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Combating Climate Change in El Salvador

"[We are faced with] one complex crisis, which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” - Pope Francis in Laudato Si', May 2015

from the Maryknoll Lay Missioners newsletter:

In El Salvador, lay missioner Peg Vámosy is concerned that deforestation, chemical-dependent agriculture and the prevalence of uncollected trash are major problems.

She explains that “not long ago, people would have used a banana leaf to wrap things. When you were done, you just threw it on the ground and it rotted away.” Now that packaging uses non-biodegradable materials like plastic and worse, Styrofoam, trash accumulates in unsightly piles on land and contributes to water pollution.

Peg works to raise awareness of the need to recycle, but she believes the ultimate solution is to stop producing so much plastic and Styrofoam in the first place. She is convinced that “there is an enormous international packaging industry that has to retool itself.”

Peg’s ministries are part of the effort of her parish in Monte San Juan, El Salvador, to address environmental issues. Some of the initiatives Peg has led and participated in include educational sessions before Sunday Masses, reforestation campaigns, collection of empty pesticide containers, construction of recycling bins, and an effort to develop a watershed management plan for a nearby river.

In addition, Peg works with local farmers, promoting sustainable agriculture. Chemical fertilizers have been standard for most farmers, and many feared their families would go hungry if they risked trying to produce crops without them.

After seeing positive outcomes in the model field run by the parish group, however, some were convinced to try sustainable practices. They are now successfully providing for their families without chemicals that potentially pollute the ground and the water, and that can be harmful to their own health.

One of the most powerful aspects of this work for Peg is that it is true “community development—because nothing will change unless everyone is working together.”

In addition, she believes, “If local people see that they can have an impact when they work together, then environmental issues can become opportunities for people to be the drivers of their own future. Once they feel empowered, they can then work together to solve all sorts of problems, not just environmental ones.”

The similarity of the issues lay missioners witness throughout Latin America indicates that the fiery skies over Brazil last year were not an isolated incident but clues to a complex social and ecological puzzle.

As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’ (#139), the range of these issues, from deforestation to migration and overcrowded cities, suggests that “we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis, which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

As lay missioners around the world know, many of the patterns seen in Latin America are echoed in places as distant from the Amazon as Cambodia or the informal settlement of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya.

The global nature of these issues has convinced Marj Humphrey, director of missions for Maryknoll Lay Missioners, that responding to them is an urgent priority and a moral imperative.

“As missioners, we have felt the devastating impact of climate change and pollution on our world’s most vulnerable people,” Marj says. “Though we have several lay missioners who are involved in these issues worldwide, we continue to look for new and better ways we can respond. In conscience, we cannot do otherwise.”