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What’s at stake for the environment in El Salvador’s upcoming election?

President Nayib Bukele, who took office in 2019 with his new party Nuevas Ideas, will likely win by a wide margin despite constitutional restrictions on running for a second term (a supreme court stacked with his supporters ruled he was eligible in 2021). Current polls show him with 90% favorability, largely because of a swift cleanup of gangs that dropped homicide rates to historically low levels. The other candidates — left-wing former lawmaker Manuel Flores and right-wing businessman Joel Sánchez — have little chance of winning, polls show. They’re both running with traditional political parties that have been mired in corruption and a lack of progress, which has frustrated Salvadorans of late.

Flores said that the environment would be a key pillar of his platform but hasn’t gone public with many details. Sánchez has also been quiet on the topic. Bukele, meanwhile, has prioritized development and security over the environment, suggesting he won’t do much on the federal level to actively address major issues like drought, which has hit agricultural producers hard and contributed to outward migration. So far, his major policies appear in opposition to the environment, challenging vulnerable ecosystems and the people trying to protect them.

“We can’t stop building homes,” Bukele said in 2020 when asked about the impact of development on local communities and the environment. For many critics, the answer has come to symbolize his stance on conservation in general.

In addition to building roads and bridges, Bukele’s government has moved forward on an “Airport of the Pacific” in the coastal town of La Unión, intended as a hub in the harder-to-reach eastern part of the country. The project came under fire from conservation groups in the area after the Legislative Assembly watered down building regulations, threatening mangrove ecosystems while expropriating land from locals.

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A sister project of the airport, called the “Train of the Pacific,” was in the feasibility stages last year. The Ministry of Public Works and Transportation also reportedly reached out to foreign investors. The train is pitched as a cross-country route along the coast, and is expected to pose similar ecological challenges as the airport. Should Bukele win, both projects will likely move forward very quickly.

There’s also concern that he’ll use his second term to reverse a landmark mining ban — the first of its kind anywhere in the world — in hopes of boosting the economy with exports of silver, gold, iron and other minerals. It hasn’t happened yet, and Bukele hasn’t commented publicly, but some groups claim there are signs. His government last year spent around $4.5 million “modernizing” mining and energy laws and adding staff to the Directorate of Hydrocarbons, Energy and Mines. The country also recently joined an intergovernmental forum that advises countries on mining practices.

“The failing economy paints El Salvador with a desperate need to attract foreign investment to stimulate economic growth,” said a report from the Institute on Policy Studies and Share Foundation. “…It is that desperation that drives Nayib Bukele to play the high-risk gamble of reversing the mining ban.”

The Office of the President didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.

Under Bukele’s watch, the government also arrested five activists — known locally as “water defenders” — who had led the campaign to ban mining in 2017. The murder charges against them date back to the country’s civil war, which ended in 1992, and should be protected by a pardon, their attorneys say.

Legally questionable arrests have become a trademark of Bukele’s government. He declared a state of emergency in 2022 to address the country’s gang problem, snatching up thousands of people without a fair trial. Activists could become increasingly swept up in those arrests moving into Bukele’s second term, especially as he’s declined to sign the Escazú Agreement to protect environmental defenders.

“Bukele’s ruthlessness in the continued arrests under the ‘state of exception’ will get even worse after his re-election…because then he will not have to appease anyone. He will have five years of absolute control and possibly more,” the report from the Institute on Policy Studies and Share Foundation said.

Other environmental concerns worth considering this election are the worsening droughts in the “dry corridor” caused by climate change, and the reduction of the number of municipal government offices from 262 to 44, which goes into effect this year. The move could make it harder for local-level conservation policy to be carried out.

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