Asociación de Cooperación para el desarrollo Económico, Social y Ambiental (ACDESA)

Implementation of ancestral water conservation techniques and monitoring of key sectors of the Sensunapán River basin. Environmental education and training focused on management of conflicts over water resources. Improvement of overall conditions of the soil, maintenance of agroforestry systems and development of initiatives for the conservation and protection of the forest. The project’s main objective is to reduce pressure on the ecosystems associated with the river.

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Pushtan, Sisimitepec, Tajcüilüjlan / Sonsonate / El Salvador
545 m
5,400 ha

The Indigenous Communities of Pushtan, Sisimitepec and Tajcüilüjlan are located in the middle part of the Sensunapán river. They are part of the Río Grande de Sonsonate basin and hydrographic region, located in the municipality of Nahuizalco, El Salvador. These communities represent one of the largest Nahuat Pipil settlements. The climate is tropical with temperatures ranging between 27 ° - 28 °C. The rainy season lasts for seven months, from April 14 to November 28.

A sustainable resistance
Pushtan, Sisimitepec, Tajcüilüjlan / Sonsonate / El Salvador
PHOTOGRAPHY  Lissette Lemus
TEXT  Jorge Varela

El Salvador only officially recognized the existence of its Indigenous Peoples in 2014. State violence and continuous efforts to suppress them have put the relationships they share with their surroundings in peril. More recently, the addition of larger global issues like climate change and growing pressure on native environments have exacerbated state-level policies of oppression and neglect. Nonetheless, indigenous communities have found ways to survive.

Of the languages spoken among El Salvador’s three principal indigenous communities — the Lencas, the Cacaoperas and the Nahuat Pipiles — only Nahuat, a close relative of Mexico’s Nahuatl dialects, survives among a small number of native speakers. 

“Not Nahuat, [young people] say, because it’s a language that they cannot use with people coming from the outside”, explains Fernando Aguilar Marcelino, from the municipality of Nahuizalco in western El Salvador.

Nahuizalco, set back from the western bank of the Sensunapán river in the Sonsonate Department in western El Salvador, is home to one of the highest concentrations of Nahuat Pipil communities. Fernando, his wife and their seven children are from Pushtan, one of 15 cantons in the municipality.  

A farmer and active member of his community, Fernando, 49, worries that environmental degradation in the surrounding area has diminished local harvests and dissolved the social fabric—with dire consequences. “Our elders coexisted with nature. Now, there is overpopulation that is rapidly spreading over the land,” he says. “In our communities we subsist on the land. It is the source of all our food.”


(4) Fernando Aguilar’s basil plantation, Pushtan.   (5) Sprinkler irrigation system with water from Los Trozos river.   (6) Quequeshte, the plant serves as a natural barrier for land plots and the leaf is used for wrapping.   (7) Detail of a chufle flower, used as a vegetable in broths and soups.   (8) Fernando Aguilar, community leader of the Pushtan canton.

To confront this alarming new reality, three communities in Nahuizalco municipality – Pushtan, Sisimitepec and Tajcüilüjlan – have teamed up with the Cooperative Association for Economic, Social and Environmental Development (ACDESA), the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which gave financial support through its Indigenous Peoples Assistance Facility (IPAF) fund, to improve their technical skills in sustainable use of resources. The project, implemented from mid-2019 to July 2020 had 4 main axes: conservation works, agroforestry actions, agricultural diversification actions and workshops.

The conservation works resulted in the construction of six thousand meters of water-harvest ditches with the capacity to store up to 200 liters. 6,000 meters of live barriers, structures constructed with edible plants that also prevent soil erosion, were also built.

“In our communities we subsist on the land. It is the source of all our food.”


(9) The powerful flow of water from the Sensunapán river.   (10) Microorganisms help break down organic matter in filter trays.   (11) Beans grown by Lucas Campos in Pushtan.   (12) The first guavas of the season from Cayetano Pérez’s crops in Sisimetepec.   (13) Fruit trees are an integral part of the communities’ mixed crops.

Through the agroforestry efforts, the communities planted 7,000 timber and fruit trees to compensate for forest lost due to advancing settlements. The trees also provide additional food and, in the long term, a new source of sustainable income. Above all, says Fernando, the trees help improve the communities’  quality of life. They “develop and purify polluted wind currents,” Fernando says. “We all breathe that air.”

The agricultural diversification actions helped recuperate ancestral knowledge of multi-crop farming, where distinct species grow in symbiosis with one another. These actions supported the transmission of knowledge from elders to younger generations estranged from their community’s agricultural traditions.

All of these direct actions were accompanied by several workshops on how to build and maintain this new sustainable infrastructure and community education on multi-crop farming.

Although efforts are being made to recover the language, it is believed that there are fewer than 200 people who currently speak Nahuat.

Fernando both contributed to and benefited from the workshops, sharing his own deep knowledge of agriculture while developing new skills. He describes that exchange as one of the project’s most valuable elements. “We believe that knowledge can have an added value only when it is shared with others,” he says. “I am willing to learn, but also to teach.”

Fernando was quite impressed by the will and capacity of the people to be responsible and cooperate to improve the community: “when a person becomes aware through action, from that moment on, I consider it change because they accept that a certain work or activity is relevant. From then on, a person becomes a responsible collaborator.” 

Beyond the projects’ immediate benefits, these actions proved that even complex goals can be achieved through cooperation. The Nahuat Pipil, as well as the other Indigenous Communities of El Salvador, have been resisting a State that has marginalized them for centuries. They have so far managed, in spite of unequal conditions. The best response to new, 21st-century challenges is to organize and cooperate.

Pushtan, Sisimitepec, Tajcüilüjlan / Sonsonate / El Salvador