Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 328 | Noviembre 2008


El Salvador

Evictions and Megaprojects: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Plan Puebla Panama lauds the advantages of mega-projects for promoting the development of the Mesoamerican region. But the eviction of residents in the Association of United Peoples begs the questions of who the development is actually for and whose development will be negatively affected. The Salvadoran government apparently still favors the development of a few in exchange for the misery of many.

Elaine Freedman

Carmelo Cabrera, president of the Association of United Peoples, has endured 36 trials, 6 arrests and 28 days in prison, always under the same charges, even though a person cannot legally be tried twice for the same offense. Since 2000, the Salvadoran Institute of Agrarian Transformation (ISTA) has been accusing the Association of usurping lands in the municipality of Intipucá, department of La Unión.

“They knock down our houses
and then we come back”

The most scandalous incident took place in February 2007 when a group including approximately 200 members of the National Civil Police’s Reaction Group and Order Maintenance Unit—the PNC’s two most repressive forces—and accompanied by representatives from La Unión’s District Attorney’s office entered the settlements of La Agencia, El Bartolo, El Amate, La Leona, Palo Blanco, La Brea and Los Ranchos to evict the inhabitants. On that occasion, 68 residents were pulled from their houses during the early hours of the morning and accused of usurpation and possession of weapons. To demonstrate the latter charge, the officers confiscated curved machetes and kitchen knives. The case against them was finally dismissed by La Unión trial court, which ruled that “there were no documents to back up the ISTA.” The houses of those arrested were destroyed during the operation but, as Carmelo Cabrera explains, there’s an almost established procedure in the dynamic between the inhabitants and the police: “They come, they knock down our houses, we go out into the street, and then we come back, build and new houses appear, even if they’re made of sheets of nylon.”

No Man’s Land

These evicted families have lived in the eastern part of the municipality of Intipucá for over 50 years. Eighty-year-old Felipe Henríquez, who now lives in the settlement of El Amate, went there with his parents when he was just three months old. His family and neighbors have dedicated themselves to growing basic grains ever since, and at certain periods have worked as laborers for different families that have illegally occupied the land over time. Carmelo Cabrera recalls his mother telling how the National Guard accompanied various landlords to help them take possession of the land.

The last of these families was represented by the mother of former President Alfredo Cristiani. She bought them illegally, with no legal documents, and used them to sow cotton and raise cattle in the seventies. There are now 450 families living on the land in question, which covers a total of just over 3,400 hectares. Some land is registered in the National Registry Census while other holdings appear as the property of the San Ramón Cooperative, although they aren’t included in the deed belonging to that cooperative. Other holdings simply don’t appear at all, and neither the inhabitants nor any of the families involved in buying and selling them, nor the ISTA have had documents certifying that the property belongs to them.

Only 22% of the land belongs to the San Ramón Cooperative, which benefited from the agrarian reform of 1980, when 295,000 hectares of land were given to peasant associations across the country. Three years later, a new Constitution established that the maximum area of rural land that could belong to individuals was 245 hectares.

That agrarian reform process was riddled with holes: lack of access to credits or technical assistance, incapacity to pay the agrarian debt and bad management by ISTA, which was responsible for heading up the process. All of this stopped the cooperatives and individual beneficiaries from exploiting the opportunities provided by their new status as landowners.

Legally questionable papers

The land registration process for the San Ramón Cooperative was anomalous, as it was in many other cases. According to the established regulations, after properties greater than 245 hectares were expropriated and their use was requested by a duly constituted cooperative association, ISTA was supposed to issue a mortgage deed of sale. Then once the agrarian debt had been paid for the agreed value of the property, ISTA would release the mortgage on the property.

In the case of San Ramón this was not exactly followed. According to Jacobo Sorto, a lawyer for the Foundation of Studies for the Application of the Law (FESPAD) and currently defender of the United Peoples Association members, the cooperative’s deed of sale dates back to 1988 and shows a value of 3 million colons, which the cooperative supposedly borrowed from the bank at the time. This contrasts with the information from FESACORA, the federation with which the San Ramón Cooperative is associated. This is just one of several points that have not been cleared up and that place the legality of the process in doubt.

Meanwhile, over the course of the legal processes, the cooperative’s defenders have presented two deeds with different measurements. In addition, both documents refer to yet another in which engineers testify that the real estate has an even greater capacity, alluding to the non-registered lands alongside. As Sorto explains, “they predicted that the Cooperative could re-measure the real estate and pull in all of the land there.”

Such confusing information could be innocently interpreted as the result of a legal misunderstanding or a sophisticated administrative measure. However, ISTA’s history is plagued by anomalies in the titling processes, contracting of services and payments, all of which seriously undermines any suggestion of ingenuousness.

The last ISTA president admitted having endorsed the parceling up of four Natural Protected Areas and giving the plots over to sympathizers of the ruling ARENA party, including an uncle of his. According to economist Alfonso Goitia, there are some 30 pieces of correspondence in the Legislative Assembly in which groups of peasants, cooperative members and former patrol members are suing the ISTA for acts of corruption. It is this history that has led the Association of United Peoples to consider that ISTA has used the San Ramón Cooperative as a way to appropriate their lands.

ISTA buys and sells
with another intent

In 1999, the directors of the San Ramón Cooperative, which produces cotton, cattle, cashew and henequen, approached the residents of the seven settlements to offer to sell them the lands where they live, despite the fact those lands don’t belong to the cooperative. They explained that as the residents were living illegally on coop lands it would be better to buy them to guarantee their security in the zone.

Although this proposal sounded strange to the residents, who had been living there for over half a century, they were interested in reaching an agreement at that time, so they pursued a process proposed by then ISTA president, Miguel Tomás López. First they had to take a population survey showing how many families were living there. Then they had to get the lands measured. This process, plus the contracting of a lawyer to advise them on the different procedures, cost them over US$2,500. But when they turned the measurement in to ISTA, López, who had actually recommended the measurement, said it wasn’t legitimate as only ISTA was authorized to measure land. “We felt we’d been deceived,” recall the board members of the affected communities.

Finally, they began negotiating the price of the land. ISTA offered to sell it to them at 15 colóns ($1.71) per square yard, when the market price was just 3 colóns ($0.34). The inhabitants proposed a price that López rejected. Then just as the process was about to unravel, López offered the inhabitants a deal: he would give them a “certificate,” but no legal papers, for the modest price of one colón ($0.11) per square yard.

The inhabitants rejected this offer, explaining that a “certificate” had no legal value and gave them no guarantees. They reaffirmed their interest in buying deeds for their lands at the market price. In hindsight, they consider that ISTA was never really interested in negotiating the land and that everything that happened during that phase was just an underhanded way to justify their subsequent eviction.

The birth of the
United Peoples Association

Seeing that their situation wasn’t being resolved, and doubting that ISTA was really interested in reaching an agreement, the inhabitants founded the United Peoples Association in 2000 to facilitate a positive resolution of those communities’ problem.

ISTA immediately launched a campaign to discredit its leaders. It distributed fliers in the communities accusing them of swindling the people. The propaganda said the process had been completely free and that if the leaders were asking members to help pay for the land measurement and the lawyer, it amounted to deception to get money out of them. “It said that ISTA’s offers had already been accepted in other communities and that we were swindling them,” recalls José Lobo, vice-president of United Peoples. “Then they went to those other communities and told them we were the ones that had already accepted. And it wasn’t true in any of the cases.” Although they didn’t achieve their aim of breaking the Association, they did succeed in sowing confusion among the inhabitants.

From discrediting to evicting

Two years later, ISTA brought its first legal case against the leaders of United Peoples and their defense lawyer at the time. At the end of the trial, the seven board members and their lawyer were sentenced to one year’s social work for the usurpation of land. According to Sorto, this sentence was illegal because ISTA couldn’t prove it owned the land. This is supported by the sentences of other trials, which determined that ISTA doesn’t have the legal papers to prove who the real owners of the land are. “This has to do strictly with the functioning of the judicial body,” said Soto. “Those of us who work in the eastern zone know from experience that La Unión is one of the departments where the administration of justice is most questioned.”

In 2005 a mixed delegation of ISTA employees, San Ramón Cooperative directors, members of the armed forces and the National Civil Police and La Unión’s district attorney turned up to evict the inhabitants. José Lobo recalls that “they knocked down the houses using chain saws and even took the people’s maize, rice and beans. They really sacked the place. They chain-sawed the fence and cut the wires. It was a mass eviction.” Two years later, in 2007, a new round of mass arrests ended with acquittals.

What’s really behind these evictions?

The leaders explain that these evicetions are being implemented to facilitate multinational corporate projects on the periphery of the Puerto Cutuco megaproject, which forms part of Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) and will be developed 40 km from the communities where the members of United Peoples live.

Puerto Cutuco, the second largest port in El Salvador after Puerto de Acajutla in the country’s western region, forms part of what is known as the Dry Canal that will link the Port of Cortés in Honduras to the Port of Corinto in Nicaragua, connected by 1,925 km of highway, including the Northern Longitudinal in northern El Salvador. The project to reconstruct La Unión’s port has been planned for 20 years, given that a port’s useful life is approximately two decades and the port stopped operating about 15 years ago. However, the dimension of the work changed radically with the advent of Plan Puebla Panama—now known as the Mesoamerica Plan. The current projection is for Cutuco to have the capacity to receive ships that are bigger and have a greater cargo capacity than those that currently pass through the Panama Canal.

Japan gave the Salvadoran government—more precisely the Autonomous Port Executive Commission—a US$160 million loan to build the Port of Cutuco. The concession of this new port to the private transnational sector is currently being debated in the Legislative Assembly; it is argued that the Salvadoran government doesn’t have the capacity to administrate such a big facility.

Plan Puebla Panama was announced by then President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, on March 12, 2001. Three months later, it was adopted during a meeting of the Presidents of the Central American region. Designed as a means of “regional development,” the plan has complemented the free trade agreements, facilitating trade both within the region and to the United States, which is the main market for our countries. The PPP will improve transport and cut costs for the big companies that come to extract natural resources or invest in the maquiladoras. As part of this, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) budgeted $3.548 billion for the PPP’s road infrastructure.

In addition to the Dry Canal, the PPP includes hydroelectric dams to facilitate the regional electricity interconnection and a 3,156-kilometer highway running from Mexico to Panama known as the Pacific Corridor. All of this is to be constructed with public investment or loans and is the same infrastructure contemplated for privatization as part of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), facilitating its subsequent sale to transnational companies. The project currently underway in the Port of Cutuco is proof that while the FTAA has been weakened, this US initiative is still kicking.

Development for whom?

Salvador Cruz is a representative of the Project for Life, a grassroots initiative to resist the megaprojects and private transnational investment in the zone, particularly a thermoelectric plant. He explains that “for the people of La Unión, for the great majority, Puerto Cutuco will not be an option for either economic or social development… The port is virtually going to be turned into a great container base with products that aren’t going to be commercialized in El Salvador let alone taken advantage of by the Salvadoran people. It will just be merchandise passing through.”

Hundreds of traditional fishing families and industrial fishing operations in the area have been deprived of their main livelihood by the dredging machines, which churned up and decimated the natural habitat in La Unión bay in order to lay the foundations for the port infrastructure. The fishing of shrimp and other species has fallen significantly.

In exchange, says Salvador Cruz, only a dozen people from the municipality have been employed so far during the project’s development. Most of the workers are illegal immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua who are willing to work for lower wages. And when the port starts to operate, the jobs it will generate in the zone will be in several planned peripheral projects in the service sector, such as a beach-side shopping center, recreation centers, hotels and bars. As economist Raúl Moreno points out, it is evident that “the big winners of the megaprojects are transnationals, along with certain Salvadoran companies, mainly from the hegemonic business nucleus.”

Some come, some go...

In order for these megaprojects to fit in, the people have to leave. Private enterprise is currently using a variety of tactics in different parts of El Salvador to evict inhabitants from the communities in which the megaprojects are getting started. The main methods, as we saw in the case around Puerto Cutuco described above, are buying up lands and, when this isn’t possible, forced evictions using repressive measures. In this effort, private enterprise enjoys government collaboration. Evictions very similar to those are being seen in zones where construction is currently underway on dams, the Northern Longitudinal Highway, mining explorations and tourist projects in the coastal zone, which will host people who come to the country to do business.

“That’s what they want: to sell this whole zone to open up Cutuco. We’re in their way. That’s why they’re trying to evict us any way they can,” laments Carmelo Cabrera.

A country for sale

What alternative plans are there for the population of the settlements of La Agencia, El Bartolo, El Amate, La Leona, La Brea, Palo Blanco and Los Ranchos? Salvador Cruz cites one design for this zone, which includes a racecourse, a heliport and hotels. The municipality of Intipucá is located along the coastline, next to the municipalities of La Unión and Conchagua, which are the planned locations for the line of hotels that will develop “the great beach tourism.”

Tourism is currently the biggest legal industry in the world. Including the auxiliary activity of transport, tourism generates 11% of the gross world product and 11% of world exports. In comparison, the motor industry and petroleum and its refined products account for 7%. The tourism industry is “young” and is undergoing exponential growth, having quadrupled the growth of the world economy over the last five decades. A total of 25 million international tourists travelled the world In 1950, and the World Tourism Organization calculated 28 times as many (763 million) in 2004.

Latin America has an important cut of international tourism, with 70 million visitors or the equivalent of 9% of world tourism. Almost 45% of these tourists go to Mexico and Costa Rica, with the Caribbean (Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas, in that order) accounting for 32% and most of the rest visiting South America (mainly Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay).

The Salvadoran Tourism Ministry hopes to insert itself into this “paradise.” Despite not having the same natural resources as Costa Rica or the Mayan indigenous and colonial patrimony of Guatemala or Mexico, the government is still banking on attracting and recruiting transnational tourist businesses. El Salvador forms part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and its “cultural corridor,” both of which are complementary to Plan Puebla Panama and manage significant amounts of money, although their budgetary percentages are much less than those for the commercial infrastructure categories.

According to FESPAD director María Silvia Guillén, “At this moment, El Salvador is up for sale. The whole tourism campaign is banking on encouraging investment and favoring big capital and its accumulation.”

Are we all tourism?

The situation of Intipucá’s United Peoples Association is not exceptional. Usulután’s La Carrera Cooperative—one of the biggest in El Salvador—is experiencing something similar. Through a special decree to “help” cooperatives resolve their agrarian debts, this cooperative turned its coastal lands over to ISTA in exchange for having its debts written off. ISTA subsequently sold those lands to their former owners, who quickly built the Barillas Hotel and the Barillas Marina Club there. And according to an accusation brought by the Nonualco Indigenous Movement, ISTA has conceded to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources 150 plots of land “with legal problems” to comply with its 2014 Tourism Plan.

Under the slogan “We are all tourism,” the Tourism Ministry wants to convince the population that both responsibility for and the benefits of tourism correspond to all Salvadorans. For the population of La Unión, which remains under the threat of eviction, that is very hard to swallow.

Elaine Freedman is a popular educator and envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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