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GUATEMALA: Costly Botched Port Ruins Beach Town Economy

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 26 2011 (IPS) - “Now it’s really dangerous to go out to sea, because of the huge waves. The few who brave it do so to survive,” said fisherman Venancio Morales, one of the residents of the Guatemalan beach town of Champerico who have been affected by the construction of an unfinished new port.

“The company didn’t finish building the port, and the entrance channel filled up with sand, and now to get to the ocean we have to drag our boats and make it through the waves, which sometimes tip the boats over,” said Morales, president of the fishing and tourism association of Champerico, a town of 20,000 people located 225 km southwest of the Guatemalan capital.

“That’s why only 20 percent of the fishing boats are still working,” he told IPS.

More than 3,000 people who depended for a living on small-scale fishing and related activities have been affected by the situation in this picturesque town on Guatemala’s Pacific coast. “The local economy is depressed because many of our fellow fishers left, which also hurt the work of forklift operators and buyers and sellers of fish,” he said.

The problem dates back to 2008, when the Guatemalan government began to build the new port in Champerico, to replace the crumbling 140-year-old pier.

The project, which was to cost 65 million dollars, was financed by the Netherlands, with matching funds from the Guatemalan government.

The port, which includes two piers, four groynes and a breakwater, was formally inaugurated in August 2009. But it only operated successfully for a few months. In April 2011 it was officially closed because it no longer functioned properly, the local fishers said.

The new port, built and supervised by the Dutch companies Van Oord and Royal Haskoning, was welcomed by the people of Champerico because it would not only provide a boost to the small-scale fishing industry but also to local tourism.

“You will have an economic corridor by means of which we will salvage not only the mangroves at several spots along the Pacific coast, but which will also provide a stimulus for activities like commercial and sports fishing,” President Álvaro Colom told local residents at the inauguration of the port on Aug. 17, 2009.

But the whole thing has been a fiasco.

The entrance channel, which should contain more than 490,000 cubic metres of seawater to give the fishing boats access to the sea, has been filled with sand brought in by the waves.

“To go to sea now, we take advantage of the high tide, when the water is 20 cm deeper. The heavy rains that fell here have dragged even more sand into the channel,” said Morales.

Now the small-scale fishers also have to use part of their meagre daily earnings to pay a group of men who pull their boats through the channel and through the heavy waves into the sea.

In April, the authorities brought legal action against the Dutch firms that built the port, the state-run company Empresa Portuaria de Champerico, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The IOM charged over one million dollars to administer the funds for the project.

According to IOM representative in Guatemala Delbert Field, the organisation managed the funds because many people leave this area to go abroad in search of better lives, and the port project offered opportunities to keep local fishers from leaving the country.

“It’s no good; the port is not functional,” Guatemalan Vice President Rafael Espada said a few weeks ago, after admitting that the 65 to 78 million dollars that went into the project “were thrown in the garbage.”

The failure of the port has angered the Guatemalan business community, which saw it as a source of development opportunities for this country, where half of the population of 14 million lives in poverty and 17 percent lives in extreme poverty, according to United Nations figures.

“The interruption of work on the port frustrated the high expectations that were generated, and the opportunities for bolstering tourism in that part of the country,” Alfonso Muralles, with the Guatemalan Exporters Association’s Sustainable Tourism Commission, told IPS.

“It had given rise to expectations of development of tourism, with the possibility of creating a port of call for cruise ships, whose passengers would be offered visits to local farms where coffee, cacao and macadamia nuts are grown, archaeological sites, and mangroves,” the businessman lamented.

Manuel Rodríguez, who runs a hotel in Champerico, told IPS that the local economy is reeling. “In the past, there weren’t enough parking spaces for all the cars at the hotel on weekends, but now the parking lot is empty,” he complained.

Rodríguez said that what local businesses want is for the work on the port “to be completed as it should have been done in the first place, because they didn’t even build one-third of what was projected.”

He also protested the “appalling” state of the road into the town, which is also keeping visitors away.

Oscar Marroquín, president of the Federación Nacional de Pesca Artesanal (FENAPESCA), which groups organisations of small-scale fishers from around the country, told IPS that the botched port project had dealt a further blow to the fishing industry in Guatemala, which is already threatened by mining, shrimp farms and agribusiness, that “dump their waste into the sea.”

He said the fishers from Champerico hope the necessary work will be done on the port by the outgoing Colóm administration or by the government elected in the Nov. 6 runoff, in order to live up to the promises of economic development that were made to local residents.

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