Your Land is My Land…
From West Bay Village to Helena Island… Migration and few options to buy affordable land create growing unrest

March 1st, 2007
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] In the middle of the afternoon on February 5 about a hundred people, many with machetes, stood on a fence line within a mile from Anthony’s Key Resort. The tri-colonia of Balfate, Montifresco and Policarpo Galindo, the Los Fuertes of Sandy Bay, has become a boiling pot ready to explode. Over the last three months confrontations with the neighboring colonias’ landowners spilled into open conflicts. Dozens of people ended up in jail, machetes were dawn and fences built to defend what some say is theirs.

Despite land invasion being a felony crime in Honduras, the burden of proof that the often undocumented land grabber has no claim to the property, lies with the land owner. Investigation Police (DGIC), district attorney and Roatan departmental judge all have to get involved. If a group of invaders is acting in unison, while some of them are being arrested, others fence off the property. It is a war of attrition: who will last the longest.

Sleepless in Balfate

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A family of caretakers at a home site in Roatan.

Neighbors from surrounding the colonia houses called to Bay Islands Voice with concern. “They are shouting and are very angry. We are afraid what could happen next,” one American property owner via telephone.

Two years ago everything looked fine. “I walked the fence line with them and no one lived on the property,” said Phil Weir, owner of Roatan Life real estate company, who in 2004, sold the 14.7 acre property to the Israeli investors. In 2004 Isac Bar and Elai Levy, two US and Israeli investors, bought the property for $75,000.

“I called them several times saying ‘guys get down here, take care of your property’,” says Weir. “This colonia is an accident waiting to happen.”

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Determined and boisterous Balfate land protesters show off their machetes.

According to Gabriel Arad, US-Israeli co owner of the property, when his representative checked on the property in January 2006, there were no squatters. “Nine months later when I came to the island, there were 46 houses,” says Arad. “This is very far from the Caribbean here. The people here don’t respect investors that provide jobs,” says Arad who plans on putting 100 condominiums on the site.

Owning land as a Honduran and islander doesn’t make things any easier. Roda Grant, a native Roatanian, whose three acre property is adjacent to Arad’s, also has an invasion problem. “In two weeks they built three houses,” says Grant.

When Grant and Arad tried to visit their property on February 21 they were confronted with an angry mob. “They chased me away from my property with machetes,” says Arad.

Listening to the people who built the shacks and houses on the property in question, it sounds like very different story. “He is not even Honduran and comes in to evict us,” say a protester that didn’t want to disclose his name. “We are tired and we are ready to do what ever comes,” said Acucena Reyes, 29, patronato representative of Policarpo Galindo.

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Preventiva police watch over the court order evictions of a family in Dixon Cove.

The story of colonia Policarpo Galindo date back to 1967, when foreigners could not own land in the Bay Islands and occasionally would buy land in the name of respectable local individuals.

The 180 acre Sandy Bay property, just south-east of AKR was purchased by Charlie Stewart. As a foreigner, Stewart couldn’t own land in the Bay Islands and asked Doc Polo Galindo, a respected local, to hold the title in his name. Stewart along with Americans John Henry and Paul Adams held land all over the island and after Stewart’s death the property pastsed to his family in the US. “His daughter who inherited the land just threw her arms in the air and left,” said Bill Etches, a longtime Roatan resident from Canada.

Documents filed with the Roatan Municipal stated that Polin Galindo, Doc Polo’s son, has attempted to sell parts of the Stewart’s land. “Poor Doc Galindo is probably turning in his grave,” said Irma Brady, Sandy Bay resident and BICA president.

Brady got involved in the land dispute because of the watershed damage caused by the chaotic development and construction on steep slopes of the valley. “I counted over 1,000 of cut down trees and surveyed only half the property,” said Brady, whose parcel she purchased for a home for her daughter, was also invaded and fenced off.

The development is prone to mudslides, erosion and vulnerable to earthquakes. “High, steep areas need to be developed with proper planning,” said Brady, for whom the process of trying to protect the watershed areas has been a learning experience. She met with the mayor, congressman and Governor and according to Brady they all said one thing “We can’t really help you.” Brady realized that the laws are weak and property owners, despite paying property taxes and land transfer fees, have to count on their own resources, not the government.

As land prices keep on escalating, so are the rental fees. The slow boiling of discontent amongst the island’s poor has spilled into people taking action into their own hands. “They were organized and held meetings. There was hammering all night long. They were working in shifts and fencing in at night,” said Brady. “The men would chop and women would plant plantains and beans.” Roatan chief of police, Joe Solomon agrees: “there are organized groups that deal with taking peoples’ property away.”

People with no documents to prove their identity, let alone land claims have put Brady in a legal battle that took four months. “If you have no document to prove the ownership of the property, owners still need to hire a lawyer to get their land back,” says Brady.

In the colonia case there is a group mentality to the actions: you don’t want to miss out on the opportunities. The invasions situation went from serious to comical. “While they were invading land they were also invading each other,” says Brady. “They are not bad people. There was an opportunity and they took it,” said Brady

A squatter in an unfinished Brick Bay house.

A squatter in an unfinished Brick Bay house.

Squatters

In a concrete shell of an unfinished American built house, a Ladino family of nine has made its home over the last year. Their kitchen is an outdoor mud stove, heated with wood. A blue tarp serves as a roof between the gray, cement blocks of nine foot walls.

The family’s bathroom is in the bushes and twice a day the two women bring in buckets of water from the nearby construction plant. They store it in a steel barrel and use it for cooking, washing. One of the children, an eight year old girl, with dirty hair takes care of the other five children while the grown-up s are away working.

“When I have work, I buy food for my family. I haven’t worked in a month,” says Marcelino, the father of his wife’s three children, who sometimes works as a painter, other times as an ice cream seller making Lps. 900 a week. Three months ago Marcelino’s sister came to Roatan from Colon. “This is less dangerous then going to United States,” says Marcelino. Now, there are nine of them.

A year ago they were asked to leave their last Lps. 1,000 apartment in Coxen Hole. “We stayed under a tree in Coxen Hole for two days,” says Marcelino. “Then we came here.” Their arrival and taking over an unfinished concrete structure didn’t go unnoticed. They have several neighbors and are close to a busy road. According to Marcelino, Mayor Dale Jackson personally asked the family to leave the property in May 2006. They did, but a week later they were back. “We are not invading the property. We just have nowhere to go,” says Marcelino. “If the American comes back we will leave. Maybe he’ll offer us to stay and take care of the property.”

The family is staying on the property of Mark Howell, an American who inherited the land from his father. Howell contacted the Roatan Municipal officials about the situation who assured him all is fine.

Caretakers?

The family of eight is poor. Dirt poor. They all live on a little hill in a wood shack covered with corrugated metal sheets and plywood. The only quality element about their living conditions is the view: a 360 degree panorama of nearby inland peaks and the south shore Caribbean. They are high enough to see the Sierra de Cangrejal coastal mountains.

While the view is breathtaking by anyone’s standard, it is difficult to transgress the family’s day to day problems. Maria makes tortillas and sends her three oldest children to sell them door to door in Los Fuertes. Three month ago she got sick with dengue and couldn’t get the extra income from the sales. As a result Maria Esteban can only afford to send three of her six children to school. She can’t afford the Lps. 2,500 to buy them shirts, pants and notebooks.

While her husband works as a driver for one of the islands bigger companies, Maria is left to fend for her six children. She has to bring water by the bucket, sweep the bare dirt floor that surrounds the shack and serves as the family’s living room, kitchen and playground for the children.

Even though Maria and her husband claim that they were offered a job of taking care of a property a year ago, she has no documents to prove it. She doesn’t even remember the name of the women that asked them to stay at the property.

City of God

The growing numbers of migrants to the Bay Islands have few options where to live, and even fewer where to buy land. The land has become more and more expensive. Pressures to invade and take over disputed land abound. Some of these pressures found an avenue in grass roots lot-making attempts. These attempts are often chaotic and speculative. The individuals involved in them lack developer’s experience and understanding of land laws, legal procedure and banking guarantees.

In 2004, a development in Brick Bay hills, on the land part of a 63 acre property claimed by Scott McNab, took off. Antonio Villeda, representing himself as a evangelical pastor, took around 300 deposits from people all over Los Fuertes and disappeared.

In the beginning the 60′ by 60′ lots sold like hot cakes. Hundreds of Los Fuertes residents put down Lps. 300 each and agreed on paying a monthly administration fee of Lps. 100. Today, according to Suyapa Hernandez, a shop owner from Los Fuertes and a vice-president of the lot-making project, there are three houses and 13 people that already live on the property.

Hernandez, vice president of OIDIH (Organizcion Insular de Desarrollo Integral de Honduras) is developing the Colonia Ciudad de Dioz. Hernandez says that similar development projects are underway on the mainland in Colon, Atlantida and Cortez.

Hernandez says she is going thru Instituto de la Priopriedad in Tegucigalpa in an effort to get the legal papers to the Brick Bay property. “Dale [Mayor Jackson] promised us that he would build us streets for free. As long we get the legal documents,” says Hernandez. “Scott McNab never presented us with documents of ownership. If he does the [central] government will pay him for the land.”

Not everyone sees the land Ciudad de Dios’ issue as simple as that. “This property belongs to Scott McNab and if all else the bank will get it,” said Victor Rivera, who is developing another colonia ‘Isla Bonita.’ “I lost Lps. 17,000 in that deal myself,” says Juan Escobar, manager of Isla Bonita development.

Disputes in Context

Another troublesome issue and a source of constant land disputes and opportunities for extortion is the inadequate and weak surveying of properties and documenting land sales. Especially in the Bay Islands, due to a longtime presence of foreigner investors here, the sealed and filed legal land surveys often overlap one another. “Property owners and patronatos have to develop a process an efficient process in getting land invaders out,” said Brady.

If and when the government finally gets involved it is often heavy handed. In 1992 in Oak Ridge, a land invader community of dozens of houses was razed to the ground by police. “The police didn’t even check if anyone was still in a house, they poured gasoline and lit the fire,” said Escobar.

In 2006 a land dispute in Dixon Cove, that began as a caretaker payment dispute was settled by a court ruling and with Police removing the Aceituno family that lived there for 16 years. According to Hernandez, City of God’s Villeda, was also involved in the Dixon Cove – Aceituno land dispute. Villeda organized the raising of funds for the family in exchange for rights to lot rights.

Affordable Solutions?

Despite controversy surrounding Ciudad de Dios other developments for the poor soon followed. The 40 by 40 foot lots in Spring Garden’s ‘Colonia Isla Bonita’ began selling in September 2006 for Lps. 40,000. With Lps. 3,500 down and Lps. 1,700 monthly payments for two years, the lot-making project was aimed at the working class poor. According to Victor Rivera, president of Isla Bonita, all 177 lots in the development have sold. “We work for communities who can’t afford their own land,” says Rivera.

Isla Bonita’s 26 acre development lies sever hundred meters away from the island’s main road. Rivera says that he ‘negotiated’ a purchase of the property, but has not purchased the property outright. The issue of right of way is unclear and the developers don’t operate with escrow accounts. “We learn as we go along,” says Rivera, who before deciding to become a Roatan developer was a pearl seller. “We are looking into doing a development with bigger lots for foreigners,” said Rivera, inspired by all the developments targeting the wealthier US market.

Opportunities Lost

Doing real estate business on the Bay Islands has taught many people how to make sure the properties they buy don’t fall into a costly and not always certain legal battle. “You have to make sure that whoever works for you on the property gets a receipt for their job,” says Henrik Jensen, owner of Re/Max Bay Islands. “Possession rights are very important in Honduras. The moment you buy a property get it marked, re-surveyed, and fenced in.”

While Roatan Municipal collects a 1% buyer fee, it offers little in return to property owners. “If you pay your taxes, the [local] government should do a periodical check on squatters living on your property. Maybe there should be a full time person at the Municipal responsible for that,” says Jensen.

It is surprising and worrisome that Roatan Municipal doesn’t get more involved in the Sandy Bay land invasions. Roatan Municipal is party to the conflict as it has interests in protecting the environment and watershed. While no descendants of Charlie Stewart has stepped foreword, the 180 Acre property has over 20 years of back paid taxes numbering into millions of Lempiras.

This is an opportunity for Roatan Municipal to acquire equity and begin public areas projects, something almost non-existent on the island up to now. The land troubles in Sandy Bay could be not a headache but a source of revenue and a way of protecting the island’s disappearing green areas. The Roatan Municipal could gain control of the property and turn it into either public playground, or a park.

More to Come

For many immigrants to Roatan and Bay Islands the archipelago has become “New America,” a place far closer than the US, where they can earn good wages, speak Spanish and invite their family to visit, or move down to. The environmental, social and economical impact of this migration will affect the long term development of the Bay Islands.

The safeguard of these pressures lies in legal and enforcement structure of the land ownership. Any society that wants to remain a democracy and attract investment, growth, has to guarantee long term land ownership. If the Honduran central and local Bay Islands governments are unwilling, or unable to protect property rights of people then there is nothing but anarchy. [/private]

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