by Daniela Rivero
Last summer, Mexico’s presidential election resulted in the landslide victory of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist candidate whose campaign earned unprecedented popular support. He ran on a platform of serious changes to the economy that would focus on benefiting the poor, and new development programs meant to bolster the quality of life and reduce the need for migration. In his acceptance speech, he promised the people of Mexico, “I will not fail you.”
Closer analysis of his plans, however, indicates that his proposals are not drastically different from previous government policies that have been harmful to both the environment and to indigenous and rural farming communities.
Global struggles for liberation are inextricably linked with land ownership and management. Those who own the land hold the power to decide what happens on it and to it. Policies to extract more productivity and wealth from poorer regions in Mexico have been synonymous with the displacement of indigenous people. The struggle over indigenous people’s rights to own and live off their land is rooted in anti-colonial resistance, and it has been central to resistance that will persevere as the state enters a new administration.
On November 27, a popular referendum that had been criticized by its low voter turnout approved all 10 of Lopez Obrador’s proposed projects. Among them is the construction of the “Maya Train,” a high-speed train that would run 1,000 miles across five states in what Lopez Obrador has described as “a regional economic development project that would share the economic boom of Cancun’s world-class beach resorts with poorer, more remote parts of the south.” Construction of the train had already commenced when Lopez Obrador announced another referendum on December 14.
Mexico’s southern region is especially rich in biodiversity, but AMLO has addressed environmental concerns by assuring that his plan to plant 100,000 hectares of fruit and timber trees will offset any environmental impact.
“The truth is that I have polls and I’m very confident that the people are going to vote to build the Mayan train, because it won’t hurt anyone. On the contrary, it will benefit a lot of people,” he said. Erasing the expected carbon footprint of this project however, doesn’t necessarily assure that no harm will be done.
Environmental activists and Indigenous groups have expressed opposition to the “Maya Train.” Following the referendum, Mexico News Daily reported a document presented by Mayan communities, who declared that “no person outside the Yucatán peninsula” has the right “to decide what can or can’t be done” in their territories without first consulting them. Although Lopez Obrador promised in a letter that his proposals would not be carried out without consulting the people whose land is being developed, the Mayan communities declared that, “Nobody asked us” about the Maya Train.
Lopez Obrador’s plans for developing Mexico’s southern region by bolstering infrastructure and productivity are a continuation of previous president Enrique Peña Nieto’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs). SEZs were effort put forth by the government to develop particular geographical areas through foreign and domestic investment, building infrastructure, and increasing regional productivity. These programs were successful only in benefiting a few local producers and creating wealth for a small group of people at the consequence of increased inequality for the region’s already poor farmers and indigenous groups.
Lopez Obrador claims that his administration will divest from the old ways of the establishment. His plans for Mexico’s southern region however, are incongruent with his rhetoric of change. Included in Peña Nieto’s plans were the development of railroads, and taking advantage of the region’s biodiversity for the extraction of natural resources and the cultivation of the agro-industry, plans that Lopez Obrador is revitalizing.
History indicates that within colonial structures, endeavors of “economic development” have meant imposing “progress” upon indigenous people by waging war on their way of life and invading the spaces where they exist. Further, the promotion of development falls apart when considering that indigenous communities don’t want their land to look like the resorts of Cancun.
Land ownership of indigenous people and farming communities poses the biggest threat to the extractivist policies of imperialism because it represents a way to live in the world that illegitimates colonial systems. By opposing extractivist policies presented as development endeavors, they continue to make it clear to the state that neither their land or their way of life is for sale.
A brief history of land tenure and dispossession in Mexico
Before the arrival of Spanish colonizers, land didn’t belong to people; we belonged to the land. With colonization, Spanish invaders displaced indigenous people from their land, claimed it for the king of Spain and began extracting its natural resources to create wealth for the empire. Indigenous people were sent to the worst areas of land in the mountains and hillsides and forced to work for landlords and proprietors for free.
Land ownership laws originated after the Mexican war of Independence, when old landlords became private landowners and indigenous people were granted recognition of their collective property.
Security for these communities, however, is never sustainable under the state, and soon the government passed policies that once again displaced people from their land. In order to maximize the productivity of the country, the Mexican government began to distribute titles of unfarmed land, as well as seizing and selling communal property that had been allotted during the Spanish rule but didn’t have the proper titles under the new government.
The hard-fought campesino revolution
of the early 1900s led by Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa secured more community land for indigenous people and rural farmers, but throughout the 19th and 20th century, policies such as PROCEDE and free trade agreements have continued to facilitate land grabs by dictating that all land should be “put to use.”
– Daniela Rivero