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Foro Xelaju 2001

Organizations From Throughout Central America Come Together to Oppose "Plan Puebla Panama" and Its Devastating Effects on Local Communities and the Environment

Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), a "development" project proposal being pushed by Mexican President Vicente Fox to create an integrated neoliberal economic zone from southern Mexico to Panama, was denounced by over 800 representatives of nearly 300 indigenous, labor, social, and human rights organizations from Central America and Mexico, along with observers from Canada, the United States, and European countries, who gathered in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, November 22-24, 2001, for "Foro Xelaju 2001." Entitled "Confronting Globalization, People are First," Foro Xelaju was the second event of a planned series to unite various organizations throughout Central America and Mexico in the struggle to confront and combat the massive and dangerous development plans of the PPP.

The PPP is based on the same language and logic used to implement NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and now pushing the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas). It would include all seven Central American countries and southern Mexico, a region encompassing 102 million square kilometers and 63 million citizens. The PPP calls for the creation of industrial corridors, highways, and high-speed rails that will run north-south and east-west from Puebla, Mexico to Panama. Participants in Foro Xelaju pointed out that the PPP would displace enormous populations of indigenous peoples and accelerate the exploitation of labor and resources in the region.

Mexican President Fox first mentioned the PPP shortly after his inauguration on December 1, 2000. Fox unveiled the extensive integration and development package he has labeled the PPP at a June 15, 2001, summit of all seven Central American heads of state in El Salvador. The PPP aims to link Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama with the Mexican states from Puebla south. This area includes important petroleum assets, 34 million hectares of virgin timber, spectacular fresh water reserves, 30 million low-wage workers, and the World Bank-created "Meso-American Biological Corridor," a much-coveted gold mine of biodiversity. The PPP has essentially three goals: (1) increase the transportation and industrial infrastructure in the region, improving the capacity for export industries, (2) catalyze a shift of the region's economy from agriculture to assembly plant maquiladoras and manufacturing, and (3) expand private control over the vast natural resources in the region. Land privatization is key to all of these goals and underpins the PPP.

Fox touts the PPP as bringing "the fruits of globalization" to Southern Mexico and Central America, advancing George W. Bush's Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) south to the Darien peninsula of Panama. Here, Plan Colombia kicks in to complete US dominance over this critical region and to open the Free Trade "gateway" into South America. While Fox may be the spokesman, the PPP, like the FTAA and Plan Colombia, fits nicely into U.S. plans for hemispheric integration, including recent plans announced by Dick Cheney to guarantee U.S. energy security by controlling all Western Hemisphere energy sources, and by Colin Powell to promote Central American economic integration and privatization of energy and telecommunications.

Much of the PPP resurrects proposals that have been made for many years, most recently in former Mexican President Zedillo's "Trans-Isthmus Mega-Project," for "dry canals" across the Central American Isthmus, the narrowest strip of land separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The expanding globalization of free trade has increased the volume of goods from Pacific Rim factories bound for US and European markets to a point that the aging Panama Canal can no longer handle. The PPP responds to globalization by proposing mega-projects for the construction of massive deep-water ports on both coasts, capable of hosting the largest ocean freighters. High speed rail lines and highways would connect these ports. This massive transportation corridor would open the way to further exploitation of the region's forests, minerals and oil and lead to the development of extensive networks of maquiladora sweatshops (where components manufactured in Asian factories can be assembled into finished products). The dry canal megaprojects would also involve the construction of industrial shrimp farms, oil refineries, smelters and vast industrial development, leading to wide swaths of ecological and cultural devastation along the Isthmus.

Zedillo's earlier mega-plan also called for large-scale junk tree plantations and establishment of a maquiladora zone on the Pacific plain of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Similar plans are likely under the PPP. Alfonso Romo serves as a PPP advisor and directs Grupo Pulsar, one of Mexico's most important transnational corporations. Romo is a biotech seed giant and Grupo Pulsar currently has tree plantations in Chiapas (nearly 50,000 acres). More plantations are planned. These chemical-intensive, non-labor-intensive operations will irreparably damage the land without even offering significant local employment. With Romo's ties to biotechnology there is certainly a future possibility of genetically engineered tree plantations being developed throughout the Central American Isthmus.

Many specifics of the PPP, particularly as they impact Guatemala, remain vague. PPP related projects would include a highway extending from Matamoros on the Texas-Mexican border south through Chiapas into Guatemala. The town of Tapachula, on the Pacific side of the Chiapas-Guatemala border, through which thousands of Central American migrant workers pass each year, would be transformed into a modern transportation hub, and nearby Puerto Madero would become a major port.

Although the PPP is supposed to lead to cooperation between Mexico and its smaller neighbors, other plans announced by the Mexican government reveal different intentions. "Plan Sur" would militarize Mexico's southern border to choke off the flow of Central American migrant workers to the U.S. The plan closely resembles an unwritten accord between former presidents Salinas and Bush in 1989 leading up to the NAFTA negotiations. Under Plan Sur, Mexico would double its deportation of Central Americans. Already last year Mexico shipped 120,000 migrants back across the Guatemalan border.

The PPP both opens a corridor and provides new excuses for militarization by the U.S. all the way from Mexico to Colombia. In addition to controlling immigration, U.S. factories, refineries and smelters in such an "unstable" region will require the heavy and on-going presence of the American military. Currently, U.S. military presence is strongest in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. After Hurricane Mitch, many American troops that were sent to the region for relief efforts never left. It has been reported that 12,000 U.S. troops will be deployed in a joint operation in Guatemala. Indigenous activists in the region report an increase in military operations in Central America since September 11.

The many disastrous consequences of the PPP have led numerous organizations in the region to condemn the plan and begin organizing to stop it. Fox's first announcement of the proposal in early 2001 immediately drew fire from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Subcommandante Marcos denounced the plan saying, "the Isthmus is not for sale!" This spring, members of civil society organized the first in a series of meetings about the PPP in Tapachula. Present were over one hundred organizations, including groups from most of the southern Mexican states, as well as Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. The group met for nearly three days and emerged with a common strategic response - a statement firmly rejecting the Plan Puebla Panama.

The Tapachula meeting was followed this November by Foro Xelaju. The over 800 delegates in Quetzaltenango discussed the significance of forced globalization and the various free trade treaties in addition to the PPP. Over the course of three days, plenary sessions were held with the representatives of various organizations speaking about Decentralization, Indigenous Rights, and Biodiversity within the context of globalization. Afternoons were spent dividing up into working tables to address the effects of these projects on local communities, to create alternative plans for economic development, and plan strategies for a unified campaign transcending borders to address the PPP. The forum was realized with the support of the municipal corporation of Quetzaltenango.

A march through the streets, expressing the international solidarity struggle against globalization, marked the close of Foro Xelaju. Banners stated "Against the new colonialism, Plan Puebla Panama." The forum concluded in the central plaza of Quetzaltenango with delegates reading declarations from the forum. Berta Caceres from Honduras, representing COPIN, an indigenous and campesino organization struggling against neoliberalism in Honduras, read the final declaration from Foro Xelaju (Declaración de Xelajú), which stated an absolute rejection of the PPP and of development which threatens the rights, safety, health and biodiversity of communities in Mesoamerica. The closing remarks of the forum, delivered by Mayan delegates from Guatemala in Mayan languages and Spanish, powerfully expressed opposition to the devastation of communities by the PPP and a commitment to confront those policies by direct resistance in communities.

A third forum, to build on the work begun in Tapachula and Quetzaltenango, is planned for Managua, Nicaragua, in 2002.

Opposition to the PPP is mounting in the U.S. as well as in the affected communities. In Washington, DC, on October 1, 2001 approximately fifty people representing 21 organizations gathered to discuss the PPP. The meeting was called for by ACERCA (Action for Community & Ecology in the Regions of Central America) with Mexico Solidarity Network, Global Exchange and CISPES to build the foundation for a broad US-based movement against the PPP in solidarity with the global south.

More information about Foro Xelaju and the resistance to the PPP is available at Chiapas Indymedia ( ). Background information on the PPP, and on organizing efforts in the U.S., is available from ACERCA (

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