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Sustainable cities… or strategic hamlets?

16 May 2011

I’m having some very odd computer problems (a virus perhaps?) so if the formatting is off, and there’s a lack of accent marks where there should be, there’s not much I can do about it, and am muddling through.

There have been several articles around the left end of the blogosphere (Latin American division) about the Chiapas “Rural Cities Initiative”.  Jeff Conant in Upside Down World explains:

In 2009, the state launched and began widely publicizing its Climate Change Action Programme (CCAPCH). The plan includes vast biofuel plantations, forest carbon offset projects, and a statewide “productive conversion” initiative to convert subsistance farmers into producers of African palm, Jatropha, and export-oriented crops such as roses, fruits, and coffee.

 The plan also includes a program called the Sustainable Rural Cities initiative; under this plan, the state is developing between six and twenty-five prefabricated population centers designed, according to the state’s publicity, to “promote regional development, combat the dispersion and marginalization of local peoples, and play a significant role in making efforts [to develop infrastructure and provide basic services] cost-efficient.”

Conant goes on to quote Chiapas Governor Juan Sabines as stating that the goals of this project are “to mitigate poverty, to mitigate the risk of people facing climate-related disasters, and to reduce the threat of global warming. It is based in the Millenium Development Goals of the United Nations, which in Chiapas are obligatory.”

The complaints — everything from a stumplifyingly dull design (as planned communities tend to be, especially those built not for the rich but for the poor), the high cost of utilities and problems with transportation — are the things you’d expect in any planned community.  However, given that the project is designed both to “free up” land for large-scale development (industrial farming) and to set aside land for biosphere protection* there are some more sinister connotations put on the projects, fostered — as all controversies are in Mexico — by historical reference.  From Sustainable Rural Cities, a Nightmare Comes True in Chiapas :

“Rural cities were not invented by the state and federal government of this administration, but have a very long history, going back, for example, to the colonization of Latin America. At that time they were not called ‘rural cities’ but were known as ‘reducciones’, with the aim of making control of the population easier and more efficient in order to collect taxes (tribute), to use the people as labour for mines, plantations (most frequently sugar cane), for the construction of cities for the Spanish, and, of course, for political and military control. It is also true that then, as now, they argued that there would be benefits for the population directly affected, that by concentrating a population they can be provided with access to basic services of potable water, education, health, etc..”

The first of the Sustainable Rural Cities was Nuevo Juan de Grijalva, which was hastily built, to replace the old Juan de Gijalva, wiped out in a mudslide triggered by a dam failure.  I saw it (and still do) as somewhat admirable in that the Mexican government was able to provide shelter and services to the  affected population after a disaster in record time, espcially compared to the cock-up following the hurricanes in Lousiana and surrounding states.  Being built overnight (for all practical purposes), one expects it to be somewhat raw, and expects that the place will develop its “personality” only with time.  One thinks of colonias that spring up (or suburban communities) that have a certain sameness to them originally, but as people express their own ideas (painting their houses, adding shops in their front rooms, etc.), cobbling together a transit system, etc.  these places eventually take on an existence as a viable community.

HOWEVER… that’s assuming Nuevo Juan de Grijalva was an unplanned planned community, and wasn’t just built out of some pre-existing concept, but was rushed into execution after the dam-burst.  That is, as Naomi Klein would have it, the “shock doctrine” in practice.  There’s good evidence of this (again from “A Nightmare Come True…“):

…in 2008 the presidents of Colombia, Mexico and other Central American countries signed the trade agreement Plan Mesoamerica (a new version of the Plan Puebla Panama). The purpose of this plan is to create an infrastructure and trade corridor that connects Southern Mexico to Colombia, and this area is intended to serve big capital. On the other hand, the political and economic plan of the World Bank, outlined in their report entitled ‘New Economic Geography’, suggests that economic integration is the fundamental way to bring development to all corners of the world. This report emphasizes population density as a key factor for the economic development of any country.

The construction of Santiago El Pinar, the second SRC, clearly unveils another facet of the project: that of a counterinsurgency strategy devised by the Chiapas government against the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). Located very close to the Zapatista autonomous municipalities of San Juan de la Libertad and San Andrés Sakamch’en, the ‘city’ breaks down the traditional ways of life, and forces people to enter the capitalist mode of production of small businesses oriented towards the external market…

What makes me sit up and notice these new communities is that one sees the same sort of developments in the other two “conservative” countries in the “Plan Mesoamerica” community:  Honduras and Colombia.  Adrian Pine (Quotha) translates one organization’s scathing denunciation of Honduras’ “Charter Cities” program thus:

The principle of Charter Cities is cased in the idea of wanting to create an “ideal” model society in the context of a state of crisis, imposing a political and economic regime that privileges the investment of transnational corporations in an isolated region of the base country to promote an image of well-being for its preselected inhabitants but meanwhile the profits are sent back to the original country of the transnational in what is in essence a simple expropriation of the base country’s land and workforce.

It is important to highlight that charter cities deepen the social divide in a collapsed country; that the sovereignty of a country that boasts of its independence is exposed as a farce when it loses power over the “model” region and the economic development of the charter city is not replicated in the host country.

In Colombia, since at least 2003, scholars have been noting that the U.S. sponsored “Plan Colombia” called for forcibly moving rural communities into consolidated villages, similar to the “Strategic Hamlets” of the Vietnam War.  In Colombia, at the time (and up to the present), the “war on drugs” has been sinonomous in the minds of at least some in Colombia (and, alas in 2003 that included the ruling administration) with a war on leftists, labor unions, rural discontent and anyone and anything opposing the regime in power.

In all these examples, what you basically see is an attempt to remove rural people to clear the way for large-scale corporate businesses:  mining and industrial farming for the most part.  What the Colombian example shows us, however, is that the “war on drugs” can be used to further the call for consolidating rural communities as well as anything.

I don’t quite sign off on Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” in that I think any regime of any political and economic stripe will use disaster (and sometimes foment disaster) to impose ideological programs.  And I’m not a great one for buying conspiracies.  With that in mind, I was taken with Lynn Brezosky’s report for the San Antonio Express-News from San Fernando, Tamalipas.  While better-known for mass murder and control by gangsters, it’s also an extremely important economic region:

… sorghum makes this region, about 85 miles south of the border, Mexico’s grain basket, he said, supplying breweries with barley and feed for the nation’s farms and ranches.

It’s a land of workers who have bounced back from hurricanes and prolonged droughts, 113-degree summer days and sudden winter freezes. Its Gulf of Mexico bay teems with shrimp and trout, its ground is rich with natural gas, and its coast is being eyed for what Requena envisions as the world’s largest wind farm.

But it’s also home to a key highway linking the port cities of Veracuz and Tampico to the border cities of Reynosa, opposite McAllen, and Matamoros, across from Brownsville.

The state claims to be unable to secure the rural areas… and is suggesting people move into more populated areas.  For their own good?

* A minor thing, but one complaint is that rural settlers are being moved out of protected biosphere areas.  While the argument made is that this is to benefit “carbon credit” sales, balancing the needs for wilderness protection and agricultural settlement has often led to states buying out, or discontinuing services to populations within the protected boundaries.  In itself, it is neither undemocratic, nor particularly sinister.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Hugo permalink
    17 May 2011 12:58 pm

    As you mention in your piece there is a long history in Mexico of creating new settlements and towns. An interesting study is Robert C West classic study from 1948 Cultural geography of the modern Tarascan Area, where he traces through architecture and town planning what towns are a result of las reducciones and those that are pre-hispanic. Its rather interesting that some of the present towns in Michoacan that are product of the reducciones actually at present are among the most culturally persistent with strong indigenous identity. Later the agrarian reform established literally thousands of new settlements, the ejidos, that often were new rural communities carved not just out of hacienda land but often traditional indigenous territory. The agricultural frontier began in serious in the 1950s when first Tabasco and later Chiapas (and farther east Campeche and Quintana Roo) were populated by landless farmers from northern Mexico and hundreds of new communities were established often through cutting down existing tropical forests. This was done in some cases due to infrastructure projects and in other cases to provide land to a growing rural landless population (Mexican population growth was the highest in the world in the 60s), and also to populate borderlands in order to avoid intrusion of settlers from Guatemala. In the 1980s and the early 1990s there was another migration of Indians from the traditional highland communities in Chiapas to the lowlands west of the Biosphere. They had been forced out of their communities in the highlands because they had converted a protestant church. They lost their land rights and had to relocate to the lowlands and start new communities on the eastern side of the Biosphere. The Zapatistas had their original base among these settlers from the highlands that were now living in new communities but lacked mosty basic services, such as schools, health, etc. Many of these new communities, just like many ejidos elsewhere, refer back to their origins through adding “nuevo” to the old name like e.g. Nuevo San Juan Chamula. What is happening now in Chiapas looks like an attempt at trying something that has been tried before in Mexico (Zihuatanejo, Cancun, etc.) and while I don’t know the details of these new planned cities one must say that the local politicians have certainly been able to dress these plans with the right sexy clothes (climate change adaptation and mitigation) that probably will release development funding from the World Bank and the Inter American Development Bank.

  2. "Craig" permalink
    18 May 2011 1:00 pm

    On a similar note, but different scale, are the “credit-housing programs” such as those which have caused explosions of subdivisions of tiny houses.

    In Merida, for example, the city is now surrounded by vast fields of miniature homes. The Diario de Yucatan has published numerous opinion pieces by architects, city planners and anthropologists, essentially saying that these fraccionamientos are bad for the inhabitants, don’t even have space for anything green at all, let alone a shade tree or garden, will cause societal problems with people packed too closely together, have no community spaces… the list goes on.

    The original tiny-house expansions were ostensibly for housing for damnificados following the intense destruction of Huracán Isidoro in 2002. But with the credit programs (INFONAVIT being a prime example), “developers” have continued the pattern of tiny-homes for their profit and the eventual discomfort of the inhabitants. Warrens of small, close-packed, concrete block homes practically cry out for air conditioning to be livable and yet few can afford such a luxury nor could CFE provide the power if they could.

    What is in practice in both Chiapas and my example is a profound preference for short-term profit over long-term viability. First is the profit from the construction itself (in Merida’s case) being performed by private interests.

    Secondly, providing (or requiring) housing in the cities moves the local populations off of ejidal land. Once the connections to the land are broken, privatization of community-owned property can easily follow. Privatized land *could* be used for preserving the biosphere, but is just as likely to be exploited by factory farming, large scale agriculture, and “capital” exploitations. Profit from natural resources again flows from the land to the wealthy.

    The poor have all been sequestered in micro-homes and lost (sold, had taken, given up) their connection to their communal lands which became theirs through land reforms of the revolutions.

    The entire process seems designed to over-turn the intent to give the people themselves the ability to live off the land and to have their own source of natural wealth, long-term.

    It does not take a conspiracy to accomplish such things. It only takes a unified belief system in enough “leaders” who, intentionally or not, clear the pathway for delivering natural resources back into the hands of the wealthy few.

    What is this belief system?
    We know what’s best for the indigenous.
    We cannot afford wide distribution of services.
    We can only provide “modern” facilities in concentrated areas.
    “Modernization” requires economic activity, not subsistence farming.
    and on and on.

    The individual goals seem admirable on their face, but the end result is what should be watched. And the end result is the concentration of ownership into hands of fewer and fewer people.

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