- The Airport of the Pacific threatens to destroy mangroves and relocate local farming and fishing communities in a rural part of El Salvador.
- The project is part of President Nayib Bukele’s plan to develop the harder-to-reach eastern regions of the country through infrastructure projects.
- Residents say they feel pressured by government officials, who they accuse of failing to act in good faith to ensure families are fairly compensated for being relocated.
- The mangroves are important for preventing flooding and erosion, and serve as breeding sites for fish and crustaceans.
The development of an international airport in El Salvador is facing backlash from local communities after negotiations with the government broke down and environmental studies revealed the project could harm sensitive wetland ecosystems.
The Airport of the Pacific, located near the port of the coastal town of La Unión, could harm mangroves and pressure families to accept a buyout for their properties, but at a price they say is insultingly low.
“The need for more jobs, for making the country more attractive, especially in a part of El Salvador that has lived in a lower stage of development, doesn’t provide a reasonable excuse to ignore environmental impacts,” said Miguel Araujo, the former minister of environment and president of SalvaNATURA, a local conservation nonprofit.
The airport would be the country’s second commercial international hub, complementing El Salvador International Airport in the capital, San Salvador, but would primarily serve the harder-to-reach eastern half of the country.
The project is part of President Nayib Bukele’s program to boost economic development through infrastructure investment. In the first three years of his term, his government has built highways and bridges, and launched feasibility studies for modernizing ports and building a cross-country railway that would eventually connect with other countries in the region.
The Airport of the Pacific, called the “most modern airport in Central America” by Salvadoran officials, would include six passenger boarding bridges capable of serving 80,000 passengers in its first year.
Increased international connectivity to the area would help strengthen tourism and business, according to the country’s Autonomous Executive Port Commission (CEPA), one of the agencies involved in the development. It said the project could create more than 23,000 jobs during construction and 4,700 jobs in the first year of operation. Over the next decade, as travel brings other types of development to the area, it expects the airport to create around 50,000 jobs.
But building the airport also reportedly involves relocating approximately 75 families. Although they could receive compensation, including new homes, schools and roads, the promises weren’t enough to keep recent negotiations alive. When officials met with affected communities in October to discuss next steps, residents said they were upset with the offers.
“I feel betrayed. I feel like they’re betraying us: the farmer, the working people that dedicate themselves to feeding El Salvador,” said local farmer Santos Cruz Hernández during an October press conference.
He said one of the biggest sticking points has been the price the government is offering for farmers’ land, reportedly $8,000 for every manzana, a local unit of measurement that’s equivalent to 0.7 hectares, or 1.7 acres. Hernández and other residents rejected the price, which works out to $11,400 per hectare, or $4,600 per acre. (El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar and bitcoin as its official currencies.)
“They take four manzanas, three manzanas,” Hernández said. “They’re taking my livelihood from me. What can I do with $8,000 that they’re offering me per manzana? What can I do with $24,000?”
CEPA didn’t respond to Mongabay’s request for comment for this story.
In addition to relocating many families, construction of the airport would likely destroy mangroves in La Unión Bay and the protected El Tamarindo swamp. The surface area that would actually be affected is relatively small — the project covers between 1.9 and 2 hectares (4.7-4.9 acres). But conservationists say it could still have a significant ecological impact that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“No matter how small the mangrove area is,” said José Maria Argueta, program director for local NGO the Mangrove Association, “it serves as a rest area for migratory birds and a livelihood for communities.”
Argueta said the mangroves are also a nursery for crabs, mollusks and other crustaceans. If they can’t reproduce, the species might decline, preventing residents from collecting and selling them — a common source of income in the area.
Mangroves and their soil are also excellent at capturing carbon, which is key to preventing the release of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) didn’t respond to a request for comment. Its environmental impact study noted the importance of the wetland ecosystems of the area, and that threatened species like the critically endangered yellow-naped parrot (Amazona auropalliata) need to be taken into account during construction.
Under Bukele, MARN has worked with local communities to monitor mangroves, protect the yellow-naped parrot and support fisheries. But his government has also passed several laws that will make it easier for the airport project, among other controversial infrastructure projects, to bypass environmental regulations.
Last year, it passed an eminent domain law saying landowners “may be deprived of their property rights or legitimate patrimonial interests” if the development is considered to be in the public’s best interest. In April, it stripped standard oversight and transparency standards to accelerate railway and airport construction.
The April law passed with 67 votes in the 84-seat legislature, with some of the 17 opposed saying the weaker regulations could result in corruption as construction of the airport continues into 2023.
“We can’t continue on the path of destroying these ecosystems,” said Araujo, the former environment minister. “We have to understand how much value they have and what they provide to the well-being of our people and the region.”
Banner image: A rendering of what the airport would look like. (Photo courtesy of CIPA)
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