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Big Tourism on the Horizon?

May 1, 2012

The Bay of Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve is a major nesting ground for wildlife. Large-scale tourism may impact this sensitive ecosystem. Photo: Aryeh Shell

This year, El Salvador will complete one milestone in its ongoing relationship with the United States government, and likely set forth towards another.  As Americans are heading to the polls this November, El Salvador will be completing a five-year, $461 million aid package of infrastructure and development funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).  All signs point to a second allocation of this funding for El Salvador in the country’s Southern coastal zone, and in particular the Bay of Jiquilisco.

The MCC was created by the U.S. government under the Bush administration as an independent agency.  Its stated goal is to reduce poverty by investing in economic growth among strategic partners throughout the developing world.  To do this, the MCC relies on a “country-led” process in which recipient governments work to define how aid is invested.  Since 2007, the MCC and El Salvador have focused on projects in the country’s Northern region, in areas of rural electrification, support for small farmers and medium-sized businesses, education and transportation.  Nearly 50% of current MCC funding in El Salvador has gone to expand the Northern Zone highway so as to encourage the movement of goods and services.

The MCC relies heavily on the business sector to bolster economic growth.  As such, it prioritizes work with countries that exhibit attractive conditions for private sector investment.  For example, in the Northern region, $33 million in private sector investment by Virginia-based corporation AES will support 1,300 kilometers of electrification lines.  As part of the Obama administration’s “Partnership for Growth” initiative, El Salvador is one among four countries chosen to showcase how U.S. foreign aid can help grow the business sector.

Mangroves reflected in the water. Photo: Beth Jorgensen

What does all this mean for rural communities in the Lower Lempa?  It means plenty.  Government officials are already on record to focus the next round of MCC funding – around $277 million – on coastal areas, including the Bay of Jiquilisco, with a reported focus on export-driven agriculture, fishing and tourism.  Community leaders are particularly concerned about the prospect of industrial-scale tourism in Central America’s largest mangrove forest and pristine estuary.

At a recent meeting with local leaders, top officials from the Salvadoran government said they would encourage all sources of investment in the Lower Lempa.  “Investment in this area is a good thing, and we will not turn anyone away,” said Alex Segovia, the lead official in charge of negotiating with the MCC on behalf of El Salvador.  “Investment leads to progress, progress that we desperately need,” he said.  “The type of progress that we will all agree on is meant to be discussed in a longer conversation.”

The time for that conversation has now arrived.  As the Salvadoran government and the MCC make plans for the Lower Lempa and Bay of Jiquilisco, we will be working to ensure that our local partners have a seat at the table so they are able to advocate for locally-led, ecologically sustainable development.

This article is an excerpt from EcoViva’s Spring 2012 Newsletter.

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