San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Threat of Land Invasion Stalls Development

TOLA – Philip Christopher stood by a barbed-wire fence along PopoyoBeach, on the Pacific coast, waiting for an invasion that never came.

This idyllic stretch of white sand and flawless Pacific surf has been the scene of tense standoffs between developers and the Nahualap community in Las Salinas, a neighboring indigenous group that contends that part of the land Christopher bought still belongs to them.

“It’s a pretty frightening experience,” Christopher said of the previous two times he faced outraged community members armed with machetes.

A native of Kansas City, in the U.S. State of Missouri, the 46-year-old developer said he heard rumors last week that several hundred Nahualap were planning to gather at the disputed beachfront property July 9. The day came and went without incident.

Nevertheless, Christopher’s dream of building a world-class surf resort remains under a cloud as long as community leaders continue the threat of invasion.

“It’s a cat and mouse game,” said Christopher, who was joined at the beach last week by 18 young security guards and his attorney. “I’m not backing down.”

Of the 100-plus developments that are under way along the Pacific coast, only three have been invaded by groups contesting the sale of lucrative beachfront property. Vice-President Jaime Morales has repeatedly said that such actions will not be tolerated, but Christopher and a handful of other developers contend that few actions have been taken to ensure protection of property rights.

Among the most prominent disputes is the nearby ArenasBay, a short drive south of PopoyoBeach. In December, three members of a group calling itself the Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cooperative were shot by security guards as they tried to enter the property, which has been challenged for years.

One of the owners of ArenasBay, Armel González, recently alleged that a prominent Sandinista politician offered to “fix” the problem for a bribe of $4 million. The accusations have unleashed an unfolding scandal that threatens to undermine outside investment (see separate story).

On July 12, Christopher became the latest investor to testify before a special commission formed in the National Assembly to investigate the land problems around Tola.

“We’ve won every court case so far,” said Christopher, who complained that the dispute has cost countless wasted hours and money as they wait to begin construction along the booming PacificCoast. “I’m the only one who hasn’t made a cent.”

Big Plans

Christopher’s investment group, La Flor de Mayo, hopes to eventually invest $14 million in a housing and hotel project that would bring some 450 rooms and hundreds of jobs to the area. The 94-acre resort would include both high-end houses and affordable bungalows, as well as an artisan market, baseball field and sports bar, according to the group’s plans.

The development overlooks one of the prime surfing spots in world, Popoyo, which plays host to the final leg of Nicaragua’s national surf tournament in two weeks.

“Popoyo is already its own brand,” said Christopher, who envisions a new type of retirement community interested in surfing and the outdoors. “The 40- to 60-year-old market is the healthiest and richest it has ever been.”

Christopher, who himself hasn’t learned to surf yet, said he and some college buddies started buying property around Popoyo nearly two years ago from a local family that had been able to keep the property throughout the tumultuous land confiscations of the 1980s. But Christopher later found out that a few acres of prime beach front were under dispute by a local indigenous group.

Bitter Dispute

Bartolome López, president of the Nahualap, claims that they have a 1887 deed that shows the property belongs to them.

Christopher said that the earliest records he could find were from 1944, and that GPS tracking shows that the property they are claiming is wrong.

“They would own part of the ocean,” he said.

Still, dozens of men brandishing machetes stood on the perimeter of Christopher’s fence last November, apparently empowered by the return to office of President Daniel Ortega.

“They were shouting that Ortega will never allow me to get away with this,” Christopher said.

The developer charges that the Nahualap have since been leasing the property to other buyers, who briefly listed it as for sale on a U.S.-based Web site. With investors from 23 states in the United States, Christopher said he will take his fight to the U.S. Congress if he has to.

The battle has already been acrimonious. Christopher’s take-no-prisoners approach to pushing his cause has alienated some investors and government officials, not to mention local community leaders, whom he commonly calls the “land mafia.”

López said that he welcomes jobs to the area and adds that he has had many constructive conversations with other foreign investors. But he shakes his head when talking about Christopher.

“You have to respect those who live here,” López said.

Christopher, too, admits that he lets his emotions get the best of him.

“I’ve played hard and paid a price for it,” he said.

If the latest court rulings and the National Assembly commission fail to stop the land invasions, Christopher said he will wait on his farm in Virginia until the problem finally settles down.

His offer to finance a local foundation with profits from the development still stands, but he refuses to pay anything directly to López and other community leaders. Christopher predicts that any hard feelings will end when people see that there is work to be had.

“I’m tired of the fight,” he said. “Let’s move on.”


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