San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Catarina ‘Mirador’ in Tug of War

CATARINA – The sweeping view from the new mirador overlooking the blue waters of the Laguna de Apoyo and the majestic outline of Mombacho Volcano pays a panoramic tribute to this town’s efforts to become an important tourism attraction in Nicaragua.

The town’s first scenic overlook, built in 1995, has been such a popular draw that the municipality, with the help of Austrian funding, last year built an expanded mirador that wraps 500 meters farther along the volcanic rim, offering tourists an idyllic place to take a stroll, have a family picnic, or shop for locally made handicrafts.

“If we didn’t have the mirador we’d be just like all the other small towns around here – inert, without any attraction,” said Santiago Mota, head of the municipal government’s property registry. Mota said that the scenic lookout, which draws between 30,000-50,000 tourists a month, feeds the town’s handicraft and flower industry, in addition to local restaurants and tourism businesses.

With the expanded mirador, Catarina hopes to increase its tourism traffic by 50 percent, according to the municipal government’s calculations.

The only problem with the new mirador project, said Justin Dobson, is that it was built on his property.

Dobson, a British national who’s lived in Nicaragua for 10 years, said he bought the picturesque 10 manzana (17.4 acre) property in 2003 from an agricultural cooperative that received the land as part of the first Sandinista government’s efforts to give property to landless campesinos. Under the revolutionary government’s Agrarian Reform Law, a large swath of land along the rim of the Apoyo volcano that belonged to a Somoza family holding known as TerraNica was confiscated then divided up among the Felix Cruz Hernández Cooperative, the military and a now-defunct state-run agrarian institute known as ERET, or the old Sandinista Rural Schools ofWork and Study.

A decade later, the cooperative began to divide up and sell off its portion of the agrarian- titled land. After Dobson said he missed out on buying the cooperative’s prime lot overlooking the rim, he set his sights on the neighboring one. The only problem, he discovered, was that the ownership of the second lot was contested between the cooperative and the municipality.

While most potential buyers would have been frightened off by the situation, Dobson jumped in with both feet. He said he took it upon himself to study the entire registry history of the disputed property and came to the conclusion that the cooperative had rightful claim, and that they could win their case will a little support. So Dobson made the fateful decision that he was going to get involved and help the cooperative win its case against the municipality in exchange for a promise to sell him their land after they won clear title to it.

“I figured I stand to lose 15, 20 or 30 thousand dollars, but I stand to win a lot more,” Dobson said. “With risk analysis, I determined my odds are with winning. It was a gamble, but my odds are good.”

The municipality of Catarina, however, said Dobson took a fool’s gamble without understanding the rules of the game. Justin got bateado,” said Property Registrar Mota, using a baseball term for a pitcher who gets batted around by the opposing team.

Mota said the land Dobson bought is not located on the crater rim, as he claims, rather several hundred meters away, inside the municipal sports stadium.

“He bought the soccer field,” he said.Mota added that the purchase of the stadium was also illegal because that is land that was donated by the cooperative to the municipality years ago and was no longer theirs to sell. Dobson said that’s nonsense.

“There is no doubt whatsoever as to the location of the property,” Dobson said. “The (mayor’s office) is simply trying to confuse the issue.”

Dobson pointed to his file of certified documentary evidence as clear proof of the complete chain of ownership leading to him, and said the courts in Masaya have backed his claim.

“The courts have been consistent in their agreement with us,” Dobson said. “The only thing that the (Catarina mayor’s office) has  een consistent in is inventing new stories, attempting to confuse the issue.”

Mota, however, insisted it’s Dobson who is confused. The municipal property chief said the disputed land along the crater rim never belonged to the cooperative, so it was never theirs to sell to Dobson.

Using old municipal maps,Mota points to the disputed property and says it was land that was given to the former Sandinista Ministry of Education, which they used to create the ERET agricultural field school where students learned to plant basic crops under the old revolutionary education model.Mota says he was one of the students who studied in the ERET school in the 1980s and remembers spending long hours planting corn and beans on that property.

After the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990, the land became the property of the Ministry of Education, which then signed it over to the municipality for the new mirador project, Mota says.

The central government, however, still has a vested interest in the land. In the back and forth legal dispute between Dobson and the municipality over the past five years, the British citizen last January was awarded a court order for the restitution of the property, although he’s never had possession of it.

Yet before the order could be executed, the  Prosecutor General’s Office for Masaya intervened as a third party April 10 and suspended the eviction (see separate story below).

Dobson, who spends an enormous amount of time involved in the case – to the point that others think it has consumed his life – said, “I’m the guy who never goes away.”

“I’m never going to give up on this. Never! They are going to have to kill me,” Dobson said.

Dobson has even attempted to make his case an international issue by appealing for help to the British Embassy and complaining before the Austrian foreign mission for funding a project on “his land.”

But on a more local level, he remains confident that he’ll eventually win the case in the Nicaraguan courts.

“I don’t think this issue can go on for much longer,” Dobson said. “There has to be a final resolution.”


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