Stab Magazine | Surfrider Argentina Prez Tells Stab His Intention Is To Protect Paunch

Surfrider Argentina Prez Tells Stab His Intention Is To Protect Paunch

The man behind the controversial Bocas del Toro development offers his side of the story.

news // Jun 14, 2017
Words by stab
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The saga continues! After pleas from the local community and protests regarding Ernesto Gutierrez, the developer behind the controversial pier at Playa Paunch in Bocas del Toro, Panama, Stab has contacted Mr Gutierrez to give his side of the story. Ernesto tells us his intention was to protect the existing coral reef, not destroy it.

For the last four years, Ernesto has called Bocas del Toro, the archipelago chain on the Caribbean side of Panama, home. His commitment to keeping the beaches clean in front of his hotel, La Coralina.

Near Playa Paunch is a wave called Dumpers, named not for the way it detonates over shallow reef, but because the beach was used as a site to discard the island’s rubbish. Upon arrival in Bocas del Toro, Ernesto hired local Panamanians to clean 1,500 meters of beach every single day. His commitment to keeping the beaches clean in front of his hotel, La Coralina, is why Scott Balogh, owner of Red Frog Bungalows who has helped lead the opposition to the pier, calls Ernesto “Mr Paunch”.


The pier is located 30 meters from the original site that got protestors in an uproar.

“Today On Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, I dedicate myself to take care and clean the beaches daily under my cost. It is remarkable the amount of garbage that we collect daily, left by the sea and also unfortunately, by many who come to enjoy the waves. I do it because it is the place where I live, where I enjoy its waves, and where I practice free diving on its coral, but also, to keep my commitment to give back to the sea and its beaches everything that I offer during my 50 years as a surfer.”

In the half century that Ernesto has ridden waves, he’s used his wealth acquired in the aviation industry to implement change for the environment.

“I am a conservationist, not of words but of facts. Since the creation of the six chapters of the Surfrider Foundation in Argentina and other countries, where I was the president during my seven years in office, I’ve made innumerable actions aimed at improving the environment, mainly beaches and the care of them. Also, from my position as President, CEO, and shareholder of the world’s leading airport holding company, came the creation of the first Ecological Airport in the world, built in the Galapagos Islands. I maintain untouchable areas of more than 26,000 hectares on the banks of the Rio Santa Cruz, returning to natural habitat an area of reproduction of endangered species, which was for years, expelled due to poor animal exploitation, among other things.”

Ernesto says his next passion project was to build a pier as a walkway for surfers so that they didn’t trudge on the live coral reef entering and exiting the lineup at Playa Paunch. He thought that by building the pier, it would cut down on the damage caused by surfers and boat anchors.

A win for the surfer, who’d avoid a painful rock dance, and good for the ocean as human touch can break coral or make it more susceptible to death and disease.

But many of people that Stab spoke to, didn’t see it that way. They saw photos of the plan that showed two boats alongside the t-shaped structure. Locals and expats alike interpreted the boats as a sign that the pier was not a walkway, but a private dock, sparking a controversy that Ernesto never saw coming.

Ernesto says, “the pier would only be used as a pickup and drop-off point in extreme situations.” The side of Isla Colon where Ernesto lives can become isolated as the road made of sand and coral that connects this part of the island can get washed away in storms.

“We have observed that the beach and reefs are in a process of daily degradation, where in some cases they have disappeared becoming dead rock. This is due to the action of the dumps we have been eradicating, but also by the actions of those who enjoy their waves.”

Screen Shot 2017 06 08 at 4.22.44 PM

Regardless of the intentions, the pier is now under investigation after local and digital outcry.

When surfers enter and exit the water at Paunch, they walk over coral 10-meters from where Ernesto planned on building the pier that’s been postponed for further investigation. Ernesto, as it seems, has already done his homework.

In four months, he estimates that 200 surfers enter and exit per day leaving at least 250,000 footsteps per year on the coastal coral. 
“With 5,000 boats operating daily, their anchors drag on the coral tearing at the bottom of the sea. This action is 100 times worse than the human footprint. Methodically, destroying the seabed.” says Ernesto.

Ernesto’s solution was the creation of a two-meter-wide-pier with eight poles embedded in rock, where he says, “life does not exist”. This pier, intended for entry and exit to the sea, was to be built at no cost to local residents, and with zero interference to the wave at Paunch, the channel, or the boats that moor there.

After speaking with Ernesto, Kelly Slater, whose Instagram post brought this development to the world’s attention, saw where Ernesto was coming from. “His talk made a lot of sense to me and quelled the misinformation I received. Why would he want to harm his home break or the safety in the water?” Kelly told Stab.

Ernesto says, that the pier is not to dock boats but only to embark or disembark people, the maritime equivalent of a loading zone at an airport.

He claims those who use surf as an economic resource have spread lies about him. “We would never have begun to think of building anything without the approval of the competent authority. We’ve been approved by the Ministry of Environment of Bocas del Toro, Panama Water Resources, the General Directorate of Ports, and Panama Maritime Authority,” says Ernesto.

The building of the pier does not drill into live coral reef according to Ernesto but only rock and to damage the coral reef would defeat the pier’s sole purpose.


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