Doubts and Fears Among Residents Where the New Airport will be Built in El Salvador

a man walking in a field
Diario El Mundo
,
Condadillo, El Salvador

Doubts and Fears Among Residents Where the New Airport will be Built in El Salvador

Around 35 families in the Condadillo hamlet, La Unión, paused their lives when the government notified them that they would be relocated due to the construction of the Pacific airport. They have stopped farming and fear leaving their loved ones buried in the area.

By May, Don José had already started rotating his crops: corn for watermelon. The first rains of winter have always indicated this change in his agricultural plots, in the Condadillo farmhouse, Volcancillo canton, La Unión, 186 kilometers from the capital, San Salvador. 

Now the 25 plots in the farmhouse are empty, few producers have ventured to plant, and most of them are overwhelmed by uncertainty and fear of losing everything. The reason is that their farmland and their homes are located in the space that the government of El Salvador selected to build the Pacific airport. Since last April, government workers have been taking measures and identifying the boundaries of the construction site.

a woman walking down a dirt path
According to the inhabitants, this street will be the construction limit of the airport / Credit: I. Cornejo.

In the community, the inhabitants grow peppers, vegetables, watermelons, corn, and sorghum to subsist. The first products are for local trade and even the watermelons trucks "come from San Salvador" to bring them, says José, referring to the market wholesale La Tiendona (the largest market in El Salvador).

The production is not small for the community that makes a living off family farming. José explains that each producer has one plot to plant and, from each one, they took approximately 3,000 watermelons. 

In the first of three harvests, they obtained about 1,500 watermelons that they managed to sell at $2 per unit, which meant an income of $75,000 for all producers. Meanwhile, in the second round, they managed to get about 500 watermelons that sold for $1, for a value that amounted to $12,500. 

From the third harvest, the producer indicates that they obtained around 360 watermelons, about 9,000 among all producers, which sold for $0.35, adding up to $3,150. 

In other words, the total value of the annual harvest was around $90,650 approximately, which producers did not receive this year due to the uncertainty of the construction of the state project. It is the same with all crops.

"The 2021 harvest helps cover part of 2022...if we do not cultivate right now, this year, by 2023 we won't have a harvest, we will have to go to the market to buy," says the farmer. 

The department of La Unión is part of the Central American dry corridor, a strip of land that is vulnerable to climate change where, despite long periods of drought followed by intense rains, most depend on family agricultural production.   

José, who also raises Pelibuey sheep, says that farmers in the area have benefited from international cooperation assistance, including the Sembrando Vida program (Sowing Life) that Mexico promotes to curb irregular migration, which consists of the delivery of timber trees and fruits to reduce food insecurity.

goats and sheep in a field
In addition to crops, the families raise cattle and pelibueyes / Credit: I. Cornejo.

This year, the farmers of Condadillo declined support from the “Rural Adelante” program of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which would give them $40,000 to grow vegetables. "Due to this problem at the airport we didn't take it, I told them we couldn't take it because we had this mishap," says the producer. 

Farmers were just beginning to notice a recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic. In the spring of 2020, they could not cultivate their fields to full capacity. José says that, in full confinement, some families who were growing apples planted half of it for their own consumption because the restrictions of the pandemic did not allow other farmers to work other people's land.

In addition, the farmers got sick, although they affirm that they did not find out if it was Covid-19 because the tests were not accessible. "What happened is that they got strong flu and high fevers, and the taste was lost," describes José.

A few steps from the coast

In addition to the Condadillo farmhouse, the population of Flor de Mangle will be affected by the construction of the airport, families that depend on activities in the sea such as fishing, and the search for mollusks in the nearby mangrove swamp.

a woman doing the washing outdoors
Families in Condadillo have wells to extract drinking water / Credit: I. Cornejo. 

The micro-climate is hot, which is the typical environment of the Salvadoran east. Both communities are located a few kilometers from the Pacific coast, specifically, from the El Tamarindo estuary.  Although they have direct access to the El Litoral highway, the streets are dirt and cobblestone.

Despite being a rural community, in Condadillo, the majority of the construction of the houses is made of blocks, with ceramic or cement floors. The houses have electricity and they have now had access to drinking water for one year. Before that, they used wells because there is underground water at a shallow depth. 

The community also has a water source a few meters from their homes, which in winter feeds the river that bears the name of the village.

Rebuild a life

But the Pacific airport project will not only leave them without plots to harvest but also without a place to live. The 35 families are about to lose their land and the houses they have built with their own work.

One of them is the family of Mrs. María Álvarez, who is still grieving after losing her mother, Mrs. Santos Cruz de Álvarez, last March. She raised her family more than 40 years ago in a block house, with ceramic tiles, her own water well, and a space for plants and poultry.

Doña Santos' last days were filled with worry after the announcement that they would be relocated due to the construction of the airport. With her voice cracking, Doña María recalls that her mother "would stare at the ceramics" and ask her "how are they going to demolish the house, where are you going to get to?"

"I told her, 'Mommy, take it easy. We're going to see how we position ourselves later'. If they take us out, they take us out because, if you don't accept what the government manages to give you, you also lose out."

The families in the Condadillo farmhouse live in anxiety. They depend on the news and what they read on cell phones. Even when the Legislative Assembly was getting ready to pass the Pacific airport law, they did not know. 

Doña Mary is worried about moving far away from where her parents are buried, whether the government "will be fair" with the value of the properties and start building a new home. "How much is it going to cost! Or we're not going to have it this big anymore either. We have been quiet for so many years," says the Salvadoran woman who has been a single mother for 20 years, worried about the uncertainty and change at this stage in her life.

"They have not told us where they are going to take us; they have only told us to go to the northern part of this same hamlet; that if there is a possibility of buying land, they will buy it and relocate us there", explains the farmer, describing the meetings the community has had with government officials.

However, the concern is that, although they have been told in advance that the government will buy their residential plots, there is not a single word about the cultivation areas. “They have not told us that they are going to buy the plots from us, but that they are going to relocate us with the houses, and yes, we would be affected by the agricultural lots because that is where we produce,” he concludes. 

“It is already a fact, they (the government) say, that we no longer think that it will be somewhere else, but here,” says Doña Mary about the meetings they have held with delegates from the Ministry of Public Works. 

a barren field
Condadillo's agricultural plots without crops this year, due to the uncertainty of the airport / Credit: I. Cornejo.

On May 14, in a new meeting, the representatives of the Government told the inhabitants of Condadillo that in two months, they will meet again and that is when they will tell them how much the Autonomous Executive Port Commission (CEPA) will pay them for their houses and where they will relocate.

Meanwhile, Condadillo has already lost its harvest. 

Despite their concerns, Condadillo residents say they are not opposed to improvement projects, but rather dislike living in uncertainty.

Diario El Mundo consulted with CEPA through its Communications Unit about what negotiations they have with the community and where they may be relocated, but at the close of this article, there were no responses to our request.

A political campaign promise

On September 2, 2018, when Nayib Bukele was a candidate for the presidency of the Republic, he launched the proposal to build an airport in the east of the country. In a video posted on his Twitter account, the president explained that he proposed to build it in La Unión, to promote tourism. 

The promise was included in the Cuscatlán Plan, his government proposal, and reiterated in the Bicentennial commemoration ceremony, on September 15, 2021. 

CEPA, the administrator of the airports, indicates that the air terminal will provide an airport connection to the eastern part of El Salvador, "to promote the potential of becoming a pole of economic development, encourage the growing demand for passengers abroad, develop international tourism and activate the port of La Unión”. 

The economic study of the airport, prepared by the Peyco-ALBEN 4000 consortium, revealed that the platform will have the capacity to mobilize up to one million passengers and would contribute 1.5% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP, production of goods and services) in its first year of operations. 

A law with express procedures

On April 26, the Legislative Assembly approved a law to build the Pacific Train and Airport, with 67 votes from the ruling party Nuevas Ideas, and its allies Gana, PCN, and PDC. In addition, three deputies who resigned from the right-wing party, Arena, voted in favor. The rest of the representatives who are still in Arena, the FMLN, and Nuestro Tiempo abstained. 

The regulations allow CEPA to acquire, whether, by purchase, exchange, expropriation, or any other, title to the personal property necessary for the construction of the airport. The owners of the current properties must state in writing that they are willing to voluntarily sell the affected properties. CEPA will make the payment for the deed in a period not exceeding 180 calendar days. 

If they do not get an agreement, the Attorney General's Office of the Republic may follow special procedures for the acquisition of real estate, at the request of the airport managing institution. 

Nevertheless, the economic and environmental concerns of Condadillo are ignored in the Legislative Assembly, where the deputies expressly endorsed the construction. 

"I know those lands where this airport is going to be built. It is a lie that there is going to be ecological damage, it is a lie, you have to be there to really see that they are on suitable land. To oppose these projects is political pettiness," said Reynaldo Carballo, deputy of the Christian Democratic Party, ally of the ruling party Nuevas Ideas.

Diario El Mundo asked Congressman Carballo if he stood by his opinion after he was shown, even with photographs, that the families in the area depend on crops and it is an area adjacent to a nature reserve. However, he did not respond.

eucalyptus trees marked to be cut down
Eucalyptus trees marked for felling for the project / Credit: Diaro el Mundo.

This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Spanish by Diario el Mundo on 6 June 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: One of the farmers observes the vegetation that will be degraded by the construction of the project / Credit: Diaro el Mundo.

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