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Dispossession and Resistance in India and Mexico

The extension of the pera-Cuautla highway and its links with the Proyecto Integral Morelos: a case of territorial dispossession promoted by the State

, by BENCIOLINI Maria

For some years now, the northern and eastern region of the state of Morelos (Mexico) has been an object of interest for both private capital and some government agencies, with the aim to promote industrial, tourist and real estate projects resulting in a strong impact over the territories and their communities. These programs, different from each other but in many cases interconnected, sometimes involve other states such as Puebla and Tlaxcala: this is the case of the Proyecto Integral Morelos, promoted since 2011 by the federal government through Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) [1].

In the morning of 19 May 2017, as retaliation for a legal action by some communeros in defense of the national park, contractors of the SCT cut thousands of trees. In response to this, the local population organized spontaneous demonstrations that culminated with the blocking of the highway and access to the town for several days.

The plan includes two thermoelectric plants in the vicinity of the community of Huexca (municipality of Yecapixtla) in the state of Morelos, a gas pipeline from the state of Tlaxcala and through the state of Puebla which will take the gas to one of the thermoelectric plants, an aqueduct for the transport of water from the city of Cuautla to the thermoelectric plants, and an electric transmission line. Linked to this project and promoted by the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transportes (SCT) is the construction of the Cuautla-Amecameca highway and the expansion of the Pera-Cuautla highway.

Parallel to this, in some localities, programs to promote and strengthen tourism have been implemented, like the federal program called “Pueblos Mágicos” and the development of residential centers (in Temixco, Tepoztlan and other municipalities), and amusement parks.

In terms of state and federal government’s discourse, the projects as a whole should promote the economic and industrial growth of the region and improve the infrastructure for the circulation of goods and people both at the regional level and in the connection between different parts of the country.

Conflicts around the projects

The above-mentioned projects are developed on communal lands, cultivation areas, conurbations of some cities and towns, and even in protected natural areas such as the El Tepozteco National Park, the Chichinautzin biological corridor and the Izta-Popo National Park. In most cases, the projects have been implemented bypassing the population that inhabits the affected areas, keeping them in the dark and without prior consultation [2]. Sometimes the use of state force has also been deployed to impose the presence of machinery and workers.

These different projects have caused discontent and socio-environmental conflicts in various communities in the region: principally Tepoztlán, Huexca and Temixco. These confrontations have different facets due to the history, social organization and vocation of each of the communities involved, however, they also share important aspects. One of them is the struggle not only for the possession and use of certain resources recognized as their own, but also the claim for community and peasant lifestyles in contrast to the neoliberal and urbanizing model promoted by the mega projects that are proliferating in the state of Morelos.

The environmental and social effects of the Proyecto Integral Morelos and related plans are very complex: they include risks related to the construction of gas pipelines and thermoelectric power plants in risk areas of the Popocatépetl volcano, the reduction of communal lands, environmental impact in protected areas, the loss of cultivation fields and sacred places, community disintegration, etcetera.

Although the effects and risks of mega projects can be easily identified in most cases, it is important to take into account, as mentioned by Paz (2014), that the outcome of socio-environmental conflicts as a confrontation over the control, access or management of a territory or resource cannot be assumed as a given. Instead, it takes that particular shape as a result of and during the course of the conflict itself. For this reason, I briefly describe the conflict linked to one of the projects related to the Proyecto Integral Morelos: the resistance of the residents of Tepoztlán against the expansion of the pera-Cuautla highway.

Building resistance in Tepoztlán

The project to expand the pera-Cuautla highway was announced at the beginning of 2012 by Felipe Calderón, the president of the Republic at that time. That same year, the project received the environmental impact authorization and change of land use authorization The highway crosses the Tepozteco National Park, instituted by decree of president Lázaro Cárdenas in 1937, and the communal lands of the municipality of Tepoztlán, among others. The inhabitants of the mentioned municipality are depositaries of a long history of social struggle in defense of their territory and resources. On previous occasions, the inhabitants of Tepoztlán have demonstrated their ability to organize and respond to the imposition of mega projects in their territories. The most famous case is perhaps that of the successful fight against the construction of a golf club (with luxury hotels and convention centers) that arose in 1994 (Salazar 2014).

Since the announcement of the extension of the highway, people in Tepoztlán have once again tried to organize themselves to resist against the project, adopting different legal and political ways of struggle. In the case of Tepoztlán, it is important to underline the specific nature of the social composition of its population: for some decades, native people and immigrants from different parts of Mexico and the world have lived together in the town. Tepoztlán is configured as a multi-cultural society and despite the tensions that sometimes arise between tepoztecos (natives) and tepostizos (immigrants), in the contexts of struggle against mega projects, a broad political organization has been achieved where multiple actors have contributed to a common goal from their different political, environmental, and even religious experiences. Finally, amongst the contributions of various actors, the Frente Juvenile en Defensa de Tepoztlán (Youth Front in Defense of Tepoztlán) has taken up the task of gathering information on the project as well as coordinating and organizing political and legal actions and has tried to establish alliances with other social organization which are resisting mega projects in the state of Morelos.

The legal battle against the highway began in 2013 when a group of comuneros [3] denounced irregularities in the way in which environmental permits and land use changes had been granted to start the work, and petitioned against the project in court. In the first instances, this legal strategy worked and on several occasions the companies contracted by SCT to carry out the expansion of the highway had to suspend their work by court order. Throughout the years, the SCT and the opponents of the project have continued the legal battle taking it to higher levels of the Mexican justice system, until reaching the National Supreme Court of Justice, which in April 2017 rejected the request of defence of the comuneros in relation to the extension of the highway arguing that they had no legitimate interest to defend against it.

Parallel to the legal actions, the opponents to the highway undertook several political and demonstrative actions in open conflict with the federal and state government, especially with the governor of the State of Morelos Graco Ramírez. Perhaps the most striking event was the establishment, in March 2013, of the ’Caudillo del Sur’ camp on land designated for the highway. In July of the same year, the camp suffered a forced eviction by state forces. In subsequent years, opponents have undertaken demonstrations, sit-ins and informative work in the community, both in Tepoztlán and in the state capital. In addition to the resistance actions, the activists have contributed to the organization of the independent brigades that intervene in the fires periodically suffered by the Sierra del Tepozteco due to long periods of drought, and in other actions to promote and defend the territory.

Despite the efforts of Tepoztlán’s population, in the case of the expansion of the pera-Cuautla highway, the struggle has not achieved the expected success. There are different reasons why this time the territorial dispossession could have occurred, some of them are inherent to the changes occurring within the community and due in part to an extreme acceleration of tourism in the last decade, and others are linked to the type of project and the complicity of various national institutions that have all attended to the promotion of this project.

According to those who oppose the project, in addition to the dispossession of communal lands, the expansion from two to four lanes of the highway would cause irreparable environmental damage, especially in the area of the Tepozteco National Park. The Park would see the loss of flora and fauna, over exploitation of water in the construction phase, and less recharge of aquifers in the rainy season due to the reduction of vegetation.

On the other hand, the extension of the highway is experienced by its opponents as an attempt to impose an urban and neoliberal model that wants to reduce the town to a consumption area for tourists (mainly from the capital) and zone of conquest for large commercial chains and real estate companies that until now have not managed to settle in the municipality due to the opposition of its inhabitants. In this sense, the opponents of the project present themselves as promoters of a different lifestyle which is more respectful of nature, still linked to the peasant life that has characterized these communities for centuries, inheritors of the revolutionary tradition of the region and its indigenous past. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the presence of some important archaeological sites, the best known of which is the Tepozteco pyramid, which is regularly visited by tourists and is linked to the legend of Tepozteco, one of the main sources of inspiration in the resistance struggles of this community. Another site to mention is Tlaxomolco, which is at risk of being destroyed by the works of extension of the highway.

Conclusion

Notwithstanding the efforts of the Frente Juvenil en Defensa de Tepoztlán, the work to extend the highway is currently progressing, already free of any legal impediment that may have existed previously. As mentioned above, the conflict has been configured as a clash between two different ways of seeing and understanding the territory, and the same division runs across the community: on the one hand, there are those who oppose the project and on the other the ones who support it, with the hope that this can bring even more tourism in the town. It is worth mentioning that all government agencies work with the common objective of promoting these activities and the growth of infrastructure.

These facts lead us to underscore the need to study how the arrival large capital inflows can cause the fragmentation of collective interests and divide the community, strengthening the individual over the collective. This is clear in the case of Tepoztlán, because beyond the extraction of water and environmental problems, the highway expansion affects the community as a whole, breaking its social tissue: sellers of building materials and owners of touristic infrastructure, based on their individual and material interests, want to impose the highway and are creating provocateurs groups to end resistance to the project.

Since the beginning of the confrontation, the opponents of the project have had to face the irregularities of the SCT and the companies which are executing the work, the slanderous campaigns against them developed especially by the state powers, and the complicity in the project of institutions that, in theory, should protect the territory and its heritage. This is the case, for example, of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, which should have the function of protecting and promoting the country’s historical and anthropological heritage, but which, in this instance, has been complicit in the promotion of the highway project, omitting to recognize the importance of some archaeological sites that are in proximity to the line of the highway.

The case of the state of Morelos and the emergence of opposition movements against mega projects and in defense of resources and territory is especially significant due to its complexity, which encompasses both the diversity of the actors involved in the dispute and with diverse interests, such as the variety of projects and affectations that are confronted by the opponents.

References

Paz, María Fernanda. (2014). Conflictos socioambientales en México: ¿qué está en disputa? In María Fernanda Paz and Nicholas Rsidell (Eds.), Conflictos, conflictividades y movilizaciones socioambientales en México: problemas comunes, lecturas diversas (13-58). Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México-Centro Regional de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias & Editorial Porrúa.

Salazar, Ana María. (2014). Tepoztlán movimiento etnopolítico y patrimonio cultural: Una batalla victoriosa ante el poder global. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Méxio-Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas.

Notes

[1This governmental agency is also responsible of other controversial projects, such the Las Cruces Hydroelectric plant, which will cause the loss of sacred places in the state of Nayarit and of the biggest Mangrove forest in the Mexican Pacific coast

[2Since 1990, Mexico has ratified the ILO Convention n. 169, which requires prior, free and informed consultation for indigenous communities before any type of project or activity is carried out in their territories.

[3Comuneros are people who holds agrarian rights on lands collectively possessed

Commentaires

Maria Benciolini – She is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centro Regional de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias (CRIM) at UNAM, Mexico City. Her areas of interest include indigenous rituals in West Mexico and more recently, environmental anthropology in relation to indigenous peoples and conflicts due to megaprojects.

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