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The Lacandon Jungle's Last Stand Against Corporate Globalization

Plan Puebla Panama and the fight to preserve biodiversity and indigenous rights in Chiapas

by Ryan ZinnSpecial to CorpWatch
September 26th, 2002

Logging within the Montes Azules Bioreserve, Chiapas. Photo: La Jornada
Logging within the Montes Azules Bioreserve, Chiapas.La Jornada

Map of Chiapas

Montes Azules, Mexico -- A battle is raging in Chiapas' Montes Azules Integral Biosphere, Mexico's Garden of Eden. The last stand against corporate resource exploitation is taking place in this remote, lush tropical jungle, home to Mayan communities. Best known for ancient pyramids and endangered species like the toucan and jaguar, this modern day "El Dorado" is now threatened by the search for black and green gold: oil and biodiversity.

Caught in the cross-fire are indigenous communities, many of them Zapatista supporters, who are resisting the devastating effects of corporate globalization. The zone has recently been marred by violence and plagued by paramilitary attacks against these communities. Local residents believe the attacks to be the latest stage in the Mexican government's efforts to oust indigenous people from the Biosphere.

As a result, the struggle to preserve this biologically diverse region is being pitted against the struggle for human rights and local/indigenous autonomy. Here in Chiapas, the battle focuses on the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), a development scheme that would turn Southern Mexico and all of Central America into a corporate extraction paradise.

The Plan's central component is a new network of transportation infrastructure, designed to carry merchandise from the soon to arrive maquiladoras or light assembly plants. As a concession to environmental critics, the Plan contemplates the creation of 300 "bioreserves." However, critics charge that these are just window dressing for corporate exploitation.

The Future of the Lacandon Jungle and Montes Azules Biosphere

Montes Azules Integral Biosphere is North America's last significant tropical rain forest. Located within the Biosphere are some 28 "illegal squatter settlements," which the Mexican government and mainstream environmental organizations, like the US- based Conservation International, charge are perpetrators of environmental destruction.

But local residents say that they are being scapegoated. The situation has been over-simplified or misrepresented by blaming "ignorant farmers" and "indigenous communities" practicing slash and burn agriculture, or leftist rebels who abuse the environment. However, the underlying conflict is far more complex than depicted by the Mexican news media or the Fox administration.

"We have been accused of destroying the jungle. But we as indigenous people are the true guardians of the environment, we live together with the jungle," explained a Montes Azules resident who asked to be identified as "Juan Gomez" -- not his real name -- for fear of reprisal by the army. "If the jungle dies, we die with it," he added.

Gomez, 33, is from the Tzeltal indigenous group, a third generation Montes Azules resident, and a Zapatista. His humble home of wood and tin sits at the base of the emerald green mountain that leads to the pristine Laguna Ocotal. Juan was a coffee farmer until coffee prices plummeted to a dismal 40 cents a kilo last year. He and his family survive on less than an acre of land, planting corn, beans and squash.

Chiapas' Lacandon jungle could be considered a microcosm of natural resource exploitation and human rights violations. Since the Spanish Conquest, the Lacandon has borne witness to virtually every stage of natural resource exploitation. Timber interests reined from the late 19th Century to the 1970's, followed by extensive cattle ranching, accounting for 80% of the Lacandon's deforestation. Next came petroleum exploitation, hydroelectric dams and roads. Finally, and in many ways the last stage of the conquest, is the current privatization of water and biodiversity.

Water

Since taking office in December 2000, the Fox administration declared that "water [and forests] are issues of national security." And while much of northern Mexico goes dry, Fox and local authorities have accelerated the process of overall water privatization. Everything from municipal utilities to entire river valleys are on the chopping block.

Chiapas contains some 40% of Mexico's fresh water supply, and with half the country desperate for water, Mexico's southernmost state is prime target for privatization. Monsanto and Fox's old employer, Coca Cola, are poised to seize this new market. Coke has already gained important access to local Chiapas aquifers by pressuring municipal governments to create de facto water privatization through preferential zoning laws. The Coca Cola Foundation has also established trusts with local schools conveniently located near primary water sources, thereby facilitating the company's access to water.

Oil

As global oil stocks deplete and prices increase, Mexico will be under economic pressure to exploit petroleum in socially and environmentally sensitive regions, like the Lacandon jungle. PEMEX, the state owned oil monopoly, has been gradually dismantled (privatized), and many analysts believe that Fox will finish the job before his term is out. As Mexico supplants Saudi Arabia as the United States' primary oil source, the Lacandon's oil deposits may take center stage.

Though PEMEX has roundly denied the extraordinary quantity of oil in the Lacandon, international and national researchers indicate the contrary. Seine River Resources (Canada) and General Geophysics Company (France), among dozens of other corporations, have already begun exploratory activities in the Lacandon, including Montes Azules.

Dams

To accommodate the Plan Puebla Panama's appetite for energy, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) recently announced the initial funding of 5 hydroelectric dams on the Usumacinta River, to the tune of $240 million dollars. Other major rivers in the Lacandon are also set to be dammed under the Plan. Besides hydroelectric production, water will also be pumped from the Usumacinta to the Yucatan Peninsula to satisfy growing agro-export needs, thoroughly damaging Mexico's (and Guatemala's) most important riparian system.

While the gradual privatization of Mexico's Federal Electrical Commission (CFE) has received most of the press, the dams' social and environmental impacts have been largely ignored. Unique biodiverse ecosystems will be lost forever; tens of thousands of indigenous people will be displaced from their communities, to say nothing of the soon to be submerged Mayan archeological sites like Yaxichlan and Piedras Negras, local attractions in the region's emerging eco-tourism industry.

Union Fenosa of Spain or Alstom of France, both major players in privatization throughout Latin America, are the likely frontrunners for the construction or distribution contracts from the dam projects.

Land

Notwithstanding Chiapas' rich natural resources, the state contains a virtual plethora of tourist attractions that have sustained the local economy in hard times. Renowned for its Mayan archeological sites, Chiapas also possesses waterfalls, canyons and lakes, making it an eco-tourist paradise.

However since the North American Free Trade Agreement mandated the modification of the Mexican Constitution in 1992, ejidos or communal lands, can, and are being privatized. Many of these eco-archeological sites are on ejido lands, run by the local communities themselves.

Now, as the local coffee economy has plummets, many ejido communities are economically compelled to sell their ancestral land, migrate to the United States or wait for promised jobs in the yet to arrive maquiladoras. Some community run operations, like Aguas Azul, have already been partially sold to corporate tourist operations, while others are resisting the hard times and the quick cash.

Biodiversity

Finally, as we enter the much-touted "Biotech Century," biodiversity is emerging as the strategic resource of the future. In accordance with this trend, bioprospecting, or the search of genetic plant material of market value, is expected to become a boom industry of the 21st Century.

Chiapas is well known in bioprospecting circles. Its rich history of plant based traditional medicine and surviving landrace crop varieties make it a veritable oasis for biopirates looking to patent biodiversity and traditional knowledge.

The Mexican government, the Washington DC-based Conservation International (CI) and Grupo Pulsar (world's number nine biotech company) have several "biological research" stations located in the Lacandon. Alfonso Romo, a businessman from Monterrey and possibly the most influential person in the Fox administration, heads Grupo Pulsar. Pulsar, also a major donor to CI, is positioning itself as the biotechnology leader of Mexico, if not all of Latin America.

CI has bioprospecting agreements with various corporations throughout the world, and promotes bioprospecting as a means of conservation. For Romo, Chiapas represents his most "passionate project," and rightly so. Pulsar's access to the Lacandon's riches guarantee a place at the table in the competitive biotechnology market.

However, according to local communities and activists, the research stations carryout biopiracy operations -- that is, theft of natural resources -- as Mexican Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources turns a blind eye.

"Yesterday's theft was gold and jade, our land, and precious timber. Today, they rob us of 'green gold:' biodiversity," notes ARIC-ID, a campesino organization in the Lacandon.

Market Based Conservation

Parallel to the Plan Puebla Panama is the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC), an initiative of World Bank, Global Environmental Facility (GEF), and other public/private agencies and organizations.

The Biological Corridor would create and link over 300 protected areas from southern Mexico to the Panama Canal. The plan focuses primarily on "wild" biodiversity, but ignores the important connection between biological and cultural diversity, and the local indigenous populations that maintain it.

Of the some $6 billion dollars budgeted for the Corridor, only $500 million is allocated directly for traditional conservation efforts. The rest of the budget supports conventional World Bank development projects. Meanwhile, local communities have not been taken into account, much less consulted.

Many have speculated that the underlying motivation for the creation of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is to "greenwash" the exploitation of natural resources, including biopiracy, monoculture tree plantations and petroleum extraction.

"The government and corporations want us off our land to control the water, petroleum and plants," explained indigenous campesino Gomez.

In the Mexican context, the MBC will divert needed funds away from local initiatives, created and backed by local communities. For Example, the experience of community based Ecologic Farmer Reserves in the Chimalapas region of Oaxaca has provided a proven alternative to top down conservation schemes, but has been ignored by the architects of the Biological Corridor.

Militarized Conservation

Laguna Ocotal, located in the northern region of Montes Azules, is a crystalline lake in the cross hairs. The area, reputedly the reserve's richest in biodiversity, is also a Zapatista stronghold. The lake is particularly isolated. The closest town, Ocosingo, is hours away. To arrive in Laguna Ocotal, it takes take a crowded three bus ride from Ocosingo, followed by a four-hour walk up muddy paths to finally arrive at the lake's edge.

This part of the jungle is also the most militarized in the state of Chiapas, with dozens of Mexican Army bases dotting the landscape. Why has the Mexican military responded with such ferocity to a small, largely indigenous, poorly armed guerrilla movement? The answer has more to do with Chiapas' strategic resources than any alleged military threat posed by the Zapatistas.

It is now clear that although Fox cannot annihilate the Zapatistas militarily, his administration can successfully portray them as the environmental criminals, deserving retribution.

Ignacio Campillo Garcia, Mexico's Attorney General for the Environment Affairs best summed up the government perspective in a press interview last year. "These regions [the Lacandon] suffer from high un-governability, deterring private investment. They [the Army] will guarantee the security for private investment"

The military's role has expanded to include enforcement of environmental law, reforesting and the pending violent "resettlement" of communities located within biosphere reserves. Top on the list are the Montes Azules and Oaxaca's Chimalapas jungle. These regions also correspond to areas of social unrest or insurgent movements.

Ironically, the Mexican Army has been implicated in both in trafficking of endangered species, as well as logging in the Lacandon jungle. In fact, the Attorney General for Environmental Affairs' office currently has open investigations on both charges.

Using the Army, which has an abysmal human rights record, to enforce environmental protection is a pretext to further militarize the region, say local residents.

"The army is arriving not to protect the jungle, but to eliminate us," notes Montes Azules resident and Zapatista Juan Gomez.

Who Will Win?

In the final analysis, with so many forces converging on the Lacandon, who will win out? Ultimately, the onus for the present crisis in Chiapas rests squarely on the shoulders of the Mexican government. Not only is the government impeding indigenous communities from developing local initiatives for natural resource "management," but also threatening them with violent retribution if they do not immediately vacate their ancestral lands.

"This is our home, the roots of our people. [Relocation] means the death of our people, our culture, our land," says Gomez.

Ryan Zinn is the coordinator for Global Exchange's Chiapas program. Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based international Human Rights organization, has worked in Chiapas, Mexico since 1995.