Conferences, forums, backyard meetings, neighbors, farmers, fishermen: the people of Oaxaca, just as their neighbors in Chiapas and Guerrero, are coming together to talk about the invasion of the transnational corporations. What can they do? “First, identify the enemy,” says human rights lawyer Javier Balderos Castillo.
Mexico, and especially the impoverished southern tier, could use cash that might be produced by developing renewable energy, the transnationals’ hottest projects. They have the weight of “good” on their side because wind and water are “clean”. As experience has proved, however, such development is rarely produced to benefit of the people who live on the lands. The income goes instead to enrich the transnational corporations themselves, who don’t much worry about possible damage – present and future – caused to the environment or the beauty of the countryside by “renewables” which leave tons of cement in the ground, overwhelm the natural landscape by their size, damage wildlife, or flood lands. The profits go partially as pay-off to the federal and state governments of Mexico, which enable the transnationals to use and sell national resources in direct contradiction to the Mexican national constitution.
National sovereignty, the defense of the land, water, and other resources, and particularly of the rights of the Indian peoples to be consulted about the disposition of their own territory, came to the fore once again – one in a long series of wake-up calls –on the weekend of September 22, 2007. In the small town of La Ventosa on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the municipality of Juchitán, Oaxaca, a national forum educated groups on how to resist.
The forum, which registered 200 attendees, thirty-six towns and twelve organizations, is a small aspect of a greater international movement in defense of water and energy, the “Latin American network against dams and for rivers, their communities and the water” called REDLAR for its Spanish initials. REDLAR is an organization of those concerned about petroleum, electricity, water and land, united around the anti-neoliberal slogans “we can not permit that we become slaves again” and “rescue the countrycountry”.
REDLAR has formed twelve committees in defense of the land across Mexico. Their poster proclaims, “Let’s not permit the new invasion,” over a depiction of three sailing ships called the Niña Iberdrola, the Pinta Fenosa, and the Santa Maria Endesa. The three Spain-based companies they are named for are the main transnational corporations that stand to earn billions of dollars from the sale of wind and water generated electricity in Mexico. Iberdrola leads the wind projects on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
The struggle of the Isthmus region of Oaxaca began in the small town of La Venta in 1999. By 2003 Iberdrola had a done deal. The La Venta Solidarity Group and Ucizoni (Union of Indigenous Communities of the North Zone of the Isthmus) allege that the town authorities were paid off to permit rental of ejido (communally owned) lands, holding a fictive assembly where 35 of the 362 landholders attended. The alleged payoff was 700,000 pesos ($65,000).
By now local residents, local organizations, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD, which is very strong on the Isthmus), along with Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) activists like Roberto Girón Carrasco (who himself is with the PRD, Section 22 of the CNTE of the Education Workers Union, State Councilor of the APPO, a member of the La Venta Solidarity Group, of the Isthmus Peoples’ Front in Defense of the Land, Water and Natural Resources, and a resident of La Venta, plus acting as our guide) are all mounting heroic efforts to beat the clock on development. The jumble of offers, bribes and rates of payment form an intractable confusion among the residents of various towns, who try to compare rents and fees. The only solution must be a region-wide solution, which the government is not willing to put forth.
La Venta and the area around it is known as one of the world’s windiest landscapes, a corridor going north from Oaxaca’s Pacific coast and an important site for the proposed Plan Puebla Panama. In the year 2003, agents came to town to offer the people, who live by marginal farming and cattle raising, the chance to rent parcels of their land. The rental lease spans thirty years (coincidentally the time one might expect these wind generators to last without important technological changes). The original offer was 260 pesos per month, or 3,120 (roughly $290) annually per hectare on which to build a wind generator, plus 1,500 pesos per hectare for land to be left open. One hectare of land can hold up to three generators, depending on their size. Of the thirty-six ejido residents who accepted the offer, only two or three knew how to read.
Payments have varied according to the population’s awareness. In Santo Domingo Ingenio the offer was 3,250 pesos per hectare annually or 1.5% of the energy income generated on it; up to 11,250 per generator and 14,000 per hectare affected by road construction. Esteban Ríos, from that town, was quoted in July 0f 2007, “they offered us annually 12,500 pesos per generator and 1.38 pesos per square meter to occupy” affirming, “we want what is ours to remain ours, to go on producing, we want them to bring sources for work for us, not for foreigners, business and the government.” Although some people were employed in the initial construction of the fifty meter high generators, fixed employment consists of 29 administrators and technicians
Unrented areas can be used normally, for producing sorghum and animals, so that fawn-colored cattle graze in the surrounding areas while the windmills turn. The electric transmission towers dominate the flat landscape like ungainly robots from a science fiction film, with power lines running from transmitter to transmitter. Some people have expressed fear that living beneath a transmission tower causes brain cancer; the cattle serve as living test cases.
At present, about 1,000 hectares hold 98 generators in La Venta. According to the coalition, the project has drained the lagoon of Tolitoque, and caused great mortality among the birds that migrate along the same route. Eolic Park La Venta II is under construction amid turmoil regarding the rental of parcels of land. The army quarters nearby, and the police defend the construction while the landowners, wakened to the swindle they signed on to, demand that the government declare the contracts null and permit renegotiation. The Solidarity Group demands and explains the following: “Departure of the State, Federal, Ministerial and Private police from the area; negotiated solutions to the problems of the lands of La Venta. We don’t oppose the projects, but first we want to be truly consulted and paid fairly, with justice and not with misery. We oppose the exploitation through deceit that the Transnationals in the Isthmus are perpetrating.”
And that’s just one small portion of the struggle.
A Century-Old System of Communal Lands at Risk
Atop one of the overpass bridges near the wind park, two young ornithologists, one from the university of Puebla and the other from the National Autonomous University (UNAM) in Mexico City, perched on the cement sidewall with open notebooks and field glasses. The fellow from UNAM told me that the problem is not instant mortality for the birds, but changes in the insect and air patterns. Along with bats, birds pollinate and seed many plants, which eventually will also suffer reduced numbers. Both birds and bats also eat insects, which affect harvests. The two young men were tracking with binoculars and notepads the activity along the wind-way, an international migratory route.
According to the municipal agent of the neighboring town of La Ventosa, Moisés Trujillo Ruiz, 90 percent of the landholders in La Venta accepted the offer to rent their ejido lands. (Ejidos were created after the Mexican revolution in 1917 to provide land for the peasants of that time. Ejidos, community areas, were severely damaged by Carlos Salinas Gortari, who amended the Constitution to allow privatization in preparation for neoliberal investment.) The farmers did not know with whom they were dealing as proxy agents knocked on their doors. The indigenous men had no lawyers; they have yet to see the printed contracts. They knew nothing of the enormous profits to be made. Environmental impact studies were not made public, and no public information meetings were held. In 2006, Iberdrola of Spain poured tons of supporting concrete into the ground. According to sources at the La Ventosa forum, fifteen landowners did not sign the thirty-year lease, thus retaining two hundred hectares inside the proposed La Venta II wind farm area.
While residents oppose La Venta II under the present terms, the federal and state governments have opened a local office. Officials now pay 200,000 pesos to those who will agree to rent. According to Jonás Marcos Ayala, a PRD member who supports the Plan Puebla Panama, the people should “ask for more money and free electricity for the town.” He added, “the new highway will bring jobs, and anyway, people can take the money and move away.”
The residents of La Venta presently pay for electricity at the same rates as everybody else. In fact, they use very little, since the smallest possible bulbs hanging bare from a ceiling cord light their homes, and other than the television, no electric appliances are used. Mexico does not need more electric production for its own use. The transnationals have other plans: send the power north, up the Isthmus, to the United States.
Now the government, Trujillo Ruiz alleges, is offering bribes to the neighboring town leaders of La Ventosa, to convince the people who resist renting their property. The government pays individuals here up to 2,000 pesos to sign the rental agreements if they hold 50 hectares. Those who can only rent smaller parcels receive less – 1,500 pesos. According the independent daily paper El Sur on July 2, 2007, “What they did is they decided to take common terrain, belonging to the community, but weeks prior to the inauguration of the wind park La Venta II, they (the landowners) were thrown off by public force and there exist eighty prior investigations against the group of ejidatarios, in addition to several arrest orders.”
In other words, some town authorities are taking the cash while some landholders have been put under arrest warrants and threatened, in a carrot and stick approach.
The task facing the activists is to raise consciousness among all indigenous peoples regarding their rights to defend their lands and cultural integrity – a task proceeding town-by-town, person-to-person. Unlike Ayala, Trujillo and others came to the forum to help unite the peoples of the area in opposition to the neoliberal projects on the Isthmus.
One way to measure their success is by seeing how many families step forward as “indigenous”, a designation that in the past was denigrating, but which is now the key to certain legal actions. Constitutional laws on human rights are universal and universally ignored. The Oaxaca constitution further guarantees local indigenous rights, which are also ignored.
The slow legal process is one of the main avenues for objecting to the neoliberal projects. Since the Mexican government is not known for observing its own constitution, it struck me as pie-in-the-sky to pursue that path, but I was told by Javier Balderas Castillo that indeed the constitution declares that all national resources and energy must be in the hands of the Mexican government, to hold, sell, transport and use for the public benefit. Every community has the right to consult its own attorneys, and each can make its own decisions. Each person has the right to protect his land if he doesn’t want to rent, or set his own price if he does.
At the forum Juan Carlos Beas Torres, a long-time advocate of indigenous rights in the area and head of UCIZONI, also pointed out that the transnational project is moving very swiftly, with increased offers in the past two years tendered to the different communities on the northward route of the isthmus. Construction of highways is contemplated with no consultation of the residents and no public information. Highways, Beas declared, are of no benefit to the local people and would consume 130,000,000 hectares on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. “They are paying in crumbs,” Beas said, referring to the rents, while the residents pay their bi-monthly electric bills like everyone else. Furthermore, handing over the cultural patrimony to foreigners, destroying national sovereignty violates the constitution. “If we don’t fight now, our children will pay.” People are aware of the “bitter experiences” such as those suffered by the mining towns, with helicopters circling, and water contaminated. They are aware of the struggle against the big dam in La Parrota in Guerrero. They are learning how to organize resistance.
Franco Lopez from the town of Union Hidalgo cited the famous Benito Juarez statement, “Respect for the rights of others is the way to peace,” and pointing out that such respect “simply doesn’t exist. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz is part of this project. More than ten people have been killed. There is a general disregard for rights and laws, they try to force people off their lands.”
The Local Groups Fighting Behind the Scenes
Perhaps more interesting is the behind-the-scenes meetings of small groups who form the backbone of the resistance. One of the resisting groups is the community radio station of Umalaleng. Martín Rosas, a bilingual teacher from the fishing town of San Francisco del Mar, explains that this “pirate” station of 30 kilometer range is working to rescue the indigenous language and culture of San Francisco and San Dionisio del Mar nearby.
We rested on the back porch overlooking a bare yard where a man mended fishing net. The woman of the house cooks over a charcoal heated “oven” typical of Juchitán, consisting of a clay barrel open at both ends. The woman sticks the tortilla dough to the hot sides, and peels it off when it’s baked. The roof of the open shed kitchen serves to dry fish, which were lined up on the hot surface like pancakes. When I spoke to the woman, she had little idea of what the struggle involved. She spends her day in chores, and doesn’t read or go to meetings. Typically the local women know more of God than they do of neoliberalism, although younger women were visible at the forum.
Rosas said he was concerned with the possible contamination to sea fishing areas by residual oil thrown off into the ground by the wind generators. The Ikotz Civil Association, twenty-two people who are professionals, campesinosand fishermen, talk about the options. One clearly is development of ecotourism: the beach at San Dionisio receives a sea serene and lovely in its sheltered lagoon. The fish baked on the beach in a similar clay oven tastes like a gourmet production, served in the simplest style possible. The bathrooms use buckets to flush, paper napkins are hard to come by, washing is done in buckets and consecutive sinks. But the baked fish…ah… Another economic option is the installation of greenhouses, and local collectives for growing crops. But it’s a slow road.
For the past fifteen years the Center for Human Rights of Tepeyac of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, with twenty members, has worked with the local church to teach. Not catechism. They teach that they have the right to hold their ejido unchanged. That the constitution guarantees not only federal use of resources for the common wealth, but also guarantees a life of dignity, the right to obtain food. “The government says there is no land to share out. The government won’t permit it. This land has to suffice.” However the law also says that if land is inhabited without title peacefully for five years, or ten years with violence, it becomes the property of the inhabitant. The government cannot reclaim lands that have been inhabited peacefully for many years. Meanwhile the town of Jalapa del Marquez suffers the installation of the electric plant used to transmit the power. It’s ugly. The industrial tinker-toy constructions cannot stand along with ecotourism.
The same constitution that the government violates says that no private company can generate electricity and then sell it to the government grid. One proposed solution for the pueblos is that instead of forming a corporation with shares, cooperatives be formed, in La Ventosa especially, which is next in line for wind generation. The cooperative example cited is Cruz Azul, a Mexican company known as the second largest cement producer in Mexico. “A cooperative could be formed, but the government doesn’t want it because of their affiliation with the transnationals,” Javier Balderas told me. “Because of NAFTA and the European Accord, foreigners can own Mexican land thirty meters back from the coast. The political bent is neoliberal. To sell this land the government claims it doesn’t have for the people. Zedillo works for Proctor and Gamble, and that’s how they do it. First an official makes it possible for the transnational to take Mexican resources. Then when the official leaves office, this transnational gives him a well-paid job.”
The lawyer went on, “The government has an obligation to rectify the harm done by these first contracts (for ejido land). They are violating the right of the indigenous people to be consulted. Articles 2-19 of the constitution guarantee economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. We demand information. The government doesn’t need more electricity; it is just for foreign investment. We denounce the transnationals.”
The national mobilization for land and water now includes organizations and peoples from Guerrero, Chiapas, Campeche, Puebla, Tabasco, State of Mexico, and Oaxaca. In most cases the population does not want mega-projects that flood entire towns or produce great quantities of centralized energy. Small systems permit less destruction and disruption, while also taking into account local use for local households.
Small is better, more efficient, more people friendly – and doesn’t include transnationals.
By Nancy Davies
October 8, 2007
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