Many on the left, both in Mexico and abroad, welcomed the new president of Mexico, hoping that his progressive rhetoric of a “fourth transformation” augured a new era of positive change in Mexico. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) even convinced a number of Indigenous resistance groups that his administration would be favorable to their struggles against the neoliberal extractivist megaprojects that are devastating their lands.
Indigenous rights supporter Richard Gere recently met with AMLO in the National Palace, and even Noam Chomsky spoke up favorably after a meeting with AMLO during his campaign last year.
Obrador’s “National Development Plan,” unveiled in January, reads like a leftist dream come true, criticizing neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus, promoting renewable energy and agricultural independence, and, of course, championing the poor and dispossessed. The plan was promoted as a moral regeneration, and even invoked the ethics of “leading by obeying” (mandar obedeciendo), a famous Zapatista phrase that encapsulates their dedication to self-government from below.
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Six months on, he has proven that nothing could be farther from the truth.
In practice, AMLO’s presidency is a continuation of the neoliberal regime and of the clientelism that has characterized the Mexican government for ages. Like so many governments before it, the AMLO administration is using government handouts to divide communities and to undermine autonomous organizing efforts that threaten the capitalist class protected by AMLO.
Groups that have been most vocal against AMLO include the Zapatistas, the National Indigenous Congress (the CNI), the Movement in Defense of Land and Territory, and the many local-led resistances that have so far stood in the way of dozens of destructive capital projects.
AMLO’s creation of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples to manage Indigenous affairs is clearly designed to undermine organizations such as the National Indigenous Congress, an anti-capitalist Indigenous resistance movement focused on defending land and resources and protecting Indigenous culture.
The waffling and false promises of the AMLO administration bear a striking resemblance to the administrations of two other North American “progressive” leaders: former US President Barack Obama and current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
AMLO is a master at doublespeak: claiming to be against privatization and GMOs, canceling the new airport and Special Economic Zones and a number of other measures that favor specific segments of the population, such as people over 68 on social security, high school students, older students seeking job training, and workers receiving minimum wage, which went up from about $4.80 per day to a little more than $5 per day for most of the country, and up to slightly less than $10 per day in the border area in order to mollify demands by the Trump administration to reduce immigration to the US by raising wages at the border.
At the same time, however, AMLO assures the Mexican business elite there will be no radical changes in his administration, nor any abandonment of structural reforms that have been responsible for rising inequality, land dispossession, degradation of public education, increased dependence on agricultural imports, the devastation of small farming in the face of subsidized agribusiness, and dozens of environmentally catastrophic extractivist projects controlled by international corporations.
AMLO’s strategy appears to be directed at dismantling a bloc of capitalists privileged by previous neoliberal administrations in favor of another bloc of capital that will be loyal to him. Looking at a few important cases of AMLO’s policies on megaprojects can shed light on what is really driving the new administration that is hiding behind a mask of progressiveness.
AMLO’S Megaproject Strategy
AMLO is pushing through massive projects that previous administrations had been forced to suspend in the face of local — often Indigenous-led — resistance and legal challenges. In April, AMLO declared the end of the Special Economic Zones created by Peña Nieto in order to prioritize other megaprojects which, he claims, will improve regional development: the Maya Train, a new refinery in Tabasco along the Gulf of Mexico, the Trans Isthmus corridor and the Plan Integral Morelos, all of which involve dispossession of farmers and Indigenous communities. In some cases, construction and management have already opened to bidding by transnational corporations.
AMLO has been relying on hastily organized plebiscites to bypass the “consultations” with local Indigenous authorities that are mandated by the government when Indigenous territories are affected. Ironically, but perhaps not unusual for self-declared “left” regimes, AMLO has set in motion projects that former right and center-right governments had not succeeded in implementing.
The Maya Train
The cynically named Maya Train will link Palenque to Cancún, with several stops along the so-called Riviera Maya. The tracks will cover 1,500 kilometers and cross seven states. The new train route is planned to dramatically increase tourism, promising economic development for locals — the same promise that the Mexican government made when it first promoted the area as a tourist haven in the mid-1980s. The funding for Cancún’s infrastructure originally came from loans from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, using Mexico’s vast oil reserves as collateral.
What the government calls “development” is cheap luxury for foreigners on the backs of local workers and the ecosystem. The area is already overrun by big-box hotels, fine-dining restaurants and nightclubs which allow tourists from advanced capitalist societies to enjoy luxury on the cheap. All-inclusive hotels charge typically between $150 and $400 per day for guests to eat, drink, relax on the beach and get entertained without having to venture outside the hotel compound.
By comparison, local economic benefits from this arrangement are minimal. Already in 2003, a journalist reported that “finding a small, family-run Mexican taqueria or panaderia (a taco stand or a traditional bakery) [is] much easier in downtown Los Angeles or Chicago than it is in Cancún.” Tourists are spared the sight of the wretchedly under-serviced neighborhoods outside of town that are home to the army of service, maintenance and construction workers whose starting salary ranges from $180 to $420 per month for a six-day week. One can imagine how far that goes in a city dominated by international tourism.
Since the beginning of the tourist boom in the 1980s, Mexico’s Caribbean coast has suffered tragic devastation of thousands of acres of virgin jungle and mangroves, accompanied by the dispossession of lands of (mostly) Indigenous farmers, and the privatization of once mangrove-rich, pristine beach areas now converted into exclusive playgrounds for tourists. The companies making the most profit are big hotel groups like the Spanish-based transnational corporations Barcelo and Palladium, and construction companies like Obrascon, Huarte and Lain.
Even without the Maya Train bringing four million new tourists a year to the area, the sustainability of the coastal area is endangered by polluted beaches, reefs destroyed by wastewater and sewage, sargassum algae and polluted groundwater. One third of the planned railroad route traverses tropical forests that are home to one of the few remaining sites of extraordinary biodiversity in the world, including the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico’s largest tropical forest reserve and one of the last pristine rainforests left in Mesoamerica, believed to contribute significantly to oxygen production in the northern hemisphere.
Aside from the vast range of diverse plants and animals, the area supports numerous Indigenous farming communities, and contains thousands of ancient Mayan structures. In coastal areas, the train will pass next to the mangrove-rich Bacalar Lagoon, already compromised by tourist establishments. Mexico has among the most mangroves in the world, but they are disappearing at the fastest rate. Victor Lichtinger, Mexico’s former Secretary of the Environment, notes, “Once penetrated by the train, however, the inevitable consequence will be development at the expense of nature.”
Other opponents of the development, including 100 researchers and academics from the Yucatán peninsula, have written a letter to AMLO arguing that the interruption of biological corridors will cause the reduction and extinction of vulnerable species.
The Zapatistas and other Indigenous groups in the southeast of Mexico who adhere to the principles of autonomy, self-government and protection of the environment as part of the defense of their lands and territory, have vowed to fight against the Maya Train “death project”, which, they claim, will sound the death knell for the environment and therefore for their communities that have thus far survived 500 years of colonialism and extractivism.
Indigenous organizers have claimed, with good reason given the historical record, that this project sets the stage for future extractive megaprojects which transnational companies are chomping at the bit to initiate, as it provides critical infrastructure that will facilitate their access to these areas.
Dos Bocas Refinery
In July 2018, after AMLO’s election but before his inauguration, the president announced he was going to build the Dos Bocas oil refinery on the Gulf Coast in his home state of Tabasco. The refinery has been held up for years due to legal challenges based on environmental impact reports. AMLO’s administration uses a familiar argument: the refinery will guarantee Mexico’s energy independence as a principle of national security.
By October, a shady company contracted by Pemex (Petróleos de Mexico, the state-owned petroleum company) had deforested 230 hectares of mangrove forest, rain forest and agricultural lands previously used to cultivate mangoes and coconuts.
After AMLO came to power, a six-year-old environmental impact statement for a completely different project was dusted off to justify green-lighting the refinery’s construction. In March, the energy minister Rocío Nahle announced that five transnational corporations had been invited to bid for the construction of the refinery.
But on December 9, the initiation ceremony marking the first day of construction had to be moved to another site due to flooding of the construction site. Fernando Alvarez Noguera, a biologist specializing in mangrove forests, was not surprised. He had repeatedly warned that the destruction of mangroves would lead to flooding. He also explained that the refinery pollution would affect the health of the local population and that waste from the refinery would endanger oyster production in the area.
ASEA, the environmental agency in charge of protecting the environment from activities of the oil industry, rejected the phony environmental impact report and fined the company in charge of the works over $700,000 for illegal deforestation.
Trans Isthmus Corridor
AMLO has also announced the revival of a decades-old project to build an industrial corridor across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Trans Isthmus Corridor, a dry canal joining the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, would presumably compete with the Panama Canal for cross-continental traffic. It has been proposed under different names and scrapped over the decades by previous administrations.
Like the Maya Train, this project would traverse some of the country’s most important tropical forests and jungles containing great biodiversity and home to over 500 Indigenous communities. The area also contains the largest lagoon system on the Mexican Pacific. The industrial corridor would sever a major biological corridor for fauna and flora of North and South America.
People of the region are opposed to the industrial corridor, which involves building maquiladoras — manufacturing plants that import and assemble duty-free components for export and usually rely on cheap labor and relaxed labor and environmental laws — and new mining and fracking projects, all of which tap into the scarce water resources in the region.
A coalition of 50 organizations composed of Indigenous groups defending land and territory, as well as other farmers, ecologists and unions, signed a declaration directed at AMLO rejecting the megaproject. They claim the corridor “is a continuation of the projects of death driven by neoliberalism” and will cause “dispossession of land and water, environmental damage, criminality and a threat to national sovereignty, as well as violence against Indigenous people.” Furthermore, they fear that the project will lead to the militarization of the area under the newly created National Guard.
Fears that the megaproject will devastate local communities are based on what has transpired with similar development projects in the Isthmus recently. Under the green energy promotion of the previous administration, vast windmill farms were built across the windy flatlands of the Isthmus, accompanied by promises of development and increased well being for the population, which is majority Indigenous and dependent on agriculture and fishing. The concrete bases of the more than 1,600 wind turbines have severely disrupted the underground water flows of nearly 18,000 hectares of agricultural land.
The wind farms have had a devastating effect on the ecology and forms of life of the people who inhabit the area. Despite promises that they could continue to farm their lands, fences and security guards protecting the turbines prevent farmers from moving freely. The turbines leak oil into the soil and sometimes ignite. There are concerns that the windmills have affected the rainfall patterns in the area and many people have suffered mental problems from the incessant noise of the turbines.
The communities have suffered these and many other negative effects in order to provide electricity for export and to provide cheaper electricity to transnational corporations. Walmart, Bimbo (the world’s largest food processing corporation), Grupo Mexico and Penoles (two of Latin America’s largest mineral extraction and processing companies) are investors in the wind farms as well as recipients of the electricity produced. None of the electricity generated by the wind farms serves the local communities.
Meanwhile, the cost of electricity has skyrocketed in the small local communities, which use tiny amounts of it in their homes. People resisting the Trans Isthmus Corridor understand the consequences of the project, but they are derided by government officials and corporate spokespeople who dismiss them as backward and incapable of understanding the benefits of modern technology.
Plan Integral Morelos
In 2009, the Mexican government approved the Plan Integral Morelos (PIM), granting construction contracts to transnational corporations for the construction of two massive thermal power plants, fueled by a 160 kilometer-long natural gas pipeline, part of which would run along the slopes of the active Popocatépetl volcano.
The plan was devised without consulting the local Indigenous communities whose lands were affected. This is a violation of Mexican law and international agreements — Mexico is a signatory of International Labour Organization Convention 169, which protects Indigenous lands.
The pipeline was to cross 60 communities in three states (Morelos, Puebla, Tlaxcala), including sacred Indigenous sites and thousands of hectares of agricultural land. The plan included an aqueduct to divert 50 million liters of water daily from the Cuautla River to cool the turbines; it is water that local communities depend on, but it would be dumped back into the river after “treatment.”
More than 900,000 people were affected by these plans, including 50,000 Indigenous people from 37 tribes, many of whom make a living growing corn, beans, squash and tomatoes and raising cattle and pigs. Aside from dispossession, destruction of agricultural lands and contamination of waterways, the pipeline poses an additional risk of explosions due to volcanic activity.
For 10 years, local communities carried out legal challenges, meetings, direct actions blocking construction sites; they successfully obstructed the construction and prevented the plants from opening. While on the campaign trail in 2014, AMLO visited the area and vowed to cancel the project, promises that garnered him votes in the area. But within weeks of his inauguration, he announced his intention to approve the project, pending “consultations” mandated by Mexican law.
The hastily organized referenda took place on February 23 and 24. They went in favor of the government’s proposals, but were widely criticized for, among other things, providing false information on the project, and preventing environmentalists and local resisters from supplying information to voters. The visiting representative on Indigenous Affairs to the UN noted that AMLO’s consultations do not fulfill the obligations of Mexico under international law that protects Indigenous groups. She warned the government, “The Indigenous consultation should not be understood as a simple process of socialization on decisions previously taken by the State.”
The Indigenous Asamblea Permanente de los Pueblos de Morelos, (APPM) many of whose members supported AMLO in his three attempts to get elected for president, published a declaration against Plan Integral Morelos, invoking the 20,000 inhabitants of Morelos who voted against the power plant.
A few days before AMLO’s contested consultations, local activist Samir Flores, a member of the APPM, was gunned down in front of his house. The day before, Flores had publicly denounced the PIM in an effort to convince the government to cancel the project. Local and national groups who form part of a network of “defenders of land and territory” blame the murder on government’s tacit support of armed groups, and the lack of will to investigate what they consider to be a political murder designed to intimidate their resistance efforts.
Lopez Obrador: Even More of the Same
Three of the projects described here are unfolding in the very parts of the country where Indigenous forms of life are the strongest, and where resistance to megaprojects is vocal and organized.
The AMLO government, like so many others before it, is throwing this population under the bus of capitalist development. For those organizing resistance to the “megaprojects of death,” as the opponents call them, the situation feels more and more like a war against the people, especially with the creation of AMLO’s new military apparatus, the National Guard.
AMLO plans to deploy the National Guard in every town throughout the country, supposedly to aid in the fight against crime and corruption. But it is under the command of an active military person, and composed of current members of the Military Police, the Marine Police and the Federal Police. As almost everyone in Mexico is aware, these are the same corrupt organizations that protect the narco-criminals and the paramilitaries, who in turn protect and support the capitalist extractive interests.
Mexican military and police are notorious for the murder of civilians and the widespread abuse of human rights (for an excellent in-depth analysis of the role of policing and militarization in the rise of narco-criminality and its repressive effect on Indigenous organizing against megaprojects, see Dawn Paley’s Drug War Capitalism).
Indigenous groups active in the defense of the land and their territories know full well the National Guard will inevitably serve to dispossess communities of their lands and to support the megaprojects. Recently, Zapatista territory, one of the few areas in the world where anti-capitalist movement has succeeded in establishing autonomous territories, has experienced a rise in aggression by the military, the police and the narcos, including frequent flyovers by armed planes and military helicopters. The Zapatistas and the National Indigenous Congress have denounced the rising militarization of Chiapas and called for a complete withdrawal of the army, especially from Zapatista territory.
In light of this record, only a few months into his presidency, AMLO can no longer in good faith be held up as any kind of ally in the struggle against neoliberalism.
Instead, we must add our voices to the many in Mexico who are fighting against the forces of capitalism and modern-day settler colonialism as they resist the devastation of territories and ways of life that hold important keys to any future other world. They are on the front lines of a global war that demands our solidarity.