La Montañona, a forested mountain in northern El Salvador that reaches 1,800 metres above sea level, was a stronghold of the FMLN guerrillas during the country’s armed conflict. Today, its forests and stories of bombings and rebel hideouts have begun to draw ecotourism.
At the top of the mountain, the view is spectacular. A chain of volcanoes and mountains stretches towards the horizon, obliterating the border with neighbouring Honduras. The fresh mountain air makes it easier to forget the poor state of the road leading to La Montañona, in the department (province) of Chalatenango, around 100 km from the capital.
An ecotourism area was designed on 300 hectares of land on the mountain, with hiking trails, camp sites and tunnels to explore, by the Representative Committee of Beneficiaries of La Montañona (Corbelam), made up of 155 former guerrillas and local residents keen on “salvaging the collective memory.”
The area was the scene of bloody fighting between the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) and government forces during the 1980-1992 civil war.
In 1982, the rebels managed to expel the army and gain control of the area, where they installed the Radio Farabundo Martí station (RFM), which for the rest of the war broadcast from a hideout three metres below ground, similar to the tunnels of the Viet Cong, which were the nightmare of U.S. troops in the 1965-1975 Vietnam war.
Marco Tulio Calderón, president of Corbelam, guides us to one of the tunnels, where the RFM transmitter was run on a diesel engine.
“Tatú: historic site, a work of engineering built to protect the spot from aerial attacks. The RFM became a legend that is now coming to life,” reads a sign at the spot known as El Roble, where some 30 guerrillas-cum-journalists prepared three broadcasts a day.
“The first thing tourists ask about is where are the ‘tatús’ (underground guerrilla shelters and tunnels). People can’t believe how they survived in those conditions,” says Calderón as we go down one of the damp tunnels, slightly over one metre wide, two metres high and several metres long. The tunnels are connected to small chambers and to breathing holes, which during the war were covered by vegetation.
The term “tatú”, the Guaraní word for armadillo, was used by the Uruguayan urban guerrilla National Liberation Movement or Tupamaros in the 1960s and 1970s to name their own tunnels, “tatuceras”, which they dug when they tried to expand to rural areas.
Calderón says the atmosphere in the tunnels was “oppressive,” with the constant military operations and shelling.
“The blood of many compañeros is here, and now we can show the place to the new generations, so they can learn about what happened,” he says.
These areas were unknown to most insurgents, says Calderón, who is only 37 years old. The shelters were built in just six months by civilians with limited knowledge of construction techniques.
Half a kilometre away is “el hospitalito” (the little hospital), another underground site where up to 20 wounded could be held temporarily.
“The idea is to offer the tourist something simple but authentic, to show what happened in the war, while we bring in funds to maintain the forest, through a sustainable management programme that benefits the people of Chalatenango,” says Francisco Mejía, the treasurer of Corbelam.
The group obtained ownership of the 300 hectares after the January 1992 peace agreement put an end to the war that left 75,000 dead, at least 6,000 forcibly disappeared and some 40,000 disabled.
Walking along the paths, tourists come across huge bomb craters and trees hit by mortar fire – signs of the attacks aimed at silencing the RFM.
An empty bomb-shell casing is now used as a bell at the local school.
Wilfredo Cepeda, one of the founders of the RFM in late 1981, says the clandestine radio station’s broadcasts were frequently jammed by the army. He also recalls that several members of the team “learned to read and write while working at the station.”
Cepeda and other members of the radio station’s staff helped design the ecotourism attraction in 2006, with the aim of preserving the unique aspects of the tunnels, which were visited by 1,400 tourists in 2008. The ticket costs a dollar, but getting here entails a one-hour drive from the nearest town, on a very bad road.
The site is a historic reference point and provides an opportunity for “guerrilla tourism,” said the former rebel, who is now a university professor.
The “Mancomunidad (commonwealth) of La Montañona” is an association of seven municipalities that was officially established in 1999 on the mountain of the same name.
The Salvadoran Research Programme on Development and the Environment (PRISMA) has led several studies on water, fauna and flora in the area, which have given rise to an inventory of local species and water resources.
The researchers found several plant species that had not been documented in the country and others that perhaps have never been registered anywhere in the world, Wilfredo Morán, an adviser to PRISMA projects in Chalatenango, told IPS.
For example, the “Participative inventory of plant species from the La Montañona forest,” published in 2005 by PRISMA, says the “vismia” (of the Clusiaceae family), a green-leafed bush with ochre- coloured berries, produces a phosphorescent orange latex.
But “conservation is only possible if the needs of local residents are met at the same time,” says Morán.
The northern part of this Central American country of 20,000 square kilometres and 5.7 million people has been “historically marginalised,” he explains.
Running down the sides of the La Montañona mountain are the Sumpul, Azambio, Tamulasco and Motochico rivers, which are fed by some 300 streams. And the forest is home to coyotes, deer, wild boar, and the margay, or “tree ocelot.”
Corbelam has three tourist cabins equipped with solar power, and a restaurant is under construction. There are also plans to repair the road and bring piped water and electricity to the local community. The people involved in the project also grow subsistence crops and raise chickens.
Morán says the site has the potential to be developed as a tourist area, but the road keeps visitors away.
Neither the national government nor the local governments of the municipalities that make up the “commonwealth” provide support for forest conservation in the area, says Calderón, despite the fact that some 200,000 local residents depend on the woodland’s environmental services, such as the water provided by the streams and rivers.
Corbelam protects the forest and has developed a system to fight fires, consisting of wells and water channels that operate on the force of gravity. Raúl Gutiérrez, IPS