Finding a Balance

"If we want to re-establish the equilibrium of nature,
we need to get rid of extreme poverty and extreme wealth ..."

One of the articles in Toward A Sustainable World Order (IC#36)
Originally published in Fall 1993 on page 36
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Ecological balance can’t be obtained without also achieving improved economic and social balance. That message, which goes to the heart of the concept of sustainability, is also at the heart of the work being done by Ricardo Navarro, the president of the Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technology. We had an opportunity to discuss these issues with Ricardo when he dropped in at the Context Institute’s office on Bainbridge Island this summer.

For more information about CESTA, write to them at APDO. 3065, 33 Calle Pte. 316, San Salvador, El Salvador.

Sarah: What makes ecological projects a priority for a country like El Salvador, which has so many other pressing problems?

Ricardo: When we talk about solving ecological problems, we are not talking about preserving the beauty of the landscape or saving the little koala bear or a bird that is in danger of extinction. These are important problems, but in El Salvador our problems are worse than that.

The government’s statistics at the childrens’ hospital will tell you that the leading causes of death are infectious respiratory diseases, which are a product of air pollution. That means that breathing is dangerous for a small child! And the same thing goes for drinking water and food.

So when we talk about ecological problems, we are talking about issues of life and death. Ecological problems in El Salvador are therefore social problems, and very soon they are going to be political problems.

We have a lot of air pollution. But who generates it? The people who have cars and who buy the goods produced in the industries that generate pollution.

In our free-enterprise economy, the benefits are privatized but the costs of pollution are socialized!

Besides creating pollution, the overuse of resources by some people leaves other people without them. Poverty is very predatory. When a poor person sees a turtle laying 100 eggs, he knows that with 100 eggs he can have money to buy food for a week for the family. So he takes them.

If we want to re-establish the equilibrium of nature, we need to get rid of extreme poverty and extreme wealth. The more poor people we have, the worse it is for the environment. And the more wealth we have concentrated in very few hands, the worse it is. So that gets ecologists into things like the distribution of wealth, and of course that means we must deal with politics.

Sarah: How do you relate this principle to the relationship of El Salvador and the rest of the world?

Ricardo: Look at global warming, which is a product of consumption of fuel. That fuel is not consumed uniformly by everyone in the world; countries in the North consume much more fuel than countries in the South.

As a result, they are generating an ecological debt to the whole world. El Salvador has an economic debt with the North, but the countries of the North have an ecological debt with the whole world, including our country. I’m sure the ecological debt is 10 times bigger than the economic debt, if we can even assign a price to life. In economic terms we are talking about material things, but in ecological terms we are talking about the death of the planet.

Sarah: What steps should we take to re-establish the equilibrium?

Ricardo: The first step is to change our consciousness. In El Salvador, we have said many times that the ecological problem starts in our minds. We have to change our values.

We are told if you have a little car, you are not as important as if you have a big car. What if this was turned around? Then people who have small cars would be seen as better than people who have big cars.

Society tricks you. To make you comfortable, they sell you a car. But because you don’t get the exercise you need, they sell you a stationary bicycle to do the exercise. Can you believe it? It would be much easier and cheaper if they sold you the bicycle in the first place!

I think we need a major campaign to try to make people understand the value of living without destroying the environment. That means to live simply.

We also have to look for specific solutions to problems. We have to make architecture more ecologically sound. We have to promote the use of bicycles everywhere. We have to make sure we use as much solar and wind energy as we can. We have to reuse and recycle. We should try to produce and eat food that is highly nutritious and not polluted with pesticides.

Sarah: Many of the changes you’re describing are needed in the North, but are similar changes needed in the South as well?

Ricardo: Yes. In the North in particular, because the North has the power. But the North and the South have the same values. Why do people in El Salvador not have as many Cadillacs as people in the United States? Because they don’t have the money or the resources to get them, not because they don’t like them! So I think the education has to be worldwide – for the North not to destroy so many resources, and for the South not to aspire to be like the North.

Sarah: How can people in the North support your work?

Ricardo: If you could make lifestyle changes in the United States, that would be helpful for everyone else in the world – especially in the Third World. The United States can continue to live on the resources of the world, but it is not sustainable. It will be a matter of a couple of decades before something serious happens. We have destroyed a lot of resources, but I think there is still time to recover.

You can also influence the foreign policy of your country. We witnessed during the Reagan years how something like $6 billion was given to the government of El Salvador to kill people. What was the result of all that? Seventy-five thousand people died and there was a lot of destruction.

Support could be given to the appropriate technology movement through transfers of technology. In El Salvador, we have had people from Switzerland working on bicycles, people from Denmark working on garbage, and people from the United States working on women’s issues and organic gardening.

Sarah: Looking ahead 10 or 20 years, where do you see us headed?

Ricardo: It is very difficult to feel optimistic about the way things are going. We have to make major changes in the world.

It is very important that we restructure our economic system in order to achieve environmental equilibrium. Instead of developing the world according to economic criteria, we should develop it according to ecological criteria – because ecology follows the logic of nature, and economics follows the logic of money.

There’s a story we often tell people in El Salvador who are very rich. We tell them that if we are all on a jumbo jet that crashes, it won’t matter much if somebody is going first class. There may be one second difference between the people who die first and the rest. In planetary terms, it may be 10 to 50 years. But the problem is not going to go away.



Founded in 1980, the Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technology is a non-governmental organization that gets financial support from private foundations (many of which are European), the InterAmerican Foundation (a US-based, quasi-governmental agency), and from selling bicycles and other products.

CESTA’s work in promoting sustainable technologies and projects falls within four program areas:

  • Ecobici, which teaches people how to make and use human-powered machines such as bicycle carts to collect garbage, pedal-driven corn grinders, air compressors, and water pumps. The center also makes wheelchairs for the poor.

  • Ecomuna, which facilitates ecological and social community-based solutions, such as replanting forests, growing medicinal plants, composting garbage and human waste, and enhancing nutrition by promoting the use of soy products with local staple foods.

  • Econciencia, which seeks to raise ecological consciousness through a multimedia campaign, and through seminars with university professors, union leaders, politicians, church leaders, students, and others. Topics discussed at the gatherings have included women and the environment, and children and the environment.

  • Garbage, which conducts environmental research, and helps cities and industries solve waste problems.

As the center’s president, Ricardo Navarro travels in North America and Europe to raise awareness about the organization. He is planning an international network to support sustainable development in Latin America.

– Mark Worth