Megaprojects Threaten Indigenous Communities in Mexico


Megaprojects Threaten Indigenous Communities in Mexico

August 4, 2009

An organizer for Communities Opposed to the Parota Dam addresses attendees at a community water and energy forum.

It's not easy to grow food when your water is contaminated or your land has been confiscated—or both. But these are very real challenges faced by small-scale farmers in southern Mexico today, where a development boom has brought an onslaught of dams and mines. In many cases, projects are dug right on ancestral lands, with no regard for the lives and livelihoods of the Mexican peasants who depend on the soil for their survival.

Megaproject Boom Taps Resources

The Mexican government has bet heavily on megaprojects—grand infrastructure works that tie Mexico into the global economy and enable national and foreign investors to extract the country's abundant natural resources and take advantage of its cheap labor.

These foreign-interest projects are extracting Mexico's energy and resources: New dams, wind farms and integrated electrical grids are being built to power air conditioners in Los Angeles. Foreign companies are mining valuable minerals and paying miserable wages for the poor to construct toll roads to funnel tourists and goods from Panama to the United States.

The development fever has a lot to do with Mexico's hungry neighbor to the North, where messy development projects are often unwelcome. "In the U.S., if they propose a dam, there's nearly a riot," Mexican economist, Octavio Rosa Landa explains. "American Energy companies look elsewhere to fulfill U.S. energy demand. Free trade agreements like NAFTA make that easier."

Poor and marginalized indigenous communities with little political power are easy targets for land and water grabs and are easily swindled by false promises of abundant jobs. Leading low-consumption lives, they generally don't derive benefit from the projects that are attacking their water and soil.

Local organizations band together to defend their land

AJWS's grassroots partners in Mexico are organizing to save their land from encroaching development. "I never thought I'd get involved in something like this," says Father Gabriel, a Catholic priest whose rural parish is slated to disappear under megaproject rubble. "It's David versus Goliath, but fighting for our rights is necessary."

At a community forum in April 2009, Carmen Alonso Santiago, director of AJWS's partner Flor y Canto, described a lawsuit that the community has brought against the Mexican federal water agency, CONAGUA. In what it claims is an effort to conserve water, CONAGUA recently placed pay meters on the small wells that small-scale farmers use to irrigate vegetables. But CONAGUA has done nothing to curb the massive waste and contamination wrought by soda and beer bottling plants and mines that use and pollute tens of thousands of liter of water a day. The suit demands that the water agency institute serious water conservation measures that don't discriminate against family farmers.

Adding insult to injury to indigenous communities pillaged for their resources, activists who speak out are often branded as terrorists and criminalized for their civic work. Riot police recently arrested more than 20 protestors—many injured—for peacefully occupying the San Jose del Progreso silver mine, owned by Canadian company Fortuna Silver Mines, Inc. In the neighboring state of Guerrero, AJWS's human rights partner Tlanchinollan provides legal support to farmers facing displacement by the proposed La Parota dam.

Development we can believe in

Grassroots organizations express fatigue with the label "anti-development," which has come to define those who protest the megaprojects. Adalberto Padilla, from Honduran NGO Economy for Life, suggests dropping the term "development" altogether: "These projects are the opposite of development. What they really are is destruction of ecosystems, human rights violations and forced migration."

Despite this dire panorama, there is a hopeful tenor to discussions. "We need to build a strong movement," says a member of Communities Opposed to the Parota Dam (CECOP). "This is a moment to manage our own lives so we don't have to depend on the government and private companies that don't care about us."

Villagers speak of silver linings in the global economic crisis and express great interest in working with international organizations like AJWS to build a solidarity network to press for policy change. Local farmers and indigenous communities seek autonomy to manage their resources locally. "This is the moment to raise our voices and propose alternatives," a farmer declared encouragingly.

AJWS's partners are immersed in a long process of resisting wrong-headed development models and experimenting with healthier alternatives—for their livelihoods and the planet.  Most pressing today is the need to protect vulnerable communities' most basic rights to have their voices heard, and to have a home, clean and abundant water and a plot of land to grow food. AJWS is proud to support this kind of community building, which prioritizes keeping the commons intact for future generations, rather than despoiling for short-term private gain.

By Daniel Moss, AJWS's country representative in Mexico