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El Salvador poised for big year of roadbuilding, despite environmental concerns

  • El Salvador has prioritized refurbishing and expanding its road system, in many cases destroying habitats for vulnerable species.
  • 2023 looks to be yet another ambitious year for roadbuilding, with the government announcing several “large-scale” infrastructure projects throughout the country.
  • One of the biggest projects, the Los Chorros Highway, requires removing thousands of trees in an area frequented by migratory birds and several endangered species. It would also relocate nearly 199 families.

President Nayib Bukele, now entering the last year of his term, has spent much of the previous four years trying to modernize El Salvador’s roads. His government has repaired new bridges and tunnels, widened highways and built new overpasses. But the environmental impacts of some of those projects, whether it be deforestation or interrupting the routes of migratory birds, has often proven controversial.

2023 is poised to be yet another big year for roadbuilding in El Salvador. Bukele has said that virtually the country’s entire network of paved roads needs to be rehabilitated, blaming previous governments for neglecting national infrastructure over the last thirty years. Last month, his government announced that the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation (MOP) would be starting dozens of “large-scale” road projects this year.

“We’re going to carry out the largest investment in public works in the history of El Salvador in 2023,” Minister Romeo Rodríguez Herrera said. The budget for public works is slated for around $679 million.

Rodríguez has said the government carries out the necessary environmental impact studies before moving forward with a project but that sometimes cutting down trees is inevitable. Construction on the Gerardo Barrios bypass, for example, reportedly cleared nearly 2,000 trees and required the installation of reservoirs to prevent stress on the country’s water supply.

MOP didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Los Chorros highway is just one of several ambitious infrastructure projects planned for 2023. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Public Works)

One of the most controversial upcoming road projects is continued work on the 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) expansion of the Los Chorros Highway between the municipalities of Colón and La Libertad, part of the Pan-American Highway that stretches across North and South America. The multi-million-dollar project will expand the road to six or eight lanes in different areas, requiring the eviction of 199 families.

Nearly 6,000 trees and shrubs need to be cleared for the project, some in coffee-growing areas, according to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources’ environmental impact study. That includes plants like the Guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum), the ronrón (Astronium graveolens), Java plum (Syzygium cumini) and Sangre de Chucho (Lonchocarpus salvadorensis), among others.

The environmental impact study said 66 mahogany trees (Swietenia mahagnoni) would also have to be cut down to make room for the road expansion.

The habitats of two reptiles — the black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura similis) and green iguana (Iguana iguana) are also under threat from the expansion. Seventy-five bird species, some of which rely on the area during migration, may also see their habitats compromised, according to the environmental impact study.

The project, which officials call the “most ambitious road infrastructure project that has been built in the last 50 years in El Salvador,” is being financed by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Bank of Korea. Neither responded to a request for comment.

In addition to improving the country’s roads, Bukele’s government has developed projects for airports and trainlines that have neglected the input of local communities and could threaten local ecosystems.

Banner image: Preliminary renderings of the Los Chorros highway. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Public Works. 

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