plan puebla panamáarchivos de los protestos globales •

Industrialization plan threatens Central America's indigenous

posted by Chuck0 on Monday August 19 2002 @ 12:16PM PDT ex.htm

Last Harvest?

Industrialization plan threatens Central America's indigenous


Farmers in Ixcán, a region of the northern Guatemala province of Quiché, head out to terrace their fields. Puebla-Panama envisions intensive agriculture that will force campesinos off their land. Photo: Jennifer Bannister

It's been seven years since Ramón Lucas Pérez saw his daughter, who works as a housekeeper in the Mexican state of Campeche, 200 miles from this northern Guatemala village. The bus ticket is expensive, he explains, resting his machete on a 100-pound bag of dried corn.

Pérez may be seeing her soon, but wishes it were under different circumstances. Campeche is where he and his wife brought their seven children to live in a refugee camp during Guatemala's 36-year civil war. And, he says, it's probably where the family will flee again if proposed dams on a river near La Quetzal flood out the village's 1,000 inhabitants. "We can't lose our land," he says. "It's all we have."

Dams on the river, the Usumacinta, are part of an international initiative known as the Puebla-Panama Plan. The brainchild of Mexican President Vicente Fox Quesada, the plan would channel $10 billion of foreign aid and local tax dollars to infrastructure projects stretching to Panama from the southern Mexican state of Puebla. Besides hydroelectricity, the plan includes seaports, highways, rail lines and more. The goal is to spur industrial development ranging from oil refineries to tree plantations to garment factories.

Fox and the leaders of Central America's seven nations have rallied the construction industry and other business interests behind the plan, and a U.S.-dominated lending agency is spearheading the financing. Echoing the rhetoric behind the North American Free Trade Agreement and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, they promise "regional integration" and jobs for poor people.

But indigenous leaders throughout the region say Puebla-Panama would only accelerate foreign plunder of their natural resources and wreak havoc on their cultures. Calling the plan one of the greatest threats since conquest, indigenous groups are forging coalitions to fight it. In La Quetzal, a March forum against Puebla-Panama drew representatives from 17 groups in five countries.

The Guatemala City-based Center for Research and Popular Education (CIEP) issued a statement summing up the forum sentiment: "Millions of indigenous have been displaced throughout the world due to the construction and development of these megaprojects. Millions more have resisted, demanding justice, development for the pueblos, protection of the environment and our human rights."

Pérez's life sheds light on why indigenous Guatemalans are resisting the Puebla-Panama Plan. He grew up in extreme poverty on plantations along the nation's Pacific coast in the 1940s. Searching for land he could call his own, he eventually settled in Ixcán, a region of the northern province of Quiché. By the early 1980s, he and his wife and their seven kids had helped form a cooperative village that provided them a small plot to farm. "We had just begun to start a more decent life," he says. "That's why the military killed our people and chased away the survivors."

The war, pitting a military dictatorship against leftist guerillas and people accused of supporting them, destroyed more than 700 villages, displaced 1.5 million people and killed more than 200,000, according to a 1994 report by the nation's U.N.-backed Historical Clarification Commission. Most of the killings occurred in military campaigns against indigenous villages, according to the report. Pérez says the army killed one of his brothers and one of his sisters.

In 1982, Pérez and his family fled to a refugee camp in Chiapas, the Mexican state just across the Usumacinta. But the Guatemalan army continued threatening them. When the Mexican government allowed refugees to move further north, the Pérez family and many others relocated to a camp in Campeche.

Refugees started returning to Guatemala as the war wound down in the early 1990s. "Now they don't kill us with bullets, but with policies that keep our people illiterate, starving and poor," Pérez says. Based on U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) figures, Witness for Peace reports that just 2 percent of Guatemala's population owns almost 70 percent of the nation's land and that more than a third of the deaths in the country result from respiratory illnesses and diarrhea.

With aid from foreign governments and nongovernmental agencies, the Pérez family and other former refugees founded La Quetzal in 1995, the year before peace accords officially ended the war. One of the first projects was building a dirt road from La Lucha, the nearest village, about 20 miles away. Other efforts have provided potable water, latrines, housing, two schools and two cooperative stores. The community is also planning electrification and a sawmill.

La Quetzal residents manage to work together despite differences in language and culture; Mam, the Pérez family's first language, is one of six Mayan tongues in the village. Community members collectively own all their valuable assets, including the schools, a bus, a pickup truck and the land. Each family farms on nine acres (the crops include beans, chili peppers, squash and, most important, corn). Each family contributes to community work such as road maintenance and child care. And an elected council makes the key decisions. The village already has paid the Guatemalan government half of what it promised for the land.

Pérez gestures, exposing hands lined with deep crevices, like a map of his hard life. "I don't want to look around and say that this was all done in vain," he says.

THE PLAN TARGETS BELIZE, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama, and the Mexican states of Campeche, Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Veracruz and Yucatán. Totaling 40 million square miles, the region encompasses 63 million inhabitants, vast water resources, large oil deposits and 130,000 square miles of virgin timber.

The new ports would include at least five deep-water facilities capable of hosting the largest ocean freighters. Superhighways and high-speed rail lines would move cargo between the Caribbean and Pacific up to two weeks quicker than shipping through the Panama Canal. They also would shrink habitats and create barriers to people who carry food and firewood on horses and burros. A few countries would receive large-scale electricity-generating capabilities and be allowed to export the juice, but much of the power would come from dams that hurt ecosystems and uproot villages.

With such infrastructure in place, intensive agriculture would decimate forests and accelerate erosion and desertification. The plan would destroy the World Bank-backed Meso-American Biological Corridor, an international network of pristine areas that activists have been fighting for years to protect.

The agriculture would include monocrop tree plantations that supply the international pulp and paper market and run afoul of development organizations and government agencies that promote vanilla, cacao, shade-grown coffee, community-produced timber and other forest-friendly products. "Mexico should go after niche markets," David Bray, environmental studies chair at Florida International University in Miami, told the Houston Chronicle. "The challenge is to get people the skills and knowledge to generate new forms of incomes off existing forests."

The state-owned oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) would realize its plans to build two refineries and a petrochemical complex in the region and open gasoline stations here in Guatemala, according to Petroleum Economist. Even as refineries in the southeastern United States and the Caribbean basin operate under capacity, the construction would consume billions of dollars.

The infrastructure also would help transnational gene-patenting companies such as St. Louis-based Monsanto carry out what's known here as "biopiracy."

And new "free trade zones" would house maquiladoras, the low-wage factories that assemble goods for duty-free export. Chiapas Gov. Pablo Salazar's administration envisions clothing maquilas circling the Lacandon Jungle, the base of an indigenous rebel army.

Many Puebla-Panama projects revive old proposals that didn't get off the ground due to a lack of financing and political support. One, pushed in 1996 by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, would create a "dry canal"-a high-speed railway and four-lane highway-across the 225-mile-wide Tehuantepec Isthmus, the land that connects the Yucatán Peninsula to the rest of Mexico. The project includes petrochemical facilities, oil refineries, shrimp farms, maquila zones and 240,000 acres of tree plantations.

Carlos Heredia, an economist affiliated with Mexico's left-of-center Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), notes that the Puebla-Panama Plan would not integrate the region's economy as much as it would create "enclave economies" that depend on capital and consumers in faraway places, mainly the United States.

Nevertheless, since announcing Puebla-Panama in December 2000, Fox's government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure projects in the plan's name. In May 2001 he created the Puebla-Panama Plan General Coordination office and designated Guerrero native Florencio Salazar its chief. Salazar, a former power of the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), helped convince Central American leaders to endorse the plan.

In July, to coordinate the plan's financial and technical aspects, Fox's team appointed the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), a multilateral lender controlled by the United States since its 1959 founding. From its headquarters in Washington, D.C., the IADB helped line up dozens of other endorsers, from the International Monetary Fund to the Pan American Health Organization, from the U.N. Development Program to the Japan Special Fund, from USAID to the Spanish Trust Fund. Salazar says the plan also has stirred interest among private investors in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Meeting March 14 in Costa Rica with construction business owners, Salazar said some $4 billion was already available for Puebla-Panama projects. Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo said 75 percent of this sum had come from the IADB and the rest from the Mexican government. The Fox team is meeting about the plan with international investors June 27-28 in the Yucatán city of Mérida.

PUEBLA-PANAMA RESPONDS "to the needs of an absolutely marginal population that, independent of economic and sociological expressions, translates into the need to bring food to their homes, education and health and certainty to these people," Salazar told the Mexican daily Milenio. It would "strengthen cultural identities and increase social participation," he added.

But the region's indigenous leaders aren't buying it. "Our land is in grave danger because the rich and their government want to impose a megaproject on us, which means the loss of our lands and more poverty," said Zoila José Juan, a leader of southern Mexico's Mixe people, quoted in Cultural Survival Quarterly.

The view is similar here in La Quetzal, one of dozens of cooperative settlements in the Petén, Guatemala's northernmost province. The plan has breathed life into decades-old schemes by corporate agricultural interests to build dams to generate electricity from the Usumacinta, the border between the Petén and Chiapas, just 15 miles from here. The projects could flood as much as one-third of the province, according to the Development Research and Information Council (CIID), a Guatemalan nongovernmental organization.

Puebla-Panama also threatens the U.N.-backed Maya Biosphere Reserve, a 13,000-square-mile rainforest that encompasses La Quetzal. The reserve, created by Guatemala in 1990, is home to 3,000 plant species, Central America's largest protected freshwater wetland, 1,000 archaeological sites and half of the nation's animal species, including the endangered jaguar and guacamaya parrot. Transnational corporations already have tapped the estimated 1.4 billion barrels of crude under the reserve. An oil project's most damaging component is usually its roads; a 1990 World Bank report on the oil industry says building a single kilometer of a road in the tropics can lead to deforestation totaling as much 5,390 acres.

Government recruiters began visiting Petén villages last summer with promises of road-building jobs. Pérez says he's "skeptical" about whether the jobs or roads would help the area: "I don't trust our government because it always has cheated us."

One thing folks around here can count on from the plan is accelerated militarization. Some 400 U.S. military troops visited the Petén on tourist visas for five months last year to work with 150 Guatemalan army troops in a $10 million deployment called New Horizons. The stated goal was infrastructure assistance and natural-disaster training. The United States could cite Puebla-Panama projects as pretexts to station troops in every nation from Mexico to Panama, which borders war-torn Colombia. The troops could help fight indigenous insurgencies, including the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Chiapas.

The New Horizons deployment coincided with increased oil exploration in both the Petén and Chiapas. Some of the U.S. troops set up camp near a U.S.-owned oil refinery in La Libertad, a municipality 60 miles northeast of here. (The owner, Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum, sold the facility to Paris-based Perenco last July.) "Those who come to work at the refinery earn good money while people who live here just watch the trucks drive by," René Reynoso, a former mayor of the municipality, told Witness for Peace. "If you were to visit communities here, I assure you that you would leave crying. People here should be living better than they are. The oil is taken out and nothing remains for us."

BASED ON SUCH EXPERIENCE, opposition to the Puebla-Panama Plan is mounting across the region. "There is an indigenous population, there are workers, there are neighbors, there are teachers, there are students who will disturb the process of 'North Americanization', " Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos said last year.

Zapatista commanders condemned Puebla-Panama as the "new conquest of Mexico" during their historic caravan to Mexico City last year. After the caravan, the nation's Congress passed an indigenous rights bill but removed provisions for autonomy and collective use of land and natural resources-provisions viewed as stumbling blocks for attracting transnational capital to southern Mexico, as envisioned under Puebla-Panama.

The PRD, the Mexican party, announced last year it would organize against Puebla-Panama in concert with leftist parties throughout Central America, including Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), formerly the nation's major guerilla army. "This plan is inspired by U.S. interests," PRD lawmaker Marti Batres told Milenio. "They want to control a zone very rich in natural resources."

The plan also is drawing fire from many of the region's Catholic Church leaders, including Gregorio Rosa Chávez, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. "Globalization in Latin America," he said, quoted in the magazine Hemisphere, "has widened the gap between the rich and poor."

In May 2001, representatives of 150 campesino, labor, environmental and indigenous groups in Mexico, Nicaragua and El Salvador met in Tapachula, a Chiapas border town. They issued a declaration calling Puebla-Panama an expression of "savage colonialism." In November, representatives of 300 organizations from throughout the region gathered in the western Guatemala town of Xela, Quetzaltenango, under the banner, "Confronting Globalization: People Come First." They declared the plan "goes against the sovereignty of our countries and the self-determination of peoples."

The gathering here in La Quetzal, "Mesoamerican Forum for Life: Water, Electricity and Land for Indigenous Peoples," brought together groups fighting the plan in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, the Netherlands and the United States March 20-24. In the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, meanwhile, the Mexican Social Forum gathered thousands of grassroots activists for meetings and protests outside the U.S.-dominated U.N. Development Conference. The grassroots events condemned Puebla-Panama.

Resistance from another direction is coming from some business leaders and mainstream economists who note the region's distance from the key global markets and its dispersed population, lack of security and frequent hurricanes and earthquakes. Rolando González Barrón, president of Mexico's Maquiladora Export Industry National Council, said in January the region lacks the attractions of the U.S. border, home to most of Mexico's maquilas. The northern location provides easier access to the United States, which supplies most maquila inputs and buys most of the products. He said the Puebla-Panama region's cheaper labor would not be enough to compete with the north or with China, where workers earn even less. Mexico City-based columnist John Ross cites another Puebla-Panama weakness: bureaucracy. "These projects never mesh with the site-specific realities on the ground, are rarely consolidated, and are frequently abandoned because someone steals the money, or loans are abruptly canceled or the president's six-year term in office runs out," he writes. "But in the meantime, forests will have been mowed down, rivers will have been poisoned and engineers will have dynamited mountains to build roads that go nowhere."

The region's indigenous people intend to avert this nightmare. Tilting his hat to shade his face, Pérez describes the feeling among La Quetzal founders: "We fought to return and we returned to fight."

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