Mexico tries a new tactic against Chiapas rebels: conservation
By Bill Weinberg | 8.21.03
Lacandon Selva Rainforest, Chiapas, Mexico-As all eyes remain
on the messy aftermath of the Iraq war and the strategic oil resources
of the Persian Gulf, war threatens to return again to the United
States' own "backyard"-southern Mexico and Central America.
Here, as in the Gulf, struggles for control of petroleum and other key
resources are at stake.
In this past December's prelude to the anniversary celebrations of
their New Year's Day 1994 armed rebellion, the Maya Indian rebels of
the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Mexico's southern
state of Chiapas broke the official silence they had been maintaining
since September. The silence, and the breaking off of all dialogue
with the government, was an official protest to a Mexican Supreme
Court ruling that upheld a series of constitutional reforms on
indigenous rights. The constitutional reform package was ostensibly
based on the Zapatistas' peace plan, hashed out painstakingly with
federal legislators years earlier.
But the rebels charged that the plan was gutted, with binding
provisions on control of territory excised by Congress after the fact.
The accord was challenged in the courts by the rebels'
supporters-including indigenous groups and village municipal
governments across Mexico-as failing to meet international standards
on self-determination. But the Supreme Court ruled it had no
jurisdiction to overturn the so-called Indian Rights Law, sending the
peace process with the EZLN back to square one nearly nine years after
it was initiated.
In the December 29 communique, the Zapatistas asserted their defense
of the indigenous autonomous government in the Chiapas rainforest, the
rebel zone of the Lacandon Selva. The EZLN's Subcomandante Marcos
pledged that the rebels would resist the government's planned
removal of pro-Zapatista peasant communities from the Montes Azules
Biosphere Reserve, in the heart of the Selva. "There will not be a
peaceful expulsion," wrote Marcos.
At this moment, army troops are stationed in the area of the biosphere
reserve, awaiting government orders to eject the self-governing rebel
Indian communities. Since they emerged in the 1994 rebellion, these
jungle "autonomous municipalities" have been protected by the
cease-fire under which the peace accords were negotiated. Now
President Vicente Fox is preparing to move against the settlements in
the name of ecology.
While the Zapatistas say they will refuse to give up their guns until
their original peace plan is approved, they have hardly fired a shot
in anger since the truce that ended their 1994 uprising. Now, many are
growing impatient with the deadlock. On the January 1 anniversary
celebrations, 15,000 Zapatistas-masked but unarmed-marched on the
Chiapas highlands city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, which the rebels
had briefly occupied during the uprising.
Last October 12, hundreds of Zapatista sympathizers marked Dia de la
Raza by blocking the entrance to the main Chiapas military base,
Rancho Nuevo. They demanded demilitarization of Chiapas and protested
Fox's "Plan Puebla-Panama" (PPP), which calls for a series of
new superhighways, ocean-to-ocean pipelines and hydro-electric dams
across southern Mexico and Central America as arteries for global
trade and development.
"These lands belong to the people and we will not abandon them,"
said one protest leader. "The riches belong to those of us who have
lived here for centuries and we will oppose their
Ironically, just as protecting the biosphere reserve-the embattled
and shrinking heart of the rainforest-has become an urgent priority,
megadevelopment plans for the Lacandon Selva, put on hold when the
Zapatistas seized the jungle in 1994, are now back on track. At the
forefront are long-stalled plans for a giant hydro-electric complex on
the Usumacinta River, which cuts through the heart of the forest and
forms the border with Guatemala. The Inter-American Development Bank
has undertaken studies on funding of the project. The oil exploitation
plans, which would expand south into the rainforest from the
industry's toxic heartland along the Gulf Coast in Tabasco, are also
being revived after nine years.
More ironically still, the Zapatistas and their supporters claim that
even the conservation imperative in the U.N.-recognized biosphere
reserve masks a corporate agenda. The Maya inhabitants of the Selva,
the "autonomous municipalities" loyal to the EZLN, say
that-contrary to both U.N. guidelines and the peace plan
principles-Montes Azules is not being protected for the resident
indigenous peoples, but for transnational biotech corporations that
hope to profit from the region's vast genetic wealth.
Two years ago, the California firm Diversa signed a three-year
"bio-prospecting" deal with the Mexican government. Diversa, which
has a similar deal with the U.S. Interior Department for Yellowstone
National Park, was granted access to Mexico's biosphere reserves,
with areas like Montes Azules especially targeted. In the deal, the
government got $5,000 to train and equip personnel from the Mexican
National Autonomous University who are actually to collect the
samples; $50 per sample; and royalties between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of
net sales on products derived. By contrast, the U.S. Interior
Department in the Yellowstone deal got $15,000 in equipment, royalties
from 0.5 to 10 percent, and a $100,000 fee up front.
The University of Georgia and the U.K.-based Molecular Nature Ltd.
have signed on for a similar five-year project. This one, dubbed
"Drug Discovery and Biodiversity Among the Maya of
Mexico"-specifically targets Chiapas. Hoping to tap the vast reservoir
of ancient Maya herblore, the program was to receive $2.5 million from
the U.S. International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG), a
consortium of agencies including the National Institutes of Health,
the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Agriculture.
Researchers hoped to draw on indigenous healers' wealth of knowledge
on tens of thousands of curative plants in the region. The researchers
would share their data with private pharmaceutical and biotech firms
that were commercial partners in the deal.
But last year, a coalition of traditional Maya healers in Chiapas
declared victory following the cancellation of the ICBG program. The
Chiapas Council of Traditional Indigenous Midwives and Healers
(COMPITCH) led the campaign against the program, coordinating Maya
communities and international environmental groups, such as Canada's
Rural Advancement Foundation International. COMPITCH declared their
non-cooperation with the project, and denounced it as "biopiracy,"
asserting the impoverished Maya communities would receive little
benefit from any patents developed.
Another key player in the privatization of Chiapas biodiversity is
Alfonso Romo Garza, an agro-industrialist who has a joint project in
the biosphere reserve with Conservation International (of which he is
a board member). In 1991, Conservation International brokered a
"debt-for-nature" swap, buying a $4 million chunk of Mexico's debt
for the right to establish a genetic research station in Montes
Azules. But Romo's interests may lie less in conservation than
expanding control over global agribusiness seed stock through his
Monterrey-based Grupo Pulsar.
Romo is also an official promoter of Fox's PPP, with its visions of
interoceanic rail and highway links, industrial pods, and free-trade
zones stretching from the Panama Canal to the Mexican state of Puebla.
The Zapatistas decry the PPP as a "counterinsurgency" measure
aimed at bringing the restive Indian communities of the Mexican south
(and Central America) under industrial control.
There is an uneasy symmetry between this mega-scheme and the
paradoxically interlocking plan-backed by Conservation International
and the World Bank-to integrate Montes Azules into a "Mesoamerican
Biological Corridor," linking the biosphere reserves and other
protected rainforests of the isthmus as far south as Panama. This
symmetry raises the vision of these tropical forests surviving only as
corporate-administrated genetic colonies in the midst of devastated
zones of industrial sprawl.
Bill Weinberg, who frequently reports from Central and
South America, is the author of Homage to Chiapas: The New
Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso).