Zapata's Children: Defending the Land and Human Rights in the Countryside

September 25, 2007

On February 16, 1995, a pipeline belonging to Pemex, Mexico's state- owned oil company, one of 29 that criss- cross the town of Platano y Cacao, in the southern state of Tab- asco, blew sky-high. Nine people were killed outright and 23 injured. "There was a house over there by the Fired workers erect a dummy oil rig in Mexico City's main plaza, the Z6calo, on August 8, 1992 as a symbol of their struggle against Pemex, the state-owned oil company for severance pay and compen- sation for the company's despoliation of farmlands and marine life in the state of Tabasco. pipeline," says Ernesto Martinez, who survived the explosion. "When the fireball struck it, six people were reduced to ashes. The rest of us ran but some didn't make it. To deprive people of life has to be the worst vio- lation of our human rights." In a precedent-setting recommendation issued this past September, the governmental National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) agreed with Martinez that his neighbors' human rights had been violated by the explosion, and laid the blame for the calamity at Pemex's doorstep. The shattered pipeline, which had been worn to half its thickness by corrosion and internal pressure, had not been inspected for 27 years. The 148- page CNDH investigation was carried out in response to a petition filed by an independent Tabasco human rights committee led by the parish priest of Platano y Cacao, Francisco Goitia. Martinez is the group's secretary. "You see how green everything is now," the leathery farmer muses, "but the ground is poisoned with heavy metals and our neighbors don't know when another pipeline will blow up." For Martinez, the links connect- ing environmental protection, human rights and the struggle of farmers for the land are obvious. "We are campesinos," he says. "When the land is violated, our rights are violated-our right to work, to feed our- selves, to our health and the health of our children." Ecological activists increasingly agree that globaliza- tion has elevated environmental conflict to a human rights issue. "The struggle for survival is now an environmental one and it is being fought out on a very fragile stage," says Greenpeace's Roberto L6pez. "Farmers now go to the National Human Rights Commission because no other government agency will listen to them." Neocolonial countries "take our wood and our oil and bring us toxic wastes," says poet-ecologist Homero Aridjis, the guiding spirit behind the prestigious collec- tion of highbrow environmentalists called the Group 30NMITA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS John Ross is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. His most recent book is Mexico in Focus (Latin American Bureau, 1996). 4 4 4 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 30REPORT ON MEXICO As the process of of 100. "As the world globalizes," he says, globalization "the active defense of natural resources and makes Mexico's the issue of human rights are coming natural resources together in dramatic more easily ways all the time." In Tabasco, the horses exploitable, of globalization are hitched to Pemex. The farmers and February 1995 Clinton White House bailout of indigenous the collapsing Mexican peoples-for economy, issued just days before the Platano whom land, y Cacao disaster, stipu- lated that Mexico's water, forests export petroleum rev- and mineral enues were to be deposited in the New wealth are linked York branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve System to culture and as collateral. Eager to pay back the $12.5 bil- community-are lion it has drawn down resisting such on the bailout, the Zedillo administration penetration with has upped Pemex's daily production quota to 2.85 mounting million barrels, of which more than half is militancy. exported. The speed-up in production has put oil workers and communi- ties that neighbor its pipelines and installations at risk. This past July 26, an explosion of two natural gas processors at the giant Cactus petrochemical compound on the Tabasco-Chiapas border, about 12 miles from Platano y Cacao, killed eight workers and injured 33. In the last 18 years, about 40 Pemex explosions have killed over 200 Tabascans. To Pemex, for which the loss of life is best resolved by paying off the survivors, the blast meant a lost processing capacity of 1.3 million cubic feet of natural gas each day. Rather than shut down opera- tions until the processors could be rebuilt so that highly sulfurous natural gas could be separated from the light crude oil with which it is extracted, Pemex decided to burn the gas off in the open air instead. This, says Jos6 Luis Manzo of the international petroleum monitor group OILWATCH, is an expediency that will greatly increase acid rain, which has already damaged over 700,000 acres of Tabasco farmland. Chontal Indians complain that 35,000 acres of land are no longer productive because of the damage caused by a group of highly productive wells called the Sen complex. Led by leftist senator Auldarico Herndndez, a Chontal poet and actor, 10,000 campesinos from the region blockaded 60 wells last February, demanding resolution of 61,000 compensation claims. Joint police and military squads violently dislodged the ten-day blockade, and 109 farmers, whose nonviolent resistance was reminiscent of that of the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement, were hauled off to jail. Several national and international human rights groups protested the Mexican government's action. In its press bulletins, Pemex insisted that the block- ades were costing it $400,000 a day. So concerned was the Clinton administration that oil production might be diminished that it sent two State Department represen- tatives to Tabasco-not, of course, to appraise human rights violations, but, rather, to evaluate the impact on Mexico's ability to pay off the multibillion dollar bailout loan. Meanwhile, in Tepozthin, a Nahua Indian town in the state of Morelos just south of Mexico City, the resource up for grabs is water. Throughout this tiny state where Emiliano Zapata once rode against the great hacienda owners, second-home development for Mexico City residents has drained off enormous amounts of water, leaving Zapata's heirs high and dry. In early 1995, the KS Corporation, a national firm which has made its fortune acquiring Morelos farmland for luxury developments, announced construction of the Club Tepozteco, a half-billion dollar, 600-acre tract, to be located on communal lands granted to the resi- dents of TepoztlIn as the fruit of Zapata's revolution. The club was to include 800 high-priced condominiums and an 18-hole golf course to be designed by champion Jack Nicklaus' Golden Bear Corporation, a Florida- based outfit that has built dozens of such water-sucking greens around the world. Included among transnational investors was GTE Data Systems. The corporation planned to develop a corporate park to produce fiber optics for its new joint Mexican long-distance opera- tion. "We are proud to be a part of Mexico's future," GTE president Don A. Hayes gushed when he announced the $130 million investment, about a third of what KS projected was needed to build the project. But Hayes and his Mexican partners never got to real- ize that future. The resistance of Tepoztlhn residents to the golf club-dubbed "the Golf War" in newspaper headlines-has become the stuff of corridos sung throughout Morelos. KS, which had the support of Morelos governor Jorge Carillo Olea, former chief of Mexican national security, was able to obtain all but one of the permits necessary to construct its dream- houses. The one document outstanding was a "change of soil use" permit. When Tepoztldn residents learned Vol XXX, No 4 JAN/FEB 1997 31REPORT ON MEXICO that the ruling PRI mayor had secretly granted the per- mit, they ran him out of town. They replaced him with a "free" municipal governing board headed by a local tree planter, Lizaro Rodriguez-a Zapata look-alike. What infuriated the town-even more than the land issue-was the KS Corporation's plans for draining Tepoztldn's limited water resource. Maintaining the greens alone would have utilized 30 times the amount of water now allocated to townspeople. On April 10, 1996, the seventy-third anniversary of the assassination of Emiliano Zapata at the nearby Chinameca hacienda, members of the opposition Tepoztlin Unity Council (CUT), dressed up their children as little "Emilianos" and "Adelitas," as is the tradition here, and boarded buses to deliver a letter to President Ernesto Zedillo, who was addressing a select audi- ence of PRI farmers a few miles away. Crack Morelos state police units met the buses with bullets and tear gas. CUT leader Marcos Olmedo was shot to death. His body, trussed up in a burlap bag, was found on a vacant lot about 12 miles from the scene of the clash. A fortuitous video tape demon- strated police culpability beyond a reasonable doubt, and Tepoztlin's citizens summoned the CNDH to condemn the repression. The violence shook up KS, which had already lost GTE's investment because of the commu- nity's resistance. "Conditions do not exist to guarantee further investment," KS president Francisco Kladt told the press, Residents of Tepoztlan declaring the project suspended. plans to build a golf c withdrew in the face c Today, community fury in Tepoztldn is directed at the Quinta Piedra, a 115-acre hacienda owned by the brother-in-law of reviled former president Carlos Salinas, and built on what the campesinos claim is illegally obtained ejido land. When local farmers reclaimed the Quinta Piedra last May, they were astonished to discover that behind the estate's 20-foot-tall stout stone walls were two swimming pools, spouting fountains and an artificial lake. The ejido itself has no irrigation system, and the colony that borders the Quinta Piedra does not feature running water. Squatting at a campesino checkpoint outside the Quinta Piedra-which has been renamed the "House of the People"-95 year-old Pablo Garcia Ruiz spat into the dust on a dry September afternoon. "I've got no corn coming this year," he says. "Without water, you can't grow corn." Like many old men here, Garcia claims to have ridden with Zapata. Tepoztlin controlled a key corridor the Caudillo's irregulars utilized to reach southern Mexico City. "Many people died for this land," says the veteran. "Now we have it but we can't grow anything on it because they are stealing our water. We are the campesinos; we have a right to this land. If Zapata were alive, he would be here with us today." T he most notorious violation of human rights by Mexican security forces in many years took place at a lonely mountain wash above the conflict- ridden Costa Grande of the state of Guerrero on June 28, 1995. Just outside the now-legendary village of Aguas Blancas, motorized police opened fire on a truckload of members of the Campesino Organization took over the town's municipal building this past April to protest course on communal lands. The Mexican firm behind the plans f over a year of continuous community resistance. of the Southern Sierra (OCSS), killing 17 farmers and wounding 23, some of whom are permanently disabled. Fallout from the massacre still reverberates in Mexico. Hard-nosed PRI governor Ruben Figueroa, a close friend of President Zedillo, was forced to resign as a result of pressure applied by Mexican and international human rights organizations (including the official CNDH). On the first anniversary of the killings, the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), one of the nation's newest guerrilla movements emerged from the under- brush to declare its existence at a memorial service here. [See "The EPR: Mexico's Other Guerrillas," p. 33.] The Aguas Blancas massacre was rooted in the same nexus of environmental damage and land struggle that underlie conflicts in Tabasco and Morelos. In early 1995, a Figueroa crony was awarded contracts to log the forests in the sierra town of Tepetixtla, then an OCSS stronghold. "We saw how the lumber company was taking our forests without returning anything to the people," explains Rocio Mesino, a young OCSS leader who is now accused of being affiliated with the EPR. "We had to stop it." In April, 1995, furious OCSS farm- ers burnt two logging rigs and stopped trucks from car- rying cut logs out of the sierra, returning the wood to the community. The government issued arrest warrants, and the motorized police-the force that would be responsible for the Aguas Blancas massacre two months later-massed down in the coastal county seat of Coyuca de Benitez. Figueroa was kept informed by cellular phone of the tense stand- off in the sierra. On the very same day, the governor signed a five-year, $10 million agreement with a leading U.S. wood- products corporation to cut adjoining sierra forests. The deal cut with Figueroa was a felicitous one for Boise Cascade, one of North America's ten top timber corporations. The biggest buyer of federal timber sales in the Pacific Northwest, Boise has been closing mills in Oregon and Idaho because they lack harvestable trees. Now it had gained access to 2.5 million acres of Guerrero white and sugar pine, labor that is 30 times cheaper than back home, and environmental enforcement that, even at its most vigorous, is far more lax than in the United States. "We are farmers," says OCSS leader Mesino, who has since dropped from sight because of a Mexican govern- ment investigation of OCSS-EPR ties. "For us, the forests bring the rains and fill the rivers. For us, the forests mean life." Globalization and the increased access to natural 1 resource exploitation that it encourages also threatens a key southern Mexico forest and the indigenous farmers who populate it. Their struggle to stay on these lands has led to resistance, repression and human rights violations. Supporters of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) march in Tuxtla Gutierrez in December 1994, to protest fraudulent state gubernatorial elections. Under provisions of the reformed Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, which opened agriculture to pri- vate ownership in preparation for anticipated NAFTA- driven foreign investment, Boise entered into "associa- tion" with 24 forestry ejidos that share the sierra with the OCSS. The 200 million board feet Boise plans to take out of the Tecpan sierra (and export to the United States), will be replenished by reforestation that, according to Boise Papanoa mill superintendent Carlos Vega, will provide harvestable timber in ten years time. But just down the coastal highway, at the El Balc6n ejido mill, managers talk of a 35-year growing cycle. The truncated harvest plans casts the Boise operation as typical transnational rip and run. Mill sites are rented from the state, and the company's planer mill can be taken apart and reassembled wherever a new resource is available. Perhaps frightened off by the guerrilla threat in the region, Boise has acquired a site in Oaxaca- even though the EPR guerrillas have been active there. The 4.4 million-acre forest called the Chimilapas, ranging from lowland jungle to cloud forest, is the most vital oxygen bank in Mexico's south. Located at the saddle of Mexico's Tehuantepec isthmus in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, the forest is alive with toucans and tapirs, fabled quetzals and jaguars, and has been kept intact for millennia by the 12,000-strong Zoque people. After the Conquest, the Zoques, descendants of the Olmecs, purchased the Chimilapas ("Gourd of Gold") from the Spanish Crown for 25,000 pesos to fend off further invasion. Since then, the Indians have fought off multiple predators, including the Japanese, who, in the 1970s, strung a pipeline over the hump of the isthmus to carry oil from the port of Coatzacoalcos on the Caribbean side to Salina Cruz on the Pacific. Japan currently buys up to 14% of Mexico's export platform. Now the Zoques face global attack in the form of a transisthmus commercial corridor that threatens to devastate their turf, but has multinationals drooling. NACI4A REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 34REPORT ON MEXICO The transisthmus project revolves around the privati- zation and sale of government-owned railroads and ports and the construction of an ocean-to-ocean super highway. This megaproject is considered "the most important strategic decision the Zedillo administration will make" by Mexico's financial daily, El Financiero. Eighty transportation giants, including Burlington- Santa Fe and Union-Southern are bidding on Mexican rail lines. Also included in the prospectus is a maquiladora zone on the sun-baked Tehuantepec plain that a government planner tells the press could become a "Taiwancito," or "little Taiwan." The assembly plants For the Zapatistas, indigenous autonomy means that indigenous people themselves should control natural resources found on or under Indian lands--a direct challenge to the neoliberal idea that the land belongs to those who buy it. will draw power from projected hydro-electric dams in the Chimi- lapas, the source of southern Mexico's three largest rivers. Andres Barreda, a strategic resource inves- tigator at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), places the transisthmus project at the axis of Mexico's globalization. Barreda explains that the route-which would compete with the Panama Canal but shave days off travel time south-is de- signed to bring Asian Tiger exports through Mexico for distribution to prime consumer markets on the U.S. east coast. Midwest and southern U.S. distribu- tion would be handled through the developing inter- coastal canal system which connects the United States and Mexico. The global scope of the project chills Miguel Angel Garcia, who has spent years working locally, walking the Chimilapas to bring agrarian communities together on issues like a ban on slash-and-burn farming and the establishment of a campesino-directed "biosphere" that would allow Zoque farmers to manage the forests as an integrated agricultural and ecologically-protected zone. "Any road cut into the Chimis means a loss of valuable resource and opens the forests to wood poachers," he says. "The transisthmus will bring us the neoliberal pathology: prostitution, alcoholism, inflation, pollution. They'll probably even want to build a golf course here. The corridor is a death sentence for the Chimilapas, and Mexico cannot breath without this forest. I think that's an issue that involves human rights." perating "somewhere in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas," the Zapatista guerrillas have become international icons in the growing movement against the neoliberal economic model. The long strug- gle of these Maya farmers for democracy and justice is grounded in a landscape threatened by transnational exploitation and environmental destruction. While the pillaging of precious hardwoods is a century-old story in the Lacandon, oil and gas exploration is a more recent- and less open-one. "We do not even know how many wells Pemex has perforated in the Lacandon-they won't tell us," complains Ignacio March, director of the San Cristobal-based Center for the Investigation and Study of the Southeast (CIES), which keeps close tabs on the jungle. One drilling site that has been located is at Nazaret in the Sierra of Corralchen, above La Garrucha, an EZLN stronghold. It was on the road to Nazaret in May, 1993 that Zapatista rebels and Mexican army troops scrim- maged for the first time, leaving a death toll of three. Documentation obtained from Pemex indicates that Nazaret, perforated in 1990 and capped the following year, produced precious little oil (about 400 barrels a day), but over one million cubic feet of natural gas. Mexico needs natural gas as much as it needs petro- leum. The country has pledged to convert major indus- tries to the cleaner fuel by 1998 and the Zedillo admin- istration anticipates much foreign investment in infra- structure-mostly in newly privatized gas distribution lines. It has not, however, been easy to install such infrastructure in a rebel-controlled zone. The EZLN has been in the forefront of the struggle for indigenous autonomy, which incorporates concepts of control over the exploitation of natural resources found on or under Indian lands. This position directly challenges the Mexican Constitution, which says that the mineral wealth of the subsoil belongs to the entire nation. It is an even greater challenge to the neoliberal idea that the land belongs to those who buy it. As the process of globalization facilitates access to Mexico's natural resources, farmers and indigenous peoples, for whom land, water, forests and mineral wealth are linked to culture and community, are resist- ing such penetration with mounting militancy. If these struggles against the depredations that globalized resource exploitation inflicts upon rural lands and com- munities are ecological ones, then Mexico's environ- mental movement is among the most dynamic in the Americas. But regardless of definition, this emerging constellation of struggles over the land, the environ- ment and human rights is now a powerful engine of social change in Mexico.

Tags: Mexico, globalization, land, human rights, zapatistas

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