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A Tree Grows in San Salvador

As this Central American nation digs out from 12 years of civil war that cost more than 75,000 lives, Salvadorans are boosting the business climate and finding time to focus on the environment

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ASCENCION MARTINEZ GONZALEZ is no ordinary garbage man.

For one thing, he does not hang from the back of a diesel-belching truck. Instead, he dons a cherry-red workman's helmet and mounts a matching-hued tricycle cart to make his rounds.

Mr. Martinez is part of Zacamil 2001, a community cleanup program in a working-class neighborhood of San Salvador notorious for its trash problems. With a US$20,000 grant from the Canadian government, local environmental groups are organizing a program which includes private garbage pickup, recycling, and environmental awareness classes in the area schools.

Martinez does not see himself as an eco-pioneer. "I can feed my family [of six children] and I don't have to invest a lot of money to do this business," he explains.

Zacamil residents are a small bud in the postwar greening of the El Salvador populace. It's not that the 12-year civil war completely isolated Salvadorans from the global environmental movement; ecology groups have been active here. But the signing of the peace agreement in January has created a change in mental climate.

"The people have a greater sense of hope and commitment to their lives here," says Ricardo Navarro, director of the Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technology, which makes the Zacamil garbage carts and other non-polluting devices.

"Before we got started, nobody collected the garbage," says Marta Celina Hernandez, director of the Armin Mattli kindergarten. "It smelled awful. There were mini-dumps in the corner of each apartment building,"

People are no longer preoccupied about forced recruitment or bullets ripping through their homes. The fear of being declared treasonous for politically incorrect activity is dissipating.

"People aren't afraid to go out to a meeting now," says Francisco Rosa Chavez, the founder of Zacamil 2001. And as foreign aid for reconstruction starts to flow into El Salvador, fewer people think about fleeing to North America for a better life.

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