Night of the Golden Iguana:
Land Conflicts Riddle Mexican Tourism Development

Certain events transform the world. The coming of the railroad to the rural United States, the invention of the atomic bomb, and 9-11 are a few examples that immediately come to mind. For the residents of the small, bayside community of Mismaloya near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico , their world changed dramatically when John Huston , Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and company came calling in 1963.

The ejido of Boca de Tomatlan near Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco.

As a young man, Ramon Lopez Villasenor recalls helping work crews unload equipment on the beach for the shooting of the Hollywood classic "Night of the Iguana." Nearly a half-century ago, Lopez says Mismaloya was an isolated place where travel was most commonly done by foot, by canoe, or on horseback. "We lived a little incommunicado, but with great happiness," Lopez insists.

A 1937 decree by the administration of Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas had granted Mismaloya’s residents about 3,000 acres and created the ejido of Boca de Tomatlan and Mismaloya, a collectively-owned unit of land. Later, in 1991, the ejido was expanded by nearly 2,400 acres.

The filming of "Night of the Iguana" brought a "bonanza" of jobs and income to the small agricultural and fishing community, acknowledges resident Salvador Garcia Lopez. But the movie also opened a Pandora’s Box. Outsiders, enchanted by the tropical, jungle-canopied scenery of Mismaloya, soon wanted a piece of paradise.

"Thanks to this movie, Puerto Vallarta and Mismaloya progressed," says Fransicco Villasenor, "but all the bandits arrived." Over the decades, shady land deals involving ejido authorities dispossessed Mismaloya’s inhabitants of portions of their property, Garcia and other ejido members charge. A large hotel that is now operated by the Spanish-owned Barcelo chain, La Jolla de Mismaloya , rose up on the beach’s edge.

Mismaloya’s biggest problem has been with Mexican businessman Fernando Beltran y Puga, who claims ownership of parts of Mismaloya. In 1983, ejido members say, Beltran y Puga was behind an early morning raid that resulted in the burning and destruction of more than 20 homes and the displacement of many families. Now 77 years of age, Idelfonso Camarena Gonzalez says he lost his home and belongings in the attack, adding that his daughter attempted to take pictures of the eviction but was threatened by men with guns.

In the latest chapter of the long-running dispute, Beltran y Puga has the law on his side—at least so far. An estimated 480 people residing on 26 acres of land face pending eviction because of a legal judgment favoring Beltran y Puga. Handed down by a Mexican judge last November, an order cleared the way for the residents’ removal.

Mismaloya’s inhabitants, who earn a living farming, serving tourists, and protecting the rock islands of Los Arcos National Park , are resisting the decision in the courts and in the streets. Late last year, ejido members positioned themselves on the highway leading from Puerto Vallarta , where they watched for a possible police raid and solicited financial and moral support from Mexican and foreign tourists.

"There was no Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve for this town," says Javier Garcia Lopez, a young man with an intense gaze. "We were out guarding." As 2009 kicked off, Mismaloya’s residents took their demands to the very heart of the regional tourist industry, marching hundreds strong through downtown Puerto Vallarta. Signs put up by residents are now posted on idyllic Mismaloya beach and warn of the spilling of blood and guts if an eviction takes place.

Calling for a peaceful resolution to the land battle, Mismaloya’s resisters demand the intervention of the municipal government to stave off an eviction, as well as the upholding of the 1937 and 1991 ejido decrees.

In the bigger picture, the conflict brewing over Mismaloya is nothing new in the annals of Mexican tourism development. Historically, local residents have clashed with the Mexican government and private developers over land ownership rights and compensation for expropriated lands in many resorts including Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Acapulco, and Huatulco.

In the canyon country of Northern Mexico, leaders of the indigenous Raramuri community of Bacajipare recently filed a legal complaint with the Chihuahua state attorney general’s office charging that they were being physically threatened because of a conflict over lands situated in a zone slated for the construction of the Divisadero-Barrancas Adventure Park. A large hotel, a heliport, and a tramway are planned as part of a project promoted by the Mexican Federal and Chihuahua State governments, and that is expected to include Spanish investment.

Another emerging hotspot is in the Riviera Nayarit just north of Puerto Vallarta, where the Mexican government and private developers are building thousands of new hotel rooms, condominium developments, luxurious villas, and golf courses.

According to Mexico’s national Secretariat of Tourism (SECTUR), Nayarit was among the top five Mexican states receiving new tourist industry investments in 2008, which amounted to US$4.6 billion nationally. Almost half the investments were from foreign capitalists, mainly Spain and the United States. Despite the world economic crisis, the Riviera Nayarit project is moving forward—albeit at a slower pace.

Perhaps over-optimistically, SECTUR predicts tourist industry investment nationwide will grow this year by 2.5%, a rate of growth which is far higher than Mexico’s predicted overall 2009 growth rate of 0.36%, according to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimate cited in the Mexican media. To boost tourism, SECTUR Secretary Rodolfo Elizondo has announced that the federal government will contribute $1.6 billion for various projects.

In resort destinations, land conflicts frequently break out over the gold that might gush from development, but in another battle near Puerto Vallarta the issue literally involves the garbage that’s left by the tourist industry. In business since 1984, Puerto Vallarta’s municipal dump is long over capacity and operating on the latest of several permit extensions, according to R.C. Walker of the Puerto Vallarta Ecology Group . A 2008 report by Greenpeace Mexico estimated that approximately 20% of the 499 tons of garbage generated every day in Puerto Vallarta comes directly from the tourist industry.

An attempt by Puerto Vallarta’s municipal government last fall to open a new landfill was met by a highway blockade and legal action by members of Las Palmas ejido . According to local media reports, the landowners complained that they were never consulted about having a dump for a city of 300,000 people plopped on their doorstep.

The persistence of land conflicts near Puerto Vallarta and other Mexican tourist zones calls into question previous claims by the Federal Agrarian Reform Department that land ownership battles were largely part of an unruly past. The proliferating conflicts also challenge Mexico’s adherence to the international Agenda 21 program. Signed by Mexico and other nations, Agenda 21 lays out a model of sustainable tourism . A key principle of Agenda 21 is the inclusion of local and indigenous people as key stakeholders in tourism development.

Meanwhile, word of the Mismaloya struggle is gradually filtering out to the national and international community. Opposition leader and 2006 Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez recently visited Mismaloya and pledged to get his team involved in the ejiditario’s cause. Spread by Internet, news of the conflict is reportedly reaching the large foreign tourist population that visits the Puerto Vallarta area .

A Seattle snowbird, Pamela Dick spends several months of the year in Mismaloya, where she has come to know locals. "I think it is a shame they are going to be thrown off the land," Dick says. "I thought this land belonged to the Mexican people and I don’t understand how a developer can come in here and buy this land. I just think it is awful."

Rejecting notions that they are squatters, Javier Lopez and other ejido members say they have homes, families, and businesses firmly rooted on the land and on the beach. They wonder what the people will do if they are forced to abandon a home that has supported generations of inhabitants. "If foreigners come to invest, let them do it in an appropriate way," says Lopez. "They should not come to mess up the life of a community. They should buy places to put their hotels or beautiful homes that don’t have problems, where there are not people living there."



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