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.