Dozens of reporters, spent an entire day, braving the heat to cover a story concerning one of the major issues Voices is currently working on. The story is about the implementation of mega-tourism, sponsored by the Millennium Challenge Corporation in the Lower Lempa Region of El Salvador. The main theme is it’s negative impacts on the communities living in and around the Jiquilisco Bay.
An article published by the Foreign Policy Journal said: “U.S. foreign aid is expected to promote poverty alleviation and facilitate developmental growth in impoverished countries. Yet, corporations and special interest groups have permeated even the most well-intended of U.S. policies.”
The United States has $277million in aid money to grant El Salvador and much of it will promote tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay by funding infrastructure projects like wharfs ans marinas in order to encourage private investment.
Voices has been working extensively with communities and NGO’s in the Lower Lempa region to ensure that residents are bring represented, rights are being protected and those in charge are being held accountable for non-ethical practices. La Tirana and El Chile are two communities most affected by the plans and have expressed concerns about the potential threats to the land, the water, the culture and the economy of their communities. Voices even collaborated with them to create a detailed report on the situation. >> Read the report here >> Read the article here
“They are privatizing our happiness. They are stealing our smiles.” La Tirana’s community leader said as he looked over the bay where kids were playing. Thanks to the efforts of leaders like him, many of these people here know what’s going on. They know that this isn’t free money coming into their communities and they are banding together to demand that their lives and rights be taken into consideration.
The day’s event was a great opportunity for exposure. Many diverse, national and international journalists were able to experience the reality these communities face. These communities have been taking good care of the natural resources through climate change, contamination and even flooding with little to no help from the government. To them, these resources are their lifeline. This is something that tourists who are primed to vacation here will never understand.
(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.“
Last week Pacific Rim Mining Company announced it is seeking $315 million dollars in damages from El Salvador. It was a stark reminder that the 8-year old mining debate, which included several years of threats and violence between mining supporters and opponents, has yet to been resolved and could still result in a devastating economic blow to El Salvador.
As the mining issue continues, another debate with the potential to become just as volatile is brewing. In March the Funes Administration provided some details about its proposal for a second round of funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a US aid program started by President Bush in 2004. The proposal is worth $413 million dollars, half of which will likely go towards an infrastructure project like improving the Litoral Highway that runs along El Salvador’s southern coast. The other half is likely to help finance public-private partnerships and improve human capital, which seems to mean education.
As details of the proposal emerge, opposition to a second round of MCC funding is growing. So far, opposition has opened on two fronts. The Salvadoran labor movement has been the most outspoken opponent, denouncing the proposed Law on Public Private Partnerships (P3 Law) since last year. Environmentalists and communities in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután have been less outspoken, but oppose the MCC proposal because the public-private partnerships will support tourism, which they strongly oppose. In 2011, members of the anti-mining movement also spoke out against the P3 Law fearing it would result in mining activities.
Because politicians within the FMLN are supporting the MCC, the politics of opposing the P3 Law and tourism are a little more complicated than opposition to mining was. Other than a protest outside the US Embassy in March and other small activities organized by the labor movement, opposition has remained largely behind closed doors, which may change soon.
The Public Private Partnership Law
US Ambassador Maria Carmen Aponte said in October 2012 that approval of a second round of MCC funds relies on the passage of the P3 Law. The labor movement and their international supporters, argue that the P3 Law will privatize government operations including the airport, seaports, health care facilities, and other important services. They fear it will result in the loss of thousands of jobs, increasing the country’s already high rates of unemployment and driving wages down even further.
The labor movement and other opponents also do not want the private sector to control important resources and services like water, education, and health controlled. For example, Salvadoran civil society has fought against privatization of water for many years, making it such a toxic issue that politicians are unable to advocate for it publicly. Just like the government has not been able to privatize water, civil society organizations have not been able to pass a water law they have been promoting for over 8 years. Among other things, the law would protect water resources from privatization. Similarly, in 2002 then President Francisco Flores tried to privatize part of the health care system, but health care workers and many others took to the streets and forced the government to back off. Opponents of the P3 law fear it will make it easier for the government to accomplish what it has failed to do in the past – privatizing water and health care.
Supporters of the P3 Law, including President Funes, counter that public-private partnerships are not privatization, and the government will not privatize any important services, like health and education. They argue, instead, that public-private partnerships will result in more foreign direct investments, injecting capital into services and industries that are lagging behind.
The labor movement and other activists fear, however, that while not called privatization, the P3s are a way to accomplish the same goals. Concessions could last as long as 40 years, which means the state is essentially relinquishing control of an asset. Similarly, while capital investments are needed, the P3 Law will allow private, international investors to generate profits from basic services in El Salvador and take the profits overseas instead of re-investing in El Salvador.
Public-private partnerships are not new in El Salvador – they government has contracted out many operations to private companies over the years. One regular criticism is that these relationships prioritize profits over the well being of Salvadorans. For example, in the aftermath of the October 2011 floods, communities and organizations in the Lower Lempa blamed the CEL for washing them out. The CEL is the state-owned agency that manages the dam, generating electricity that private power companies sell for profit. The more electricity produced, the more money the companies make. In the months after the 2011 floods CEL representatives responded frankly, stating they operate the dams to make electricity and generate profits, not protect the people downstream.
Tourism is not inherently bad, but communities in the Lower Lempa of Usulután fear that building hotels and resorts in and around their important and fragile ecosystems will cause irreparable harm. One Lower Lempa community targeted for a tourism project is La Tirana, an isolated and economically poor community located at the edge of one of the most pristine mangrove forest in Central America. In addition to its immense natural beauty, the forest supports thousands of species of flora and fauna. The nearby beaches are protected as a nesting ground for several species of endangered sea turtles. Residents of La Tirana fear tourists would damage the fragile mangroves with construction of houses and resorts, jet skis and motorboats, and solid waste and sewage, while displacing local residents and their farms.
Proponents of tourism argue that resorts and hotels in places like Tirana would provide jobs and spur the local economy. They believe this to be especially important in communities, such as those in the Lower Lempa, that have had their agricultural economy diminished by free trade. But locals doubt resorts will help the local economy. They know that hotels are much more likely to hire bilingual youth from San Salvador who have degrees in hotel management than poor campesinos who barely have a sixth grade education.
Voices staff recently met with community members in La Tirana, and they are very much against outside investors building resorts in their region. Recognizing that they live in a special place, the community board is proposing that the community build a series of small, humble cabanas that would have a small ecological footprint, but provide comfortable housing for a small number of guests. They are also proposing that the community build a small community kitchen that could feed guests. The community wants to develop its own small eco-tourism industry that it can regulate and ensure does not harm the forest or turtle nesting ground. It would also mean that the money from tourism would benefit the community, and not just make wealthy investors in San Salvador or abroad even richer.
Other communities in the region are even more vulnerable than La Tirana. In El Chile and other small communities, many residents still do not have title to their land. They fear that if a private investor wants to build a hotel or resort the State could take their land and they would have no legal recourse.
Our staff also met with other communities in the Lower Lempa – Comunidad Octavio Ortiz, Amando Lopez, Nueva Esperanza – and several local organizations. They are also completely opposed to tourism projects in the region. They fear that hotels and resorts will further destroy agricultural land, use up limited water resources, and destroy local culture. The community of Octavio Ortiz even wrote in their strategic plan that they see tourism as a large threat to farming and their peaceful way of life.
While most of the public-private partnership proposals involve tourism, there are quite a few agricultural projects. According to PRESA, the government agency managing the project proposals, they received 14 requests to support production of exports in dairy, mangoes, limes, and honey. In order to be considered for a public-private partnership, investors have to have $100,000 in capital and be producing export crops. The capital requirement means local farmers will not be able to participate. And the requirement that products be grown for export means even more land will be dedicated to products that do not contribute to food sovereignty, which is a top priority for the region.
There are also civil society leaders and academics in El Salvador who oppose the MCC because they see it as the latest phase in implementing a neoliberal economic agenda in their country. They hold it in the same regard as the privatization of state assets (1990s), dollarization (1995-2001), Central American Free Trade Agreement (2006), the first MCC compact (2007-2012), and Partnership for Growth (2011). Similarly, Gilberto Garcia from Center for Labor Studies (CEAL, in Spanish) believes the
highway projects, including the northern highway funded by the first MCC compact and the Litoral Highway project planned for the second compact, are part of an effort to build a land bridge in Guatemala. The “Inter-Oceanic Corridor” will connect ports on the Pacific coasts of Guatemala and El Salvador with Caribbean or Atlantic ports in Guatemala. ODEPAL is managing the project in what they call a public-private partnership. The land bridge is located in Guatemala, but it is right on the borders with El Salvador and Honduras, giving both countries easy access.
Politics of Opposing the MCC and P3 Law
Building a strong national movement around opposition to the second MCC compact and the P3 Law may be more difficult than organizing Salvadorans against mining. While the anti-mining movement was able to reduce the debate to a single issue that all Salvadorans could understand – i.e. gold mining will destroy water resources for 60% of the country – most people believe that tourism, better highways, and other capital investments are always good. Similarly, the P3 Law is fairly abstract and difficult to reduce into a simple message that the majority of Salvadorans can relate to their everyday lives.
The politics around the MCC and P3 Law will make it more difficult to achieve the kind of nation-wide opposition that the anti-mining movement was able to garner. During the mining debate, the FMLN (leftist political party) was the opposition party and had the political freedom to take an anti-mining position. The FMLN is now in power and has to consider the economic and political interests that helped them get there. President Funes and FMLN presidential candidate Sanchez Cerén support the P3 Law and MCC compact, arguing the investments will be good for the economy. According to anonymous sources, many of the same business interests that helped Mauricio Funes with the 2009 presidential elections will benefit from the P3 Law and MCC funds. FMLN legislators have been a slower to sign on to the P3 Law. At times FMLN legislators have said it was not their top priority, and more recently they have tried to negotiate amendments to exclude certain sectors such as health and education from public-private partnerships. Officials from the conservative ARENA party have accused the FMLN legislators of not supporting the law because they want to implement a socialist economy agenda.
But the civil society organizations, communities, and labor unions that are opposed to the P3 Law and the MCC funding generally make up much of the FMLN’s base. If Sanchez Cerén and his supporters continue to embrace the P3 law and the MCC funding, while many in their base protest against it, it could exacerbate an existing split within the party in the months leading up to the February 2014 presidential elections. Many former FMLN militants and supporters, especially in the Lower Lempa, already believe the movement they once fought for no longer represents their interests and values.
Though the US and Salvadoran governments want to pass the P3 Law and sign the MCC compact before the elections, many opponents are gearing up for a long struggle. Even if the P3 Law passes, when the government wants to enter into a public-private partnership the Legislative Assembly will have to approve it. They are likely to face great scrutiny and opposition. Similarly, developers wanting to break ground on tourism projects in La Tirana and other communities are likely to face some rather significant legal and social barriers – much like Pacific Rim faced in Cabañas.