The following article appeared in El Salvador’s digital newspaper Contrapunto and the Spanish version of the InterPress Service. It chronicles the anxiety expressed by a coalition of local leadership, as well the broader environmental community, about the implications of proposed tourism and coastal development slated for areas like the Bay of Jiquilisco. With the participation of the United States government and the Millennium Challenge Corporation in these coastal strategies, it is important that these agencies consider El Salvador’s weak regulatory and compliance policies as a potential threat to long term, sustainable economic growth along the coast. EcoViva and its partners are working with civil society and government agencies to strengthen the “rules of the road” for smart growth in areas like the Bay of Jiquilisco, ensuring that the social and environmental safeguards are applied in El Salvador, and any publically-stimulated private investment.
By Edgardo Ayala
JIQUILISCO, EL SALVADOR, April. Even though the Salvadoran government has placed its bets on developing the Pacific coast region, community leaders understand that it brings a threat to the environment in the zone.
If private investments arrive to natural protected areas in the Salvadoran coast, as intended by the government as part of a second round of funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, under the U.S. Partnership for Growth (PFG), “the natural resources that we have protected for so long would be seriously affected,” said Amilcar García, secretary of the Mangrove Association, which is located in the Lower Lempa, in the southern part of the department of Usulután.
In December 2011, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the U.S. government agency that promotes the PFG announced that El Salvador was selected from 22 countries as eligible for a second non-refundable aid package, the so called “second compact”, of US$277 million.
MCC could give final approval by the end of the year after analyzing the projects presented by the country.
The MCC was created by the United States Congress in 2004 to help poor countries overcome poverty and has designated $8.4 billion dollars in assistance all over the world, according to their web page.
The first “compact” started in 2007 with an injection of US$461 million, to develop El Salvador’s Northern Zone.
The community members of the Lower Lempa are not completely convinced of the advantages that the second compact will bring.
“We agree that the funding brings good things like schools, roads, medical clinics, that’s fine, but we are concerned about the private investment in tourism,” added Garcia.
The Mangrove Association has worked in the area known as the Lower Lempa since those southern lands of the eastern department of Usulután were handed over to former guerrillas and former soldiers who had recently left the Salvadoran civil war, after the peace accords of January 1992.
The limits of these lands coexist with the nature reserve of the Bay of Jiquilisco, where Mangrove Association and other organizations have developed significant environmental and social projects that partner with local people to ensure the management and restoration of mangroves and other species that live in the Bay.
Together, the Bay of Jiquilisco and the Jaltepeque Estuary is the most important ecological corridor of the country, with an area of 112,454 hectares. The Bay is a fragile sanctuary and nesting site for endangered species, and was declared a protected Ramsar site in October 2005, while the Estuary was declared a Ramsar site in February 2011, under the International Convention on Wetlands, signed in Iran in 1971.
In 2007, UNESCO declared the Bay a Biosphere Reserve. It is calculated that 50% of the only 300 Hawksbill sea turtles that exist between Mexico and Peru nest in the bay’s 37 kilometers of beaches.
However, the protection of the bay requires fishing and the extraction of products, as well as infrastructure construction, that are congruent with the zoning and objectives of the area, explained Álvaro Moisés, executive director of the ecological foundation Salvanatura.
That could be the legal door through which big tourism investments enter.
For this second MCC compact, the Salvadoran government seeks to improve education and training of young people so that they can do the jobs created when private investors arrive, while the government, with the MCC’s money, builds basic infrastructure, such as roads, sanitation and electricity.
“We’re seeing [the second compact] as a threat, frankly,” said Mauricio Cruz, president of Sara and Ana, an aquaculture cooperative located in Salinas del Potrero, in Jiquilisco.
Cruz added that members of the seven cooperatives of his community fear that tourism projects installed in the zone would generate pollution that could reach the estuaries, whose waters fill the ponds where the cooperatives raise shrimp.
“We are well organized people, and we will not allow a huge hotel to rise next to our shrimp ponds,” said Cruz.
So far, the government has received 62 projects from private investors totaling US$450 million, which must be approved by the MCC. If they want to see their plans materialize, entrepreneurs will have to invest a similar amount or even higher than what the government will contribute to build public good like roads, electricity and drinking water systems, etc.
Among these business groups is the Association of Developers and Promoters of Marine Tourism (Promar), which has drawn up a package of projects of US$208 million, including resorts and even a regional airport in La Union.
Marco Guirola, president of Promar, believes it is understandable that people in coastal communities distrust the MCC initiative, because they have been historically marginalized.
But this vision of doing business damaging the environment and affecting the people “is no longer sustainable, nor even possible, even if someone wants to, because the level of organization in the area is sufficient to generate the necessary pressure,” he argued.
The businessman insists that it is possible to reconcile a huge tourism investment even in areas as fragile as a nature reserve.
“Let’s stop opposing for opposition sake,” he said critically.
Minister of Tourism, Jose Napoleon Duarte, declared he would not accept any tourism project that does not meet minimum environmental requirements.
But someone else should audit these investments, experts argued.
Moisés, of Salvanatura, regretted that neither the government nor the MCC have expressly stated that institutions outside the Salvadoran government and the MCC should certify investors’ projects. However, the latter might already include the certification in its internal procedures.
These certifications, he explained, are much broader than environmental impact studies required by Salvadoran law, and evaluate the project as a whole, environmentally and socially, under international standards.
Additionally, he lamented, they have not included a focus on preventing the impacts of climate change.
“The second MCC compact should be an opportunity for El Salvador, one of the most vulnerable countries in the region, to work in adaptation to climate change and its impacts,” said Moisés.
Every year, the Lower Lempa is particularly prone be hit by those effects, with flooding during the rainy season that cost lives, crops and infrastructure.
Salvadoran Environment Minister Herman Rosa Chávez declined to comment on that matter.
“The only guarantee that the investments are going to respect the environment and the social fabric of the community will not come from the government or the businessmen, but from the organization of the people,” Emilio Espín, Relationship Manager of the Cooperation and Community Development Association (Cordes), pointed out. This organization has been working in the area for 25 years.
Meanwhile, coastal organizations from the Lower Lempa regretted that they have not been given much information about how they can be inserted into the MCC initiative..
“It hasn’t been said how people can participate in this project nor do we see how this is linked to social and environmental community processes,” said Marvin Alberto Alvarado, president of the Coordinadora de Puerto Parada, Jiquilisco.
The people of the Lower Lempa have drawn up specific projects to be included in the MCC second compact, such as an irrigation district and the revitalization of aquaculture production.
But without financial resources, they cannot qualify as investors.