The Salvadoran government has made tourism a pillar of the country’s future economic development. The Ministry of Tourism and private investors have developed several tourism plans and strategies, purchased land, and begun infrastructure projects, all with the idea that tourism will create jobs and boost El Salvador’s economy.
The Ministry of Tourism recently announced that El Salvador has taken a $25 million loan from the International Development Bank to develop tourism along the coast. This year, $5.5 million of the loan will be available for projects related to infrastructural development and feasibility studies. In discussing the loan, the Minister of Tourism said, “2016 will be an important year for tourism. We will lay the foundation for the mega tourism projects to develop the coastal region of our country, benefiting residents of the eleven participating municipalities.”
Among other things, the funds will support Bosque Ecantador in Jiquilisco, Usulután, an initiative led by the Ministry of Tourism and Mayor David Barahona. The plan is to convert 12 manzanas (20 acres) of forest “near Jiquilisco” into an ecological park with swimming pools, hotel rooms, and other facilities. In November 2015, Mayor Barahona said visitors would be able to tour the “55 kilometers of Jiquilisco Bay, mangroves, forests, and have a place to stay.” Bosque Ecantador, which is still in the planning stage, will accommodate 200 people a night and generate 60 jobs.
In 2013/2014, residents of the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula (both regions of Jiquilisco, Usulután) emphatically opposed the idea of mega-tourism projects like the proposed Bosque Encantador. Their opposition is driven by a fear that large-scale tourism will destroy local forests, wetlands, and mangroves; deplete water resources; and disturb the habitats of endangered sea turtles and other species. Residents also want to preserve their agrarian-based, campesino culture and economy, and fear that tourism will promote a consumer-based society.
Mayor Barahona presents Bosque Encantador as an ecotourism project. And if it were the only mega-tourism project planned for the Jiquilisco Bay, perhaps it would not be too bad for the region. But several years ago tourism developers presented a plan to turn the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America,” meaning they would convert the region into one long strip of high-end resorts, golf courses, shopping centers, and other facilities. Since the plan was presented, investors have bought up the beachfront properties on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and land throughout the Jiquilisco Bay region. News of the planned Bosque Encantador and that 2016 will be the year that El Salvador lays the foundation for mega-tourism may cause concern for communities in the targeted areas.
Voices on the Border recently asked community leaders and development organizations in the Bajo Lempa if they new about the project. We spoke with leaders from La Canoa, Amando Lopez, Nueva Esperanza, and La Tirana, as well as local civil society organizations – all people that should know about development projects in the region. None of them had heard of Bosque Encantador. Only one person we asked had heard of the project, but he did not know much – the only detail he had hear was that it is being planned for the Nancuchiname Forest.
Voices on the Border called the mayor’s office in Jiquilisco to confirm that they were going to build Bosque Ecantador in the Nancuchiname Forest, and to inquire about project funding and when they would be organizing public hearings about the project, but no one has responded to our requests for information or returned our calls. In our calls, an administrative assistant said that she understood that Bosque Encantador is an urban project, meaning that it will be closer to the city of Jiquilisco, but that the Mayor has something else planned for Nancuchiname.
The Nancuchiname Forest is a natural protected area in the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco. The 797-hectacre (1,969 acres) forest runs alongside the Lempa River near Zamoran. Nancuchiname is an important riparian forest, home to la wide variety of species, including spider monkeys, crocodiles, and some of the last remaining old growth forest in the region.
Namcuchiname has hosted tourists for many years, so the idea of an ecotourism project related to the forest is not new. While it would be inappropriate to build swimming pools and hotels in the forests, Mayor Barahona may have identified land outside the protected area that is more suitable for development.
No matter where the Mayor is planning to develop Bosque Encantador, he has to give people in the region a voice in the process – all people, not just people who support him or mega-tourism projects. Community leaders and residents throughout the Bajo Lempa and Jiquilisco should have a voice in how their natural resources are used. The mayor has held planning sessions and meetings with the Ministry of the Environment, but so far he has excluded other local leaders.
Voices will continue reaching out to the Mayor’s office for information, and will post more on this project in the coming weeks.