Magazine article The Christian Century

Planting Peace in El Salvador: The Reconciliation Forest

Magazine article The Christian Century

Planting Peace in El Salvador: The Reconciliation Forest

Article excerpt

Chepe Morillo jokes about how death squads almost killed him. They shot him twice in the head and left him for dead, but somehow he survived. "I guess I was just too bad a guy for God to want me in heaven," he says.

Morillo and I are resting atop the Guazapa volcano, a lumbering series of ridges. He grew up in the shadow of the mountain. Today he is struggling to save the peak from environmental demise. He is determined that the mountain will survive - as he did - the violence of El Salvador's civil war.

We had set off in the predawn hours, when the 4,700-foot peak was silhouetted against the stars. Morillo and three other men stopped every few minutes to wait for me. As former combatants or rearguard activists, they were used to marching uphill in the dark, but I wasn't. We made it to the summit just as the first warm rays of sunlight hit our sweaty faces.

As we breakfasted on cold pupuses filled with beans and garlic, we gazed down at the capital, the Pacific Ocean just beyond, and the mountains of Honduras in the distance. It amazed me that I could see almost all of El Salvador from the summit. With all the attention the country has generated in the past decade, I felt it should be bigger.

As we surveyed the landscape, Morillo told me more about that day in February 1980 when he was working in one of the corn fields below. A death squad appeared, took him to a remote ridge and questioned him about the cooperative that he and his wife had helped form. By 1980, cooperative organizers were on the government's hit list, and now Morillo's time seemed to have run out. The men shot him twice in the head and left.

Amazingly, the bullets didn't kill him. Family members found him and took him to a nearby village for treatment, then smuggled him to a hospital in the capital. One bullet was removed, but the other remains in his neck, causing frequent pain and vision problems. Among the doctors who treated him was Charlie Clements, the U.S. physician whose book Witness to War introduced many outsiders to the ferocity of Salvadoran counterinsurgency operations.

The repression increased the sympathy of Morillo and his neighbors for the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), and soon the military made the region a primary bombing target. According to one estimate, 4,000 tons of bombs, including napalm and white phosphorous, were dropped on Guazapa and its people during the war. In March 1983, toward the end of an eight-day government offensive, one of those bombs fell near Morillo's wife, Carmen Montoya, and shattered her eardrums. The burning napalm killed three of the couple's children.

Like Montoya, who bears napalm scars on her legs and chest, Guazapa was left scarred and disfigured by the war. The 500-pound bombs left huge craters. The bombing and subsequent fires destroyed much of the mountain's forest cover. When peace came in 1992, returning peasant farmers scavenged the remaining vegetation for firewood. Often they set brush fires, believing the heat would explode forgotten land mines.

Although many of Guazapa's ridges are now bare and its riverbeds filled with dry stones, Morillo remembers when the mountain was covered with trees and the rivers flowed strong and clear. He and his neighbors are working hard to bring back the mountain of their memories, and in the process to help bring their country back to life.

They've launched an ambitious effort to convert much of the mountain into a "National Reconciliation Forest." The project involves planting 75,000 trees - one for each person killed in the civil war - high on the volcano's slopes. On lower slopes, they're planting a "buffer zone" designed to provide wood for fuel and construction. Both sections of the forest will provide food and habitat for animals, protect fertile soils and help stream beds recover their ability to hold and carry water.

Today 120,000 small trees are growing in the project nurseries, and 90 acres of bare ridge have been reforested. …

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