Update -- Valle El Angel MegaProject

Today I am sharing an update on the "Valle El Ángel" commercial/residential mega-development on the outskirts of San Salvador. The development is a project of real estate developer Urbánica. The owners of Urbánica are the ultra-wealthy Dueñas family in El Salvador, and their proposed development of 8000 houses, shopping centers, churches and more would threaten the available water resources in the capital region, according to environmental and community groups. Most of the land, located along the Pan American highway northeast of San Salvador, is currently used to grow sugar cane.

The development has been opposed for years by a coalition of groups with a special concern about the impact on the important aquifer which lies beneath this zone. I described the project and the environmental concerns in a long piece here in 2019.   Despite the years of struggle against the project by advocates, under the current administration in El Salvador, it now appears likely that development will proceed.

The opponents to Valle El Ángel argue that this mega-project will cause the over-exploitation of already stressed aquifers which provide water for the surrounding region; that the project will prevent the re-charging of the aquifer as large areas of pavement prevent rainwater from infiltrating the soil; that the project will lead to discharge of waste waters into local surface streams; and that it will add to the traffic chaos which already exists in this area of greater San Salvador. In a nation already suffering from severe water stress, the government is granting rights to these private real estate developers to extract water at the rate of 240 liters per second, so they can build a luxury housing project.

Despite the opposition, the environmental ministry (MARN) under Nayib Bukele gave a green light to the project in November 2020. Opponents continued to fight on in the courts and in street protests. Various advocates including the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and environmental groups filed four different petitions in the first half of 2021 with the country’s Supreme Judicial Court asserting irregularities in the environmental permitting process and violations of the constitution.

Logo of the campaign against Valle El Angel

The  high court, with judges installed by Bukele and Nuevas Ideas in the judicial purge of May 1 2021, agreed to hear the petitions this past November, but declined to grant a preliminary order which would suspend the environmental permit granted to Urbanica. This leaves the developer in possession of the necessary environmental authorizations while the process drags on in the court to an uncertain outcome.

Sara Santos, a member of the law faculty at the University of Central America, criticized the decision not to suspend the environmental permits in a blog post for the Due Process of Law Foundation.  Among other reasons, the high court had justified its decision by saying it had to consider the benefits to the country of a project of this nature, such as the generation of jobs, and reduction of the housing deficit.  Santos asserts, however, that this was deciding in advance what the entire dispute was about, while ignoring a human rights principle that preliminary relief is appropriate to make sure that irreparable harm to the environment does not occur while the judicial proceedings are taking place.  Once the bulldozers have come through, the wells dug to pump the water, and the pavement laid down, a contrary court decision will not undo the damage.

Today the Foro de Agua held a press conference in front of the Supreme Judicial Court to present its description of the errors made by the Court in its ruling declining to suspend the environmental permit.  

In its 2021 report on the human rights outlook in El Salvador, the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights also identified the Valle El Angel project as one serious threat to the human right to safe, potable water in that part of the country.   

The newly passed national water law is also little help for the environmental advocates.  When the Legislative Assembly's Ad Hoc Commission studying Bukele's proposed water law heard from business interests, the first to testify were the developers of Valle El Angel according to a report in Diario CoLatino:

The company Desarrolladora Inmobiliaria Urbánica was the first to present its observations on the preliminary draft of the Water Resources Law. “The spirit behind the law is genuine and we celebrate it. It is clear that it has objectives and regulatory frameworks that we see well, "said Federico Rodríguez, planning director of Desarrolladora Inmobiliaria Urbánica.

When the final provisions of the National Water Law became known, water advocates decried its failure to address the large water concessions granted to real estate developers like Urbanica.   That law also eliminated the requirement of environmental impact studies before water concessions are granted.

President Nayib Bukele has made it clear that he does not want environmental permitting to get in the way of development projects in the country.  Early in his administration he ordered the environmental ministry to speed up and make more flexible the process of awarding permission for new investment.  

With environmental permits in hand for now, Urbanica has started marketing the development to middle class Salvadorans.  The first residential development is branded "Valle Dulce" -- Sweet Valley.  The marketing plans show a development of two car, two story town homes arranged tightly together.  The Valle Dulce website proclaims the development as:

A space where the experience of living breaks the mold and transforms everyday life into an extraordinary manifestation of well-being. Wide spaces with an avant-garde touch that promote the ideal growth and holistic development of your children.

The development is located on the highway between Apopa and San Salvador (a location where there are already daily traffic jams each day during rush hours).

Map of location:

Map from ValleDulce.com

Today the marked area is a sugar cane field.

An image from the Valle Dulce marketing site shows a rendering of what part of the development could look like when completed:

At this point, environmental advocates may be well advised to take a different tack.   Instead of an all-or-nothing attempt to block development, it could be better to influence the nature of the development.  For example, they could insist on effective rain water capture from roofs, the use of porous pavement and bioswales to allow rain water to filter, and sanitation and recycling systems to minimize negative impacts. 

These developments are being erected on existing sugar cane fields, and the monoculture cane fields are themselves not especially great for the environment.  There should be insistence on ample green spaces with trees planted where once there was only sugar cane. Particularly sensitive areas close to creeks and the slopes of the San Salvador volcano should be protected.    

Admittedly, these steps are quite foreign to high density real estate development in El Salvador, but if Urbanica wants to promote its projects as having "wide spaces with an avant-garde touch," providing green, environmentally friendly development is where it should start.