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"Trade Coup: Plan Puebla Panama"
National Radio Project November 21, 2001

A massive development project is underway in Latin America. As the Panama Canal fails to meet the shipping needs of multinational corporations, Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia and other countries are adopting and advocating Plan Puebla Panama which would expand the number of transoceanic canals, and build roads and highways for trucking up and down North and South America. It also allows private interests to gain greater access to natural resources. On this program we take a look at Plan Puebla Panama.


Phillip Babich: This week on Making Contact....

Unidentified male: Vincente Fox of Mexico put a name on it and called it "Plan Puebla Panamá," which is basically a regional integration development plan, an industrial corridor from Puebla, Mexico, all the way to Panamá.

Phillip Babich: A massive development project is underway in Latin America. As the Panamá Canal fails to meet the shipping needs of multinational corporations, Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia and other countries are adopting and advocating Plan Puebla Panamá to expand the number of transoceanic canals, and to build roads and highways for trucking up and down North and South America. It also allows for private interests to gain greater access to natural resources. On this program we take a look at Plan Puebla Panamá.

I'm Phillip Babich, your host this week on Making Contact, an international radio program seeking to create connections between people, vital ideas and important information.

Plan Puebla Panamá (PPP), unlike trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, or the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, is a development plan agreed upon by the seven Central American countries and Mexico. Its focus is to upgrade transportation systems throughout the region, enhancing shipping lanes, by water or land, for delivery of goods and parts for assembly and manufacturing and later for distribution among Pacific Rim countries, the U.S. east coast and Europe. At least five dry canals that span narrow sections of Central American isthmuses are in the plan

Mexican president Vicente Fox is one of the plan's principal backers, saying that PPP will attract capital to southern Mexico and Central America. Opposition to Plan Puebla Panamá has sprung up in Mexico and Central America. In spring 2001, Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army spoke out against Plan Puebla Panamá on the Zapatista's historic march from Chiapas to Mexico City.

Orin Langelle is co-coordinator of ACERCA, Action For Community and Ecology in the Regions of Central America, a U.S.-based organization that's working with groups in that region to oppose Plan Puebla Panamá.

Orin Langelle: The ones that we're really monitoring right now are the ones in Nicaragua and in Mexico. Probably the one in the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico in the Oaxaca area is more highly advanced in the planning stages of it and what it's going to do on both sides of the isthmus of Tehuantepec. There was going to be dredging deep water ports for huge container ships to come in. And the containers that will be coming in from the Pacific Rim, and other places from the Pacific side will be unloaded and put into high speed rail or even super highway trucks and zoomed across to another port where then they can go up to certain parts of the United States, specifically Eastern parts of the United States and then to Western Europe. And it's all about the consumerism that's going on. And this is a major way right now with the Panamá Canal silting up and the huge waits in line to really increase the ability to have global capital goods moved at a faster rate.

Phillip Babich: That was my next question. So, is the Panamá Canal not cutting it anymore?

Orin Langelle: No, evidently it takes a real long time to get through. Some people have sat in the isthmus of Tehuantepec. This would cut off fourteen days of the wait in the Panamá Canal. There are other benefits to this because if you have a container — like one huge ship — come over from, say, China, and it would then go to a port and unload all of its stuff and ship its stuff through high speed rail to the other port, you could have five different ships waiting on the other side to pick up goods that would maybe go to New Orleans; another ship could go to the eastern United States; a few more could go then to Western Europe. So they have some reasons to want to do this.

Phillip Babich: Interesting. And then can you talk a little bit about the sort of products that we're trying to set up these trans-shipment lanes and canals for. Are these sort of like life-saving food stuff or what exactly are we talking about?

Orin Langelle: No, I think we're probably talking about junk for needless consumer culture. And certain things I guess I've heard a lot about: the potential of refrigerators in China right now. You can have a very low paid work force in China that can start sub-assembling refrigerators and parts for refrigerators. And instead of assembling them in total, they can make the parts for it and compact that into a very small area, then send it over to the sweatshops of Central America where they can be assembled into a finished product. And even though the Central American wages are not much more, but they are a little bit higher. It's still cost effective in the global trade economy to be doing this.

Phillip Babich: That's interesting that it is still cost effective to go to so much trouble to do such a thing. Is Plan Puebla Panamá a trade treaty being negotiated among nations and which nations are — what's going on with that?

Orin Langelle: Well, it's hard to say if its really a trade treaty. It's more of providing infrastructure. Some of us have been very much involved with the Free Trade Area of the Americas in trying to stop the FTAA — or ALCA down south — and we kind of see that FTAA could really help out this whole PPP. But even without this trade agreement, we really feel that this is going ahead anyway. There are agreements that Mexico is reaching with other countries in Central America. We're not really sure. Right now we're doing research into what kind of bilateral agreements are being reached with, say, Taiwan or China. A lot of the plan that's going on right now are unknown questions that we have to be doing the research to find out.. Some of these questions Vincente Fox would know, the president of Mexico, but the people there definitely don't know what's going on.

Phillip Babich: Well, what does that say? This is a very wide ranging plan that involves many lives and many miles of land. If people don't know about it, what does that mean?

Orin Langelle: That means, I believe, that they're trying to get this stuff pushed through as soon as possible without the ability of having resistance to it. Not only will a lot of people be effected, the Central American Isthmus is a gateway between North and South America. It's a very biologically rich and diverse region. This type of a regional integration plan is going to have tremendous detrimental effects, not only on indigenous people and poor campesinos but also on the environment.

When I mentioned the Canal, a dry Canal like in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, it's not just a super fast speed train. It is that but also it's going to open up more areas for exploitation of the land. Probably it will be clearing some of the rainforest that's there, and then the rainforests will be replaced maybe by short term agriculture. But in the end it looks like they'll be replaced with probably plantations, industrial tree plantations. And already, like the World Rainforest Movement has said, one of the reasons why the industrial tree plantations are going in is basically to supply the packaging for the sweatshops that are there.

And just to add one more thing about that. We've been doing a lot of research into genetically engineered trees. One of the pushers of the PPP for Mexico is a guy by the name of Alfanzo Romo who is the head of a Groupo Pulsar. Groupo Pulsar is a biotechnology seed company. One of their subsidiaries does biotech seeds, and another part of what they do is industrial tree plantations. We know that they've been working to try to do genetically engineered trees which will, again, then further degrade the land because they'll have round up grade trees and pesticide resistant trees, and it's going to be a tremendous mess.

Phillip Babich: What are some of the big multinational interests that are behind PPP? You mention a Mexican biotech company but there are others that you can mention that you know are firmly behind PPP.

Orin Langelle: Well, it's really hard. That's part of the research stage right now. We know that right now the Inter-American Development Bank is very much involved in potentially funding the project, which is very much involved with the World Bank. If it gets to that level with funding, we believe that Citigroup will be involved in this. They just took over Banamex in Mexico. We know that some of the genetically engineered tree work in some of the plantations work is being promoted by International Paper. Other corporations, I'm not really sure right now. I hope in another month or two we'll have some more answers on that.

Phillip Babich: Orin Langelle, co-coordinator of ACERCA, Action For Community and Ecology in the Regions of Central America.

Oil exploration, construction of hydro-electric dams and establishing corporate forest plantations are among the development components of Plan Puebla Panamá. Regions affected by the plan contain ancient rainforests and rare species of plant and animal life. Indigenous communities living in the scope of Plan Puebla Panamá have been fighting off attempts to gain private access to natural resources and biological diversity on their lands.

Correspondent Tatiana Schreiber was in Chiapas, Mexico, in June 2001 for the first International Forum on Cultural and Biological Diversity. Discussion of the environmental consequences of Plan Puebla Panamá was a central focus.

Tatiana Schreiber: The conference opens with singing that segues into a prayer. Up front a colorful banner featuring a huge multi-branched tree, and a peasant farmer carrying corn, proclaims this the first week for biological and cultural diversity. The concrete floor is covered with pine needles, and two long rows of votive candles stay lit continuously. In southern Mexico, where the majority of people are indigenous Mayan Indians, public events are often graced with pine needles and flowers. The decorations seemed particularly appropriate at this event, sponsored by several indigenous and non-indigenous organizations to expose threats to the region's rich cultural and natural diversity.

Participants fill the halls of the ex-convent in San Cristobal de las Casas, the venue of the conference. At one table the Mesoamerican Institute of Permaculture has brought many kinds of seeds for free exchange. This group — which exists to protect what they call the living heritage of Mesoamerica, its genetic diversity — epitomizes the perspective presented throughout the conference that the natural resources of the South should remain in the public domain, safeguarded as they have been traditionally, by local indigenous communities.

Economist Andres Barreda, one of the key critics of Plan Puebla Panamá, focuses on the concentration of humanity's wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer transnational businesses.

Andres Barreda: (translated from Spanish) At the end of this century and at the beginning of this new millennium, capital is talking of the necessity of converting everything into private hands. For example, fresh water, the water from which we live, converted into private hands. For example, the rivers, the whole river basins, they speak of converting into private property. The genome, the DNA, this substance on which depends the reproduction of living beings.

Tatiana Schreiber: Barreda believes these genetic resources could well become more crucial to private interests than petroleum in the years ahead. Who will control these strategic resources in the future is a source of huge contention in Mexico and was the backdrop for a furious debate over a bioprospecting project called ICBG-Maya, one of a number of international cooperative biodiversity group projects supported by US government funds with private partners. ICBG-Maya linked a U.S. and a Mexican academic institution with a private pharmaceutical company based in the U.K. The aim was to harvest Chiapas's biological richness and the knowledge of its indigenous healers in order to discover new drugs. Opponents of Plan Puebla Panamá say the plan could invite more projects like this, which they call "biopiracy."

Antonio Perez Mendez is the president of the Organization of Traditional Healers of Chiapas. The group has a small shop where members produce salves, tinctures and syrups from locally available plants. The herbal preparations are sold inexpensively to local customers. The group opposed the bioprospecting project when members saw it was possible to patent plants or plant components based on local knowledge.

Perez Mendez: A big meeting was held to discuss this project openly, and the healers said that if someone patented our knowledge and our traditional medicine, what would happen later, with our grandchildren, children, about using our plants? Because we are leaving to our children and grandchildren...and if they patent, it means that someone else would own. So we didn't accept this type of project because it doesn't benefit us. That's what the doctors said. So we began to mount a campaign and organize to stop the project for the one.

Tatiana Schreiber: Scientists involved in the project downplayed the potential of finding plant compounds the drug company could patent and focused instead on the importance of documenting the region's impressive biodiversity. It's the fourth most biodiverse part of the world with some six hundred plant species known to be used medicinally by local healers. Opponents were described as rejecting all scientific research, but Carlos Gomez, another member of the traditional healers group says that's not true.

Carlos Gomez (translated from Spanish): In fact, we are in agreement that they do research together with the people because it's the people that are going to decide the form that it wants. We are not against research or scientific advances, no, it's the form, the use they want to put to the investigation.

Tatiana Schreiber: It's this potential for local resources to be put under the control of multinational companies that fuels the opposition in Southern Mexico to both the ICBG-Maya project and Plan Puebla Panamá. Activists say that until an indigenous rights law is established that gives local indigenous communities collective decision-making power over how their resources are used, they'll resist Plan Puebla Panamá and instead will promote small-scale, community-controlled development. At the cultural and biological diversity conference, proposals are being taken from the floor.

Unidentified male: While we don't have these rights, while they continue biopiracy, while they continue to rob us of our knowledge, we need to be clear. We have all this force. We have the scientific resources to defend ourselves. Yes, we have the capacity to mount a good mobilization and block these installations. We have the capacity; we have the force; that's the proposal we are thinking about.

Tatiana Schreiber: In Chiapas, Mexico, I'm Tatiana Schreiber for Making Contact.

Phillip Babich: You're listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you want more information about the subject of this week's program, or you would like to get in touch with any of our guests, we'll be giving out our toll free number at the end of this broadcast.

Beyond corporate access to natural resources in Southern Mexico and Central America, some observers say that Plan Puebla Panamá has a veiled counterinsurgency component. PPP establishes maquiladora zones in and around port cities and cuts major highways through indigenous territories. In some cases, PPP development comes in direct confrontation with indigenous movements for independence.

Correspondent Luz Ruiz has more on Plan Puebla Panamá and consequences for indigenous communities.

Luz Ruiz: On August 25, 2001, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capitol of Mexico's Southern most state, Chiapas, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas — the three time opposition presidential candidate and ex-mayor of Mexico City — hosted a round table meeting with the ruling democratic party the PRD on the shortcomings of Plan Puebla Panamá. In a transcript from his speech at this national gathering for discussion and analysis of the Plan Puebla Panamá, Cardenas was critical of the main goals of the plan.

Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas: Plan Puebla Panamá is basically presented as an infrastructure plan, to extract oil and gas, construct pipelines to serve the North American market, foment plantation agriculture and permit transnational firms to take advantage of the vast wealth of biodiversity in the area. The present government foresees that this project will be executed with investments made by the largest multinational corporations, with no commitment to public investments.

Luz Ruiz: According to an August 3, 2001, article published in Mexico's leading weekly political information and analysis magazine, El Proceso, the Inter-American Development Bank granted a four billion dollar loan and twenty economists to the Fox administration for the Plan Puebla Panamá.

Gustavo Castro, co-director of the Center for Economic and Political Research for Community Action (CIEPAC) a Chiapas based nongovernmental organization, has traveled widely throughout Mexico and Central America speaking about the potential effects of Plan Puebla Panamá he says taxpayers will foot the bill to get the plan up and running. Castro adds that the United States is strongly pushing the plan.

Gustavo Castro (translated from Spanish): Behind Plan Puebla Panamá, the FTAA and the Free Trade Agreements is the unmistakeably strong presence of the United States government and the most powerful transnational corporations.

To compete with the Asian economic block, that is now in recession, and the European economic block, what the United States needs is to form its own economic block under its hegemony and control. From there, the FTAA is a proposal, on the part of the United States government, to broaden the NAFTA on a continental level. Plan Puebla Panamá is an expression of that intent.

The challenge for Plan Puebla Panamá, the businesses and the government is to displace the people that live in the areas where the strategic resources will need to be privatized: oil, gas, water, biodiversity. The problem for the transnational corporations is that those aren't their lands. So Plan Puebla Panamá contemplates the creation of concentrated population poles. At the same time, these poles will then offer cheap manual labor to the maquiladora businesses. In the Southeast, ninety-two maquiladora factories have already been planned.

Luz Ruiz: To accomplish this, charges Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the plan has a veiled counterinsurgency component; much like Plan Colombia, the ostensibly counternarcotics effort to the South.

The counterinsurgency element that thrives beneath the proposal cannot be ignored, he says. "Plan Puebla Panamá casually stops where the application of Plan Colombia begins and with the United States intervention and support it has been transformed from a development plan into a counterinsurgency plan." The Mexican government view is that a regional agreement does not require a peace agreement with the Zapatistas.

Subcomandante Marcos, spokesman for the rag-tag Zapatista National Liberation Army that stunned the world when it took up arms in Chiapas, the very day that NAFTA went into affect in 1994, painted a grim picture of Plan Puebla Panamá during the historical rebel caravan to Mexico City in March 2001.

Marcos (translated from Spanish): This plan is nothing like what Fox says. It's the worst image that you could construct of a banana republic: a brutal looting of nature, a brutal exploitation of the people, that signifies, one way or the other, rolling back the hands of time to the history of colonial Mexico, when destroying anything that there was to destroy didn't matter if the destruction meant profits, when to annihilate hundreds of thousands of human beings didn't matter if it signified profits. This is what Plan Puebla Panamá is fundamentally about.

Luz Ruiz: For example, Roberto Barrios, a small Tzeltal indigenous village just minutes from Palenque, Southern Mexico's most famous Mayan ruins, has begun to feel the preliminary affects of Plan Puebla Panamá. José, a resident in the two hundred family village, explains the impact that the plan's "ruta maya" tourism component will have on his home, where a local priest has already received death threats for speaking out against commodifying the local water falls and building a jungle golf course.

José (translated from Spanish): We are not going to accept that they come here and build their hotels and golf courses because we have seen that the businesses have always destroyed all that is nature. And for us, the indigenous, the inhabitants of this community, we would work as janitors or porters. This would only impoverish us even more because this business won't benefit the farmers in any way.

Not that long ago, the military polluted the water with their boots and their trucks and we see this as the same game. They get rid of the soldiers and now they replace them with a corporation.

Luz Ruiz: Andres Barreda an economist and migration expert at the Mexican National Autonomous University has studied how maquiladoras are often used as tools for population and immigration control. He says Plan Puebla Panamá creates a series of corridors meticulously designed to perform an array of specific functions.

Andres Barreda (translated from Spanish): In a town called Tepeyac, in the state of Puebla, you'll find that the maquilas have opened prisons so that the people that don't want to work more than eight hours will be punished. The Korean managers literally prod at the women with ice picks to speed them up. There is where you find eight year old children working in the maquilas in Tlaxcala they start at eight years old, in Tehuacan they start at ten... That's where the largest transnationals are. Guess is there, Nike is there, Calvin Klein is there, Levis is there. It's an assembly corridor where all of the American clothes are made. The people there will tell you that they no longer emigrate because they've found these types of jobs. So we see that the maquiladora corridors indeed function as migratory traps.

We have twenty million Mexicans in the United States. There is no other country that can compare to the Mexican migration flow. There is no other territory on the planet with a migration flow more intense or complex than Mexico. It is evident that those planning to build the corridors are thinking about this scenario. Of course! For Making Contact, I'm Luz Ruiz in Chiapas, Mexico

Phillip Babich: And that segment was co-produced by Tim Russo... Since the September 11th attacks in the United States, community leaders in Southern Mexico and Central America report that military presence and actions have increased in their regions. Orin Langelle of ACERCA.

Orin Langelle: What we're seeing, what we've been told after September the 11th, is that there's been more military patrols in the Chiapas area than before, that this is kind of giving the Mexican military more of a leeway to go in and to start doing more surveillance than they already have been. Just recently we were talking to people from Honduras who say that they've seen more Honduran military activity. And a lot of the groups that are down there — especially indigenous groups are very afraid of what's going to happen with all this — that they're going to be branded as terrorists. And it's not just indigenous groups but any social change group. So I believe it's a very valid concern of theirs that they feel that they're going to be branded terrorists when all they're doing is trying to stand up for their sovereignty and for their people.

Phillip Babich: Last, I'm wondering if I could get a couple of thoughts on organizing and being involved politically in these current times, post September 11th, what has that been like for you? Orin Langelle: Well, for some of us we've had to redouble our strength to work for global justice and to work on the anti-corporate globalization movement. We definitely feel that as we're against war, we also feel that we have to continue on with our programs that we're working on for a long term vision of what we need to be working toward. Because if we don't start having this kind of analysis of how things are happening in the world with corporate globalization, these types of wars will continue and continue and continue. And I know a lot of us are tired of putting the band-aid on or putting out the brush fires. We would like to have people all over be working on global justice issues, and I think it's extremely important. With our contact with people in the Global South have just said please don't stop what you're.... Everything you're doing to work in the anti-war movement consider what you're doing now is already.... We're in a war down there, we're in a war for survival.

Phillip Babich: That was Orin Langelle of ACERCA.

That's it for this edition of Making Contact: a look at Plan Puebla Panamá. Thanks for listening. We had production assistance this week from Damian Irizarry, who also provided voice-over assistance, along with Dan Turner and Jorge Rubio. Laura Livoti is our managing director. Peggy Law, executive director. Associate producers, Stephanie Welch and Shereen Meraji. Women's Desk director, Lisa Rudman. Senior advisor, Norman Solomon. National producer, David Barsamian. Administrative coordinator, Rosalyn Fay. And, I'm your host and managing producer, Phillip Babich.

If you want more information about the subject of this week's program, call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736. Call that same phone number for tapes and transcripts. That's 800-529-5736. We're also on the web at, that's Our theme music is by the Charlie Hunter Trio. Bye for now.

Contact Information

Gustavo Castro
Center for Economic and Political Reasearch for Community Action
Eje Vial Uno #11
Colonia Jardines de Vista Hermosa
29297 San Cristobal de Las Casas
Chiapas, Mexico

Subcommandante Marcos
Frente Zapatista de Liberacion National

Andres Barreda
Mexican National Autonomous Univ.
Facultad de Economia
Ciudad Universitaria, Mexico D.F.
tel: 011 52 562 21775

Rural Advancement Foundation International

Red Mexican de Accion Frente el Libre Comercio

Plan Puebla Panama site by government of Mexico

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