Marbella: The coastal paradise where real estate development is already showing its effects
One day, about 27 years ago, Rosibel Córdoba Guido randomly placed her finger on a point on the map. At that time, she was still working as administrative head at the University of Costa Rica’s School of Chemistry, in San José, but on vacations, she enjoyed camping on the beach with her children.
Destiny’s Russian roulette put a name in Rosibel’s mind: Marbella, a remote village of traditional fishermen and farmers, with about 200 families, located in the district of Cuajiniquil, more than 40 kilometers (25 miles) from downtown Santa Cruz.
To get there, you have to travel about 40 minutes from downtown on a paved road, and then 20 minutes on a gravel road between trees, rocks and more trees, until you hit pavement again and find a plaza, a church and a school. There, at that point, is Marbella.
When Rosibel discovered the beauty of this community and its beaches, she never again looked for another place to camp. Whenever they could, she and her family returned to Marbella.
The community welcomed them in such a way that, a little more than a decade ago, after retiring, Rosibel became a Marbellan by choice.
Marbella was a town where not much happened, but then a lot of things began to happen. Where before there was only a small path for cows to walk along and a lot of space in front of the beaches, later there was a gravel road for vehicles to drive on and fences marking property boundaries.
A couple of investors, who practically the entire town identifies by first and last names, began to buy land near the coast, resell it and also develop residential areas that seem from another world– at least not from the world of Marbella, where locals still make a living from traditional fishing and earn an income with which they could never buy one of those properties, not even in a lifetime. Advertising on the Internet offers properties for more than a million dollars, unattainable at the wages of ₡2,000 (currently about $3.65) an hour that many families in Marbella live on.
Conflicts also arose there over water. In 2017, The Voice of Guanacaste published an article about how the Jardines del Sol and Lomas del Sol real estate developments, owned by developer Antonio Marvez Soto, used an illegally drilled water well.
By then, community residents were already expressing their concern because the Posada del Sol ASADA (rural water board), which was different from the original one in the community, was presided over by Jeffrey James Allen, another well-known developer. According to testimonies from residents, the ASADA charged foreigners very high amounts for the water service.
Currently, Allen is facing criminal investigations due to irregularities in the administration of that ASADA, which even supplied the Ruta del Sol condominium, of which he is a developer. Despite this, AyA plans to buy a piece of land from him to extract water.
In 2018, AyA took over the aqueducts managed by the Marbella and Posada del Sol ASADAs, as well as the illegal well that supplies the Marvez condominiums, but the problems with water resources in the area didn’t end.
Over time, tempers flared in the community to such an extent that the Marbella Verde organization, which Rosibel was part of, disbanded because its members began to receive threats. The organization had been formed to carry out environmental protection tasks such as beach cleanups, but they also participated in making complaints about the irregular water administration. Now, some former members preferred to not even give their names for this report in order to avoid reprisals.
Marbella changed. More and more tourists came. Real estate developments were built under the concept of second homes or vacation homes and although real estate growth is barely emerging compared to other points along the coast, now even the public zone of the Maritime Land Zone is disappearing, according to an analysis by Dany Villalobos, a geographer with the Ecologist Federation (Spanish acronym: FECON).
Villalobos estimated that 56% of the public zone of Marbella has disappeared and that specifically in Coco Beach (one of the beaches in this area), the loss has been 62%.
Villalobos thinks the reduction of the public zone is due to two factors: first, a change in the high tide line (the point that the high tide reaches), and second, “privatization operating freely in the restricted area, inside. As the ocean presses in from without, the businesses of private occupants threaten the original boundary from within, and the public fringe ends up shrinking.”
From my point of view, this shouldn’t be such a difficult problem to solve if the National Geographic Institute updates the technical information about the level of the high tides and the current Maritime Land Zone’s true strip according to the terms of the Law,” he expressed in his report.
According to the geographer, currently the residents of Marbella can observe how the water rises to the street that gives access to the Tiki Hut restaurant, built by Jeffrey Allen.
The Ecologist Federation has asked the Municipality of Santa Cruz to verify if the beachfront buildings invade the public zone and if they have the corresponding permits, but they have not responded, despite an order from the Constitutional Court, Villalobos commented in the report.
The organization has also supported residents of Marbella in denouncing situations such as the construction of a bridge without permits in the bed of a mangrove swamp between Frijolar Beach and Coco Beach.
Sociologist José Arturo Silva, from the Alba Sud organization, recently published a report in which he refers to the impact of residential tourism in Marbella. In it, he explains that the community came under the radar of investors during the real estate tourism explosion in the first decade of the 2000s, but that the development cycle hasn’t ended.
There, he takes up the testimony of a resident who has lived in the community for more than 60 years, who recalls that at the end of the 90s, lots were sold for between $1 and $5 per square meter, while now the resale value is between $600 and $4,000. “The price depends on whether it is a lot with works already built, on the services and amenities included and on market fluctuations,” the document adds.
According to Silva, Marbella is an example of how this investment cycle goes through an accelerated process of land grabbing, private management of water to supply homes, lack of attention from public institutions and a restructuring of the fabric of the community. It’s also an example of how this sum of factors leads to social conflict, which has been seen with the complaints about water administration.
The researcher also pointed out that, given the lack of institutional actions and the threats, some people in the community choose to seek support from external organizations, such as FECON.
The dynamics of a tourist enclave that Marbella follows restricts the possibilities of influencing the community through the traditional mechanisms of cantonal participation. This component of isolation contributes to institutional ineffectiveness and is one of the challenges that remote rural communities counteract by seeking external support,” Silva indicated in his report.
The Voice of Guanacaste tried to talk with the mayor of Santa Cruz, Jorge Arturo Alfaro Orias, about the problems related to real estate development in this and other communities in the canton. However, by email, the mayor’s secretary indicated that the mayor had a committed schedule. In addition, she offered the excuse that he had to respond to a constitutional appeal that this media outlet filed due to lack of response to requests for information on construction permits and municipal licenses.
Between Development and Caution
In front of the beach, under the incandescent sun, Rosibel shows us the bridge that was built in the bed of a mangrove between Frijolar Beach and Coco Beach while she explains what she’s been able to investigate. “There’s no environmental study by SETENA (Environmental Technical Secretary) that says that this can be done in this place. What has happened? The local fauna and flora were almost completely eliminated. In addition, this is a spawning area [for turtles] and due to contamination of the mangrove swamp, it’s no longer a suitable area for them,” she points out.
Accompanying Rosibel on these roads and these beaches is like being part of the community. Everyone greets her.
Returning to the center of Marbella, we meet Elder Angulo, one of the town’s first settlers. He is 75 years old, he walks in good spirits and his smile peeks out from under his gray mustache. He’s with his constant companions: Capi and My Love, his two dogs.
Despite being retired, Elder hasn’t completely stopped practicing his trade as a traditional fisherman. He loves the ocean and fishing, he tells us while he shows us a fishing line wrapped around wood.
He recounts that, years ago, some people from Marbella had large tracts of land near the beach, but little by little, they sold them.
He says that Marbella was populated “thanks to God,” that many foreigners arrived, bought properties and now his daughters work in those real estate developments cleaning. “I think they are paid ₡2,000 (about $3.65) an hour,” Elder specified.
But some situations do make him feel uncomfortable, like a stranger in his own land.
The tranquility and privacy we had is no longer the same. Everything changes now, as good people come, bad people come. Do you understand me? So now, well, you have to adapt, get used to living humbly, as one says.”
To this, Elder adds that “with development, everything becomes more expensive.” “Now for a person on a pension, like me, with ₡82,000 (about $150 per month) which is my pension, it’s hard,” he laments.
“How do you imagine this place in about ten years, Mr. Elder?” we ask.
“I imagine that this is going to be too developed. The time will come when one won’t be able to fish or go out to the beaches, because everyone who buys is going to prohibit [it]…”
This fisherman’s expressions of gratitude for the work created by tourism and real estate development are repeated in the center of the town of Marbella, where, according to Rosibel, the area’s native inhabitants are concentrated.
We go down a dead-end alley where there aren’t any large buildings, but rather a few simple, dilapidated houses. Isabel Zúñiga rests in a rocking chair, on the covered patio of the house that she rents for ₡130,000 (about $240) a month. There’s a rooster that doesn’t crow and a dog sprawled out.
Isabel is thin and kind. She’s 70 years old and has nine children. Some of them are in the house at that moment, which is made of wood and has some boards that have been eaten away by time and humidity. Although it’s evident that they don’t live in abundance, Isabel is grateful. Her daughters work cleaning in some of the large residential areas and her sons work in construction. They have jobs.
“So we go on, sharing a little bit and a little bit,” says Isabel timidly.
One thing is certain: when much is lacking, the word development can mean, at least, having a job that pays ₡2,000 ($3.65) an hour.
Journalist: Hulda Miranda
Photography: César Arroyo Castro
Editing: María Fernanda Cruz and Noelia Esquivel Solano
Design: Roberto Cruz
Audience coordinator: Rubén F. Román
Translator: Arianna Hernández