The ads promise Canadians an “incredibly private and unique ocean-front opportunity” in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Far from the overcrowded beaches of Cancun but still accessible from Canada’s biggest cities, Huatulco Beach Properties bills its new development as a chance for snowbirds to buy land and trade winter for “live musicians and cold cervezas.”

On offer: nearly a dozen beachfront homes and six condominiums, part of a residential project developed by two Albertans from St. Albert, just northwest of Edmonton.

“Huatulco is full of friendly locals, who are eager to welcome you to your second home,” their promotions assure.

Juan Mendoza is one such local. But far from eagerly welcoming Canadians, he is working hard to prevent their plans from coming to fruition.

Together with over 800 others, Mendoza is part owner of 16,500 hectares stretching inland from the coast of Oaxaca at Santa María Xadani, including the beachfront land Canadians claim they legally acquired.

This past Christmas, Mendoza helped organize a meeting of communal land authorities, six kilometers inland from where the Canadians are building.

“They’ve invaded the beach area, there’s a pool near the beach and they’ve been cutting trees and removing plants and changing the land use without the consent of the general assembly of communal land owners,” Mendoza told The Breach.

In March of last year, Mendoza was elected president of the Communal Lands Commission, which represents the legal owners of lands belonging to Santa María Xadani and its associated communities. While some in his community are involved in low-wage jobs in hotels and the service industry in Huatulco, others remain connected to traditional lifeways, built around farming corn, beans and squash. 

Just like elsewhere in Oaxaca, the Communal Lands Commission is in a battle against land theft by outsiders, environmental degradation and unchecked water use, and its members are deeply concerned about the future of their territory.

The Canadian Huatulco Beach Properties are building on communally-owned beachfront land in San Miguel del Puerto in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Credit: Jeff Rank

A little piece of (someone else’s) paradise

According to Juan Mendoza, the Communal Lands Commission has used every legal recourse available to prevent the division and sale of their lands. 

But in Mexico, conflicts between communal land owners and government authorities have led to a great deal of confusion, which has often been exploited by those attempting to claim communally-owned beachfront as their own. Mendoza said previous members of the Communal Lands Commission allowed a Mexican national to build a single house on the beach, and now a group of Canadians think they’re the owners.

Fred Carse, a representative of Huatulco Beach Properties, told The Breach in an interview that prospective buyers shouldn’t worry about the risks of buying coastal land in Mexico, comparing it to buying in Canada. “As long as you’re on privatized land, you have no concerns,” he said. “Legal is legal.”

But it’s not quite so simple. According to Ariel Morales, a lawyer who works with the Communal Lands Commission Santa María Xadani, irregularities and corruption in land titling are so common in Oaxaca that a piece of paper saying you own a lot isn’t a guarantee of much at all.

“To give a crude example, it’s like if I wanted to sell you Oaxaca City’s Central Park, or Monte Albán,” he said, referring to the imposing Zapotec ceremonial site built over 2,500 years ago. 

“I have access to the system, I’m a very good lawyer, and I have a friend who is a notary,” said Morales. “I can give you a piece of paper that says you own Monte Albán. But that doesn’t mean it’s valid.”

In 1984, a Mexican government expropriation legalized the buying and selling of formerly communal land in Huatulco. Further afield, the decree doesn’t apply. And though the Canadians marketing their residential project say their development is in Huatulco, it is in fact in another municipality. 

Add to that the fact that Mexico’s constitution prevents foreigners from owning land within 50 kilometers of the coastline, which means Canadian buyers must employ bank trusts to acquire ocean view properties.

The Breach asked Carse what his response is to Santa María Xadani’s Communal Lands Commission, which says it owns the very same beachfront land Huatulco Beach Properties is building on. 

“The easiest way to put it is that the locals are asking for donations,” said Carse. “They act like all the land is theirs…but they know it’s not.”

Terry and Karen from Edmonton are the developers of Huatulco Beach Properties “created by Canadians, for Canadians.” Credit: Jeff Rank

Oaxaca—Indigenous and communal

Overlooking the activities of Indigenous and rural communities while wilfully ignoring their ownership over the land has contributed to the myth that Oaxaca is undeveloped, pristine and ripe for outside investment.

Efforts to remove sought-after beachfront lots from the jurisdiction of communal landowners have accelerated following the government’s massive expropriation at Huatulco in the mid 1980s. The expropriation decree legalized the sale of formerly communal land, sparking protests which continue to today.

In recent decades, local mayors in urban areas issued irregular titles for Santa María Xadani’s town center. More recently, developers have started subdividing ecologically sensitive beachfront lands. 

While the Canadians marketing the properties claim land sales in Mexico are protected by trade agreements, the real issue isn’t seizure by the federal government. Rather, it is the possibility that communal landowners could access justice and win the return of lands under their jurisdiction.

Many of the rural residents of the villages in Santa María Xadani have roots on the Pacific coast that reach back to time immemorial. Their ancestors were granted collective title by Spanish colonial authorities in the 18th century. 

In the 19th century, Benito Juárez, himself an Indigenous Zapotec man, became president of México and passed a law requiring the division and privatization of all of the country’s communal land. This process was aggravated over the decades that followed, and was a key factor in the rise of revolutionary figures like Emiliano Zapata in the early 20th century. 

After the Mexican Revolution, a series of Presidential Resolutions were passed, enshrining collective ownership Indigenous land into law. Unlike ejidos, which are collective land grants made to groups of farmers, Indigenous communal property was how the Mexican state recognized and returned lands to Indigenous people. 

“Indigenous communities collectively worked these lands before the Spanish arrived to the continent, which is to say, communal Indigenous land isn’t a new idea,” said Salvador Aquino Centeno, a Zapotec anthropologist at the Center for Research and Graduate Studies in Social Anthropology in the city of Oaxaca. He noted that by law, Indigenous communal land in Mexico cannot be bought or sold, rented, or mortgaged. 

“Approximately 85 per cent of the territory in the state of Oaxaca is Indigenous communal land,” said Aquino Centeno. That’s a considerably higher rate than in other states. 

It wasn’t until 1980 that a highway was built along Oaxaca’s coast. Four years later, a presidential decree legalized the expropriation of 21,000 hectares of communally owned land to create a centrally planned tourist destination in Huatulco. 

Local landowners never accepted the expropriation and continue to struggle for restitution. The tension between authorities and communal landowners contributes to a “social context which is permanently in conflict,” according to a 2007 federal government White Paper on Huatulco. 

The tension in Huatulco, which resonates through the entire state of Oaxaca, is minimized by authorities who continue to promote tourism, and ignored by tourists from Canada and the U.S., most of whom seem oblivious to the land theft that gave them access to the white sand beaches and cold margaritas they consume.

Antonio Ramírez Hernández, President of the Communal Lands Commission of Cozoaltepec, survived an assassination attempt for defending communally-owned land.

‘The gentrification of the beaches of Oaxaca’

The fight in Santa María Xadani is one of three similar land conflicts along the coast of Oaxaca.

In San Francisco Cozoaltepec, communal landowners erected blockades after they learned of efforts to privatize 300 hectares of beachfront land known as Tilzapote beach. To a Canadian tourist, the solitary beach without a single hotel might conjure up the ultimate tropical escape. But to local residents, the area, which hugs the Cozoaltepec River estuary, is a key harvesting and fishing site.  

“We are the owners of the entire rural area,” said Antonio Ramírez Hernández, the President of the Communal Lands Commission of Cozoaltepec. In 2012, he survived an assassination attempt for his role in defending part of the 27,000 hectares of land his community collectively owns. Their claim is backed up by a colonial era communal title, a post-revolutionary Presidential Resolution, and numerous court rulings.

He told The Breach his community’s main concern with new developments on the beach are the water shortages that will most certainly follow. “If more people come here, and there is more investment, we’ll have to share our water,” said Ramírez Hernández. “It doesn’t rain here. Our water is ours, it belongs to us.” 

Most of the 300 rural families in Cozoaltepec are Indigenous Zapotec and Black, and keep their traditions alive through subsistence agriculture, which depends in large part on rainfall. Today, according to Ramírez Hernández, they have united around protecting their land, the same way they come together for the traditional celebrations of Saint Francis in October and San Isidro in May.

A major housing and hotel development built by the Canadian ski champion and motivational speaker Carey Mullen stands as a stark warning for what can go wrong for communal land owners if their territory is fractured and developed. A stone’s throw from the international airport in Puerto Escondido, Mullen’s Vivo Resorts complex was built on 40 hectares of Indigenous communal land. 

Vivo’s website encourages travelers with deep pockets to find inspiration while drinking an “icy michelada” and walking “for miles on an unspoiled, unpopulated beach.” A one bedroom condo at Vivo Resorts goes for almost half a million dollars. In 2017, Mexico’s environmental authority fined Vivo Resorts and ordered the return of lands to locals, but the resort is still operating.

“It is all part of the same issue, which is the gentrification of the beaches of Oaxaca,” said Morales, the lawyer. “It can involve Mexicans or foreigners, but it’s the same process, in which native people are being illegally displaced.”

Canadian realtors might manage to convince some retirees that they’ll sleep easy in brand new homes on empty beaches, near towns full of friendly Oaxacans who will serve them cold drinks and delicious food. 

But the locals are far from defeated. They are organized, and they have centuries of experience defending their ancestral lands.

“We’re not doing anything wrong, we’re defending our rights as communal land owners and as citizens,” said Ramírez Hernández. “The process is slow, but we know these lands are ours, and we’ll continue this fight til the very end.”

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