Mexico: ‘Rural cities’ to control and exploit indigenous lands in Chiapas

The Government of Chiapas resettles indigenous peoples in new larger rural communities, ostensibly to improve their quality of life. Behind this hide economic interests and a plan to dismantle the EZLN.

Orsetta Bellani, Diagonal, 14/11/2010

In recent months there has been a great deal of movement in Santiago El Pinar: bulldozers scraping the ground, trucks coming and going, long lines of workers stacking bricks on the sides of the street, their mouths covered by bandanas to keep out the dust raised by cars and army vehicles  continually entering and leaving the military camp at this town.

It seems odd to see so much movement around a small indigenous community in the Highlands of Chiapas, an hour from San Cristobal de Las Casas. It is a tight cluster of houses around a church with a splendid view over the green mountains of Chiapas, some 3,000 meters above sea level. Here they are building a so-called ‘Sustainable Rural City’. There is already one ‘Rural City’ in Chiapas, in the north of the state, called Nuevo Juan de Grijalva. The ‘old’ Juan de Grijalva in 2007 was affected by heavy rains that forced the locals to be “relocated” in these new urban centres.

But Juan Sabines, the Chiapas state governor, announced the construction of these new centres long before the waters swept away the homes of many of the indigenous people of Chiapas. ‘Rural Cities’ are part of a plan announced by the governor to end poverty, which the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, supports because he says that these cities allow residents of the area to live better (vivir mejor). “In Mexico there is huge population dispersion. If the government has to bring an electric cable or a water pipe, it is much easier to take it to a thousand people than to ten families”, Calderon argued on a visit to the area.

However, this is not an initiative of the governor of Chiapas. The first Rural City in the Mexican state follows a political and economic plan designed by the Inter-American Development Bank, and in particular by the World Bank, a plan that is part of a project contained in a report published two years ago called New Economic Geography. In 2008 the presidents of Mexico, Colombia and other Central American countries signed a trade agreement, Plan Mesoamerica, a new version of Plan Puebla Panama, which aims to create trade corridors and infrastructure linking southern Mexico to Colombia. The transnationals thus have free rein to access the natural resources of the region and move them to the USA.

‘Rural Cities’ represent one more step in carrying out the project of dispossession devised by the multinationals, many of them already installed in Chiapas. Communities located in this area represent an obstacle to large mining companies. Now, the abandoned lands of the communities who go to live in the new centres will finally become available to multinational mining companies. Chiapas is rich in natural resources and in unspoiled nature which also offer great potential for tourism. To prepare the way, in recent years many roads have been opened to provide access to indigenous communities living in the jungle.

Building Sustainable Rural Cities has also become a business: many Mexican and foreign companies participate, through their foundations, in this project in order to make a profit.

But the programme goes beyond Rural Cities, it is part of the Chiapas Solidarity Development Plan, which, behind a front of providing welfare, hides the counterinsurgency strategy of the State Government against the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). The low intensity war in Chiapas is not only fought through the training of paramilitary groups, but also through offering support programmes to families. This leads to the division of communities, creating tensions between those who accept government support and those who, like the Zapatistas, do not. The Sustainable Rural Cities Programme seeks to control communities, plunder their lands and, above all, change their customs and traditions. It destroys the campesino-indigenous way of life, and community life disintegrates.

The 2007 floods were the pretext which allowed the government to relocate the population to the first Rural City in Chiapas, Nuevo Juan Grijalva. It would not have been easy to convince hundreds of people to leave their homes to be relocated in a sterile and impersonal place, where the only possibility for them would be to become cheap labour in the mines, tourist resorts, major assembly plants and the large plantations that would arise in the lands they have abandoned.

It is not clear what argument the Government of Sabines will now invent to convince the inhabitants of the four communities near Santiago el Pinar to leave their homes. It is not even known why this particular zone was chosen for the construction of the second Rural City in Chiapas.

A strategy against the Zapatista Army

The northern part of the state of Chiapas has been a base of operations for the Mexican Army since 1995. Santiago El Pinar borders on the communities of the autonomous Zapatista municipalities San Juan de la Libertad and San Andrés Sakamch’en. The creation of the Sustainable Rural City of Santiago El Pinar, where, according to the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Centre, some of the houses under construction are already reserved for a group of Mexican paramilitaries and their families, will enable the installation of military and police telecommunications towers. These installations will literally be on top of the two autonomous municipalities. There are also other municipalities nearby like the Zapatista Caracol of Oventic, which is a few kilometres from Santiago El Pinar.  The Caracol, as Japhy Wilson from the University of Manchester explains, “represents a concrete alternative, where the ‘scattered communities’ are involved in an intensive process of development of autonomous systems of health, education and production, outside the social control of the Mexican state and outwith the accumulative and destructive logic of capital”.

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