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Tuesday, 16 January, 2001, 19:45 GMT
Quake mudslides blamed on deforestation
Landslide cuts through Santa Tecla
Santa Tecla: Some say deforestation caused the landslide
By Jeremy McDermott in Santa Tecla

Anger and confusion is spreading through the tented camp in Santa Tecla, where authorities estimate that 90% of those killed in last Saturday's earthquake that rocked Central America are from the buried neighbourhood of Las Colinas.

The surviving residents want to know why.

"This is not the moment to argue about who was responsible. But we're going to have to do some profound reflection when this is over," said Santa Tecla Mayor Oscar Ortiz.

Rescue workers said that the reason 500 houses and over 1,000 people were buried under a huge landslide, was because the mountain overlooking Las Colinas had been deforested and cut away by building developers, despite protests and lawsuits.

Local protests

"It was a disaster waiting to happen," said Miguel Cordero, sheltering with his family under black plastic sheeting propped up with bamboo poles in the emergency centre on Santa Tecla's sports ground.

Counting the dead in Las Colinas
It is believed that 90% of the dead were from Las Colinas
He is among the 7,000 people camped out on the football pitches, mourning the loss of two members of his family.

"The developers kept digging further and further into the base mountainside despite everything we said, and the government let them do it."

For several years environmental groups and local residents have been protesting against the deforestation and over development of the sides of the Cordillera El Balsamo, the ridgeline that overlooks Las Colinas.

A lawsuit was even lodged against the construction companies, which brought a ruling halting development.

But that was overturned two years ago, and the developers continued stripping away trees and eroding the base of the mountain with new buildings.


Some of the dispossessed residents muttered that money had changed hands, but no evidence has yet emerged of any corruption connected with the case.

A boy from Las Colinas peeps through a hole in a makeshift tent
Most of those who survived are living in makeshift tents and camps
Red Cross spokesman, Dennis McClean, was certain the disaster had been made worse by the erosion of topsoil caused by tree felling.

"One of the contributory factors to the high loss of life in this disaster has been deforestation," he said.

"For years and years, we have been saying we have to protect the Balsamo Mountains," says Ricardo Navarro, director of The Centre for Appropriate Technology, a local environmental group affiliated with Friends of the Earth International.

"We said there's going to be a tremor, and it's going to collapse, and that's what happened."

The rescue workers have given up hope of finding anyone alive under the soil that covers a wide swathe of Las Colinas, three miles from the capital San Salvador.

Final embrace

The delicate probing of rescue teams with specially trained sniffer dogs has been replaced with bulldozers and mechanical diggers uncovering the streets and looking for any houses that were not flattened by the avalanche of earth and rocks.

The search for the living has changed into a gruesome collection of the dead.

Every now and again the diggers stop as the roof of a house is uncovered, or a scattered limb of one of the estimated 900 entombed in the disaster, is found.

Then the squads of soldiers armed with shovel move in and the sniffer dogs scour for signs of life.

Rescuers bowed their heads for a moment when the corpses of 12-year-old Ana Yanci and her 15-year-old cousin Carlos were found locked in a final, terrified embrace.

Nobody has been found alive since Sunday.

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See also:

22 Sep 99 | World
Deadly history of earthquakes
15 Jan 01 | Americas
International aid for quake victims
15 Jan 01 | Americas
Central America: Disaster zone
16 Jan 01 | Americas
In pictures: Rescue and relief
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