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Guerrilla tourism helps protect remote mountain forest in El Salvador

Page history last edited by Rosemary 10 years, 7 months ago

La Montañona, a forested mountain in northern El Salvador 1,800 metres above sea level that was a guerrilla stronghold and the scene of bloody fighting during the 1980-1992 civil war, is now beginning to draw ecotourists whose money may help preserve the areas’s forests.

An ecotourism area was designed on 300 hectares of the mountain, with hiking trails, camp sites and tunnels to explore, by the Representative Committee of Beneficiaries of La Montañona (Corbelam), made up of 155 former guerrillas and local residents keen on "salvaging the collective memory."

Corbelam has three tourist cabins equipped with solar power, a restaurant is under construction, and there are plans to repair the poor road (the region is one hour’s drive from the nearest town), and bring piped water and electricity to the community. People involved in the project also grow subsistence crops and raise chickens.

"The idea is to offer the tourist something simple but authentic, to show what happened in the war, while we bring in funds to maintain the forest, through a sustainable management programme that benefits the people of Chalatenango," says Francisco Mejía, the treasurer of Corbelam. The group obtained ownership of the 300 hectares after the 1992 peace agreement ended the war that left 75,000 dead, at least 6,000 forcibly disappeared and some 40,000 disabled.

In 1982, the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) gained control of the area from the army, and for the rest of the war, Radio Farabundo Martí (RFM) broadcast from a hideout three metres below ground, using a diesel engine to run the transmitter. "Tatú: historic site, a work of engineering built to protect the spot from aerial attacks. The RFM became a legend that is now coming to life," reads a sign at the spot known as El Roble, where some 30 guerrillas-cum-journalists prepared three broadcasts a day.

University professor Wilfredo Cepeda, who helped found RFM in late 1981, and other members of the radio station’s staff helped design the ecotourism attraction in 2006, with the aim of preserving the tunnels, visited by 1,400 tourists in 2008. He sees the site as an historic reference point that provides an opportunity for "guerrilla tourism." Since 1992, such "alternative tourism" has drawn thousands of curious visitors from across Latin America, North America, and Europe, bringing vanloads of day-trippers to a handful of isolated villages.

"The first thing tourists ask about is where are the ‘tatús’ (underground guerrilla shelters and tunnels),” says Corbelam’s president, Marco Tulio Calderón. “People can’t believe how they survived in those conditions." The tunnels, slightly over one metre wide, two metres high and several metres long, are connected to small chambers and to breathing holes, which during the war were covered by vegetation. The term "tatú", the Guaraní word for armadillo, was used by the Uruguayan urban guerrilla National Liberation Movement or Tupamaros in the 1960s and 1970s to name their own tunnels, "tatuceras", which they dug when they tried to expand to rural areas.
The shelters were built in just six months by civilians with limited knowledge of construction techniques. Half a kilometre away is "el hospitalito" (the little hospital), another underground site where up to 20 wounded could be held temporarily. These areas were unknown to most insurgents, says Calderón, who is only 37 years old.

Walking along the paths, tourists come across huge bomb craters and trees hit by mortar fire - signs of the attacks aimed at silencing the RFM. An empty bomb-shell casing is now used as a bell at the local school.

Neither the national government nor the local governments of the seven municipalities that make up the "Mancomunidad (commonwealth) of La Montañona" (officially established in 1999), provide support for forest conservation, says Calderón, although some 200,000 local residents depend on the woodland’s environmental services including water provided by the four rivers fed by 300 stream that run down the sides of the mountains. The forest is home to coyote, deer, wild board, and the margay or “tree ocelot”. The area has several plant species not documented in the country and others perhaps not registered anywhere in the world. Corbelam protects the forest and has developed a system to fight fires, consisting of wells and water channels that operate using gravity.

The new community of "La Montañona" was created in 1993 as part of the nationally-brokered and internationally-monitored "National Land Transfer Program" (PTT), which brought thousands of ex-combatants and refugees back to settle in agricultural communities. The PTT deeded 136 beneficiaries and their families a total of 503 hectares, largely unsuitable for traditional agriculture, at the apex of a national "soil protection zone" of the nation's largest reservoir, the Cerron Grande.

To guarantee community food security without destroying some of El Salvador’s last remaining forests, La Montañona’s inhabitants, in collaboration with FUNDE, a national NGO, have forged a series of village and regional plans based on agro-ecological, economic and community strategies that meet local goals for food security, social stability and sustainable land management.

This story was extensively adapted from a story entitled EL SALVADOR: Guerrilla Ecotourism, by Raúl Gutiérrez, datelined La Montanona March 10, 2009 and distributed by Inter Press News Service  . For an earlier story on guerrilla tourism in El Salvador, see Guided guerrilla tours explore a unique side of El Salvador, by Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times, datelined Perquin, El Salvador, June 13, 2007. More information about Montanona’s Community Development plan can be found here. The pictures of Montañona come from the gallery on the Mancomunidad  website. The map shows the seven municipalities of Chalatenago, Comalapa, Ojos de Agua, El Carrizal, La Laguna, Las Vueltas y Concepción and Quezaltepeque that make up La mancomunidad la montañona.

Also see the Time story entitled Guerrilla tourism helps El Salvador heal, by Tim Rogers, Nov. 18, 2009.


For another story about "guerrilla tourism", see

Guerrilla tourism brings hope for new future in Aceh


For other stories about forests, see:

Briquettes provide energy, let forests regenerate in Malawi

Click a day plants 16 million trees in Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forest

Community residents protect Malaysia’s oldest forest reserve

Abdul’s dream of restoring mangrove forest in Malaysia takes root in villages

Madagascar plan to reduce deforestation achieves excellent results

Pioneering deal offers new hope for preserving tropical forests, global climate, local jobs

Re-establishing forest ecosystem in Uganda fights climate change

Reforesting desolate Colombian savannah shows sustainability can be created anywhere

Tanzanian blacksmiths pass on skills, creating jobs and saving forests

Tanzanian botanist honoured for reforestation efforts

Traditional Mexican coffee farms could help regenerate forest

World’s first solar cooker village helps cut deforestation in Somalia

Local forest mapping in Congo Basin may help villagers protect livelihoods

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