New Internationalist

Taking control in Chiapas

Issue 374

Hugh MacLeod reports on a Zapatista legal victory against top-down development.

If the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is the controlling mind of future trade in Central America, then Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) – a 25-year, $20-billion, infrastructure development project, building roads, ports, pipelines and electrical grids – will be its flesh and bones. Thousands of kilometres of new roads will turn Central America, so long a bottleneck to Pan-American trade, into a super highway. The link will boost the region’s economy to the benefit of 65 million people – around half of whom are classified as living in extreme poverty.

Or so say the Plan’s supporters.

Others, like Mexico’s indigenous Zapatista movement, are not so certain. They agree that the PPP will unlock the rich resources of the region. But they believe the big winners will be local élites and wealthy foreign companies. Central America will be turned into a giant export zone while native people and poor farmers are displaced from their land.

Critics like Mexican economist Miguel Pickard complain that the PPP’s creators – bureaucrats at the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and the Mexican Government – created the scheme without a single consultation with the people who would be affected. ‘The PPP was born with several problems,’ says Pickard. ‘Not the least of which was its antiquated notion that people, especially the poor, are objects of development, never its subjects.’

In the misty highlands of Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, the Zapatista movement that rose up a decade ago to resist the original North American Free Trade Agreement has now turned its attention to the PPP. They are determined not to be marginalized by this new project of economic integration.

It began with the arrest and acquittal of two campesinos in Chiapas in September 2003. When Juan Santiz Gomez and his son Fernando Santiz Perez were charged with illegal logging by Chiapas state police their case turned out to be a landmark test for the local Junta de Buen Gobierno (Council of Good Government). These new regional councils were established across Chiapas a few months beforehand to consolidate political power in the autonomous communities.

The defence argued that the two men fell under the governance of the Junta, not Mexican state law. And since they had applied to the council for a permit to harvest trees they had done nothing illegal.

Judge Carmen Velazco’s ruling in favour of the Junta made history. The Zapatista-led communities proved for the first time that they could enforce legal control over their resources.

Of course, the PPP will not go away. Over the past year the Mexican Government has poured thousands of new troops into Chiapas in an effort to prepare the area for ‘development’. Says Miguel Pickard: ‘ The PPP continues to be a custom-designed initiative for big-money interests and for the strategic interests of the United States.’

In response the Zapatistas have almost tripled the number of their own recruits in Chiapas. It sounds like a conflict about to bubble to the surface. But there may yet be a twist to the tale. Before the tropical forests start to fall the Zapatista legal victory and the notion of regional sovereignty could challenge the very foundations on which the FTAA will operate.

The battle might no longer be military versus rebel, but corporation versus local council.

Mugh MacLeod is a freelance journalist in London, UK.

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