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Oaxaca and Chiapas 

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Isthmus of Tehuantepec

We spent the last two days in Oaxaca on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of Mexico which historically has been a transhipment point between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean and currently is a focus of the Plan Puebla Panama (Putumayo). On Friday, we met with opponents to the Bénito Juárez hydro-electric dam project at Santa María Jalapa de Marqués, and on Saturday with opponents to La Venta wind farm project. The meetings left several of us feeling a bit uncertain about these groups and their agendas. We saw a definite rub between an environmentalist agenda and local concerns and interests. But is there more here than NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) politics wrapped in anti-neoliberal discourse? We needed a longer and deeper conversation to gain a fuller understanding of these organizations.

In 1955, the Mexican federation government began surveys to dam the confluence of the Tequisistlan and Tehuantepec rivers in order to create a reservoir to irrigate the Isthmus. The Bénito Juárez dam that was built from 1956-1960 flooded the town of Jalapa, whose inhabitants were moved to the community’s current location in 1961. The community felt that they had received the short end of the deal and that the government had not fulfilled many of its promises. Their new lands were not nearly as fertile as the river bottom land that they had lost, and the government did not deliver on their promises of a new, modern town. Many former farmers turned to fishing in the new lake behind the dam. The group complained about a lack of consultation with the affected communities, that corrupt officials were the only ones who benefitted from the project.

With the dam now at the end of its useful life spam, the government is considering converting it into a hydro electric project. Given the history of experience with the current dam, the community is naturally suspicious of how this project will play out and whether it will have more negative impacts on their lives including their new fishing livelihood. The government promises lots of jobs with the new dam, but the community suspects that there will only be short-term unskilled labor while the dam is built and then a couple engineers will remain to run it. Community leaders asked for our solidarity in organizing against the neoliberal project that will benefit others but not the people of Santa María Jalapa de Marqués.

On Saturday, we met with UCIZONI (the Union of Indigenous Communities of the Northern Isthmus Zone) that is organizing opposition to a wind farm at the appropriately named town of La Venta. Leader Carlos Beas Torres began with a presentation of how the Isthmus historically has been an area of contested geo-political control, and increasing United States control in the twentieth century. The Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) brought new mega-projects to the Isthmus and privatized local resources. Beas referred to this as a new invasion of investments that continue a history of extraction of wealth from the region. Although the PPP no longer receives the media attention that it once did, the project to connect raw materials with a global market to the benefit of multinational corporations rather than local inhabitants continues continued unabated.

Both the Bénito Juárez hydroelectric and the La Venta wind farm projects are part of this development. Studies show that La Venta has some of the best winds in the world, with constant steady winds of 9 to 14 meters per second while most places only have 2 to 5 mps. While the community sees the wind as normal, capital sees it as money. A problem similar to the Bénito Juárez dam project is a lack of information and consultation with local community members. In 1994, a pilot project set up seven windmills and in 2006 this was expanded with 98 more windmills, and now there is a plan to set up 88 more. A Spanish company set up the windmills, but pay very low rents for the use of the land. Community members are also concerned about the potential environmental impacts of the windmills, especially on migratory bird populations.

Beas in particular presented his opposition to the wind project in terms of a global struggle against neoliberal capitalism that undermines local sovereignty. The government wants to fund foreign capital intensive projects, but does little for local sustainable projects. The government wants to depend more on remittances from migrant workers to the States than on developing local economies.

While UCIZONI received support from international environmental groups such as Greenpeace when they opposed a shrimp farm project, they receive no such support for their opposition to clean energy projects. Signs on the windmill project advertise that they are bringing renewable energy to Mexico. It is hard to oppose such a project. But what does one do when this project is part of a privatization of natural resources without paying attention to the needs and concerns of local communities? Isn’t this part of the problem of capitalism, that it is based on a culture of consumption rather than sustainable survival? While clean, these projects are not about local sovereignty and development.

We come away with many questions, but as I write this we are about ready to start the Chiapas part of our program. We would need more time to make sense of our experience there, and what we should do with it.

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