The secret forests of El Salvador


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Along with Haiti and Malawi, El Salvador has long been portrayed as a place where over-population and poverty make farmers destroy the forests, resulting in barren treeless landscapes. One often hears that less than five percent of the country has any forest left.

That is not how Susanna Hecht from the University of California Los Angeles and her colleagues at PRISMA (a Salvadoran NGO) tell the story. Their forthcoming piece in World Development called Globalization, Forest Resurgence, and Environmental Politics in El Salvador claims that relatively dense forest covers 60% of the country. Moreover, the forest grew almost 40% between 1992 and 2001.

Previous studies have concentrated on the small remnants of what they viewed as primary forests. They have largely overlooked shaded coffee and orchards, hedge rows, urban tree cover, and forests regenerating in abandoned pastures. Yet these areas provide food and shelter for many of El Salvador’s 520 species of birds, 121 mammals, and 130 reptiles and amphibians, and they also protect watersheds and supply forest products. Moreover, most of the so-called primary forest probably isn’t. Practically all of this tiny country has been profoundly altered by people for centuries.

Several factors helped make the country greener in the last twenty years. The civil war in the 1980s pushed people out of rural areas, allowing the trees to grow back. It also kept farmers from investing in coffee systems with less shade, as they did in other parts of Central America. Over two million people fled the country and started sending money to those who stayed behind. Those that received the money could have used it to farm larger areas, but policies favoring cheap food imports made it less attractive to grow crops. So, many of them abandoned their fields and lived off their remittances instead. Low prices, land reform, and a lack of subsidized credit discouraged large-scale farming. While the country remains densely populated, it now has a lot more trees.

That has largely gone un-noticed. Most conservationists have focused on a handful of protected areas, rather than the broader landscape and the farmers who are restoring it. I guess they can’t see the forest for the trees, but this study proves its there.

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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of the paper you can write Vyenna Song at

To send comments or queries to the authors you can write Susanna Hecht at:

The full reference of the article is: Hecht, S.B., S. Kandel, I. Gomez, N. Cuellar, and H. Rosa. 2006. Globalization, Forest Resurgence, and Environmental Politics in El Salvador, World Development, Vol. 34 (2), February.