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.

El Chile Cover spaEl Chile Cover Eng

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).

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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.

Advocacy

ISTA Representatives Meet With Communities in the Lower Lempa to Discuss Land Titles

Nicolle Katrivanos,* San Salvador – On Saturday, October 24th, the Association of the United Communities for Economic and Social Development of the Lower Lempa (ACUDESBAL) hosted a meeting between the Salvadoran Institute of Agrarian Transformation (ISTA) and representatives from 29 communities in the region.  The meeting permitted citizens of the Lower Lempa to address land-use issues with ISTA, which oversees the implementation of land reform in El Salvador. Over 100 campesinos attended the meeting to voice their concerns and provide support to their neighbors. 

The majority of those in attendance expressed concerns about land titles, appraisal of their land, and fraud. As is the case all over El Salvador, many farmers have possession of their land, but do not have a proper title.  When the government redistributed land following the 1980 Agrarian Land Reform Act and the 1992 Peace Accords, many received a plot of land, but not a title.  Nationally, 116,000 landowners have requested a title to their land, and are waiting for ISTA to respond.  This has been an important issue for the new Funes Administration, which issued 3212 titles in its first 100 days, according the to the ISTA website.  Without title to their land, campesinos are under a constant threat that either a private company or a government entity will challenge their right to their land. Numerous studies over the years have also shown the obvious – that if people do not have a title, they are much less likely to invest their limited resources to improve the land that the live on, limiting their economic opportunities and stifling national productivity.

Other campesinos have a proper title to their land, but still have trouble proving what land is there’s when challenged. Still others in the Lower Lempa have been victims of fraud.  Individuals posing as ISTA representatives have been collecting fees from campesinos in exchange for land they have no authority to distribute.

ISTA representatives at the meeting included its president, regional officer, and a general officer, who all documented comments and concerns voiced by the attendees, and responded directly to each one.  They acknowledged that for the past 20 years, the needs of the campesinos have been set aside, and that they would vindicate their struggle. They stressed that their goal is to distribute land in an objective, transparent, and responsible manner, cautioning that the process would be long.  ISTA representatives also encouraged campesinos to take legal action against individuals perpetrating fraud, assuring them they would support their cases.

In general, the attendees left the meeting satisfied with their interaction with ISTA officials. Participation in the discussion was strong and attendees came prepared with tough questions, and ISTA representatives responded in a productive manner. Meetings are a beginning, but residents of the Lower Lempa said they would save their excitement and optimism until they had secure titles to their land.

*Nicolle Katrivanos is a new Voices volunteer from Maryland who will spend the next 5-6 weeks living in San Salvador and reporting on development issues throughout the country.