Until recently the Island of Santay lay hidden in plain view, in the middle of the Guayas River Delta, just a short boat ride away from the Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil. But in recent weeks it has become a lightening rod for partisan politics and sensationalist media coverage.
However unacknowledged or modest it's status in relation to the sprawling cities on either side, the Island of Santay place an important role in the local urban ecology. The Island of Santay, the "Lung of Guayaquil" as it is often called, filters the smog of the city and harbors the vestiges of the gulf's unique flora and fauna. Because it lays to rest any lurking plans to convert the island into yet another suburb, resort, or public housing project, the declaration of the Island of Santay as a nationally protected area is to be applauded.
However, full protection of this natural treasure remains unrealized. President Correa has not yet addressed the long-term legitimacy and well-being of the people who have inhabited and conserved the island for generations. The people of Santay, a small community dedicated to artisanal fishing, are the remnants of the great haciendas that once dominated the island's landscape. Unlike other former hacienda laborers in the era of the Ecuador's agrarian reform, the Santayenses were never dispersed to the city nor accorded their parcel of land. Thus, they remain a troubling legal "problem" that no one cares to solve. The Ministry of the Environment is no exception, as it hurries to once again sweep the "problem" under the rug. But what makes the people's demand for communal rights to their land so urgent at this juncture? Why is it different this time? It's different because a national protected area is defined as an "inalienable good of the state," and this legal fact threatens to condemn the people of Santay to a state of perpetual legal and political limbo. In other words, once ownership of the island is transferred from the Banco de Vivienda to the Ministry of the Environment, the fight for communal land rights for the people of Santay will be a steep uphill (and likely impossible) battle.
The santayenses' historical status as a "legal problem" has had real impacts on their ability to secure basic services and resources, seek protection under the law, and organize as a community. Since 1979, when the island was expropriated for future development by the Banco Ecuatoriano de Vivienda (BEV), the island's residents have lived in alternating states of neglect and intense scrutiny. They are technically part of the cantón (county) of Durán, but Durán does not provide them with infrastructure or even basic services. As legal owner BEV, has not only failed to realize its original plans for the island, it abandoned the inhabitants for 20 years. In 2000, the island was declared a wetland area of international importance, to be protected by the Ramsar Convention. This turn of events effectively thwarted an initiative on the part of the municipality of Guayaquil to convert the island into an "ecological park," replete with a designer waterfront, hotels, and entertainment. In order to keep Guayaquil in the game so to speak, the Fundación Malecón 2000 (FM2000)—a private foundation with strong ties to Guayaquil's municipal government—sought and won administrative rights to the island for an impossibly long period of 80 years. The BEV remained the official title holder, but the Foundation was to be responsible for meeting the maintenance requirements for the island outlined by the Ramsar Convention. After eight years of what could only be loosely defined as "administration," the FM2000 cedes control at least $1 million richer and the islanders with virtually nothing to show for it. With all of these fingers in the proverbial pie, where were the residents of Santay supposed to turn? How could they exercise their rights as a citizens, when it was unclear who would answer their claims? What happens when those in charge do not have as their first priority the protection of civil rights or the provision of public services (such as the FM2000)? In short, the lack of clear legal and political status has left the Santayenses vulnerable prey to those institutions and individuals who looked at the island and thought only of political gain or potential profit. They have been threatened and divided, left on the sidelines as powerful government and municipal functionaries determine their fate. Whether intentional or not, the Correa administration takes advantage of the vulnerability of the Santayenses when it ignores their calls for a stable and enduring solution to their land tenure woes.
Of course no one wants to look like the bad guy in this situation. The Ministry of the Environment and the Correa administration have offered a veritable cornucopia of state benefits (new homes, new schools, more teachers, access to health care, electrical power, employment) and all are welcome. However, none of these promises really matter, because they can easily be retracted or left to wither on the vine as future governments see fit. Political tides will change. The administration of the island could feasibly be farmed out to another private organization (or even again to the FM2000). The community will continue to be susceptible to threats of forcible relocation, and they will continue to suffer a diminished ability to exercise their civil rights. As things stand right now, people who have lived on land for more than 70 years, will be considered nothing more than "tenants", subject to the whims of the new landlords. To put it more emphatically, the santayenses will have fewer rights and less legal recourse than urban squatters. It hardly seems fair.
Generally speaking, human rights law and activism intervene precisely at the point at which a nation's system of rights breaks down and ceases to afford equal protection to all citizens; those who tend to suffer most are marginal and fewer in number. Although the community of Santay is only 230-odd people, they have a right to be heard and a right to be included in government decisions that directly affect their livelihoods and their ability to stay in the place they call home. Why should the Ecuadorian government take into account a handful of people living quietly alongside the noisy, needy metropolis of Guayaquil? Why has this community dug in its heels, struggling to keep ahold of what seems to most to be just an overgrown island? Because the people of Santay like their lives on the island. They feel a sense of connection to the place. It holds their individual and collective histories. It provides them with food and security. And, because they have been the only consistent stewards of an important natural area, caring for the island when the idea of making Santay a national protected area was not even on the horizon.
Perhaps another, more urgent, question we should ask is why the resistance to granting Santayenses collective rights to the land? Why has the public newspaper, El Telégrafo, remained suspiciously silent about this unjust transaction, when at every other opportunity they are at pains to document conflicts between Quito and Guayaquil? Surely silence and avoidance tactics point to the less than wholesome interests and alliances still thrive beneath a lofty rhetoric of conservationism. It seems like such a small thing to ask, after all communal land tenure within a national protected area has significant legal precedent in Ecuador. Why do the Santayenses' calls for legitimacy and recognition in the form of land rights continue to fall on deaf ears? Why the obfuscation and the rush to sign deals, shake hands, and transfer control of the island?
The window of opportunity is closing, in a few days the Banco de Vivienda will officially sell Santay to the Ministry of the Environment. We demand that the Ecuadorian government resolve the issue of communal land rights for the island's inhabitants and delineate a concrete plan for their involvement in any further decisions BEFORE the land officially changes hands.
Photo: Arturo Morales