As the tractors rolled in yesterday, community members gathered along the road to protest. They are engaging in a much larger action this morning in order to stop workers from breaking ground. Local leaders have called the police, the Ministry of the Environment, and members of the press. Representatives from Voices, ACUDESBAL, ADIBAL, CESTA and other civil society organizations are also present.
The Law on the Environment requires that agricultural projects like large-scale sugarcane production should receive an environmental permit before they begin. The process for getting a permit requires an environmental impact statement, public hearings and other steps that are to ensure an activity does not harm the environment or surrounding communities. The Law on Protected Areas also requires that most if not all of the 680 acres should be designated a buffer zone due to its proximity to the mangrove forests and turtle nesting grounds.
Community leaders were hoping to stop the sugarcane production using the law and political process. Unfortunately, those systems still don’t work for peasant communities and residents are having to take more direct action, such as cutting off access to the region.
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, communities oppose sugarcane production because the adverse affects that agrochemicals and burning fields will have on the region’s mangrove forest and undeveloped beaches where at least four variety of sea turtles nest. The land targeted for sugarcane production is adjacent to some of the most pristine mangrove forests in Central America. Any agrochemicals sprayed or used on the sugarcane will immediately drift or leach into mangroves via a tidal estuary that comes within 100 feet of the field. The leaching agrochemicals will carry the toxic agrochemicals through the forest, killing vegetation and the wildlife.
The two communities that will be most affected are La Tirana and Monte Cristo, both of which are located in the mangroves and depend on crab (punches in Spanish), clams, and fish for their survival. The town of San Juan del Gozo will also be adversely affected as the sugarcane production will contaminate the pond, rivers, and forests where residents life and work.
Naún Diaz, a community leader from La Tirana says the forests sustain them – if the mangroves are healthy, the people are healthy. But if the mangroves are weak the people cannot survive. So when residents go out to block the road this morning, they will be defending their very existence.
(we will most an update later today or tomorrow with news on this mornings activities)
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 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.
The peninsula of San Juan del Gozo, located in Usulután, is a 30-mile stretch that curves out from the Pacific coastline of El Salvador, embracing the Bahia de Jiquilisco and its wealth of sparsely inhabited, thickly forested islands. The peninsula is home to a scattering of subsistence fishing communities, and the lives of the residents of the bay are inextricably bound up in the life of the mangrove forest (manglar, in Spanish), which covers much of the interior coastlines and estuaries.
The manglares at the western end of the peninsula, in the estuaries near the community of La Tirana, are home to the oldest and largest mangrove trees on the Pacific coast of Central America. This is due in part to the decade of civil war El Salvador suffered in the 1980s, which caused people to flee the area, leaving the saltwater forests to grow unmolested for years.
Today, residents of La Tirana harvest crabs (known locally as punches) in the large manglar. Other communities take fish and a variety of other shellfish (mariscos) from the waters of the mangrove estuaries and the bay. A few locals take boats out to sea for larger catches; though, no one lives on the ocean side of the peninsula, leaving it as a prime location for endangered hawksbill, olive ridley, leatherback and green turtles to lay their eggs. Communities in the peninsula rely completely on what they take from the water for their survival; there is no other industry except some small-scale eco-tourism outfits and restaurants to serve day visitors. There is one exclusive, boat-in resort in the region but none of the locals we met with report any employment or secondary economic benefits from the operation.
The entire peninsula – with its wealth of migratory birds, rare sea-turtle breeding grounds, magnificent manglares and untouched beaches – is now the focus of a 25-year tourism development plan, launched by the Salvadorian government in 2004. According to government documents, by 2026 there will be accommodation for 2,500 visitors, with a projected 932,000 overnight stays per year. The government first unveiled the plan at an invitation-only event attended by mega-resort developers from around the world, and presenters described the region as the Cancun of Central America. This was a two-fold reference; first to the similar peninsular geography; and second to the plans to create a resort region which would provide tourists with a self-contained vacation destination that would provide accommodations, shopping, hospitals, golf courses and more. At that event, a consultant hired by Salvadorian government outlined the first two steps to developing large-scale tourism in the region: building a new highway and buying large tracts of land.
The only way to get to the peninsula by car is by taking the Litoral Highway to San Marcos Lempa turning south and traveling 12 miles through the Bajo Lempa down to La Canoa (Comunidad Octavio Ortiz). Potholes and sections of washed-out road define the drive between San Marcos and La Canoa. The 20 miles from La Canoa out the Peninsula, however, is a freshly paved, well-maintained stretch of highway.
Residents of the Bajo Lempa and Jiqiulisco Bay take the highway’s construction as a sign of impending development. It was also a warning that land speculation* was about to re-ignite a struggle for land ownership in the region. Since 2004 when the government announced their plans to turn the region into the “Cancun of Central America,” land values have skyrocketed. In 2003, the average price for a hectare of land was $1,000 USD; today, the average has climbed to $10,000 USD and $40,000 USD per hectare for waterfront property.
CESTA, a Salvadoran environmental organization that works extensively in the region, has documented several ways in which government agencies appear to be fostering a positive climate for land speculation and development. CESTA notes that in 2004 there were four agricultural collectives in the peninsular region. All four have since dissolved, the result of government efforts to convince cooperative members that it was better to hold individual title to the land. Since dissolution, many former cooperative members have sold off their land, some because they wanted cash; others because without the shared machinery and support of the collective they could no longer work the land.
CESTA also believes that the government has used the agrarian reform process another way to transfer land to speculators and developers. CESTA representatives have documented cases in which the government has granted land to people who have no agricultural experience or knowledge, and as soon as they receive land titles they sell.
Whether or not communities have legal title to their land is one of the most pressing legal issues facing the residents of the peninsula today. In La Tirana, where all the resident families have legal title (or escritura as it is called here), the townspeople have agreed amongst themselves not to sell their properties to anyone from outside, knowing that they are in both a prime tourism development area, and also an extremely sensitive environmental zone. While land within La Tirana is relatively safe for the time being, wealth Salvadoran investors have already bought up larger tracts just outside of town. Some use the land for cattle or growing crops, others are sitting on the land until developers are ready to build hotels, golf courses, and shopping centers.
Land in other communities is also vulnerable. In El Chile, a small community down the Peninsula, no one holds title to their property, although they were nominally granted the land as part of the agrarian reform program following the peace accord. The land is still technically owned by the state, which now appears to be selling off lots on the edge of town.
Voices staff visited El Chile in mid-June and spoke with the president of the community’s council (or junta directiva). He showed us a large plot of forested land on the edge of town that has been fenced off with barbed wire and decorated with ominous signs warning “No entre” (No trespassing). The fence goes all the way down through the manglar to the water’s edge. As the community president pointed out, no one can own the manglar, it is against the law, and the fence is blocking off what should be public property. Law enforcement has done nothing to address the claim on this land and the fence has come to exemplify the community’s tenuous position without formal land titles. Residents of El Chile know they have a legal right to their land; but they do not have the legal or financial resources to register themselves as owners.
In neighboring Isla de Mendez, almost all residents have a legal title to their land. The only people that don’t have titles are those that live on the waterfront – the most desired and valuable land. With a focus on developing tourism in the region, their position is especially vulnerable.
Life in La Tirana, El Chile, Isla de Mendez and other communities along the Peninsula is still simple and relatively quiet. But if developers have their way that will all change soon. At risk are majestically mangrove forests, nesting grounds for several species of sea turtles, and a sustainable agrarian way of life.
*Land speculation is the practice of buying up properties with the intention of reselling them for a profit. Often land speculation is done by wealthy investors with insider knowledge of coming development or infrastructure, but land speculation can also be self-propelling because when one investor who is known to make profitable speculations starts buying in a region, others often follow, creating a strong sellers’ market.
The Inter-Institutional Group of the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco released a statement this afternoon in response to the passage of the Public-Private Partnership Law that passed through the Legislative Assembly last week. Their statement comes as the Salvadoran government announced that it is forming a commission to start organizing the first round of partnership agreements.
The Inter-Institutional group is comprised of several local and national development organizations working in the Bajo Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco – they include organizations like ACUDESBAL (The United Communities of the Bajo Lempa), ADIBAL (Asociación para el Desarrollo Integral del Bajo Lempa), CESTA (Center for the Application of Sustainable Technology), ASPS (Salvadoran Association of Public Health), the Pastoral Team of the Lower Lempa, the Emergency Fund, and Voices on the Border. It also includes communities such as Amando Lopez, Comunidad Octavio Ortiz, La Tirana, Nueva Esperanza, and others.
Here is the Inter-Institutional Group’s statement, first an English translation and then the original Spanish.
PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP LAW
MORE POVERTY AND ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION
The Inter-Institutional group of civil society organziations of the Lower Lempa and communities in the municipality of Jaquilisco express our strong opposition to the Public-Private Partnerships Law, passed by the Legislative Assembly on Thursday May 23.
Neoliberal measures implemented in El Salvador have failed in every way. Privatization, dollarization and CAFTA-DR were supposed to create jobs and economic growth, but it never happened. Instead poverty, violence, environmental degradatoin and corruption increased significantly during the 4 ARENA governments that oversaw the implementation of these neoliberal policies. We deeply regret that our country continues to embrace the neoliberal agenda dictated by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the United States government, the principal “advisors” and promoters of the Public-Private Partnerships Law.
We recognize that the FMLN introduced important changes to the original bill, but at the same time it infuriates us that the party that once led a fierce opposition to the neoliberal agenda is now endorcing this type of law that provides state resources to transnational corporations whose only purpose is economic profit not the wellfare of the Salvadoran population, which has been marginalized throughout its history.
State resources such as the Comalapa International Airport, seaports, hydroelectric dams, highways and others are the property of all Salvadorans are likely to be endlessly exploited by private companies. Even worse is what can happen to the beaches, mangrove forests and nature reserves.
The Public Private Partnership law also paves the way for the second FOMILENIO, a megaproject that constitutes a series of threats to coastal ecosystems and their populations. Like the proposed gold mining projects and the construction of dams, the second FOMILENIO fund will provide large national and transnational corporations with economic benefit while providing the communities with economic and environmental problems.
Taking into account that all political parties lost credibility with the approval of the Law on Public Partnership Law and no longer represent the interests of the people, and we the below signed organizations and communities of the Lower Lempa once again reiterate our determination to defend our lives and territory until the ultimate consequences.
FOR THE DEFENSE OF LIFE AND THE TERRITORY
THE INTER-INSTITUTIONAL OF THE BAJO LEMPA
LEY DE ASOCIOS PÚBLICO PRIVADOS,
SAQUEO, POBREZA Y DESTRUCCIÓN AMBIENTAL
La Interinstitucional del Bajo Lempa (INTERBAL), integrada por organizaciones sociales y comunidades del municipio de Jiquilisco, expresamos nuestro más enérgico rechazo a la Ley de Asocios Público Privados aprobada por la Asamblea Legislativa, el jueves 23 de mayo.
Las medidas neoliberales aplicadas en El Salvador fracasaron en todo sentido, las promesas de empleo y de crecimiento económico que acompañaron las privatizaciones, la dolarización y la firma del CAFTA-DR, jamás se cumplieron y en su lugar la pobreza, la violencia, el deterioro del medio ambiente y la corrupción se incrementaron grandemente durante los 4 gobiernos de ARENA. Lamentamos profundamente que el país continúe asumiendo la “receta” neoliberal dictada por el Banco Mundial, El Fondo Monetario Internacional y el gobierno de Los Estados Unidos, principales “asesores” y promotores de esta Ley.
Tenemos conocimiento que el FMLN introdujo importantes modificaciones al proyecto de ley original, pero a la vez nos provoca indignación que el partido que fue férreo opositor a la doctrina neoliberal ahora avale este tipo de leyes que ofrecen recursos del Estado a empresas trasnacionales cuyo único fin es el lucro económico y no el bienestar de la población históricamente excluida.
Bienes como el aeropuerto, los puertos, presas hidroeléctricas, carreteras y otros que actualmente son propiedad de todos los salvadoreños y salvadoreñas serán susceptibles de ser explotados hasta la saciedad por empresas privadas; pero más grave aún es lo que puede pasar con las playas, los bosques de manglar y las reservas naturales.
Esta ley también abre el camino para el segundo FOMILENIO, megaproyecto que constituye una seria amenaza a los ecosistemas costeros del país y a la población. Al igual que los proyectos mineros y de construcción de represas, de concretarse el segundo FOMILENIO, grandes empresas, nacionales y trasnacionales saquearan los recursos de la zona, se quedaran con los beneficios económicos y las comunidades que habitan los territorios costeromarinos, serán desplazadas y abandonadas con muchos problemas.
Teniendo en cuenta que con la aprobación de la Ley de Asocios Público Privados todos los partidos políticos han perdido credibilidad y han dejado de representar los intereses de la población salvadoreña, las organizaciones y comunidades del Bajo Lempa reiteramos una vez más nuestra determinación a defender la vida y el territorio hasta las últimas consecuencias.
This is a translation of Contrapunto‘s February 13th note about our partners in the Lower Lempa.
By Gloria Morán
Photo: Luis Veláquez
San Salvador – It has been two months since the Salvadoran President, Mauricio Funes, promised to invest around 21 million dollars for the reconstruction efforts in the Lower Lempa. Today, representatives from the region are denouncing the failure to fulfill this promise.
On December 19th Funes made this promise, just after the Lower Lempa had suffered the some of the worst impacts of Tropical Storm 12E in October 2011. “The first priority is the recovery of the levees along the shores of the Lempa River; then the rehabilitation of the drainage ditches, and the construction of two permanent shelters that can provide security and hygiene should future evacuations prove necessary”, announced Funes to local residents in December.
At that moment the Salvadoran representative assumed, with authority, the reconstruction as part of the historic debt owed to the residents of the Lower Lempa, noting that they had discover drainage systems that hadn’t been maintained in over 30 years.
Of these promises, Gilberto Berríos of United Communities (ACUDESBAL), assured us that “of that promised, still nothing has been done”. The residents of the Lower Lempa, above all, ask that the government repair and rebuild the damaged levees as quickly as possible. They also demand that they begin the cleaning and rehabilitation of the drainage system and the reconstruction of the main roads that were washed out. They also insist that the hydroelectric company, CEL, establishes a protocol for discharges so that the residents know when they will release the water, and how much.
They also request that the government create an integral plan to provide health, education, and basic services to the local population; not just reconstruction. “What is happening now, since nothing is being repaired, is that we are preparing for another flood”, said Maritza Hernández, another representative from the Lower Lempa, who affirmed that time is their worst enemy.
José Acosta, representative in the Lower Lempa for the Center for Appropriate Technology (CESTA), expalined that the greatest worry of the communities is the imminent arrival of the rainy season [around May], and there has been no progress. Berríos explained that they have seen the contractors who are responsible for the reconstruction in the region, but they have only cleaned-up and marked-off the areas where “we suppose they plan on doing some work, but this is insufficient”.
The representatives of the communities expressed that this is nothing new. They have been waiting 13 years since Hurricane Mitch and the levees are still incomplete.
According to the surveys done by organizations in the region, 29 communities have been directly affected, of about 2,000 families. [in Jiquilisco]
In regards to the unfulfilled promises made by the president, the head of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (PDDH), Oscar Luna, said that as an institution they are requesting the necessary measures so that the residents of the Lower Lempa and other communities receive the help they need in so far as rehabilitation and reconstruction.
The promises made on December 19th by President Funes were considerably more modest than those announced just 3 days after Tropical Storm 12E. On October 20th, Funes flew into the offices of the Mangle Association in the Lower Lempa and declared that the government and the CEL hydroelectric company would build levees, clean the drainage system, build shelters and dredge the Lempa River. He also emphasized the government’s interest in establishing the Lower Lempa as a key region for agricultural development in El Salvador, as well as the their commitment to an integral risk management policy. On November 15th Funes reiterated these promises, even going on to explain that the CEL wanted to just repair a few of the levees, but he had ordered them to include all of the communities, especially along the Tecoluca side of the river. According to a delegation of German Engineers from 2003, it would cost about 400 million dollars to complete all levees, drains, and to dredge the river. The 21 million that the CEL and the Salvadoran government finally signed off on is really just another band-aid on an increasingly compromised infrastructure. If the contractors continue the ‘reconstruction’ effort at this pace, the effort will certainly be of little use in the Lower Lempa.
Today community members report renewed access to San Marcos Lempa via the ‘paved’ road. Many sections are washed out or still covered with a few inches of water, but smaller vehicles are now able to enter the communities.
Families from less directly affected communities such as Amando López and Octavio Ortiz are anxious to return to their homes, but Voices staff and other authorities are urging them to stay while the rain still falls. It has been raining without pause throughout the country since the early hours of this morning.
ACUDESBAL (the local inter-communal association) and CESTA (an environmental NGO) published a press release denouncing the role of the September 15th hydroelectric dam in the near total devestation of many communities in the Lower Lempa. The release says “During this climatic phenomena, the CEL again released 11,500 cubic meters per second, but unlike Hurricane Mitch, this amount of water was released for a prolonged period of time, and the river bed is more clogged [than in ’98’], which caused flooding from San Marcos Lempa all the way down to Montecristo Island”. The release demands that CEL accept responsibility for their negligence, especially after an interview with the CEL president Irving Tochez, where he claims that CEL is in no way responsible for the devestation, but rather mitigated further disaster by ‘helping to retain water and releasing it in a controlled manner’.
They end by stating ” the road to recovery will be extremely difficult, but we know we can count on the support and solidarity among the organized communities, here and abroad”.