Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 155-158.

Plan Puebla Panama

Grassroots Resistance to Neoliberalism in Mesoamerica

In June 2001 a second wave of neoliberal capitalist economic reform hit Central America and Mexico in the form of the Plan Puebla Panamá. The PPP is Mexican president Vicente Fox's pet project; a transportation and industrial development corridor that seeks to integrate the economies of the seven Central American nations - Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panamá - with those of the nine southernmost Mexican states - Puebla, Campeche, Veracruz, Tabasco, Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero.

This 102 million km region includes 63.8 million people, and is characterised by extreme poverty of a principally rural, indigenous nature. While the governments of the countries involved claim that the PPP will "elevate the level of human social development" in the region, history shows that this type of top-down 'development' will offer substantial investment opportunities to multinational corporations, at the expense of the further impoverishment and isolation of small farmers and indigenous people who constitute the majority of the region's population.

Southern Mexico is still not really part of the nation that joined the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. In terms of poverty indicators such as infant mortality, literacy rates, housing conditions, etc., southern Mexico has much more in common with Central America than with the rest of Mexico - more than half of all southern municipalities are categorised as 'poor' or 'very poor'. In the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas for example, half of all communities have no access to roads, telephones or basic urban services. This poverty has a particularly rural, indigenous face: half of the population of southern Mexico lives in communities of less than 2,500 inhabitants, and two-thirds of the region's population is indigenous. Of these 7.5 million indigenous people, 67% survive on less than one minimum wage salary, and the remaining 33% have no source of cash income whatsoever. Economically, the region's most important export is probably the thousands of young people that emigrate to northern Mexico and the United States in search of work each year. 93% of Mexico's current exports go to the United States. Of this huge portion, only one percent comes from Mexico's southern and southeastern states (the PPP region, excluding Puebla).

Incorporating many old project ideas from the World Bank and the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), the guiding logic behind the PPP is that in order to take better advantage of the region's extensive natural resources and its strategic location for international commerce, Central America and southern Mexico have to make themselves more attractive to foreign investment. In order to achieve this, the national governments have dedicated unprecedented amounts of federal funding to the modernisation of infrastructure such as superhighways, maritime ports, railroads, airports, dams, gas lines, fiber optic telecommunications grids, 'dry canals', etc., in the hope that this improved groundwork will make the region competitive with Asia for foreign investment. For example, in 2002 Mexico's federal budget set aside 7 billion pesos for Plan Puebla Panamá, more than twice the amount designated for the same area the year before, with over 80% being directed toward highway and port development. The PPP will promote investment in natural resource extraction, like logging, oil drilling and bioprospecting (often on lands supposedly protected by the World Bank's 'Mesoamerican Biological Corridor'). Also on the cards is industrial genetically modified agriculture, the creation of common energy and telecommunications grids for the entire region, 'maquiladora' [free trade zones with virtually no workers' rights] factories assembling consumer goods for export, mono-cropped forestry plantations, and ecotourism. 90% of Mexico's oil comes from the southern region. And the larger PPP region, though it represents only 0.5% of the total surface area of the planet, contains 7% of the world's known biodiversity. These industries promise to create profits in an area currently dominated by small scale farming for self-sufficiency, which has little interaction with the global economy. By driving down the prices of locally produced agricultural goods through free trade, and destroying the environment for local farmers and fishermen, the PPP will doubtless force many Mexicans and Central Americans off their lands. What will happen to these people? Proponents of the PPP suggest that it will create more jobs in the region to help stem the flow of northward migration; the past effects of NAFTA show that these neoliberal reforms don't create nearly enough jobs to absorb the massive number of people displaced, leaving many without land or other means of survival.

CAP: One of the non-timber forest products that can be sustainably harvested from the forests of Mesoamerica, chicle has long been used as a basis for chewing gum. In the forests of the Mayan region of southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize about 5,000 chicleros still collect this valuable product using traditional methods.

In order to achieve their lofty goals, the governments must break the resistance of the region's people to the expropriation of their lands - a resistance whose strength is unprecedented in the history of neoliberal development in Mesoamerica. In Mexico the process of expropriation began in 1992, when President Carlos Salinas Gortari ended the redistribution of agricultural lands to landless campesinos (a right that it took the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to win), by revising Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution. This revision was demanded by the United States as a precondition for Mexico's entering into NAFTA in 1994, as these communally-held lands (called ejidos in Mexico) could not be broken up or sold and were therefore considered "barriers to trade". Since that time the Mexican government has maintained a virulent campaign to break up collectively held lands throughout the country, through a government agency called PROCEDE (the Ejido Rights Certification and Urban Lots Title Program). The Mexican Agrarian Reform Secretariat has even gone so far as to state that land will be forcibly expropriated for PPP projects if necessary. In Chiapas this divide-and-conquer strategy is also key to the government's counterinsurgency efforts: by breaking up collectively held lands, the government dismantles one of the campesinos' most powerful tools for collective resistance. It then further foments division and conflict within the communities through the selective distribution of government aid. Control over land is essential to the survival of indigenous peoples and culture, and the PPP seeks to privatise these lands for private profit - but according to Secretary of State Jorge Castañeda, the PPP is the "logical corollary" to the peace process in Chiapas. If the government indeed sees the PPP as linked to the Chiapas peace process, that would explain why guarantees of indigenous autonomy and control of natural resources were stripped from the indigenous rights law that the Mexican Congress passed at the end of April 2001. The PPP depends upon corporate access to land and natural resources in Mexico's south - the opposite of what the government promised the Zapatistas in the San Andrés accords of 1996.

The governments involved have been very slow to release concrete information about specific projects within the PPP. Two large projects that have been publicised involve highways and electricity interconnection. The modernisation of two large coastal highways has begun: the 3,156 km long Pacific Corridor highway which stretches from Colón in Panamá to Tampico in Mexico, of which 1,785 km will be improved at a cost of $977 million. The Atlantic Corridor, which is 1,925 km, will have 1,332 km improved at a cost of $777 million. Information regarding two electrical interconnection projects has also been published: one between Guatemala and Belize, the other between Mexico and Guatemala near the border town of Tapachula. These two projects are only a small part of the whole electrical interconnection system, which will include a 1,831 km line from a substation in Veladero, Panamá to another station in Pepesca, Guatemala. This line will cost $320 million, of which $34.8 million will be contributed by the countries involved, $45.8 million by the Spanish corporation Endesa, $70 million by Spain, and $170 million by the IDB. The countries involved will therefore be incurring large debts to build this line but the profits it generates will go to the Spanish corporation. When state-run electricity companies in Central America have been privatised before, it usually results in poorer service and overcharging.

CAP: The incomplete Pan-American Highway, beginning in Alaska and ending in Tierra del Fuego. The highway is unfinished in the section that runs through Panama, which is now scheduled for completion.

Some other projects which are being discussed are a dam on the Usumacinta River which divides Mexico and Guatemala, a dry canal through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca and Veracruz, a tourist highway through the Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan Peten rainforest and a hydroelectric dam on the Terraba River on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. 71 sites for new dams in Chiapas have been located, mostly in zones of Zapatista influence. These dams would generate energy for export to the US as well as powering local industrial zones. Funding information for these projects has not yet been released, but one thing is certain: they will receive funding before any of the "human development projects" that the PPP's promoters like to tout - natural disaster prevention programs, sustainable development, job training, health programs, etc. All of these have yet to see offers of financing or regional meetings to solidify their implementation.

The most universal criticism of the PPP is that it is yet another top-down development plan, polluting the environment and further impoverishing millions of already poor people, through economic pressures on small-scale farming or by forced displacement. Such development does not respect the rights of the region's inhabitants to maintain their traditional livelihoods and culture, because it pressures them into selling off their land and moving to urban areas to work in factories. Mexico has signed the International Labor Organisation's Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. This gives the government a responsibility to consult indigenous communities affected by the PPP before approving it, and to carry out this consultation in 'good faith', neither of which has happened. The PPP - along with Bush's recently proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement - will (literally!) pave the way for the hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas, furthering neoliberal economic reforms in the region.

One effect the PPP is having in Chiapas is the forced displacement by the Mexican Army of 1,500 indigenous families from their lands within the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, under 'ecological' pretences. The public summary of the PPP published by the Mexican government blames small-scale farmers for the region's ecological problems: "The productive activities of the inhabitants of the southern and south-eastern region constitute an environmental risk, capable of provoking a massive and selective extinction of animal and plant species." The real reason, however, that the government wants to kick these people off their lands is that they are located in the Lacandon Jungle, the most biodiverse area in the Americas after the Amazon Rainforest.

Of all the 181 countries that are indebted to the World Bank, Mexico's debt is the largest; and the PPP will increase it. The governments of the region must take out loans to develop their infrastructure, further indebting their people, while the investment they hope to attract will be private and thus any profits will be remitted back to the investors' home countries. This is a classic neoliberal formula in which the state assumes the 'high-risk' investments which aren't considered safe for the private sector, thereby socialising the costs and privatising the profits. The Interamerican Development Bank heads the PPP's finance commission, and has already secured $4 billion in PPP loans.

In an already heavily-militarised region, the PPP will inevitably entail an increased military presence to protect foreign investments and patrol borders, not to mention for expropriation, as in the case of Montes Azules. 12,000 US soldiers have already been sent to the Guatemalan Peten region bordering Chiapas to conduct 'training and humanitarian support missions' with the Guatemalan military under a mission named 'New Horizons'. This is within a larger Latin American context of the US sending 100,000 soldiers to 21 Latin American countries in 2001 alone, to fight the 'war on drugs' and guerrilla activity. This pretext for further militarisation will be a boon to Fox as far as Chiapas is concerned, giving him an excuse to increase military control in the surrounding area and destabilise indigenous power in general. Maybe this is what Fox was thinking when he said he could resolve the conflict in Chiapas in "15 minutes"?

In Mexico indigenous people have been struggling for recognition of their culture and for rights to land and autonomy for years. Most recently they have demanded the implementation of the 1996 San Andrés Peace Accords between the EZLN and the Mexican Government, which extensively outline indigenous rights to autonomy and control of their land, natural resources and development. The Plan Puebla Panamá is in part the Mexican government's response to the indigenous movements: instead of recognising the right of indigenous people to continue their traditional lifestyles, the government seeks to transform them into consumers, maquiladora workers or tourist guides.

Do or Die DTP/web team: