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.

Environment, Tourism

U.S. and El Salvador Ready to Sign Second MCC Compact

DSCF0220Beach in Corral de Mulas on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula. Behind the fence is an incubator for critically endangered sea turtles. The land is owned by a wealthy investor who is allowing locals to incubate the sea turtle eggs until he is ready to break ground on a tourism project.

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.

DSCF0158A community leader speaking to a group about how land speculation and tourism projects are already affecting the health of the mangrove forests and destabilizing the community.

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.

Residents of Chile during a recent meeting to discuss tourism and the impact of land speculation on their ability to access mangrove forests. Residents of Chile during a recent meeting to discuss tourism and the impact of land speculation on their ability to access mangrove forests.

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.

Tourism

Investigators from El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office Visit El Chile

For over a year, the small, economically depressed community of El Chile on El Salvador’s San Juan del Gozo Peninsula has been trying to stop private investors from encroaching on nearby mangrove forests and fragile beaches – area that are supposed to be protected State land. Residents got some good news last week when a team from the State Attorney General’s Office (FGR in Spanish) came to investigate, a sign that someone is finally listening.

FGR El CHile
(Photo from FGR)

Community leaders believe investors have illegally appropriated land in two areas. One investor bought a large plot on one side of the village and fenced it off all the way through a section of mangrove forest to the Bay, an apparent violation of Salvadoran law. He even posted a sign in the mangrove forest threatening legal action against trespassers. Another investor who had acquired a long stretch of beachfront property in El Chile allegedly bought the adjacent dunes and part of the beach. Like the mangrove forest, the dunes and beach are protected State land that cannot be privatized.

In recent months, Residents of El Chile have escalated their advocacy efforts, holding press conferences, calling State agencies, and engaging in a variety of other efforts to get the State to oust these investors from the public land.

Finally, last week the Attorney General’s Office (FGR, in Spanish) sent a team to El Chile to investigate allegations that investors were encroaching on State land. FGR investigators even took the time to tweet some photos from their visit, though there is little information about their time in the community. One FGR tweet says, “If [the FGR] proves the crime of usurpation of [State] land, [the owner] could face a sentance of one to five years in prison.”

It is too early to call the FGR visit a victory for the community, but it is certainly a positive development. The rule of law is weak in El Salvador and too often private investors and corporations are able to ignore laws with impunity. The visit at least demonstrates that the advocacy efforts have put the issue on the FGR’s radar. Residents of El Chile will now have to ensure that protecting these State lands remains a priority and the investigation doesn’t get lost on someone’s desk.

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Residents of El Chile are concerned about the State land for a few reasons. They are concerned about the mangroves because they use the forests for fishing and harvesting clams – their primary sources of income. They are concerned about the beaches for more environmental reasons. Critically endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtles use the beach and dunes as a nesting ground, and developing the beaches will further threaten their survival.

The community has other fears as well. The mangroves, dunes, and beaches are State land that everyone should have a right to use in accordance with the law. If El Chile doesn’t protect it from developers, nothing will be left for future generations. And despite more than 20 years of trying, residents of El Chile have yet to get titles to their land. With investors buying land on all sides, they fear it is only a matter of time before developers and the State try to kick them off their land.

The struggle for land began in at least 2004 when a tourism consultant presented a plan to turn the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America.” Phase One of his plan was to pave a road out the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and acquire land. The government completed the road in 2011 and investors have bought up the most valuable properties in the region. The next steps are to attract developers and investors to the region to build hotels, resorts, marinas, wharfs, shopping centers, golf courses and other tourism facilities. The second Millennium Challenge Corporation grant, if ever released by the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, will provide seed money for tourism infrastructure projects to attract other investors, domestic and international.

El Chile is just one small community taking on investors right now. Residents of communities like La Tirana, Montecristo, El Retiro, Cieba Doblado, Las Mesitas, Isla de Mendez, San Juan del Gozo, and others are equally concerned about how tourism development will affect their environment and agrarian-based economy and culture.

Voices on the Border is currently partnering with other organizations to help build the organizational capacity of these communities to realize their own goals and priorities, and defend against unwanted development. In April of this year, we drafted a report in Spanish and English on El Chile detailing these threats (they are attached above).

Advocacy, Environment, Tourism

El Chile: A Struggle for Land Rights and Environmental Conservation in the Face of Tourism Development

Two weeks ago we posted a report on tourism and another report on how land speculation is affecting land rights in El Chile, a small community on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula.

We wrote the report on El Chile in full cooperation with the community and they approved the final draft. Hours after we posted it, however, a community representative called and asked that we wait on posting it due to growing tensions in the region.

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We met with the community again this week and they gave an enthusiastic green light on posting the report. Tension around the issue has not subsided but the community feels it is important to get their story out, and they are more determined than ever to defend their land.

Please take a look at the El Chile report. Even if you’ve never been to the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, the struggle for land rights and the opposition to large-scale tourism in the Bay of Jiquilisco will soon be a national issue, and El Chile appears to be where the struggle to prevent large-scale tourism is beginning.

Tourism

El Chile: Land Rights, Environmental Conservation, and Tourism on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula

TESAK propertyTension over tourism development  in the Bay of Jiquilisco, specifically in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, is rising. Over the past few months Voices on the Border has partnered with communities in the region to identify threats related to tourism and document how development plans are starting to affect specific communities.

In December 2013 we finished a report called Tourism Plans for the Jiquilisco Bay, which outlines the general plans to promote tourism in the region and their potential impacts on El Salvador. This week we finished a report on El Chile, a small community that is fighting to keep their land and protect their local environment. Here are links to both articles in Spanish and English:

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El Chile Cover spaEl Chile Cover EngDuring  numerous conversations and meetings about development plans, residents of the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula made it clear that they oppose the kind of large-scale tourism outlined in the 2016 and 2020 National Tourism Plans. They fear that golf courses, hotels, resorts, condominiums, marinas and wharfs, shopping centers, and other development will destroy local mangrove forests, beaches, and farmland. Residents also fear that thousands of people will be displaced as the demand for real estate grows. On a more macro level, environmentalists argue that an influx of 20 million tourists from the U.S. and Europe, a goal identified in the 2020 National Tourism Plan, will completely drain El Salvador’s already scarce water supply.

Communities insist that they are not anti-tourism. They just oppose the large-scale projects that are currently planned. In La Tirana, Voices on the Border staff is accompanying the community board as they plan their own tourism initiative that will consist of a few small huts in the center of town, a community-run restaurant, and a few canoes for giving tours through the forests. Community members appreciate the beauty and importance of the mangrove forests in their community and they want to be able to share it with others, but in an appropriate manner.

La Tirana 11 At the moment developers and investors seem to be waiting on the release of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funds to move forward on their projects. Last year the MCC approved a second compact with the Salvadoran government worth $277 million. The U.S. Congress and State Department are holding the funds until the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly reforms the Public-Private Partnership Law (P3 Law) passed last May. U.S. officials say the reforms are necessary to ensure investors have access to all Salvadoran assets and resources, including water, education, and health. The U.S. also doesn’t want the Legislative Assembly to have a role in approving or overseeing public-private partnership contracts. In the days after being certified as the winner of the March 9th presidential elections, President-elect Sanchez Cerén (FMLN) said that when he is sworn in on June 1, his administration would work to make sure the MCC funds are released.

The MCC funds are not specifically earmarked for tourism. They will be available to encourage private investment along El Salvador’s coast. The majority of projects proposed so far are related to tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay and other coastal areas.

Even though the MCC funds are stalled, speculators have continued to acquire land for tourism projects. The most recent acquisitions occurred earlier this year in El Chile. Residents of the community have lived on and worked their land for more than 22 years, but their ongoing efforts to secure legal titles to their land have been unsuccessful. As a result, when Salvadoran investors came to acquire land along the community’s beach, they were powerless to stop them. And government agencies seem unwilling or unable to step in to help.

Developing mega-tourism projects in La Tirana, Montecristo, Las Mesas, San Juan del Gozo, Isla de Mendez, El Chile, El Retiro, Corral de Mulas, and many other communities in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula would be as disastrous as allowing Pacific Rim to mine gold and silver in Cabañas. The mangroves are El Salvador’s defense against climate change. The beaches are nesting ground for at least four species of sea turtle, including the Hawksbill, which is a critically endangered species. Golf courses and 20 million visitors would diminish El Salvador’s water supply very quickly.

Please take a few minutes and read our Overview on Tourism and the Report on El Chile (see links above), and stay tuned… local organizations and communities will be organizing ways for you to become involved in the struggle against mega-tourism in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula.

 

Advocacy, agriculture, Tourism

Life and Land on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula of El Salvador

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.

La CanoaThe 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.

Private Property
Sign on a property in El Chile that reads “Private Property – No Entry – You will be Reported to the Police”

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.