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.
The 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.
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.