Indigenous communities vs. AMLO: a standoff at the Tehuantepec istmus

Mexico plans to build a transisthmian corridor despite the implications for indigenous communities and their right to self determination

Raúl Fernando Pérez Lira
19 September 2019, 12.01am
The 'Calenda for life' and invitation to the event 'The isthmus is ours' in Juchitán, Oaxaca, September 6, 2019.
Image supplied. All rights reserved

Juchitán has just started mourning. The unexpected death of the artist Franciso Toledo shook the state. But the Oaxacan people don’t get a break. “The isthmus is ours” meeting, organised by the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), is about to start. The aim is clear, to articulate the views of the indigenous and peasant movements of Oaxaca, and beyond. In defence of the territories which the government aims to offer to electrical, mining and logging companies, among others.

“They don't inform us about how [this project] is going to affect our lives, how it is going to impoverish us more, if you are going to bring development, what kind of development, for whom, how, why, that is what we want to know, because we own the territories. We are the ones who have safeguarded these territories for hundreds of years since the time of colonization,” said Bettina Cruz Velásquez, a Binnizá woman who defends human rights, at the start of the meeting.

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Bettina Cruz Velásquez is a member of the Assembly of Indigenous Peoples of the Isthmus in Defense of Land and Territory. Her community appointed her as a delegate to the CNI and is also a councilwoman to the Indigenous Council. September 7, 2019
Image supplied. All rights reserved

Representatives of more than a hundred indigenous organisations met in Juchitán between the 6th and 8th of September 2019, along with free and independent media, environment, artists and Oaxacan people in general

Throughout the workshops and the panels, the inhabitants of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec presented a widespread feeling: the transisthmian corridor project announced by the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador looks to be carried out without taking into account the right to self-determination of indigenous peoples .

The transisthmian corridor, a project of yesteryear

The idea of establishing a commercial corridor between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico using trains, navigable rivers and roads has been the ambition of many leaders of Mexico, including Benito Juárez.

But Miguel Ángel García Aguirre, the founder of Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste and coordinator of the National Committee for the Defense and Conservation of the Chimalapas believes the idea of this project properly came to life during the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León (1994-2000).

“This project has been resumed by López Obrador. In 1996 the isthmus mega project was announced and because of that we founded the movement ‘the isthumus is ours’. We have had to re-establish the movement as it has once again become an issue.

“[The corridor] affects 80 municipalities of the isthmus, 49 in Oaxaca and 31 in Veracruz. It affects 11 indigenous communities as well as other black communities. It is the most biodiverse region of Mexico. 40% of the nation’s water that is captured in rivers is found here. There are countless ecosystems that create huge benefits for humanity,” said García Aguirre.

Shortly after the 2018 elections, López Obrador sent a letter to US President Donald Trump, explaining that he would take advantage of the “strategic location of this strip of national territory to unite the Pacific with the Atlantic” and thus facilitate transportation of goods between Asia and the eastern US.

In addition to the railway lines, the project would seek to expand the road, rehabilitate the ports of Salina Cruz and Coatzacoalcos, make use of local resources and install manufacturing plants. All following the model of the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) designed to attract investments through tax incentives and created under the presidency of President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2016.

“The plan is an inter-oceanic but dry canal, which competes with the Panama Canal alongside a bullet train that will run at 300 km /h and the brutal modernisation of the two ports hat involve dredging the Salina Cruz port and expanding the breakwater so that merchant ships and tanks can enter,” García Aguirre continued.

In the same letter, López Obrador explains to Trump that these projects will take into account "environmental impacts" and that the inhabitants and owners of the land would also be "taken into account, consulted and incorporated as a substantive part of the project."

However, one of the main complaints from the indigenous and peasant peoples that was presented at the assembly is that the due process of consultation established by Convention 169 (C169) of the International Labour Organization (ILO) has not been respected.

The development of the Transisthmian Corridor would lead to a whole new series of mining and energy projects in the region

Communities have reported a lack of information

Albino Pedro Juan, the speaker for the Ayuk people and the President of the Ejido Commissariat of San Juan Guichicovi, claims that the indigenous communities haven’t been presented with the relevant information. “They don’t inform us about the benefits we might experience, about what might affect us, what the environmental, social and cultural impacts might be. There have been some flyers, but most people can’t read them, especially since they have been written in Spanish.” Albino said in an interview.

At the end of August, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) told the president that the consultation processes of indigenous peoples in Mexico “is not carried out in advance, does not take into account the uses, customs, culture and due representation of the affected peoples and clear, precise and culturally appropriate information is not provided, and, moreover, they are frequently carried out in contexts of threats, criminalization and harassment, damaging their free character ”.

For Josefa Sánchez Contreras, a young zoque who works with the agrarian commission in order to follow up on the problems of San Miguel Chimalapa, the information and consultation processes of indigenous peoples in the region has been flawed from the beginning.

“Two concessions have already been made, the Canadian company Minaurum Gold and Gold Copper have been given access to just over 7,000 hectares of land which for several years the Ministry of Economy granted them the concession without any consultation or prior notice to our indigenous community ”alleged Josefa in an interview.

"The exploitation of this open pit mining would lead to not only the devastation of our territory but of three rivers [Ostuta, Espiritu Santo and Zanatepec] ... We have agreed that we do not want that project and the explorations have been forced to close," Josefa continued.

The development of the Transisthmian Corridor would lead to a whole new series of mining and energy projects in the region for the construction of all the necessary infrastructure, which would risk the environmental balance of the Chimalapas.

Once elected, López Obrador decreed the creation of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI) in order to “guarantee the exercise and implementation of the rights of indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples, sustainable development, as well as strengthening of their cultures and identities.” However, Josefa does not trust the reform of Article 2 in the Mexican Constitution, regarding the rights of indigenous peoples promoted by the INPI, because he believes that he will not grant indigenous peoples their full right to self-determination.

Despite its short life the INPI budget will decrease by nearly 40% next year, from 6 billion to 3.5 billion pesos, drastically reducing its ability to link with other internal democratic processes.

‘Convention 169 has been ignored’

“The discussion from communities themselves is that we are not interested in Convention 169, that it is already very overdue and that it is only looking for a way to agree on the form and mechanisms on how companies and the state can reach an agreement to indemnify or pay you , or to make you a member or partner of the same project. We have raised the issue of self-determination and that the community decides,” Omar Esparza, the national coordinator of the Zapatista Indigenous Agrarian Movement (MAIZ), said in an interview.

Omar believes that peoples have their own established democratic mechanisms that work without intervention, but that the problem of consultations goes beyond this.

“Much of what is discussed today is the right that peoples have to consultation. But what is not discussed is the right to be an indigenous community, before a consultation you have to have the territory,” continued Omar.

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More than 500 people participated in the assembly, representing about 100 national and international organizations and about twenty media. Juchitán, Oaxaca, September 7, 2019
Image supplied. All rights reserved

The loss of the sense of community has damaged the organizational processes of indigenous communities throughout the territory. Although many peoples and nations have maintained their traditional forms of government, others have not had the same fate, this facilitates the state and private companies’ ability to have access to the territories without going through information and consultation processes.

During much of its independent history, Mexico has promoted an educational system that excludes indigenous languages and encourages the use of Spanish as the only valid language to access economic, political and social opportunities. This policy of homogenization has resulted in the loss of the identity and community structures of indigenous peoples.

Carlos Manzo, part of the Zapotec community from Unión Hidalgo, criticises the authorities for discriminating against them when they no longer speak their language or when they get a university degree, depriving them of their indigenous identity. “Meanwhile, companies and privatisation keeps moving forward. Language is a resource of resistance, we must not allow it to disappear,” Carlos said in a radio interview.

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To date there are 23 wind farms installed in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Communities have denounced that wind turbines damage the land and are a danger to birds in the region.
Image supplied. All rights reserved

However, indigenous communities of the isthmus have still managed to win numerous appeals, as a result of internal decisions taken through assemblies and the constant insistence of the inhabitants. The chontal communities of Oaxaca, for example, managed to stop the installation of Minera Zalamera, a subsidiary of Canada's Minaurum Gold Inc.

This assembly of the CNI and the IGC along with other sympathetic organizations was a continuation of the meeting held in April in Amilcingo, Morelos. The main issue was the

Morelos Integral Project (PIM). In February this year, Amiltzinko community radio activist and founder Samir Flores was killed by unknown individuals. His colleagues suspect that his death was linked to his opposition to PIM.

In the final declaration of this CNI-CIG assembly, participants created a global day of struggle "in defence of our life and our territories" on October 12. Supporting the global campaign "The isthmus is ours", and demanded justice for women, the 43 students of Ayotzinapa and all the disappeared, those affected by the mining incident of Pasta de Conchos, Samir Flores and the political prisoner Miguel Ángel Peralta Betanzos.

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