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Daniel Noboa’s wife cancels project to build luxury resort in a protected forest in Ecuador

The president says the decision was made to prevent opponents from using it as a political tool against him

Lavinia Valbonesi y Daniel Noboa
Lavinia Valbonesi and Daniel Noboa, on November 23, 2023 in Quito.Dolores Ochoa (AP)

The company controlled by Lavinia Valbonesi, the wife of the president of Ecuador, has backed down and suspended a real estate development project that involved erecting four luxury buildings that would have encroached on Esterillo de Oloncito, a forest surrounded by mangroves that are protected under Ecuadorian law. The nature reserve is located on the shores of the Pacific.

News of the decision taken by the company Vinazin S.A. has emerged five days after Oloncito community members took action to prevent workers from cutting down the forest to make way for the resort. The company said in a statement that “we cannot allow the company to be used to sow chaos in the sector and as a banner for political interests.” President Daniel Noboa himself has resorted to these same arguments, saying that his opponents want to harm him by publicizing the first lady’s business dealings.

The project was only withdrawn when it became public knowledge and the residents of the area began organizing themselves. After criticism about the felling of 21 carob trees and the presence of police and military tanks, operators withdrew from the site on Wednesday. The Secretary of Communication of the Presidency, Irene Vélez, used similar arguments as the company to explain the decision to drop the plans. “This was always going to be maintained as a political flag by certain political groups. Keeping this alive didn’t make much sense,” she said on Teleamazonas.

The statement released by Vinazin S.A., a company that was founded by Noboa in 2016, adds that the cancellation of the project also entails withdrawing job offers for about 2,783 local people “who will no longer be able to access this opportunity.” Construction had been estimated to take place over a period of two years.

The land where the sea-facing complex was to be built has belonged to the Noboa family for many years, according to Andrea Fiallos, director of the Iguana Foundation, which works on environmental conservation. With the passage of time and the impact of the El Niño phenomenon of 1983, there has been erosion of the mangrove, and the limits of the land have changed. The family was intending to recover that lost land by filling in the estuary. The population of Oloncito relies on the revenue generated by tourism and was concerned that the project involved filling in part of the estuary, which is one of the tourist attractions that they have managed to recover since the declaration of a protective forest 23 years ago. The inhabitants were also concerned that filling the estuary would reduce the flow through which the rainwater drains, which in the winter creates a strong current throughout the Chongón-Colonche mountain range that ends in Oloncito. Without the estuary, the commune could flood and even disappear, as has happened in many other areas of the country.

President Noboa has confirmed that public prosecutors have opened an inquiry into the case, but the prosecution has not provided details — as it always does in other cases — nor has it specified what crime is being investigated. In addition to the president’s wife, several government officials were also involved in the project, including Environment Minister Sade Fritschi — a 26-year-old minister who has been questioned over her lack of experience — who was called to a parliamentary committee to provide explanations about the way the permit was granted. However, committee president Guido Vargas prevented lawmakers and reporters from asking Fritschi any questions. As a result, the National Assembly has refused to close the case as the executive had intended.

A group of lawmakers, most of them from the opposition, traveled to Oloncito to ask the local authorities for explanations. The mayor of Santa Elena, María del Carmen Aquino, explained that Vinazin S.A. had requested a local permit in June 2023 to enclose the property, an essential step before starting any construction work. However, authorization was not granted because, according to municipal records, Esterillo de Oloncito is in a protected natural area, the mayor said. The company responded by saying it would go to the Ministry of the Environment, but it was not until December 2023, when Daniel Noboa was already in power, that the permit was immediately obtained.

In January the company returned to Oloncito with its permit, but it still needed to meet other requirements such as environmental impact studies and provincial licenses. According to Mayor Aquino, “they still do not have them and therefore the permit cannot be granted.” But in the statement, the company Vinazin S.A. assures that it has all the environmental permits, forest inventory and other documents required by law, although it has not provided evidence of this. This newspaper unsuccessfully tried to contact the company for comment.

The luxury beachfront real estate project planned to cover 6,300 square meters and included a set of four buildings with 24 homes, green areas, parking spaces and a boardwalk. The land where the building complex was going to be built has belonged to the Noboa family since 1989. Noboa, a 36-year-old businessman who comes from Ecuador’s wealthiest family, is serving the final months of a presidential term left vacant when fellow conservative Guillermo Lasso resigned amid an investigation into alleged corruption.

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