April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Rosa_ Chavez2
Adrian Giordani – April 2010

The recent catastrophe in Haiti at the start of 2010 has emphasised the very real and current vulnerability of developing countries to unexpected climate change. Only last December, the world’s leaders met at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. The world looked on to see whether an international and legally binding agreement would be reached that established quantifiable targets to reduce members’ carbon emissions. Some have criticised that the conference was a failure and dictated by the developed world. How are developing countries reacting to the outcome of the conference and what are they themselves doing to combat the threat of climate change?

One such country, the small Central American state of El Salvador has recently elected a new government, one of whose many major tasks is to bring climate change strategies to the top of their agenda. A 2007 World Bank report states that at the end of the nineties, El Salvador made significant improvements to its legal and institutional framework for environmental protection. Environmental issues have gained increased traction due to the negative effects brought on by natural disasters and environmental degradation. The Government has also put in place a number of national scale policies to tackle specific issues, therefore raising the importance of environmental issues within the national agenda and civil service, and also, most importantly escalating accountability.

On January 25th 2010, El Salvador’s Minister of the Environment, Mr. Rosa Chavez was in London to meet with UK officials to discuss future climate change strategies and I, Science managed to catch him during his busy schedule for an interview. Mr. Chavez’s fifteen year experience as an engineer gives him a unique perspective and distinct advantage in his new role. He worked at the Applied Research Centre for Environmental and Developmental Issues, looking particularly at how both areas intersect, not just in Central America, but in Asia and Africa as well.

What about climate change?

On the role of the international community and the outcome of the Copenhagen Conference he believed that even though the level of awareness amongst the international community has increased greatly in the last fifteen years, there were significant problems of ‘power relationships’. He elaborated that in an ‘unequal world’ some parties tried to set the agenda and force an agreement for only a limited number of countries, separate from the formal negotiations. He finished with; “damage control is necessary” and “I hope what happened in Copenhagen will not repeat itself.”

The minister stated that climate change in El Salvador is “a source of conflict” and one of the tools he uses to combat the effect is ‘preparedness’. This could be, for example, identifying areas where there are high concentrations of people at risk from potential hazard zones where soils could liquefy due to tectonic stresses or landslide regions susceptible to earthquakes. Serious micro-level mapping work is needed to construct a permanently updateable ‘risk-atlas’, allowing his team to quickly identify target areas so families can be moved out of danger, thus saving lives.

Mr. Chavez thought that the rest of the world should not see environmental issues in isolation, and that there are no ‘national borders’ from this real and current threat. For instance, his country is currently paying significant economical costs due to heavy rainfall which occurred for only a few hours in November, but was equivalent to the entire rainfall in the previous month of September. This phenomenon was unheard of by his colleagues in Government, which is why he strongly thinks sincere actions are needed at the international level. Especially from consumer orientated countries like the US who have an energy per capita emission level that is five to twenty times higher more than any other country in the world. Developed countries also have a historical responsibility to make the greatest efforts for change in their lifestyles and policies.

Where does Science fit in?

Science plays a vital role in convincing people, especially climate sceptics, that climate change is a major threat. Through scientific evidence, Mr. Chavez now has the ‘ammunition’ to persuade the political establishment to act, neutralising the voice of sceptics; although he has pointed out that it is not science’s sole responsibility to muster political will. He thinks a country’s citizens must also apply pressure to their governments to take the necessary steps. Communication is a huge challenge and Mr. Chavez has noticed a direct correlation in developed countries, “between the level of awareness of a population and how advanced these countries are in the decisions they’re making.” In regards to his own ministry, science also plays an important role in monitoring natural disasters as the meteorological and seismic departments also fall under his office. People rely on his ministry for the ‘hard facts’. Ironically, their website tends to collapse because of traffic overload when there is a major environmental incident. Moreover, he elaborated that beyond data you need analysis, so that data can be turned into information and knowledge to help people make decisions.

When asked about how he persuades Salvadorans to accept policy changes, he responded that, “transparency and the rule of law are essential, which had not been the norm.” Subsequently, the process by which his department evaluates grants for building work is by requiring the presentation of environmental impact studies or structural works. These in turn are hosted on their website for review by the public. There is also a mechanism where people can present arguments if they feel they are affected; audits are commissioned and the results are publicly displayed.

As his government has only been in office for eight months, Mr. Chavez feels things are not moving fast enough and capacity building needs to be started seriously. By ‘capacity building’ he explained, “for instance, I’m part of the energy commission, and as a minister I have a voice in determining in concrete ways how energy policy should be defined.” In turn, significant projects and recommendations are his top priority, requiring him to assemble a team of experts within the ministry who specialise on energy issues and who can fully integrate social and environmental criteria. He concluded by stressing the importance of; “training this group so that they are at the cutting edge of how these issues are being discussed.”

How important is Politics?

Politics tends to be short lived by nature when compared to the long-lasting effects of climate change. We finished by asking how he thought policy could work in an environment of constant personnel turnover. The minister replied that what is needed is a governance scheme that goes beyond national boundaries; a body such as the European Union which controls directives. An international governance scheme is required to enable all countries to commit themselves to doing certain things. That’s why; he thinks it is very important that negotiations continue under the United Nations conventions for climate change. An international forum where rules are defined would protect governments and politicians to agree to fulfil international agreements, even if there is a change of government.

El Salvador has a number of considerable hurdles to overcome; one of Mr Chavez’s revelations was that; “even deforestation at present is driven by urbanisation, not agriculture.” Promisingly, it sounds like they’re mindful of the necessary steps that will facilitate real change. Will the rest of the developed world wake up and realise that partial agreements and half-hearted attempts will only hinder progress in forming a unified framework. Sincere efforts and collaboration are needed, ensuring countries are made accountable to the international community against the increasing frequency and threats of climate change.



El Salvador: Profile – Cecilia Rosen

El Salvador means “The Saviour” in Spanish and is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America with some 7 million people. Around 90% of the population is considered of mixed indigenous and Spanish extraction; virtually all of the habitants speak Spanish.

Located between Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador lies on the Gulf of Fonseca. They achieved independence from Spain in 1821and from the Central American Federation in 1839. A twelve-year civil war, which cost about 75,000 lives, was brought to a close in 1992 when the government and leftist rebels signed a treaty that established military and political reforms.

Mauricio Funes is the current President. His election victory in March 2009 marked the first time in 20 years that a left-wing leader had come to power in the country.

Despite being the smallest country geographically in Central America, El Salvador has the third largest economy with a per capita income that is roughly half that of Costa Rica and Panama, but double that of Nicaragua. The US dollar became El Salvador’s currency in 2001.

On environmental issues, El Salvador is party to the following treaties: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Ozone Layer Protection, and Wetlands.

The new government redesigned the environment policy in 2009, which takes priority to governance, an active citizenship and transparency.