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234. Coffee, water and conflict in El Salvador

Back in November, my colleague Robyn Fieser reported here on a success story from our CAFE Livelihoods project in El Salvador – how we helped the Las Colinas cooperative comply with national environmental regulations and avoid a forced closure of its wet mill by financing the installation of a wastewater treatment system.

Today, I share another story about water at Las Colinas that is less encouraging and demonstrates the complexity of the relationship between coffee farming and water resources.

Las Colinas’ 500-acre organic farm is located in the department of Ahuachapán, in the western highlands of El Salvador, not far from the Guatemala border.  The peaks of the El Imposible National Park – the largest natural reserve in the country – rise behind the farm, and the municipality of Tacuba lies below.  Tacuba is is a tidy, quiet mountain town, but the politics of its water are tumultuous.

The community has historically controlled the local water system.  After the national water authority stripped Tacuba’s local water authority of its control several years ago, the community reacted violently and retook control of the water system by force.

The town’s inhabitants, who number about 5,000, get most of their water from a spring on the Las Colinas farm, which the cooperative manages responsibly.  It has fenced off the area immediately surrounding the spring, where it implements soil conservation practices.  It maintains the pipes that carry water to the municipality.  And it keeps the shade cover over the organic coffee on that part of the farm a little thicker than usual as added protection measure.

Since 2003, the local water authority in Tacuba has been charging water users a monthly fee for watershed services – payment that should be going to Las Colinas for managing the water source effectively.  But to date, no disbursements have been made.  The statutes of the payment-for-environmental services scheme set up in Tacuba by an international aid organization stipulate that no payments can be made until an external environmental assessment has been conducted.

But relations between the community in Las Colinas and the municipal government and water authority are strained – a state of affairs that stems from an unsuccessful effort by the non-partisan water authority to buy the spring and the surrounding area for a price the cooperative considered unfair.  The cooperative refused, and the relationship between the coffee farmers in the hills and the municipal authorities in the town below has been rocky since.  Now the cooperative is distrustful, and will not let the water authority enter with its water engineers to conduct their survey.  On more than one occasion, members of the cooperative have denied municipal authorities entrance to the farm, meeting them with sticks and machetes on the road leading into the farm and turning them back to the town.

There is more than $10,000 in ecosystem payments due to the cooperative sitting in the accounts of the water authority.  There are some measures the cooperative could take with those funds to improve its management of the water source.  But they can’t be disbursed until the environmental assessment is done.  And that can’t happen until relations between the coop and the town authorities are mended.


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