Women from the El Palmeral Cooperative on the outskirts of a small town in northern El Salvador produce world-class handmade necklaces, bracelets and earrings from the seeds of local trees. But there are only two buses a day to the market town. If they miss the last one, they won’t make it back home to San Francisco Menéndez that night.

The World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) El Impossible-Barra de Santiago Regional Integrated Watershed Management (BASIM) project helped the women buy equipment for their workshop and plant seedlings to ensure a supply of raw material in the future – at the same time, not incidentally, helping with much needed reforestation. “We feel good about being a group of women. We’re not just sitting around the house taking care of kids and watching soap operas,” explained cooperative member Maria Fidelina Ramirez. “We’re earning money with our own effort. It isn’t much, but it gives us hope. We can earn income to help our kids.”

The cooperative’s combined appeal of quality products, environmental sustainability, social development and gender equality would appeal to a growing niche market of “fair trade” consumers in North America and Europe. So the women are dreaming of the export market.

The first step in realizing such a dream would be registering their cooperative as a legal entity that could enter into contracts, provide receipts and perform all the other mundane tasks that are part of doing commerce. But that’s a pretty tall order for people who find themselves short of essentials like money, time, education and transportation. 

The cooperative is working on the legal registration, but the process is prolonged and bureaucratic. Perhaps the dream would simply become a nightmare at this point – if it weren’t for an umbrella association called the Network of Coastal Organizations of Ahuchapan-Sonsonate (RIOCMAS).

Founded in 2003 and legally registered two years later, RIOCMAS unites 28 community organizations – mostly from the municipalities of San Francisco Menéndez and Jujutla. Members include fishing and recycling cooperatives, a sea turtle conservation initiative, a group that distributes and monitors home biofilters to ensure clean drinking water, and a community tourism group. 

Among other things, RIOCMAS “lends” its registration number to still-informal member groups when they need to fill out official forms or enter into contracts. Only four of the 28 exist legally in their own right, so without this simple artifice, most groups could not even receive grants from foundations that want to help but demand strict accounting of expenditures. “Lots of donors used to come here, but they couldn’t do anything because there was no organizational structure here,” recalled RIOCMAS President Maria del Carmen Gallardo. “Now each group goes about its work, and RIOCMAS incorporates them with its legal registration.” Until its own registration comes through, the women’s handicraft cooperative is selling its wares through RIOCMAS. 

José Angel Gonzalez Martinez represents the “leñateros,” wood-gatherers who want to protect the mangrove swamps where they make their livings. For every 10x10 foot measure of wood they extract, they plant 300 seedlings. “The leñateros don’t have a legal entity,” said Martinez. “When we ask for funding, we only implement the project.”

With regular meetings of representatives of all groups and of its elected directors, RIOCMAS has become a natural magnet for coordinating actions on a larger scale. During Tropical Storm Stan in October 2005, RIOCMAS representatives went door-to-door to check on residents and help define responses. They provided key statistical data to a non-governmental organization involved in the relief effort. 


Out of that experience emerged a volunteer civil defense corps. Consisting of 12 members each, committees have been formed to deal with issues of communication, transportation, emergency shelters and oversight. Volunteers are receiving training in rescue techniques and are participating in simulation drills. 

“When we joined RIOCMAS, it was more to help the other groups,” said Zoila Areli Henriquez Bonilla, manager of a successful women’s fishing cooperative. “But there is strength in numbers. Eventually everyone will benefit.”

Written by Bill Hinchberger