El Salvador, earthquakes, ecology

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Jan 19 10:30:01 MST 2001

Los Angeles Times, January 17, 2001, Wednesday, Home Edition



With about a third of the nearly 700 deaths from last weekend's strong
earthquake occurring in one suburban neighborhood in the foothills of a
deforested mountain, Salvadorans on Tuesday debated whether there was
someone to blame for the tragedy and, if so, who.

Most of the death and damage was outside major cities, so questions often
raised in a quake's aftermath about urban building design and construction
were replaced by wrangling over the possibility that faulty ecological
practices exacerbated the natural disaster.

It is an argument that has repercussions far beyond Saturday's disaster in
this nation of 6 million people crowded into an area the size of Kern County.

Only 2% of El Salvador's natural vegetation remains, ecologists say, making
it the second-most-deforested nation in the Americas, after Haiti. Despite
efforts to create national parks and reserves, the burgeoning population
continues to encroach on nature, filling ravines with shacks and clearing
the trees higher and higher up the slopes of El Salvador's famous volcanoes.

Ecologists have consistently warned that such practices will have dire
consequences in a country prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

By shaking loose a mountaintop onto a suburban neighborhood called Las
Colinas, in the foothills of the Balsamo mountain range, the 7.6 quake
appears to have given activists a cause celebre.

Throughout the weekend, volunteer rescuers and bereaved relatives digging
through mounds of dirt in search of loved ones looked up toward the
mountaintop that had dumped the rubble, cursing construction companies for
the landslide.

Environmental activists threatened to sue contractors and the public
officials who had allowed them to build so high up the steep mountains.
Provoking even more anger, the houses being built at the top of the peak
were mansions, while those destroyed in the foothills were townhouses of
middle-class professionals.

Deforested regions were not the only ones that suffered severe damage.
Ecology Minister Ana Maria Majano noted in a news conference Monday, "There
are areas with little human activity and a lot of vegetation that also had

Just around the bend from Nueva San Salvador, in an area where coffee
bushes are more common than townhouses, witnesses said even larger
mudslides than the one that devastated Las Colinas washed down the
mountainside, carrying as many as a dozen coffee pickers. Mexican seismic
teams found cracks 4 inches wide in parts of the mountain range, emergency
officials said.

What determines the degree of damage, Majano said, is not construction, but
whether the soil is loose or compacted and the characteristics of the
earthquake itself. Precisely because of the unpredictability of quakes,
ecologists argue, contractors should not be allowed to build in the hills.

"There are more than 20 companies up there causing problems," said Ricardo
Navarro, director of the environmental organization CESTA.

On Sunday, Nueva San Salvador Comptroller Jose Noe Torres had blamed the
construction activity above Las Colinas on Posamaco, an abbreviation for
Posada Magana, a company that the municipal officials had sued in an
attempt to prevent construction on the hillsides. The court denied the

Carlos Posada, president of the company, vehemently denied that his venture
owned the construction project on the hill above Las Colinas.

"Our subdivision is on the other side of the mountain," he said. Further,
he noted, the courts had decided that his project, called Tierra Verde, is
safe and that the municipality owed the company $ 4.5 million for delaying
construction and libeling the corporation in public comments.

"These are the same tactics that lost them the lawsuit," he said.

Navarro, who said he also publicly blamed the company over the weekend
because of information he had received from local environmental activists,
said Tuesday, "It is possible that it is not Posamaco."

He said he planned an investigation to determine who is responsible for the
disaster and will file a lawsuit if necessary.

"This is a collective responsibility of all the companies that are building
up there," Navarro said.

Louis Proyect
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