Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/2022/Tropical reforestation in El Salvador: Opportunities for socioeconomic change and biodiversity protection.

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Summary of Case Study

El Salvador is one of the most deforested countries in Central America. Over the years, forest cover changes have occurred due to several reasons including, the civil war, the recognition of ecosystem services, socioeconomic changes due to remittances, among others. The forest of La Montañona is a natural protected area with great significance for the country as it contributes water to multiple rivers, including the most important one the Lempa river [1]. The further degradation of forests in El Salvador would greatly impact its entire population and for this reason reforestation initiatives are becoming essential. One of these initiatives is community forest management as seen by La Mancomunidad of La Montañona, which over the years has developed ecotourism activities that continue to provide socioeconomic benefits to local communities. The multiple stakeholders involved have allowed for the success of many projects within the region and there is now a better understanding of the ecological composition of the area [2]. Despite the important successes, there are still several limitations that will be discussed and recommendations will be highlighted to ensure the long-term conservation of the forest.


Community Forest, El Salvador, Central America, Reforestation, Natural Resource Management, Local Communities


El Salvador is located in Central America, it is the smallest and most densely populated country in the region with a current population of over six million [3]. The country’s deforestation levels have been one of the highest in the region due to several factors including, urbanization, agricultural expansion, population increase, the civil war, and natural disasters [4].

In the 1980s a violent civil-war between the oppressive right-wing military government and the left-wing guerrilla forced around 17% of the population to flee the country [5]. The war was caused by extreme poverty, social inequality, military influence at the governmental level and inegalitarian land ownership [6]. The impact of the war on the people, the economy and the environment was devastating and at the time only 6% of Salvadoran forests were considered intact [5].

The war ceased in 1992 when the “acuerdos de paz” (Peace Accords) were signed leading to changes in policies around land ownership, natural resources and agriculture [7]. Agrarian reforms such as the Land-Transfer Program (PTT for its acronym in Spanish), managed to purchase and redistribute 20% of privately owned land to rural households, through the creation of the Banco de Tierras (Land Bank) [7]. After the war had officially ended, a large portion of emigrants returned to their native hometowns bringing back with them the monetary savings made abroad [5]. Those who stayed in foreign countries would also contribute to the families that remained in El Salvador in the form of remittances [5]. In total, approximately 45% of Salvadoran households receive remittances, which amount to 16% of the overall GDP [5].

The main agricultural drivers of deforestation have been the production of indigo, coffee and cotton [7]. Recently, the land degradation and forest cover change that has occurred in El Salvador has started to shift some of the public’s perception from agricultural producers to providers of environmental services and as a result there have been reforestation initiatives such as, community and private forest management, planting multipurpose trees and agroforestry systems that aim to reverse the environmental damage [7][8].

Forest Cover Change in El Salvador

El Salvador continues to have one of the lowest forest covers in Central America, but the post-war changes and current reforestation and conservation efforts could provide insights into opportunities for socioeconomic development and biodiversity conservation. Even though the country was thought to be completely deforested in the 1970s, forest cover changes and reforestation initiatives have been considered as a strategy for poverty-alleviation [8]. An example of this is the community forest association of “ La Mancomunidad La Montañona” that was formed in 1999 as a result of the PTT [1]. These community forest strategies would not only contribute to the socioeconomic development but also in terms of biodiversity protection and conservation. From the 1990s to the 2000s forests recovered 22% in areas with less-dense forest and 6% in denser forested areas [5].

The forest recovery was initially thought to be a result of the migration out of rural areas due to the civil war, as most Salvadorans would leave to foreign countries, especially the United States and Canada [6]. However, regeneration continued increasing by over 15% in woody vegetation as Salvadorans returned to their home towns and villages [5]. The regions of the country with high remittance rates have been amongst the most recovered in terms of forest cover with improved social and economic development[6].

Despite this net recovery, cultivated land continues to be dominant, covering approximately 82% of Salvadoran territory [4]. Most natural areas such as the forest of La Montañona are not currently protected, which could also lead to further degradation if sustainable forest management strategies are not implemented [4].The recovered Salvadoran forest is also still young and approximately a third of the forested landscape is composed of coffee plantations with intercalated native and fruiting trees [5]. These coffee agroforestry ecosystems are extremely important in a small country such as El Salvador, as they provide habitat for a variety of species, efficient carbon sequestration, and a source of income for rural families [9]. However, if coffee plantations are not considered as forested areas, there is still a current decline in forest cover in the country.

Tree coverage data in El Salvador has also been complicated and at times contradicting. According to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN for its acronym in Spanish) as of 2018, forest coverage was 28% when considering tropical forests, mangroves and scattered areas of conifer and mixed forests [4][10]. Other sources however, also consider shaded coffee plantations, making this number go up to 37% [10]. Therefore, depending on the source and definition of forest cover the country's percentages may vary.

The Forest of La Montañona

Natural Protected Areas (NPAs) are useful in terms of biodiversity conservation and tourism incentives for the social and economic development of local communities. In a densely populated and small country such as El Salvador having restricted inhabited areas for conservation is tricky and it is important to consider the benefits these areas can bring to people. For this reason, the current NPAs are extremely important in ecological and hydrological functions [11].

The Lempa River - Water is treated and then sent to the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador.

The forest of La Montañona is an ecologically important area, as one of the few NPAs of the country, it provides habitat for many species and its hydrologic contribution provides water to main cities and communities. The water that accumulates in the forest is released into two rivers, the Sumpul river and the Lempa river, which is El Salvador’s most important body of water [11].

The Lempa river allows the function of three hydroelectric power plants and a dam reservoir “Cerron Grande” that provides water to over half of the country, including the capital San Salvador [11]. Both these rivers feed 15 creeks that contribute water to an additional 5 rivers, Sumpul, Azambio, Tamulasco, Guastena and Motochico that are essential to this region [1]. The last four connect directly to the dam reservoir of Cerron Grande located between the departments of Chalatenango and Cabañas [1]. This clearly demonstrates the importance of this forest in terms of ecosystem value.

A mixture of species can be found in the forest but pine (Pinus) and oak (Quercus) are the most dominant trees [7]. From recent ethnobotanical inventories, 205 species of plants were counted, 8 of them were new to the Salvadoran plant registry and 4 were potentially new plant species worldwide [7]. Future community projects with the support of the MARN and NGOs could continue to gain a better understanding of the species richness and ecosystem value of the region.

Additionally, the forest of La Montañona has historical significance as it was used as one of the main left-wing guerrilla refugee basecamps. The presence of an interconnected system of warfare tunnels used by the guerrilleros has added to the touristic attraction of this site[1]. The historic and scenic beauty has the potential for ecotourism strategies that can contribute to the socioeconomic development of the local communities if they are involved in management systems.

La Mancomunidad La Montañona

Department of Chalatenango, El Salvador

Located in the Department of Chalatenango in northeast El Salvador, La Mancomunidad La Montañona is composed of 7 municipalities including, Chalatenango, Concepción Quezaltepeque, Comalapa, La Laguna, El Carrizal, Ojos de Agua and Las Vueltas [1]. Considered one of the poorest regions of El Salvador due to the impact of the civil war, the forest of La Montañona is a total of 1,437 Ha [1].

Through the PTT, 355 Ha were divided between 155 beneficiaries from 35 different families, many of these beneficiaries participated or were affected by the civil war and once tenure rights were transferred they formed the Representative Committee of the Beneficiaries of La Montañona (CORBELAM) [1][2]. La comunidad La Montañona or The Montañona Community is located close to the dense forest and out of the 35 families, approximately 18 remain in this region [1].

Despite the devolution of some land rights, not all community members gained the right to use the forest for production purposes, only certain families were able to negotiate this type of ownership [2]. Some of the families moved out of the community due to the cold climate and lack of socioeconomic development [1]. However, all the families were given the rights to collect essential forest resources such as, wood and water [2].

Currently, agriculture is the main source of income for these communities, especially the cultivation of maize, beans, chia, Musaceae species and vegetables. Some of these families also receive remittances from family members living abroad [7]. To date most of the development that has taken place within the community has been supported by non-governmental organizations and international cooperation programs. For instance, houses were made out of wood and roof tiles for the community through the Cooperative Promoting Foundation (FUNPROCOOP) [1]. Since the 90s many organizations have supported different development projects in the region but only a few have provided continuous long-term support, which is often essential for the success of community forests [2].

One of the organizations that has been continuously involved is the Regional Program of Research on Development and the Environment (PRISMA). As of 2006, they had two programs including the Economic, Poverty and Environmental Changes program as well as the Ecosystem Services, Sustainable Means of Life and Territorial Management of Rural Areas in El Salvador [1]. Both programs were supported by international organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Ford Foundation, these projects focused mainly on ethnobotanical inventories that recorded species richness and assessed the development of ecotourism activities [1].

Ecotourism Initiatives

The tourist industry can at times be unpredictable, as seen over the last few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In El Salvador however, local tourism can be prioritized because most tourists come from within the country, especially from urban centers [12]. Community involvement is essential to ensure NPAs are managed with a fair distribution of profits to reduce possible conflicts between stakeholders [12]. A concept that is being applied at La Montañona is community-based tourism (CBT), where the local communities are involved in the governance and decision-making processes around the organization and tourism development of the natural landscape [13][12].

In order for CBT to be successful the benefits must be equal between social and economic development and biodiversity conservation. There also needs to be governmental support at the local and national level. The current president Nayib Bukele, elected in 2019, has placed an emphasis on developing CBT initiatives that take into consideration sustainability efforts [12]. This is an important first step but as of 2020 no action plan had been created by the new governmental office (2019-2024) to achieve sustainable objectives that could support the country's forests [14].

Nonetheless the success of CBT in other Central American countries such as Costa Rica, have encouraged these initiatives in El Salvador, which is promising for further developing such activities at La Montañona [15]. The Mancomunidad began ecotourism initiatives since the 2000s and every municipality surrounding La Montañona is visited by tourists every year [16]. CORBELAM alongside support from NGOs and international institutions has managed to build roads covering the perimeter of the community forest, lodging facilities and a visitor center that have increased tourism [16]. The members of La Mancomunidad la Montañona are involved in the management of the natural resources and provide touristic guidance over the grounds [16]. The income from the facilities and tour guides is distributed among the members of the communities [13].

La Mancomunidad La Montañona has potential that could greatly benefit this region with the appropriate facilitations in terms of biodiversity protection and socioeconomic development. There are certain advantages such as the success of CORBELAM in managing the forest but there are certain areas that need to the improved [7]. For instance, the Montañona community, which is the closest to the dense forest, can benefit from facilitations that increase their awareness of the species richness and ecosystem value of the region [13]. This would allow them to educate visitors and protect the ecosystem through a better understanding of sustainable forest management practices. There are also limitations in terms of infrastructure but there have been efforts to use innovative systems, such as ecofilters and solar panels to provide clean water and energy to tourists [13]. These small details can also allow the community members to attract more visitors and charge better rates for using their lodging facilities. If these community forest management systems continue to integrate the successful participation of the local communities, they could become a model to follow for other parts of El Salvador.  


Community forest management can be very complex as there are often differing perspectives from the stakeholders involved. In the case of La Montañona, which is composed by several municipalities, there could be overlapping or contradicting ideas in terms of how the forest should be managed. Certain municipalities could support the continued development of ecotourism activities, while others may want to continue developing their agricultural plantations.

However, many Salvadorans would prefer to become ecosystem service providers so it is likely that if given the proper facilitation they would continue to support sustainable management systems [17]. This would also require the immediate economic incentives that would come from selling forest products and increasing ecotourism activities. La Mancomunidad, CORBELAM and the Montañona community are all essential for the survival of the forest of La Montañona. Their participation or lack thereof could cause direct positive and negative changes to the ecosystem but based on this research current efforts are on the right track.

Governance is also dynamic but if La Montañona is recognized for its importance in ecological and hydrological systems for the country, it could be better protected. The national government thus, needs to view the urgency of protecting such ecosystems and implement operational plans that lead to long-term management strategies for conservation. Such strategies must absolutely involve the local communities, as it has been noted to be successful in this region thus far. All of these efforts combined could improve conservation, reforestation and better management initiatives for Salvadoran forests. La Montañona has been supported by local and international institutions, however there are still several areas that need to be improved to reverse the current destruction trends that could affect the entire country.

This conservation resource was created by Course:FRST522.


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