Advocacy, agriculture, Environment

San Juan del Gozo Peninsula Communities Take Action Against Sugarcane Production

(Versión en español de abajo)

Yesterday, Monday November 10, communities on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula took two separate actions against plans to plant 680 acres of sugarcane on a large stretch of empty fields between the communities of La Tirana and San Juan del Gozo.

At the end of September, community leaders learned that landowner Angel Velasquez had leased part of his land to a sugarcane producer. A source familiar with the deal told communities that the lease was for 15 years and planting would begin right away.

Burning sugarcane crop...
Burning sugarcane in the Bajo Lempa just before harvest.

Communities oppose sugarcane production on the Peninsula due to the adverse affects it can have on the local environment. Growers use large quantities of agrochemicals including the herbicide glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup), which ensures crops ripen at the same time. Sugarcane growers also burn their fields just before harvest to remove all of the leaves making the cane cheaper to cut and transport.

The 680 acres leased for sugarcane is adjacent to mangrove forests to the west and north, and a long stretch of undeveloped beach to the south. The mangroves are fragile ecosystems that support thousands of species of wildlife, as well as dozens of small communities that sustainably harvest crabs and clams, and fish the rich estuaries that weave through the forests. The beaches are equally as important, serving as a nesting ground for at least four species of sea turtle, including the Hawksbill, which is critically endangered. Spraying agrochemicals and burning fields would quickly kill off the mangrove forests and poison the turtle nesting grounds.

Over the weekend community members heard  the sugarcane grower was planning to start plowing on Monday (yesterday). They quickly organized two actions. The first was a blockade. More than one hundred residents from several communities gathered and blocked the road leading down to the property, in order to deny tractors access to the land. The grower likely heard about the planned action beforehand and decided to avoid a confrontation. The communities remain on watch and are ready to mobilize again if anyone tries to bring machinery to the region.

The second action was also substantial. Board presidents and other representatives from five communities traveled to the city of Jiquilisco, the municipal seat, to meet with Mayor David Barahona. The delegation, which was accompanied by a member of Voices’ staff, went into City Hall and asked to meet with and members of the Municipal Council. At first, mid-level staff told the Peninsula delegation that no one was available to meet with them. After a few tense minutes the community leaders went outside and began protesting in front of the main entrance to City Hall.

Shortly after they began protesting, members of the Mayor’s staff came out and invited them to meet with the Mayor and Municipal Council. The delegation had elected five people to participate in the meeting, but the Mayor permitted all fifteen representatives to participate.

The community leaders went inside and had a productive three-hour meeting with Mayor Barahona and members of the Municipal Council. The Mayor and Municipal Council agreed to support the communities in opposing the sugarcane production. During the meeting the Mayor even tried to call the Minister of the Environment (MARN) and several other offices in San Salvador to try to get action. Community leaders had tried to call MARN officials in the weeks prior but were unsuccessful in getting any support.

The Mayor promised that if a team from the MARN did not in the region investigating by the end of the week, he would travel with community leaders to San Salvador to protest outside the Ministry until someone meets with them.

Mayor Barahona also agreed to create a committee to consider municipal policies that would prevent sugarcane production in the future. The commission will be comprised of community leaders, civil society organizations, and officials within the Mayor’s office.

The actions Monday were important for many reasons. It was the first time that communities from the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula united to protest. It was also the first time that communities demanded that the municipal government take action to stop large-scale production of sugarcane, which is causing serious environmental damage throughout the Jiquilisco Bay. The actions were also important because earlier in the year the communities had formed an association to defend the mangrove forests, and successful actions will motivate the residents to continue organizing. This is especially important if tourism developers are serious about their plans to turn the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America.” The people who live on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula have stated clearly that when they work together they can accomplish anything.

Leaving the meeting in Jiquilisco, Naun Diaz, a leader from La Tirana, said “ we feel satisfied with what we accomplished today. We accomplished our objectives and we hope the mayor will honor his word. If he doesn’t we will come back as many times as is necessary to demand our right to a healthy environment.

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El pasado lunes 10 de noviembre, las comunidades de la Península San Juan del Gozo, en el municipio de Jiquilisco, realizaron dos acciones simultáneas en contra de los planes para cultivar 400 hectáreas de caña de azúcar en una gran extensión de campos de pastizales, entre La Tirana y la comunidad San Juan del Gozo.

A finales de septiembre, los líderes de estas comunidades se enteraron que el dueño del terreno había alquilado parte de su tierra a un productor de caña de azúcar. Una fuente cercana al acuerdo dijo a las comunidades que el contrato es por 15 años y la plantación comenzaría de inmediato.

Las comunidades se oponen a la producción de caña de azúcar en la península debido a los efectos adversos que puede tener sobre el medio ambiente local. Los cultivadores utilizan grandes cantidades de agroquímicos incluyendo glifosato (Roundup, de Monsanto), que se aplica para asegurar que los cultivos maduren al mismo tiempo. Los sembradores de caña de azúcar también queman sus campos antes de la cosecha para reducir costos en la corta y el transporte.

Las 400 hectáreas arrendadas para la caña de azúcar se encuentran junto a los bosques de manglares al oeste y al norte, y frente a un largo tramo de playa. Los manglares son ecosistemas frágiles que albergan cientos de especies de fauna silvestre, así como docenas de pequeñas comunidades que viven de lo que el bosque les provee. Las playas son tan importantes, que sirve como lugar de anidación de cuatro especies de tortugas marinas, incluida la carey, que está en peligro crítico. La aplicación aérea de agroquímicos y la quema de campos de caña matarían rápidamente los bosques de manglares y envenenarían los sitios de desove de tortugas.

El fin de semana pasado miembros de la comunidad se enteraron que el productor de caña de azúcar tenía previsto iniciar a preparar la tierra el lunes. Ellos organizaron rápidamente dos acciones. Lo primero fue una gran protesta que bloqueó el acceso al terreno, con el objetivo de evitar el paso de tractores. Temprano unas 100 personas residentes de varias comunidades se reunieron a lo largo de la carretera. Al parecer, los productores se enteraron de la acción planificada de antemano y decidieron evitar una confrontación. Las comunidades se mantienen en guardia y están dispuestas a movilizarse nuevamente.

La segunda acción de la comunidad también fue sustancial. Presidentes y otros dirigentes de 5 comunidades, viajaron a la ciudad de Jiquilisco, la cabecera municipal, para reunirse con el Alcalde David Barahona. La delegación, que estuvo acompañada por un miembro del personal de Voces, entró en la Alcaldía y pidió reunirse con miembros del Consejo Municipal.

Al principio, el personal de nivel medio dijo a la delegación que el Alcalde no estaba disponible para atenderles. Después de unos tensos minutos, los líderes de las comunidades mostraron carteles con mensajes en contra del monocultivo de caña de azúcar y se situaron a ambos lados de la entrada principal del edificio municipal.

Poco después de que comenzaron a protestar, los miembros del personal de la Alcaldía salieron y los invitaron a reunirse con el Alcalde Municipal. Inicialmente la delegación había elegido a 5 personas para entrar a la reunión; sin embargo, el Alcalde permitió pasar a toda la delegación, unas 15 personas en total.

Los 15 representantes de las comunidades sostuvieron una reunión de tres horas con el Alcalde y parte del Concejo Municipal. El Alcalde dijo que apoyaría a las comunidades en su oposición a la producción de caña de azúcar. Incluso durante la reunión el Alcalde trató de llamar a la Ministra de Medio Ambiente (MARN) y otras oficinas en San Salvador. Los líderes comunitarios habían enviado una carta a los funcionarios del MARN, en las semanas anteriores, pero no tuvieron éxito en conseguir ningún apoyo.

El Alcalde prometió que si un equipo del MARN no visita la región esta misma semana, para realizar una inspección, el mismo viajaría con los líderes de la comunidad a San Salvador para protestar frente al Ministerio hasta que alguien se reúna con ellos.

También se acordó la creación de una comisión para considerar las medidas municipales que impidan la producción de caña de azúcar en el futuro. La comisión estará formada por líderes de las comunidades, organizaciones de la sociedad civil que acompañan a las comunidades en su lucha, y funcionarios de la oficina de la municipalidad.

Las acciones llevadas a cabo el lunes, son importantes en varios sentidos, en primer lugar porque es la primera vez que las comunidades de la Península de San Juan del Gozo se unen para protestar y exigir a su gobierno municipal que tome medidas para evitar el monocultivo de caña de azúcar que ya está provocando graves afectaciones en otras regiones de Jiquilisco. También porque las comunidades están iniciando la conformación de una asociación para la defensa de los bosques de manglar, este tipo de acciones le da un impulso favorable a este trabajo organizativo, sobre todo teniendo en cuenta que los desarrolladores turísticos quieren convertir la Bahía de Jiquilisco en el “Cancún de Centroamérica.” Pero la población se ha dado cuenta que cuando trabajan juntos, pueden lograr mucho.

Al salir de la reunión, Naún Díaz, líder de la comunidad La Tirana expresó: Nos sentimos satisfechos de lo que hemos conseguido este día. El objetivo de la visita se ha conseguido, esperamos que el señor Alcalde cumpla su palabra, y si no cumple, aquí estaremos, las veces que sea necesario, para exigir nuestro derecho a un medio ambiente saludable.

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agriculture, Environment, Tourism

Sugarcane Production Threatens Mangrove Forests in La Tirana

For the past few years, residents of the small, coastal community of La Tirana have spoken out against plans to develop large-scale tourism in and around the region’s mangrove forests. Tourism remains a serious threat, especially with the recent signing of the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant, but as of last week the most immediate concern is sugarcane.

Residents learned a couple weeks ago that don Angel Velasquez, a wealthy landowner on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, is leasing 400 manzanas (989 acres) in La Tirana to a sugarcane producer, who has been out preparing the land for planting. A contact in the neighboring town of San Juan del Gozo confirmed that don Angel, as he is known, is leasing the land out for 15 years.

The estuary, somewhere between La Tirana and Monte Cristo
Estuary, somewhere between La Tirana and Monte Cristo

The 400 manzanas they want to plant is adjacent to one of El Salvador’s most pristine mangrove forests. Locals who live in and take care of the forest say it would be impossible to grow sugarcane in the region without destroying the fragile ecosystem. The estuary that flows through the forest comes very close the fields where they want to plant. Any agrochemicals applied to the area would certainly leach into the estuary and quickly contaminate large sections of the forests. One of the biggest threats would be Glyphosate, or Roundup, which growers spray on sugarcane to ensure that all the plants are ripe or ready to harvest at the same time. Roundup is a very effective herbicide (the sugarcane is genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready”) and would kill the plants and animals exposed.

The land don Angel is leasing should be zoned a buffer zone due to its proximity to the mangrove forests. That means that it should be illegal to use the land in a way that would harm the mangroves, which are a protected natural area. For many years don Angel has used the land for grazing a few head of cattle, but mostly it has lain fallow. Before civil war broke out in 1980 the stretch of land was used for growing cotton. But the environmental laws and regulations passed since the end of the war should protect the region. Recognizing the destructive practices associated with sugarcane production, Lina Pohl, the Minister of the Environment said during a July visit to the neighboring Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, that she would not permit any new growing operations.

(In the Satellite image above, the fields visible along the coast are those planned for sugarcane production, all the way up to the mangrove forests, which are the dark green sections)

On Wednesday of this week community leaders from La Tirana and Monte Cristo, another community in the mangrove forests, met to discuss the sugarcane issue. The discussion focused not on whether they should oppose the plan – the consensus was that sugarcane production would be catastrophic – but how to stop it.

Recalling Environmental Minister Pohl’s statement during a July meeting that the Ministry would not allow for expansion of sugarcane production, leaders from Monte Cristo and La Tirana decided to write a letter asking her to intervene. Voices’ Field Director was at the meeting on Wednesday and on the spot he helped them type up a letter, which they printed and signed. Actually, it was a little more complicated than that. Our field director just happened to have a laptop and small printer with him. Typing the letter was easy but the community is not connected to the power grid, so they had to go to the one house in the community with electricity, which is generated by a small solar panel.

Residents of La Tirana and Monte Cristo are also organizing a watchdog group that will monitor Mr. Velasquez’s property. At the first sign that sugarcane growers are arriving with their tractors and machinery to plow, the communities will block the only road in and out of the region. They are also planning a to ensure everyone in the region knows they will do anything necessary to protect the mangrove forests.

While La Tirana, Monte Cristo, and Voices were the only communities and organizations at the meeting, community leaders will also tap into a much larger network for support. In May, fourteen communities along the peninsula created the Association of Mangrove Communities in Defense of Land (ACOMADET) to ensure proper management of their forests and defend against threats such as tourism, sugarcane, and other development activities. ACOMADET also has the backing of civil society organizations like CESTA, ACUDESBAL, ADIBAL, Voices on the Border, and others. So they have support in taking on this issue.

One other action proposed on Wednesday was that local leaders should go talk to don Angel about how destructive his leasing the land to sugarcane growers would be. Meeting participants pointed out that in addition to contaminating the mangroves in and around La Tirana and Monte Cristo, it would affect a lagoon in San Juan del Gozo, of which he owns a large section. The idea of talking to don Angel was dismissed, however. Residents believe that El Salvador’s wealthy landowners are only interested in money, and that they don’t care about the environment or the impact of their actions on other people. They decided that negotiating with him would be fruitless.

One meeting participant pointed out that pressure to grow sugarcane in El Salvador is one of the many negative products of the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Under the agreement, the United States has increased the amount of sugarcane it will buy from El Salvador making it one of the only ways to make money in agriculture. Small Salvadoran farmers cannot compete with large US farms that produce large quantities of beans, rice, corn and other products, but they can make money selling or leasing their land to sugarcane growers.

After the meeting on Wednesday, Voices field director took the letter signed by community members and will hand deliver it to the Minister of the Environment this morning. Community leaders hope she meant what she said in July about no new sugarcane operations. But they also know that money has a way of trumping regulations and that La Tirana, Monte Cristo, ACOMADET, and others will find other ways to protect the mangroves.

Climate Change

Royal Decameron Announces Plans to Build Resort in the Lower Lempa

Last week the Royal Decameron Hotel Group announced plans to invest $60 million in three El Salvador projects – an expansion of their high-end beach resort in Sonsonate, construction of a four-star hotel in San Salvador, and a beachfront resort in Usulután. The new Usulután facility, which will cost $12 million, will be modeled after their Sonsonate resort with 300 individual cabins, an office center, spas, and a conference room.

Royal Decameron’s announcement wasn’t completely unexpected. Investors have been working to develop tourism in the Lower Lempa for many years, and there are likely several other projects being planned. Though tourism may seem like a great boost for the local economy, it’s a complicated issue and Royal Decameron is likely to face some stiff opposition from Lower Lempa residents.

Usulután is centrally located along El Salvador’s coast. One of the local treasures is the Bay of Jiquilisco, a large inlet known for its fishing, mangrove forests, and beautiful beaches. The stretch of land between the bay and the ocean is the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula. The only things out on the peninsula right now are mangrove forests, a few fishing and crabbing villages, and a nesting ground for endangered sea turtles… and a very fancy highway.

In 2004, the Ministry of Tourism hosted an event for potential investors at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Salvador. An Argentinean architect presented plans for the Espino Resort, as well as other infrastructure development plans. His presentation included draft plans for “El Pueblo,” a high-end shopping center on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula for tourists that included grocery stores, ATMs, and other amenities. It was all part of a 25-year plan that outlined specific stages of development – land acquisition, construction of a highway to the end of the peninsula, and a dyke that would supply water. Eight years into the plan, investors have acquired land, the highway through the peninsula is complete, and the government announced plans last year to install a water system.

Three people are reported own much of the real estate between La Tirana and Isla de Mendez. Angel Velasquez owns two sections of land totaling 2.5 miles of waterfront property. Eduard Quiroz owns 1 mile of beachfront property, and the Tesak family owns another 3 miles along the coast. CESTA, a Salvadoran nonprofit environmental organization, owns 872 feet of beachfront that they preserve. Sources also claim that ex-president Alfredo Cristiani owns property in the region, as does FMLN politician Facundo Guardado, who has a consortium of investors that includes possible FMLN VP candidate Oscar Ortiz. Royal Decameron is rumored to own 103 acres in the region though it is unclear whether this is the property they plan to develop.

Land acquisition on the peninsula has been quiet, but not free of controversy. Locals report that Quiroz and Velazquez regularly violate land-use and easement requirements. For example, environmental regulations allow landowners to own property up to 50 meters above the highest tide. Quiroz and Velazquez, however, fenced their property at the high-tide point, ignoring the 50-meter boundary. Similarly, in 2006 ISTA (the Salvadoran Land Reform Institute) distributed plots of land to landless families in La Tirana. The families moved in, but lacking roads and utilities, seven of them sold their plots to Velazquez. Ignoring ISTA regulations that require passage between the plots and access to the mangroves, Velazquez fenced off the plots and blocked access to the forests. The president of La Tirana, Nahum Diaz, has spoken out about the violations but to no end. The 23 families in La Tirana have to survive on crabbing and shellfish, while Velazquez controls access to all of the farmland, which he uses to graze his several hundred head of cattle. Residents are also upset because in addition to blocking access to agricultural fields, Velazquez cleared large areas of forest to expand his cattle operation.

As investors were starting to buy up land along the Peninsula, Gustavo Guerrero arrived in the Lower Lempa. He introduced himself as the charity manager for the Tesak family, which owns Bocadeli, a Salvadoran food company. In 2007, Guerrero created the San Juan del Gozo and Jiquilisco Bay Integral Development Association and illegally listed local community leaders as members of the board without their knowledge. The new organization published a full-page add in a Salvadoran paper listing its priorities – building a levee for irrigation, constructing a National University campus in the Lower Lempa, and other investments to build the tourism infrastructure. He is still handing out checks and has financed several projects in the region including hiring the Linares Company to repave of the road in La Canoa. In 2009, one of our local partners said “Gustavo Guerrero is the person that made it possible for the rich to buy land,” which they often did at prices far below-market value.

But land acquisition also included making room for the new highway through the Peninsula, primarily convincing landowners to allow builders to cut across their property. Linares, the company that repaved the road in La Canoa won the contract to build the road. If you’ve been in the Lower Lempa at all over the past few years you’ve seen large dump trucks tearing up and down the main road – that was Linares hauling sand and backfill for the highway.

Few people or groups are currently protesting tourism in the Lower Lempa. Many locals, however, oppose development projects that threaten their fragile environment. The community of Amando López, for example, released a statement in May 2012 stating: “This land is our life and our life is this land, we will never stop resisting any project that threatens our natural resources and our organized communities.” They also said, “we know that so-called development means more problems for poor communities, and we are not interested in the development they are offering, because in the end the only thing they develop are transnational businesses. We care about our livelihoods and our children’s lives, and we want proposals to come from our communities, that respond to our interests, to our livelihoods, our needs, and our own worldview.

While Amando López residents were specifically referring to the Millennium Challenge Corporation in their address, they assure us that these sentiments apply to a wide array of initiatives being imposed on the region, including tourism. Amando López was the only community in the region to reject funding offered by Gustavo Guerrero.

The Jiquilisco Bay is one of El Salvador’s few remaining treasures, and residents know that once it’s gone – it’s gone. The mangrove forests protect the region from flooding, which is happening with greater frequency, and the Bay provides residents with food and a livlihood. Communities are very aware of how fragile their ecosystem is and are unlikely to let outsiders exploit it.

The argument for allowing tourism is that it will provide jobs and economic growth, but local residents understand that most jobs will go to people with degrees in tourism and hotel management. They also know that profits will be distributed to investors in San Salvador and beyond and not stay local. Residents of the Lower Lempa also know better than to count on the government to enforce the environmental laws that are supposed to protect their natural resources.

But as pointed out by our friends in Amando López, there is a bigger issue at play. Many in the Lower Lempa are not interested in the kinds of development that wealthy investors from San Salvador are selling. Communities prioritize food security over tourism, and a healthy environment for their kids over a larger income for themselves. Amando López residents said “this land is ours and we will defend it with the same courage with which we won it.”

Royal Decameron says that they still have to work out some land acquisition issues, so this is a story that will likely play out over the next several years. Along the way they will likely face a healthy opposition to their ideas of development.