The land dispute controversy in Holbox has captured the attention of the media from beyond Mexico. A few days ago the Spanish newspaper “El País” published an article about the dispute, partially reproduced below:
Nivardo Mena, pastor of Holbox Island, stepped down from the pulpit one day to devote himself to politics, and then decided to enter the real estate business. In 2005, a Yucatecan businessman and owner of the Coca Cola Bottling Company in southeastern Mexico, offered to buy the virgin part of the island, the jewel of the Mexican Caribbean.
The “pastor/politician/entrepreneur” sold his mother’s land for five million pesos, and invited thirty neighbors to do the same, (charging a commission, naturally). The money injected into the community by the representative of the most popular soft drink in the world generated some temporary prosperity on the island.
Some sellers used their proceeds to open small hotels to accommodate tourists, increasingly abundant now that the word was spreading. Some sent their children to college in Merida or Cancun. Others bought golf carts to serve as taxis and put away their fishing nets and rods.
The money was soon depleted, and many islanders felt they had been deceived because they sold cheap and lost their agricultural rights. And now Nivardo Mena, the former pastor, leads the disgruntled masses with the same passion he used when he auctioned off the land.
The “El País” reporter told him: “The latest court rulings say you no longer own any land here”
“Any authority to rule in favor of the entrepreneurs will be ignored. The people decide for the people. We rule here,” Mena answered.
“What would you do if machinery suddenly appears and starts building on the uninhabited part of the island?”
“I just have to launch the fireworks and in less than a minute 500 people will at my door ready for anything. If we have to risk our lives, we will do it. “
A Topography Surveyor who carried out the land distribution favorable to the entrepreneurs in June, was declared “persona non grata” on the island. When word spread that the man was on the ferry that connects Holbox with Chiquilá, in northern Quintana Roo, Nivardo Mena lit the fireworks and the surveyor was put back on the next boat. He had been expelled from paradise.
The Coca Cola company, its partners and Ara Construction Company plan to develop a world class resort in that part of the island known as The Cove. Environmentalists have been opposed to the project from the beginning. Turtles nest there, and it is the natural habitat of flamingos and the whale shark, one of the largest fish in the world.
The place is also rich in mangroves, a protected species of flora in Mexico. Eduardo Pacheco, who represents the local hoteliers, believes the island would lose its charm if it is filled with mammoth buildings.
The Ministry of Environment (SEMARNAT) has already rejected two development projects in the virgin area, separated from Holbox by a river. For now it remains an empty isolated place, but the pressure to build the complex grows stronger every day.
There is a “Mayor” in Holbox… What is he good for?
The village mayor, José Manuel Pérez maintains a neutral attitude. “I’m neutral,” he told the El País reporter in an interview inside his office. “The people took over municipal facilities on one occasion, in protest of this situation. I just waited for them to leave, I will not deal with an angry mob, I’m not crazy.” Perez said.
In July, in the midst of all this chaos, the Navy arrested 16 people for allegedly cutting down mangrove trees. (Read article published on The Yucatan Times July 26th, 2014: PROFEPA Arrests 15 “Ejidatarios” in Holbox)
“It is impossible not to link the arrests with the ongoing conflict in Holbox. If the authorities had arrested everyone who has ever cut down a mangrove tree, this would a semi-deserted island”. Perez added.
One detainee was Abdiel, a 25 year old man who studied theater and dance. Nobody has ever seen him with a machete in his hand. That July morning his mother sent him to see what was happening in that part of the island where helicopters hovered overhead.
He got caught with the others, and his neighbors now derisively call him “the watcher”, but his situation is not funny. He could be facing three to six years in prison. “They just want hostages to negotiate with and shut us up so they can build,” says Abdiel’s mother, Isidora Cruz.
‘Get the hell out of here!’
There was a group of neighbors who resisted the sale of land in 2005. Doña Trini said that one of the foundations of economic success in a place like Holbox, is to never sell your property.
She owns four commercial locations in the main square of Holbox, and is maybe the only local who rents business properties to foreigners. She, like everyone else on the island, agreed to sign the trust, but drew back at the last moment, and currently still owns her property.
She recalls a grueling six-hour meeting with lawyers and brokers tempting her with checks with lots of zeros, but in the end she never signed, and told the lawyers “Get the hell out of here with your money“.
Clashes between those who sold, (about 70), and those who did not, (40), are still ongoing.
Benigno Correa, the nemesis of former pastor Nivardo Mena, leads the group of 40 islanders who held back. He says that they are open to negotiation with Coca Cola, and their objective is to sell at a much higher price than the others.
Both sides have to cross paths several times a day on the island but they do not greet each other, creating a dense atmosphere in a place where everyone knows everyone else.
Meanwhile, Benigno Correa launches fireworks to confuse followers of Nivardo, just for the pleasure of watching them run like crazy and making fun of them. It is the most tangible symbol of the confusion rampant on the island.
There is also an archaeological site there, named “El Naranjal” (The Orangery): about 50 buildings in just 2 miles of beautiful nature trails. Some of the ruins are currently under rehabilitation.
What is happening in Holbox is happening throughout Mexico: Corporations want to take over and build resorts, shopping centers and commercial areas, without regard to the environmental impact.
One of the biggest ploys in real estate today is to convince landowners to sell their agricultural land for a low price. Once reclassified, the value skyrockets. The strategy of the entrepreneurs in Holbox was to make the sellers lose their legal participation in an agricultural cooperative, thus usurping their rights as farmers forever. That way they could never return to claim ownership of the land.
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