experiences of Central Americans are also a reminder for citizens of developed nations to take care of the resources they do have at hand. Growing up in a country like El Salvador, where essential services like water supply are often interrupted and inaccessible to a significant number of citizens, it became evident that resourcefulness becomes a survival tool. Many families, including my own, have had to invest in domestic water storage tanks to be able to meet this basic need whenever issues relating to this service are not efficiently dealt with. We’ve also used alternatives like rainwater harvesting and purification. In any case, the available supplies are limited, and a wise usage is required. This same rationale needs to be applied where access is more widespread if we want natural resources to continue to be available in the upcoming decades, and we can turn to age-old and green solutions to make this management as effective as possible. We can all learn lessons from Central America for sustainable living and development.


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