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.
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.
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).