Tourism

Communities Fear a Link Between Extortion and Tourism

Yesterday, elsalvador.com posted an article about gangs extorting tourists in the Jiquilisco Bay, specifically in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula.

The article reports that police have investigated three cases of extortion and arrested six adults and a minor. The gangs seem to be stopping tourists and delivery trucks when they slow down for speed bumps on the road through the Bajo Lempa and out the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and charge them between $5 and 25 to continue

Gang activity has increased dramatically in the region over the past few weeks, with a greater presence in El Zamorano, La Canoa, Isla de Mendez, San Juan del Gozo, and Corral de Mulas, as well as smaller communities where they have not had much of a presence in the past. Police estimate that there are between 60-90 gang members now living in the region.

The elsalvador.com article also reports that l gangs are intimidating locals by walking around and even eating in restaurants with automatic rifles and shotguns slung over their shoulders. Police confirm that gangs have at least 3 M-16 rifles in the region.

The reports of extortion and increased gang presence are already affecting small, locally operated restaurants and hotels that serve the region’s small tourism industry. The number of Salvadorans who visit the area has already begun to drop off. As news of the arrests and extortion activities increase, traffic in the region is likely to decrease even more.

Community leaders say gangs have told residents they won’t bother them. But there are two warring gangs in the region and people are worried about getting caught in the crossfire. One NGO worker said he is not worried about the gang members from the community where he works – he knows them and their families, and they have never bothered him. He is concerned about being caught in the middle if rival gangs come looking them.

Local leaders and parents are also concerned about the influence of the gangs on their youth. Communities on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula are economically depressed and youth often lack access to education. Sometimes access is not a question of distance, rather an issue of getting to and from school safely. Youth that have finished the sixth grade are often unable to continue studying and lack job opportunities, making them prime candidates for gang recruitment.

There have been gangs in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula for a while, but their numbers and activities have been limited. The rather sudden influx of gang members from other areas and their brazen show of arms have led some in the region to believe the issue goes beyond extortion of cars along the main road. Several people are concerned that those with an interest in large-scale tourism are using the gangs to destabilize the region’s growing opposition to their development plans. Others fear the gangs and extortion are an effort to drive off the small-scale, local restaurants and hotels that serve Salvadorans who visit the zone. This will make room for larger, well-financed tourism projects that will serve North Americans and Europeans.

This would not be the first time that gangs have been used to shake up a social movement or influence public opinion. In June/July 2009 alleged gang members in Cabañas killed anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera. Other alleged gang members were involved in the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Dora Alicia Sorto, others, in Cabañas later that year.

At this point there is no way to know who is supplying the automatic weapons or whether the influx of alleged gang activities is related to tourism and an effort to destabilized organizational efforts. But residents throughout the region understand that this is certainly a possibility the have to consider.

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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.

Climate Change

Royal Decameron Announces Plans to Build Resort in the Lower Lempa

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.

 

Climate Change, Disasters

Earthquake Update: The waves in Isla de Mendez

Image
Map of the area hit on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, about 5 miles from Octavio Ortiz

Last night two people were injured in the Lower Lempa of Usulután and are currently in the hospital.  The injuries were caused by very high waves that struck them as they were guarding the sea turtle egg hatchery on the beach of Isla de Mendez.  Two other people were also swept away by the waves, but were able to swim back to safety.

Community members reported that waves reached heights of 8 meters (26 feet) and that the water came inland about 350 meters (383 yards) which crossed the barrier peninsula and reached fresh water land.

Other nearby communities were on alert until 1:00 in the morning.  Communities such as Octavio Ortiz and Amando López were kept on full alert by the emergency speaker that blared warnings throughout the night.