Beach in Corral de Mulas on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula. Behind the fence is an incubator for critically endangered sea turtles. The land is owned by a wealthy investor who is allowing locals to incubate the sea turtle eggs until he is ready to break ground on a tourism project.
After more than a year of delays, the governments of El Salvador and the United States seem ready to sign a second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact. Last weekend, Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Cerén said they would close the deal on September 30th.
The U.S. Embassy says the second MCC compact, which includes $277 million from the U.S. and $88.2 million from El Salvador, will “spur investment through public private partnerships and better regulations, improve the quality of education, and strengthen key logistical infrastructure.”
After the agreement is signed, the U.S. will disburse $10 million to FOMELINIO (the Salvadoran organization managing the grant) to lay the groundwork for MCC projects. From then it will take six to nine months before other funds will be released and projects can begin.
While the $277 grant from the U.S. is popular among Salvadorans and politicians, communities in the Jiquilisco Bay of Usulután remain strongly opposed to the aid package. They believe the MCC grant will help finance the destruction of the region’s fragile natural resources and agrarian culture.
As Voices has discussed elsewhere on this blog, developers want to use MCC funds to promote tourism along the coast. They are particularly interested in the Jiquilisco Bay, which they have proposed turning into the “Cancun of Central America.” The communities targeted for development argue that large-scale tourism projects will cause irreversible harm to the mangrove forests they rely on for their survival and beaches that critically endangered sea turtles use for a nesting ground.
A community leader speaking to a group about how land speculation and tourism projects are already affecting the health of the mangrove forests and destabilizing the community.
Hundreds of families in the Bay region make their living by fishing and harvesting crab. For generations they have cared for the mangroves and beaches, protecting them and taking only what they need to survive. In theory the Ministry of the Environment is supposed to enforce laws that protect the forests and the right for local communities to harvest what they need to survive. But residents say the State does not get down there much, and few have faith in the Ministry’s ability or willingness to enforce laws.
Community leaders emphasize that they are not against tourism; they welcome visitors who want to tour the mangrove forests, bird watch, and even surf. They are opposed only to the kind of large-scale, unregulated development that investors are planning for the region.
Most of the opposition to MCC is due to the complete lack of public consultation. Community leaders are quick to point out that MCC and FOMELINIO officials have never been to the region to discuss development priorities or what is at stake when investors talk about turning the Jiquilisco Bay into the Cancun of Central America.
Manuel Cruz, a representative of El Chile, says his community is united in their opposition to the MCC grant. He says MCC or FOMELINIO representatives have never come to the region to discuss the grant, much less ask how it might benefit (or harm) the region. All they have heard is that investors want to use funds to develop tourism and that land speculators have been acquiring land all around them, denying access to mangrove forests and beaches that are supposed to be public land.
Another community leader who wishes to remain anonymous says that the closest thing to consultation he knows of was an informal conversation he had in March 2013 with a supporter of the MCC grant. The supporter, who works for an international NGO, said his community had to support the MCC because opposing it would be going against the FMLN party, for which there would be consequences. The community leader ignored the threat and his community remains united in its opposition.
Jose “Mario” Santos Guevarra, representative of the United Communities of the Bajo Lempa and the President of MOVIAC, has voiced opposition against MCC and FOMELINIO on several occasions. His concerns also focus on the lack of consultation from MCC and FOMELINIO. He argues that if MCC and FOMELINIO were really interested in building infrastructure and had consulted with the people, they would know that one of the biggest barriers to economic growth along the coast is the poor condition of the levees along the Lempa and other rivers.
Mario and many others see the lack of consultation as an indication that the MCC grant is meant to benefit rich investors – creating conditions for them to extract value out of the coastal region. He says that if the MCC was to benefit the people, it would not require a $100,000 counterpart to access grant funds. In theory, communities like El Chile, La Tirana, and others could apply for MCC funds to finally install potable water systems or connect to the electrical grid, which they need. But they are unable to front the $100,000 needed to receive MCC funds.
Residents of Chile during a recent meeting to discuss tourism and the impact of land speculation on their ability to access mangrove forests.
Over the past year and a half, Voices staff has shared these concerns over the lack of consultation with policymakers at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. We have extended at least three invitations to host meetings between Embassy staff, who have a role in the MCC grant, and coastal communities. The Embassy has declined each of these invitations.
According to newspaper articles, $110 million of the MCC grant will be used to expand a section of the Litoral Highway between the airport and Zacatecaluca. Another $100 million will be for education. That leaves another $155.2 million to cover administrative costs and support tourism and other development. Communities in the Jiquilisco Bay have not had a voice in the MCC planning or approval process, and it is unlikely that that they will have a voice in deciding which proposals for MCC projects get approved. That does not mean, however, communities are going to allow developers to destroy their mangrove forests, beaches and agrarian way of life. They will be paying close attention to how MCC and FOMELINIO use the funds and ensure none will be used to harm their fragile ecosystems.
(Voces está trabajando para traducir este artículo al español y se publicará muy pronto)
Since at least 2004 the Salvadoran Government has been planning large-scale tourism development in El Salvador. Among the goals articulated in the development plans is for tourism to account for 10% of El Salvador’s GDP, up from 3.7% in 2005.
Just this week, Global Travel Industry News wrote, “El Salvador is the diamond in the rough, the potential jewel that needs the savvy hand of a smart developer who is willing and able to chip away on the rough edges to release the beauty and unbridled opportunities of the destination.”
Many people view tourism as a way to create jobs and economic growth. Communities in the Jiquilisco Bay of Usulután, however, do not want developers to chip away at their rough edges or promote development they fear will irreparably harm to their mangrove forests, estuaries, beaches and other natural resources.
The Ministry of Tourism wants 1.9 million tourists to visit El Salvador in 2014, a number they want to increase to 3 million with 12 million overnight stays in 2020. In 2005 Central Americans comprised 70% of tourists in El Salvador while North Americans were only 25%. The 2014 Plan says that by 2014 Central Americans should “be no greater than 40% of all tourists” and North Americans should make up at least 45%. The 2020 plan articulates the same numeric goals, but does not state that they should limit the number of Central Americans. Additionally, the 2020 Plan wants tourists to stay at least 7 days and spend more than $160 per day.
While the 2020 Tourism Plan does not identify any specific region for tourism, the 2014 Tourism Plan and the Jiquilisco Tourism Plan identify the Jiquilisco Bay as an important region for development. The region’s bay and long stretch of undeveloped coastline includes miles of beautiful beaches, mangrove forests, estuaries and rivers, islands and protected park lands. In addition to hanging out on the beach and surfing, the Plans envision tourist activities such as bird watching, canoeing and kayaking, boating and sport fishing, and more.
In 2004, CORTASUR, a government tourism agency, held a conference during which a consultant recommended that the Jiquilisco Bay become the Cancun of Central America, complete with hotels, resorts, shopping centers, restaurants, golf courses and other facilities. The consultant said that the first phase for development would include building a modern, paved road out the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and acquiring land. A highway out the Peninsula was completed in 2011, and shortly after the conference land speculators began acquiring land. In 2003 a hectare of land on the Peninsula cost around $1,000. In 2005 the price the same hectare of land shot up to $12,000. Prices have been on the rise ever since. The 2014 Plan identified other goals for developing tourism in the region:
– Promoting foreign investment and local entrepreneurship to develop small, boutique hotels and eco-lodges, and restaurants;
– Equipping, altering, and cleaning the beaches so that they meet international quality standards;
– Creating the structure for services and activities related to sport fishing, bird watching, and a coastal route;
– Recuperating and conserving the coastal environment;
– Building the capacity of local human resources involved in tourism and those who would come in contact with tourists to better serve their clients;
– Improving the landscape and the beauty of urban spaces; and
– Improving the infrastructure of the ports.
Currently the government is looking for foreign and domestic investments. The 2020 Plan says El Salvador should have at least 2000 investors in restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality services. To help out, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) recently approved a $277 million grant to develop El Salvador’s southern coast. While the funds do not identify support for tourism specifically, FOMELINIO (the Salvadoran Government MCC counterpart) and the El Salvador Investment Challenge issued a call for proposals while they were developing their MCC proposal. The ESIC said the purpose was to:
“to invest in public projects that catalyze private investments in tradable goods and services thereby generating economic growth and poverty reduction. The first phase of the ESIC is a competitive call-for-ideas that would catalyze investments in El Salvador through public-private partnerships, whereby private entities identify public or quasi-public infrastructure and services that are necessary to support private investments aimed at increasing productivity and trade of goods and services in El Salvador.”
Of the 49 proposals received, 27 involved tourism infrastructure projects in Usulután, La Libertad, and La Union. (Efforts to get the names of those who submitted proposals and what they proposed were unsuccessful). MCC funds won’t be available to fund hotels, resorts, or other private investments, but they will likely be available for infrastructure projects like building secondary roads, equipping, altering, and cleaning beaches, operating a tourism police force, creating programs to train locals in tourism and hospitality services, and similar projects to make it easier to attract investments. In addition to MCC funds, the Inter-American Development Bank has approved a $25 million dollar loan for tourism projects.
Currently, opposition to the government’s tourism plan is mostly local. It appears that most Salvadorans approve of tourism as a way to create jobs and improve their stagnant economy. But many residents and organizations in the Bay area are concerned large-scale tourism, and even the small, eco-tourism projects, will harm fragile ecosystems like the mangrove forests, network of rivers and estuaries, the Bay itself, and local beaches.
According to the Mangrove Action Project, their fears are legitimate – tourism is one of the greatest threats to the world’s mangroves. Worldwide the loss of mangroves results in the decline of fisheries, and weak or lost buffers that shield populated areas from storm surges. Specifically, the Jiquilisco Bay’s mangrove forests are home to thousands of species of birds, reptiles, and amphibians and capable of absorbing more than 5 times carbon than rainforests, making them a vital asset for stopping climate change.
Environmentalists also point out that 12 million overnight stays by tourists will put an impossible strain on El Salvador’s scarce water supplies. A water expert at CESTA (the Center for Applied Technology) reports that the average tourist in El Salvador uses at least five times the water that the average Salvadoran uses. Three million tourists who are spending 12 million overnights will put an enormous strain on the nation’s water resources, which are already insufficient to satisfy the country’s demand. It is inevitable that water resources would be diverted to resorts and other tourist facilities along the coast, leaving Salvadorans with even less access to water.
Tourism can also have a tremendous impact on water quality. Three million tourists will produce large quantities of solid waste and sewage, and El Salvador lacks the facilities to manage them properly. Environmentalists fear contamination will further damage the country’s already contaminated water supplies. They also fear that construction projects, buildings, parking lots, and other development will will upset local water tables, resulting in irreversible salinization that would render them useless.
Environmentalists and local populations also fear tourism development and the MCC investments harm the four threatened and endangered species of sea turtle that use the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula beaches as a nesting ground. Approximately 40% of the critically endangered Hawksbill turtles in the eastern Pacific use the region to lay eggs, and in recent years communities have played an important role in protecting their nests and saving the turtle from extinction. “Equipping, altering, and cleaning” local beaches, building beachfront hotels and resorts, and allowing tourists unfettered access to beaches would likely be disastrous for these conservation efforts.
Locals also fear that tourism will result in their mangrove forests and beaches being privatized. Even though Salvadoran law prevents private ownership of beaches and recognizes the right for all people to enjoy unfettered access, private landowners are already fencing off sections of beach and limiting access to mangrove forests. Locals are aware that the Royal Decameron in Sonsonate have sectioned off more than a mile of beach in front of their resort, denying locals all access. This is more than just an issue of locals enjoying a swim every now and then. Many of the families that live near the coast depend on fishing to survive and must have access to the water.
Community boards in the region have also expressed a concern that land speculation is already having on their efforts to achieve food sovereignty. More than jobs, communities want to preserve their agrarian culture and ensure they can feed their families with locally produced, organic food. Just the idea that there might be tourism has already fueled a land grab in which small farms and cooperatives are sold to investors, meaning that they no longer contribute to the region’s ability to achieve food sovereignty. And once farmland is turned into a golf course, resort, or shopping center it is lost forever.
Many people in the Jiquilisco Bay region are quick to say they are not anti-tourism; they are just opposed to the scale of the government’s plan and the lack of consultation with the affected populations.
La Tirana, a small community nestled in a mangrove forest, enjoys hosting bird watchers and others who regularly ask to be guided through local estuaries and forests. The community’s board even wants to build some small cabins and a comedor (eatery) so they can better host visitors. Residents are very committed to protecting the forests, despite their lack of electricity or running water. Their plans for tourism will allow them to control the number of people that come and go, the areas they visit, and the impact that it would have on the region. La Tirana residents are concerned because land speculators have purchased land in the community and they have heard of plans to build a resort and golf course next to the mangroves. The local population is adamantly opposed to these plans and has vowed to fight them any way they can.
Even though tourism enjoys national and international support as a apparent win-win way of developing the economy, locals are confident that they if they organize they can stop plans to develop hotels, resorts, shopping centers, and sport fishing in the region. Prior to 2005, most people in Cabanas supported Pacific Rim’s plans to mine gold and silver – they thought it would provide them with jobs and economic growth. But once they realized the impact mining would have on their environment, especially water resources, locals organized a strong movement against Pacific Rim and mining. Pacific Rim never got mining permits and this month the Legislative Assembly introduced a bill to ban mining in El Salvador.
Organizations and communities in the Jiquilisco Bay region understand that stopping tourism will be a long, difficult struggle. But according to a declaration they made in July,
“our communities have a history of struggle and organization. This land and its resources belong to us, and our children and grandchildren, and we have the strength, courage, and moral duty to defend our lives and territory until the end.“
Friday was International Day of the Mangroves. Voices’ partner communities and other friends from the Bajo Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco marked the day by meeting in Comunidad Octavio Ortiz to discuss Climate Change and the tourism projects that the Salvadoran Government and private investors are planning for the region – issues that affect the health of the mangrove forests in the region.
They concluded the meeting by drafting a Declaration: “In Order to Have Life and Hope: The Bajo Lempa Continues to Resist” – We’ve posted below in English and Spanish (the original).
We at Voices are in the middle of a fundraising campaign to raise $7,600 by this Friday (Aug. 2). The funds are to support the communities that drafted this Declaration in their efforts to protect their environment, including the mangrove forests, and preserve their simple, agrarian way of life. Here is a link to our original appeal posted last week. If have donated already, THANK YOU! If you haven’t, there is still time and every dollar helps (you can donate by clicking here). This is an urgent appeal – the government and private investors have huge resources and institutions backing them.
There is a slideshow at the bottom of the post with photos from the mangroves and coastal area, and the communities that are asking for you support.
IN ORDER TO HAVE LIFE AND HOPE, THE BAJO LEMPA CONTINUES TO RESIST
Accompanied by the revolutionary spirit of Father Octavio Ortiz Luna, we the residents of the Bajo Lempa met again in the community of La Canoa to analyze the issue of climate change, which we experience in the form of floods and at times as prolonged droughts. These affects of climate change are becoming more intense and more frequent, and are the product of a political economic model that is leading us to destruction.
We also met to consider that we live in the region of El Salvador with the greatest biodiversity. We are located in one of the most pristine mangrove forests on the planet.
Species such as crocodiles, fish, crabs, migratory birds like the roseate spoonbill and many others make up an ecosystem that is vital for the survival of our communities. In addition, the mangrove forests are a natural barrier that protect the region from the rising sea waters and reduce the impacts of flooding.
The mangrove forests are an ecological treasure that communities have used, maintained and improved for many years, because we look to them for the sustainence and hope for the present and future generations.
However, the tranquility inspired by the mangroves, the simple lifestyle of the communities, and the hope of life for future generations, are being threatened by domestic and international corporations, and their insatiable thirst for profit through tourism development, with complete disregard for the impacts on the region’s biodiversity and the human rights of our population.
The construction of a modern road through the heart of the Bay of Jiquilisco, land speculation, the government’s tourism development plan, approval of the Public Private Partnership Act, and the the Second Millennium Challenge Compact, indicate that there are serious efforts to turn our region of El Salvador into another Cancun, Mexico, where the beaches are private and exclusive to foreign tourists.
But our communities have a history of struggle and organization. This land and its resources belong to us, and our children and grandchildren, and we have the strength, courage, and moral duty to defend our lives and territory until the end.
So, on this day marking the INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE MANGROVES, the communities of the Bajo Lempa and in the mangrove forests of the Peninsula of San Juan del Gozo, DECLARE:
1 – We strongly reject all mega tourism and we are ready to mobilize and use all legal remedies against companies seeking to destroy our natural resources.
2 – The communities that live in the mangroves are the only guarantee of the forests’ preservation, and therefore we are organizing and strongly linking with these mangrove communities.
3 – The Communities of the Bajo Lempa, and especially Community Octavio Ortiz are in the process of adaptating to climate change with intense focus on food sovereignty based on agro-ecological production that protects biodiversity, soil, and water. Nature is our source of knowledge and every day we learn more about her.
4 – We demand the government promptly complete and maintain the public works projects meant to protect the region from flooding. We also demand government agencies regulate discharge from the September 15 dam.
We demand respect for our right to life and our right to a healthy environment. We want that forests remain an inexhaustible source of life. We want to have clean and sufficient water supplies, and we want to produce our own food and eat well. We want health and education for our children. We want to remain free …
We want to have life and hope.
Community Octavio Ortiz, July 26, 2013
PARA TENER VIDA Y ESPERANZA,
EL BAJO LEMPA SIGUE EN RESISTENCIA
Acompañados por el espíritu revolucionario del Padre Octavio Ortiz Luna, nuevamente nos reunimos en la comunidad La Canoa para analizar el tema de cambio climático que vivimos en forma de inundaciones y otras veces en forma de sequías prolongadas. Hemos visto que estos fenómenos se presentan cada vez más intensos y con mayor frecuencia y que son producto de un modelo económico político que nos está llevando a la destrucción.
Pero también nos hemos reunido para analizar que vivimos en la región de El Salvador de mayor riqueza biológica. En nuestro territorio se ubica uno de los bosques de manglar más desarrollados del planeta.
Especies como cocodrilos, peces, cangrejos, aves migratorias como la espátula rosada y otras muchas conforman una red vital para la sobrevivencia de las comunidades. El bosque de manglar también constituye una barrera natural que detiene el avance del mar y reduce los impactos de inundaciones.
Este bosque de manglar constituye una riqueza ecológica que las comunidades han aprovechado, mantenido y mejorado durante muchos años, porque en el encuentran el sustento y son la esperanza para las presentes y futuras generaciones.
Sin embargo, la tranquilidad que inspira el manglar, la forma de vida sencilla de las comunidades y la esperanza de vida para las futuras generaciones, hoy se ve amenazada por la sed de lucro insaciable de empresarios nacionales y de corporaciones trasnacionales que pretenden impulsar un desarrollo turístico sin importarles la conservación de la biodiversidad ni los derechos humanos de la población.
La construcción de una moderna carretera que cruza el corazón de la Bahía de Jiquilisco, el acaparamiento y especulación con la tierra, el plan gubernamental de desarrollo turístico, la aprobación de la Ley de Asociaciones Público Privadas y un interés sospechoso de la empresa privada por que se apruebe el Segundo FOMILENIO, son los principales indicadores de que existen serias pretensiones de convertir este territorio en una región similar a Cancún, en México, en donde las playas son privadas y exclusivas para turistas extranjeros.
Pero nuestras comunidades tienen una historia de lucha y de organización, este territorio y sus recursos nos pertenece y le pertenece a nuestros hijos y nietos, tenemos la fuerza, el coraje y el deber moral de defender la vida y el territorio hasta las últimas consecuencias.
Por eso, en este día que se celebra el DIA MUNDIAL DE LOS MANGLARES, las comunidades del Bajo Lempa y las comunidades habitantes de los bosques de manglar de la Península de San Juan del Gozo, DECLARAMOS:
1- Que rechazamos enérgicamente todo megaproyecto de turismo y que estamos dispuestos a movilizarnos y a demandar judicialmente a cualquier empresa que pretendan destruir nuestros recursos naturales.
2- Que las comunidades que vivimos en los bosques de manglar somos la única garantía de su conservación, para ello nos estamos organizando y vinculando fuertemente entre comunidades del manglar.
3- Que las comunidades del Bajo Lempa y en especial la comunidad Octavio Ortiz estamos llevando a cabo un proceso de adaptación al cambio climático con un intenso trabajo por la soberanía alimentaria, en base a la producción agroecológica que protege la biodiversidad, el suelo y el agua. La naturaleza es nuestra fuente de conocimiento y cada día aprendemos más de ella.
4- Demandamos del gobierno la pronta ejecución de obras de protección ante inundaciones, así como su permanente mantenimiento y la regulación de las descargas de la presa 15 de Septiembre.
Exigimos que se respete nuestro derecho a la vida, nuestro derecho a un medio ambiente saludable. Queremos que los bosques sigan siendo fuente inagotable de vida. Queremos tener agua limpia y suficiente, queremos producir y comer bien. Queremos salud y educación para nuestros hijos. Queremos seguir siendo libres…
Communities in the Jiquilisco Bay and Bajo Lempa region of Usulután need your help protecting their invaluable, irreplaceable coastal environment and agrarian way of life. Developers are planning to build resorts, golf courses, and shopping centers in the region, and our local partners fear it will destroy their agricultural land, mangrove forests and the other ecosystems upon which they depend.
We at Voices need to raise $7,600 by August 2nd so we can help our partners develop a legal and political strategy to protect their land, launch a national advocacy campaign, and organize a small, eco-tourism alternative.
Plan for Large-Scale Tourism – Developers are planning large-scale tourism projects for the Jiquilisco Bay and Bajo Lempa region of Usulután. With support from the Salvadoran government they recently completed Phase One – building a highway out the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and purchasing large tracts of land. They are now preparing to begin Phase Two – construction. The government is again supporting them by proposing that the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation provide financing. Yes, the Salvadoran government wants to give U.S. tax dollars to well-financed developers to build high-end resorts.
Protecting the Local Environment – Communities in the region have simple goals – food security and environmental sustainability. They celebrate their peaceful agrarian lifestyle and would rather have productive farmland and healthy environment than tourism. The government claims tourism will provide jobs and economic opportunities, but our partners want to farm, not clean bathrooms. They want healthy a healthy bay and mangrove forests, not manicured golf courses and jet skis. Government officials say they will require developers to meet “minimal environmental standards” but El Salvador lacks a positive record of enforcing its laws.
Please Help Protect the Region’s Environment and Agrarian Culture! – Our partners ask that we help them 1) organize a legal and political strategy, 2) fund a national advocacy campaign, and 3) support a small eco-tourism alternative. But we simlply can’t do it without your help. Time is short and we need to raise $7,600 by Friday, August 2nd. Help our partners’ VOICES be heard by making a generous donation today!
Here is an overview of the projects/activities we need funding for:
Workshops to Develop Legal and Political Strategy
Voices’ volunteers and staff are helping our local partners develop a legal and political strategy to defend their land and way of life.By July 15th our partners will be ready to present their proposed strategy to their communities, and solicit their input and cooperation. They want to hold open meetings in key communities like Zamorano, La Tirana, El Chile, and Isla de Mendez. Our local partners will then host a weekend conference with 20 community leaders to organize a national advocacy campaign. Each of the open community meetings will cost $400 in transportation, printing, and refreshments. The weekend retreat will cost $1,000 in lodging, transportation, food, and printing.
National Advocacy Campaign
In August, after the workshops and weekend conference, our local partners will be ready to launch their National Advocacy Campaign. Organizers have asked Voices and partner organizations to help contribute funds to hire attorneys to file legal cases and monitor environmental permitting processes, arranging transport for rural community members to meet with policy makers in San Salvador, buying one-page advertisements in national newspapers and additional campaign opportunities. These activities will far exceed $3,000 but Voices is joining forces with several Salvadoran organizations that will also contribute to the campaign.
The community board of La Tirana has asked Voices and CESTA (a Salvadoran environmental organization) to help them develop an eco-tourism project as an alternative to the mega-projects. Birdwatchers and naturalists already visit La Tirana but residents are unable to offer lodging or food. CESTA is willing to help build small, comfortable cabins and a community-run restaurant if Voices will help the board develop the infrastructure and capacity to manage the project in the long-term.
We are ready to begin in July, but need $2,000 to help the board develop a business plan and build their capacity in areas such as accounting and business management which will enable La Tirana residents to sustain their own eco-tourism initiative in the long-run.
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.