The Lacandon Jungle’s Last Stand Against Corporate Globalization
Plan Puebla Panama and the fight to preserve biodiversity and indigenous rights in Chiapas
By Ryan Zinn
Special to CorpWatch
September 26, 2002
Montes Azules, Mexico —
A battle is raging in Chiapas’ Montes Azules Integral Biosphere, Mexico’s
Garden of Eden. The last stand against corporate resource exploitation
is taking place in this remote, lush tropical jungle, home to Mayan communities.
Best known for ancient pyramids and endangered species like the toucan
and jaguar, this modern day “El Dorado” is now threatened by the search
for black and green gold: oil and biodiversity.
Caught in the cross-fire are indigenous communities, many of them Zapatista supporters,
who are resisting the devastating effects of corporate globalization. The
zone has recently been marred by violence and plagued by paramilitary attacks
against these communities. Local residents believe the attacks to be the
latest stage in the Mexican government’s efforts to oust indigenous people
from the Biosphere.
As a result, the struggle to preserve this biologically diverse region is being
pitted against the struggle for human rights and local/indigenous autonomy.
Here in Chiapas, the battle focuses on the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), a
development scheme that would turn Southern Mexico and all of Central America
into a corporate extraction paradise.
The Plan’s central component is a new network of transportation infrastructure, designed
to carry merchandise from the soon to arrive maquiladoras or light assembly
plants. As a concession to environmental critics, the Plan contemplates
the creation of 300 “bioreserves.” However, critics charge that these are
just window dressing for corporate exploitation.
The Future of the Lacandon Jungle and Montes Azules Biosphere
Montes Azules Integral Biosphere is North America’s last significant tropical rain forest. Located within
the Biosphere are some 28 “illegal squatter settlements,” which the Mexican
government and mainstream environmental organizations, like the US- based
Conservation International, charge are perpetrators of environmental destruction.
But local residents say that they are being scapegoated. The situation has been over-simplified
or misrepresented by blaming “ignorant farmers” and “indigenous communities”
practicing slash and burn agriculture, or leftist rebels who abuse the
environment. However, the underlying conflict is far more complex than
depicted by the Mexican news media or the Fox administration.
“We have been accused of destroying the jungle. But we as indigenous people are
the true guardians of the environment, we live together with the jungle,”
explained a Montes Azules resident who asked to be identified as “Juan
Gomez” — not his real name — for fear of reprisal by the army. “If the
jungle dies, we die with it,” he added.
Gomez, 33, is from the Tzeltal indigenous group, a third generation Montes Azules
resident, and a Zapatista. His humble home of wood and tin sits at the
base of the emerald green mountain that leads to the pristine Laguna Ocotal.
Juan was a coffee farmer until coffee prices plummeted to a dismal 40 cents
a kilo last year. He and his family survive on less than an acre of land,
planting corn, beans and squash.
Chiapas’ Lacandon jungle could be considered a microcosm of natural resource exploitation
and human rights violations. Since the Spanish Conquest, the Lacandon has
borne witness to virtually every stage of natural resource exploitation.
Timber interests reined from the late 19th Century to the 1970’s, followed
by extensive cattle ranching, accounting for 80% of the Lacandon’s deforestation.
Next came petroleum exploitation, hydroelectric dams and roads. Finally,
and in many ways the last stage of the conquest, is the current privatization
of water and biodiversity.
Since taking office in December 2000, the Fox administration declared that “water [and forests] are issues of national security.” And while much of northern Mexico goes dry, Fox
and local authorities have accelerated the process of overall water privatization.
Everything from municipal utilities to entire river valleys are on the
Chiapas contains some 40% of Mexico’s fresh water supply, and with half the country
desperate for water, Mexico’s southernmost state is prime target for privatization.
Monsanto and Fox’s old employer, Coca Cola, are poised to seize this new
market. Coke has already gained important access to local Chiapas aquifers
by pressuring municipal governments to create de facto water privatization
through preferential zoning laws. The Coca Cola Foundation has also established
trusts with local schools conveniently located near primary water sources,
thereby facilitating the company’s access to water.
As global oil stocks deplete and prices increase, Mexico will be under economic pressure to exploit
petroleum in socially and environmentally sensitive regions, like the Lacandon
jungle. PEMEX, the state owned oil monopoly, has been gradually dismantled
(privatized), and many analysts believe that Fox will finish the job before
his term is out. As Mexico supplants Saudi Arabia as the United States’
primary oil source, the Lacandon’s oil deposits may take center stage.
Though PEMEX has roundly denied the extraordinary quantity of oil in the Lacandon,
international and national researchers indicate the contrary. Seine River
Resources (Canada) and General Geophysics Company (France), among dozens
of other corporations, have already begun exploratory activities in the
Lacandon, including Montes Azules.
To accommodate the Plan Puebla Panama’s appetite for energy, the Inter-American Development Bank
(IADB) recently announced the initial funding of 5 hydroelectric dams on
the Usumacinta River, to the tune of $240 million dollars. Other major
rivers in the Lacandon are also set to be dammed under the Plan. Besides
hydroelectric production, water will also be pumped from the Usumacinta
to the Yucatan Peninsula to satisfy growing agro-export needs, thoroughly
damaging Mexico’s (and Guatemala’s) most important riparian system.
While the gradual privatization of Mexico’s Federal Electrical Commission (CFE)
has received most of the press, the dams’ social and environmental impacts
have been largely ignored. Unique biodiverse ecosystems will be lost forever;
tens of thousands of indigenous people will be displaced from their communities,
to say nothing of the soon to be submerged Mayan archeological sites like
Yaxichlan and Piedras Negras, local attractions in the region’s emerging
Union Fenosa of Spain or Alstom of France, both major players in privatization
throughout Latin America, are the likely frontrunners for the construction
or distribution contracts from the dam projects.
Notwithstanding Chiapas’ rich natural resources, the state contains a virtual plethora of tourist
attractions that have sustained the local economy in hard times. Renowned
for its Mayan archeological sites, Chiapas also possesses waterfalls, canyons
and lakes, making it an eco-tourist paradise.
However since the North American Free Trade Agreement mandated the modification
of the Mexican Constitution in 1992, ejidos or communal lands, can, and
are being privatized. Many of these eco-archeological sites are on ejido
lands, run by the local communities themselves.
Now, as the local coffee economy plummets, many ejido communities are economically
compelled to sell their ancestral land, migrate to the United States or
wait for promised jobs in the yet to arrive maquiladoras. Some community
run operations, like Aguas Azul, have already been partially sold to corporate
tourist operations, while others are resisting the hard times and the quick
Finally, as we enter the much-touted “Biotech Century,” biodiversity is emerging as the strategic
resource of the future. In accordance with this trend, bioprospecting,
or the search of genetic plant material of market value, is expected to
become a boom industry of the 21st Century.
Chiapas is well known in bioprospecting circles. Its rich history of plant based
traditional medicine and surviving landrace crop varieties make it a veritable
oasis for biopirates looking to patent biodiversity and traditional knowledge.
The Mexican government, the Washington DC-based Conservation International (CI) and
Grupo Pulsar (world’s number nine biotech company) have several “biological
research” stations located in the Lacandon. Alfonso Romo, a businessman
from Monterrey and possibly the most influential person in the Fox administration,
heads Grupo Pulsar. Pulsar, also a major donor to CI, is positioning itself
as the biotechnology leader of Mexico, if not all of Latin America.
CI has bioprospecting agreements with various corporations throughout the world,
and promotes bioprospecting as a means of conservation. For Romo, Chiapas
represents his most “passionate project,” and rightly so. Pulsar’s access
to the Lacandon’s riches guarantee a place at the table in the competitive
However, according to local communities and activists, the research stations carry
out biopiracy operations — that is, theft of natural resources — as Mexican
Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources turns a blind eye.
“Yesterday’s theft was gold and jade, our land, and precious timber. Today, they rob
us of ‘green gold:’ biodiversity,” notes ARIC-ID, a campesino organization
in the Lacandon.
Market Based Conservation
Parallel to the Plan Puebla Panama is the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC), an initiative of
World Bank, Global Environmental Facility (GEF), and other public/private
agencies and organizations.
The Biological Corridor would create and link over 300 protected areas from southern Mexico
to the Panama Canal. The plan focuses primarily on “wild” biodiversity,
but ignores the important connection between biological and cultural diversity,
and the local indigenous populations that maintain it.
Of the some $6 billion dollars budgeted for the Corridor, only $500 million is
allocated directly for traditional conservation efforts. The rest of the
budget supports conventional World Bank development projects. Meanwhile,
local communities have not been taken into account, much less consulted.
Many have speculated that the underlying motivation for the creation of the
Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is to “greenwash” the exploitation of
natural resources, including biopiracy, monoculture tree plantations and
“The government and corporations want us off our land to control the water,
petroleum and plants,” explained indigenous campesino Gomez.
In the Mexican context, the MBC will divert needed funds away from local initiatives,
created and backed by local communities. For Example, the experience of
community based Ecologic Farmer Reserves in the Chimalapas region of Oaxaca
has provided a proven alternative to top down conservation schemes, but
has been ignored by the architects of the Biological Corridor.
Laguna Ocotal, located in the northern region of Montes Azules, is a crystalline lake in the cross
hairs. The area, reputedly the reserve’s richest in biodiversity, is also
a Zapatista stronghold. The lake is particularly isolated. The closest
town, Ocosingo, is hours away. To arrive in Laguna Ocotal, it takes take
a crowded three bus ride from Ocosingo, followed by a four-hour walk up
muddy paths to finally arrive at the lake’s edge.
This part of the jungle is also the most militarized in the state of Chiapas,
with dozens of Mexican Army bases dotting the landscape. Why has the Mexican
military responded with such ferocity to a small, largely indigenous, poorly
armed guerrilla movement? The answer has more to do with Chiapas’ strategic
resources than any alleged military threat posed by the Zapatistas.
It is now clear that although Fox cannot annihilate the Zapatistas militarily,
his administration can successfully portray them as the environmental criminals,
Ignacio Campillo Garcia, Mexico’s Attorney General for the Environment Affairs
best summed up the government perspective in a press interview last year.
“These regions [the Lacandon] suffer from high un-governability, deterring private
investment. They [the Army] will guarantee the security for private investment”
The military’s role has expanded to include enforcement of environmental law, reforesting
and the pending violent “resettlement” of communities located within biosphere
reserves. Top on the list are the Montes Azules and Oaxaca’s Chimalapas
jungle. These regions also correspond to areas of social unrest or insurgent
Ironically, the Mexican Army has been implicated in both in trafficking of endangered
species, as well as logging in the Lacandon jungle. In fact, the Attorney
General for Environmental Affairs’ office currently has open investigations
on both charges.
Using the Army, which has an abysmal human rights record, to enforce environmental
protection is a pretext to further militarize the region, say local residents.
“The army is arriving not to protect the jungle, but to eliminate us,” notes
Montes Azules resident and Zapatista Juan Gomez.
Who Will Win?
In the final analysis, with so many forces converging on the Lacandon, who will win out? Ultimately,
the onus for the present crisis in Chiapas rests squarely on the shoulders
of the Mexican government. Not only is the government impeding indigenous
communities from developing local initiatives for natural resource “management,”
but also threatening them with violent retribution if they do not immediately
vacate their ancestral lands.
“This is our home, the roots of our people. [Relocation] means the death of our
people, our culture, our land,” says Gomez.
Ryan Zinn is the coordinator for Global Exchange’s Chiapas program. Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based international Human Rights organization, has worked in Chiapas, Mexico