Buying Up El Espino – the Last Lung of San Salvador

In the past couple of weeks, El Faro.net has published a couple of articles about Finca El Espino. An article last week reported that a Salvadoran court has allowed the sale of 7 manzanas (12 acres) to continue. An article posted on Monday reports that José Roberto Argueta Manzano, who led an effort to purchase 213 manzanas (370 acres), has been appointed to the Salvadoran Supreme Court. El Faro’s articles are reminders that one of El Salvador’s most important natural resources remains under a constant threat of being destroyed.

Last week a judge in Tonacatepeque said there were no legal reasons to nullify a 2011 aucAnction that resulted in the sale of two lots totaling 12 acres in El Espino. Salvadoran contractor Raúl Arguello González paid $4,020,000 for the two pieces of land, and the court’s decision will allow the parties to complete the sale by registering the transaction with the National Registry.

In early 2006, Argueta Manzano and the Ancona Corporation purchased 370 acres of land in El Espino for $2,979,000 during a similar public auction. This summer, Argueta Manzano was appointed to be a magistrate in the Supreme Court’s Public Sector Dispute chamber(one of four chambers charged with hearing administrative law cases).

El Faro.net has reported on Finca El Espino regularly over the years, referring to it as San Salvador’s last lung because it is El Salvador’s largest carbon sink. El Espino is also an extremely important aquifer recharge zone. Seasonal rainwater drains down from the San Salvador volcano and soaks into the aquifer underneath, providing as much as 40% of the water for San Salvador.

In 2008, ComUnica en Linea (an online journal published by the University of Central America) posted an informative article on El Espino.  From the 1860s to 1980 Finca El Espino belonged to the Dueñas family. In 1980 President Duarte passed agrarian reform and expropriated El Espino from the Dueñas family and placed it in the control of the El Espino Agricultural Production Cooperative. In 1987, the Supreme Court revoked the expropriation and returned the property back to the Dueñas family. The members of the Cooperative rejected the Court’s findings and began a protracted legal battle over who owned the property. In 1993, the Cristiani Administration bought 83% of El Espino (1,194 acres) and titled it to the Cooperative.

Since then, the Cooperative has sold off much of El Espino, one piece at a time –the sales to Argueta Manzano and Raúl Arguello González are just two examples. Laws and the Cooperative’s own statutes that protect the forest prevent the outright sale of property within El Espino. Loopholes, however, have allowed churches, contractors, developers, and law firms (which often hold land for international investors) to purchase large tracks of the protected area. One of the El Faro articles says, “the sale of all of Finca [El Espino] is just a question of time.”

Most of El Espino, including the sections that were recently auctioned off, is technically still a protected area, so it’s unlikely that Argueta Manzano and Arguello González will be breaking out chainsaws in the immediate future. But they and others have invested millions of dollars in buying land, surely with the expectation that they will be able to develop it sometime in the future. There is plenty of precedent to give them hope. Within the past 10 years the government has approved destruction of part of El Espino for a San Salvador by-pass system. In 2004 developers cleared a section of the forest to build the Multiplaza shopping center. There are also high-end housing developments, a golf course, government complexes and much more on what used to be part of San Salvador’s last lung.

In 2005 the Legislative Assembly gave into popular pressure and passed the Law of Protected Natural Areas. Laws, however, can be overturned and amended, and clever attorneys make lots of money to find loopholes. Investors understand this well – why else buy sections of Finca El Espino?