After more than a year of delays, the governments of El Salvador and the United States seem ready to sign a second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact. Last weekend, Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Cerén said they would close the deal on September 30th.
The U.S. Embassy says the second MCC compact, which includes $277 million from the U.S. and $88.2 million from El Salvador, will “spur investment through public private partnerships and better regulations, improve the quality of education, and strengthen key logistical infrastructure.”
After the agreement is signed, the U.S. will disburse $10 million to FOMELINIO (the Salvadoran organization managing the grant) to lay the groundwork for MCC projects. From then it will take six to nine months before other funds will be released and projects can begin.
While the $277 grant from the U.S. is popular among Salvadorans and politicians, communities in the Jiquilisco Bay of Usulután remain strongly opposed to the aid package. They believe the MCC grant will help finance the destruction of the region’s fragile natural resources and agrarian culture.
As Voices has discussed elsewhere on this blog, developers want to use MCC funds to promote tourism along the coast. They are particularly interested in the Jiquilisco Bay, which they have proposed turning into the “Cancun of Central America.” The communities targeted for development argue that large-scale tourism projects will cause irreversible harm to the mangrove forests they rely on for their survival and beaches that critically endangered sea turtles use for a nesting ground.
Hundreds of families in the Bay region make their living by fishing and harvesting crab. For generations they have cared for the mangroves and beaches, protecting them and taking only what they need to survive. In theory the Ministry of the Environment is supposed to enforce laws that protect the forests and the right for local communities to harvest what they need to survive. But residents say the State does not get down there much, and few have faith in the Ministry’s ability or willingness to enforce laws.
Community leaders emphasize that they are not against tourism; they welcome visitors who want to tour the mangrove forests, bird watch, and even surf. They are opposed only to the kind of large-scale, unregulated development that investors are planning for the region.
Most of the opposition to MCC is due to the complete lack of public consultation. Community leaders are quick to point out that MCC and FOMELINIO officials have never been to the region to discuss development priorities or what is at stake when investors talk about turning the Jiquilisco Bay into the Cancun of Central America.
Manuel Cruz, a representative of El Chile, says his community is united in their opposition to the MCC grant. He says MCC or FOMELINIO representatives have never come to the region to discuss the grant, much less ask how it might benefit (or harm) the region. All they have heard is that investors want to use funds to develop tourism and that land speculators have been acquiring land all around them, denying access to mangrove forests and beaches that are supposed to be public land.
Another community leader who wishes to remain anonymous says that the closest thing to consultation he knows of was an informal conversation he had in March 2013 with a supporter of the MCC grant. The supporter, who works for an international NGO, said his community had to support the MCC because opposing it would be going against the FMLN party, for which there would be consequences. The community leader ignored the threat and his community remains united in its opposition.
Jose “Mario” Santos Guevarra, representative of the United Communities of the Bajo Lempa and the President of MOVIAC, has voiced opposition against MCC and FOMELINIO on several occasions. His concerns also focus on the lack of consultation from MCC and FOMELINIO. He argues that if MCC and FOMELINIO were really interested in building infrastructure and had consulted with the people, they would know that one of the biggest barriers to economic growth along the coast is the poor condition of the levees along the Lempa and other rivers.
Mario and many others see the lack of consultation as an indication that the MCC grant is meant to benefit rich investors – creating conditions for them to extract value out of the coastal region. He says that if the MCC was to benefit the people, it would not require a $100,000 counterpart to access grant funds. In theory, communities like El Chile, La Tirana, and others could apply for MCC funds to finally install potable water systems or connect to the electrical grid, which they need. But they are unable to front the $100,000 needed to receive MCC funds.
Over the past year and a half, Voices staff has shared these concerns over the lack of consultation with policymakers at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. We have extended at least three invitations to host meetings between Embassy staff, who have a role in the MCC grant, and coastal communities. The Embassy has declined each of these invitations.
According to newspaper articles, $110 million of the MCC grant will be used to expand a section of the Litoral Highway between the airport and Zacatecaluca. Another $100 million will be for education. That leaves another $155.2 million to cover administrative costs and support tourism and other development. Communities in the Jiquilisco Bay have not had a voice in the MCC planning or approval process, and it is unlikely that that they will have a voice in deciding which proposals for MCC projects get approved. That does not mean, however, communities are going to allow developers to destroy their mangrove forests, beaches and agrarian way of life. They will be paying close attention to how MCC and FOMELINIO use the funds and ensure none will be used to harm their fragile ecosystems.