Tourism and Social Conflict in Central America

Interview with Ernest Cañada, Alba Sud

By Christina Kamp

Tourism in Central America has fast become an important economic factor and has contributed to a significant structural change. We asked Ernest Cañada to highlight the social conflicts emerging from this new setting, as well as civil society responses. Ernest Cañada is coordinator of the Catalan organisation "Alba Sud - Investigation and Communication for Development" and member of the "Group to Research Sustainability and Territory (GIST)" at the University of the Balearic Islands. The conflicts outlined and more were discussed at a seminar on tourism and development, organised by "Alba Sud" and "GIST" in the Dominican Republic in July 2010.

TW: What are the characteristics of the new scenario of social and environmental conflict in Central America?

Ernest Cañada: The international economic crisis has slowed down the process of economic accumulation and structural change, but its basic tendencies remain. The coasts of Central America, especially the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Panama and increasingly also Nicaragua, are seen as preferred destinations to attract retired North Americans and Canadians, in addition to rich people from countries within the region. The result has been the emergence of new forms of residential tourism which combine large international resorts and holiday homes, marinas, malls and other services.

The concentration of this touristic and property-based development in certain regions has had major impacts. This spatial "touristification" happened on the basis of a process of "accumulation by dispossession", which meant the appropriation of land that was still in the hands of small-scale farmers and had important community ties. The intensive use of water to meet the demand of tourism and residential resorts competes with the demand of communities for their daily needs. We also witness the beginning of a process of increasing "elitization" related to the land. Space is transformed in the interest of capital accumulation and to meet the demands of more affluent strata of society at an international level, and not based on the needs of the local population. Finally, this transformation would not have been possible without an impressive mobilisation of human resources. Drawing upon migrant labour generally meant precarious working conditions, social exclusion and poor protection.

TW: Which are the main areas of conflicts that you have identified?

Ernest Cañada: The process of touristic transformation has generated different reactions and forms of conflict. Five major areas of conflict can be identified. First of all, we see the resistance of some of the rural communities to being dispossessed of their resources, especially land and water, and to the disintegration of their territory and its new touristic functionalities. Another level of conflict emerges when tourism activities generate significant destructive impacts, especially on the environment. This provokes reactions from various groups, local organisations, environmentalists and some local authorities who try to stop the damage being done by the touristic urbanisation.

The pressure exercised by the tourism industry to deregulate legislation and national policies related to taxes, access to the coast, etc. represents the third conflict scenario. Since 1996, when governments in the region signed the "Declaration of Montelimar", which identified tourism as a regional economic strategy, all countries in the region have seen a series of measures which, depending on the case, have triggered major or minor forms of conflict. The fourth area of conflict has to do with the diversity of tourism capital and its various interests and internal contradictions. The expansion of tourist and holiday property related activities, supported by large amounts of regional and international money, has led to a progressive displacement of small and medium-sized enterprises or their subordination. Finally, the reaction to the degradation and the increasingly precarious working conditions in both the construction sector and in the tourism services sector has opened another front of conflict.

TW: How does civil society in Central America respond to these challenges?

Ernest Cañada: Generally, the tourism-related conflicts in Central America have been very localised and staged by groups directly linked to the impacts of any given situation, or they haven been reactive, without the capacity to avoid the global dynamics. Some regions, such as Guanacaste in Costa Rica, where the development of residential tourism is more advanced, have experienced resistance against certain projects. But in general, there is no common understanding of the seriousness of the transformations entailed in this process of "touristification". The movement for "another world", which is very active in other sectors, such as mining, has been having serious difficulties in recognizing tourism as a threat. The tourism industry, both locally and at the international level, has had the capacity to present a positive image of being beneficial for society. Strategies of Corporate Social Responsibility and the "recruitment" of local authorities and experts, local entrepreneurs, cooperatives, etc. have contributed to reducing the local population's capacity to resist.

It is really worrying that such a profound process of social transformation which violates the interests of the majority of the population can happen with so little response and social confrontation. The situation with regard to the labour conditions is really serious. Trade unions have been weak, in both hotels and other services, and also in the construction sector.

Further information:

Tourism in Central America, social conflict in a new setting. By Ernest Cañada. Alba Sud, 2010. Download:

Turismo Placebo. Nueva colonización turística: del Mediterráneo a Mesoamérica y El Caribe. Lógicas espaciales del capital turístico. By Macià Blàzquez and Ernest Cañada (ed.), Alba Sud/GIST (forthcoming).

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