According to a group of concerned citizens and civil society organizations, the Joveles pig farm outside of Ilobasco, Cabañas is contaminating the Titihuapa River with urine, feces, blood and other waste. For nine years they have asked the Ministry of the Environment, municipal governments, the Police, and Attorney General to intervene, but the only thing officials have managed to do is to test the water and confirm that it is polluted.
The Titihuapa is a beautiful tributary of the Lempa River, cutting west to east through the middle of El Salvador, serving for a stretch as the border between Cabañas and San Vicente. In places, the river has carved out large canyons that are full of dense tropical undergrowth, caves, and petroglyphs from indigenous peoples that inhabited the region for thousands of years. According to Rhina Navarrete from ASIC (Friends of San Isidro), “the Titihuapa River is part of our identity and culture.”
Mario Guevara, a coordinator for the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change says, “many communities in rural areas depend on rivers [like the Titihuapa] for gathering water and to engage in activities such as fishing, as part of their economic subsistence. In addition, the rivers are ecosystems that permit abundant life and reproduction of a number of wildlife species.” He says, “it is inconceivable that businesses would dump their contaminated waste in the rivers with total impunity. Its not just the importance of the environment, but the life of the people.” Ms. Navarrete from ASIC also emphasizes that the Titihuapa is “the source of life for many families that fish and bring nourishment to their homes.”
Waste from the Joveles farm affects more than more than 25,000 people in rural communities on both sides of the river (in Cabañas and San Vicente), and there is little question that the Titihuapa is contaminated with pig and chicken waste. Studies by the government and civil society organizations have shown as much. As early as 2008, the Ministry of Health and Pan American Health Organization identified Los Joveles as a major risk to the region’s water and environment because their waste treatment system is insufficient. Only representatives from the Joveles pig farm claim that nothing is wrong.
Los Joveles is located in Canton Santa Lucia on the main road between Ilobasco and San Isidro, just up the hill from the Titihuapa River. It is a large facility with more than 60,000 pigs and poultry, and several lagoons (see the photos above) that are supposed to hold the farm’s waste. According to locals, these ponds frequently spill over sending its contents straight into the Titihuapa.
Residents of Santa Lucia and other communities near the Titihuapa report that it smells of waste and its color has turned a putrid yellow-orange. There is a school nearby that is overrun with flies when the wind blows the wrong way. People first noticed there was a problem with the river in 2007 after rain washed waste from the lagoons into the river.
Pig farms are known to have significant environmental and public health impacts on their host communities. A literature review by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production concluded that “ammonia emissions from hog farms pose a serious public threat,” and that “air emissions from lagoons, sprayfields, and hog houses have been linked to neurological and respiratory problems.” The study also reports that communities have to be concerned about hydrogen sulfide emissions, and that “hog waste that is ending up in the river contains disease-causing pathogens and increases antibiotic resistance.”
ADES, ASIC, Mufras-32, CESTA, and other environmental groups have worked with residents Cabañas and San Vicente to report the issue to the Ministry of the Environment and other government agencies, but they have had little response. The Ministry of the Environment came and studied the river in 2015 and confirmed that the river is contaminated with waste, which is decreasing the amount of oxygen in the water and killing off fish and other species. After completing the study, the Ministry and other government agencies and officials held an assembly to discuss some of the findings and how they would follow up. One frustrated assembly participant responded that, “the officials make a lot of promises, but they do nothing at all.”
The communities and organizations challenging the Joveles pig farm are seasoned activists that stood up to Pacific Rim Mining Company and closed down the El Dorado mining project in San Isidro. Prior to that, these same activists stopped a group of powerful mayors from opening a garbage dump near the Titijuapa River. And just as Pacific Rim had its supporters in Cabañas, so does Joveles. The pig farm is popular with many in the region because it provides jobs, and some people are willing to sacrifice the river and their own well-being for the hope of more jobs.
But many others agree with Ms. Navarrete and Mr. Guevara, that the river provides life and should be protected. These activists did not back down when their fellow activists were killed taking on Pacific Rim, and it is unlikely they will back down now.
Civil society organizations cannot do it all, however. The Ministry of the Environment and other government agencies have to do their jobs, which means going beyond water tests, writing reports, and holding community assemblies. It means holding those who pollute El Salvador’s water supplies accountable.
Sadly, that seems unlikely anytime in the near future. The government’s shortcomings have been on full display in the past two weeks since the Magdalena Sugar Mill spilled 900,000 gallons of molasses into the Magdalena River in Santa Ana. There is no question that the Mill is responsible for the spill, and that the damage caused to the river and nearby communities is extensive, but all the Ministry of the Environment can do is order the mill to issue a public apology and design a cleanup plan.
The Titihuapa and Magdalena Rivers are just two examples of a big part of El Salvador’s water crisis – 90% of surface waters are polluted because government agencies like the Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Agriculture, and others will not or cannot stop or punish polluters.That gets us back to Mr. Guevara’s point that pollution makes it difficult for rural families. This week, Léo Heller, the UN Special Rapporteur for Water reported data obtained from ANDA that at least 618,000 Salvadorans in rural communities do not have access to potable water. He recommended expanding the current state of emergency for San Salvador due to a great water shortage to rural areas as well.
While that would be a positive step, any real solution has to include government agencies doing their job in protecting the country’s natural resources, like the Titihuapa River. Until they do, Salvadorans will continue to live in crisis.