Mexico: In the Land of Zapata, a Community Fights Natural Gas Development

General Emiliano Zapata would roll over in his grave. The Morelos Integral Project, or PIM for its initials in Spanish, is a 160-kilometer natural gas pipeline and two thermo-electric plants in the heart of Mexico’s fertile central valleys, and in the shadow of an active volcano, Popocatépetl.

Source: Americas Program

General Emiliano Zapata would roll over in his grave. The Morelos Integral Project, or PIM for its initials in Spanish, is a 160-kilometer natural gas pipeline and two thermo-electric plants in the heart of Mexico’s fertile central valleys, and in the shadow of an active volcano, Popocatépetl. The PIM, a partnership between the federal electricity agency, CFE, and Spanish and Italian energy companies, has been pushed through without community consent on the lands of 60 campesino and indigenous communities in the states of Morelos, Puebla and Tlaxcala.

Zapata, Mexico’s iconic revolutionary hero, is buried in Cuautla, Morelos just eight miles from the 620 Mw thermal-electric plant, already constructed in the small town of Huexca. In the same towns where Zapata fought for the rights of Mexico’s rural majority, mega-development projects are setting off fierce protests.

In Huexca, local residents began to protest the project in May 2012, when they first saw mysterious signs going up on their agricultural fields. This resistance is bearing fruit, and towns opposed to the PIM in the state of Puebla have succeeded in halting construction.

As Mexico embarks on an ambitious energy reform, lauded in international media yet highly controversial within the country, industrialization will have its winners and losers. In a state dedicated to agriculture for centuries, Marcos Ramirez, Huexca’s mayor, observes that with a growing younger generation, “If they all want to work the land, where will they be able to?”

Energy politics in the “land of happiness”

Huexca is a small town of 900 people, surrounded by fields of sorghum that glimmer golden in the fall months. Its name comes from the native Nahuatl language and means “land of happiness.” Something else glimmers over the fields nowadays. It’s the hulking thermo-electric plant, 97% of its construction completed, the biggest structure for miles around.

Don Matilde remembers how Huexca was in the 1980s, when he had his milpa, or small farm plot, here. Peanuts and other crops prospered in the fields. A row of large trees shaded the entrance to town, and in the gullies on the edge of town you would spot “chachalacas” a distinctive bird, and hunt iguanas. He remembers beginning to build his house, in the quietest part of town, where the breeze passed and cooled off the hot afternoons. Today that breeze no longer blows by– it is blocked by the thermo-electric plant and its giant fence less than a mile from Matilde’s home.

The Americas Program arrived in Huexca on September 15th, Mexico’s Independence Day. The band, a dozen strong, starts playing at 9 p.m. in the center of town. Classic rancheros from Northern Mexico, up-tempo salsa, and the sways of cumbias. Couples, young and old, sway on the dance floor; men in boots and cowboy hats, women in jeans and heels. At midnight the mayor gives the “Grito” or Shout, harkening to the 1810 Independence War when Miguel Hidalgo rang his church bell to call for rebellion against colonial rule.

The next morning, the town’s children take part in the Independence Day march. They line up by age, the littlest first. The starting point is less than a kilometer from the thermoelectric plant and its tall towers loomed behind the marchers, dressed in Mexico’s colors of red, green and white.

Some took part in the festivities with trepidation. When I asked how he felt about the occasion, one young man who lives in Cuautla opined, “What does it mean to celebrate independence and justice when the government is forcing these projects on us?”

Mexico embarks on energy reforms and industrialization and context of free trade agreements

Not far from Huexca, in Oaxtepec, Morelos, the negotiators of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) met on August 6th, 1991. NAFTA would enter into law on January 1st, 1994. The trade agreement was to promote commerce between Mexico, the United States and Canada by eliminating import and export taxes, and regulating trade between the three countries. The three countries were supposed to benefit by opening up to foreign capital and protecting investments and intellectual property.

To deepen the reforms proposed in NAFTA, in 2000 the Mexican President Vicente Fox announced the Plan Puebla-Panama, later called the Mesoamerican Project, which would encourage the “modernization” of the region, stretching from the state of Puebla to Panama. The Plan refers to the integration of logistical infrastructure that would permit the development of industry through highways, ports, airports, fiber optic networks, energy generation and pipelines.

These plans arrived in Morelos on November 16th, 2010, four days before the hundredth anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. The Director of the National Electricity Commission (CFE), Alfredo Elias Ayub, presented the PIM to the Governor of Morelos at the time, Marco Adame Castillo. The governor awarded the construction of the thermo-electric plant to the Spanish company Abengoa, with a $440 million investment. The thermo-electric plant would have a capacity to provide energy for 280,000 homes, and supposedly would provide 700 local jobs in construction and would open in December 2013. All of these claims have proven false.

As with many public policies, the roots of the PIM go back before the current President Enrique Peña Nieto. The representative of the Mexican company sub-contracted in the construction says, “We can’t blame Peña Nieto, because this goes back many years, the concessions and agreements were already signed when Peña Nieto came into office.”

Free Trade comes to Huexca

These international policies began to manifest in Huexca subtly at first. Sonia explains that in the spring of 2012, “First they [the CFE] put up a little house and signs in the fields. Then they arrived with cars and machinery. They began digging. We asked ourselves, why?”

Two women from the community began to investigate what was going on. They found that the CFE was building a thermo-electric plant that would generate energy from natural gas. They started spreading the news, though many people would not take their word for it. This was the beginning of Huexca’s struggle to get accurate information on the project. The CFE arrived on May 15th, 2012 and gave a presentation on the thermo-electric plant. Yet Sonia says it was “with rose-colored glasses,” describing all the benefits the plant would bring.

It was in a community assembly with representatives from neighboring towns and states that they began to understand the real impacts of the project. Several women, having heard the dangers, decided enough was enough. They began to chant, “We don’t want the thermo!” The fight against the PIM in Huexca had begun.

The multiple risks of the PIM in Huexca

That was more than two years ago. The thermoelectric plant has almost been completed, since 2013, yet has not started to operate. When the Americas Program visited in September, the bridge into town had partially collapsed, which residents attributed to heavy summer rains and the constant truck traffic that has come along with the PIM. Despite promising many benefits to local communities, the CFE has not even repaired the bridge, and everyone traveling to and from town has to take a treacherous, winding dirt road in the meantime.

This is one impact of the thermo-electric plant the community has already felt. Yet many concerns rest in the long-term. The impacts on agriculture production are unclear, and it doesn’t sit well with many that food is produced within a kilometer of the plant. The same goes for the natural gas pipeline, which cuts right through cropland. What will they eat if there’s a spill?

Water has been one of the primary concerns. The thermo-electric plant will consume water “from the treatment plant in Cuautla, and use 20 million liters of water on a daily basis.” Residents worry about the water consumption, considering eastern Morelos already has suffered short water supplies in the past decades.

Perhaps most threatening is the geographic location. According to the Geophysics Institute of UNAM, the National Autonomous University, the Huexca is in a “zone 2” risk area of the active volcano Popocatépetl. In zone 2, a large eruption could cause volcanic rock to fall in the area, with a thickness between one millimeter and one meter depending on the eruption. Escape routes from the area could become impassable in the case of a large eruption. Having a gas plant and pipelines near-by only make matters worse. The Geophysics Institute has recommended against the PIM projects for these reasons.

Activist Juan Carlos Flores sums up the risks of the project, “It’s a time bomb.”

Women of Huexca lead the fight against the thermo-electric plant

The women of Huexca quickly distinguished themselves as the strongest critics of the PIM. They had to establish their own political arenas to act on the issue, as the ejido assembly, the local group governing communal land in Huexca, is made up of almost all men with land rights.

In May 2012, the women proposed to blockade the entrance of the construction site of the thermo-electric plant. Sonia explains, “We started the blockade so that the machinery and workers wouldn’t be able to pass through.”

The women developed a central role in the defense of their territory, making their presence known in all of the occupations, organizing the community assemblies, participating in forums, seminars, and regional meetings. In whatever space where people were talking about defense of territory and their way of life in the face of displacement, the women of Huexca were there.

“We have been the ones there building the resistance, resisting and teaching other how to resist,” one of the women comments.

The women maintained this presence throughout the summer of 2012, halting construction on the plant. “We were there 24 hours. We gave everyone breakfast and lunch each day. There were just two of us cooking. And yes, again it was the women,” observes Sonia.

Yet on October 23, 2012, Morelos governor Graco Ramírez sent in 200 granaderos, state police officers. Sonia says, “The women put themselves in front. The granaderos pushed us. They almost dislocated my shoulder, it hurt for a long time after.”

The state troops successfully displaced the blockaders in the violent confrontation. Construction resumed and the CFE redoubled their efforts, sending in more workers than before. The women who had stopped construction for six months felt defeated. “There were so few of us. We couldn’t challenge them.”

“We’re not going to sell our dignity for a taco”–Government sows division in Huexca

Since construction ended on the gas plant and pipeline, the government has attempted to curry favor in the tight-knit community by offering benefits and social projects for the town to those who support the project. Sonia explains that the CFE came to Huexca and “started to offer projects. Two-story houses, chickens, sheep, cows. A few of these things they did give, but many, no, they never did.”

However those in opposition recognize the government’s offers as efforts to divide and conquer and reject them. As they write in one informational letter, “We’re not going to sell our dignity for a taco.”

“This is when the division in the community started. Those who accepted these projects started to look badly at us,” says Sonia. In a town where everyone knows everyone and family ties run deep, people stopped greeting each other in the street, family members turned against each other, and rumors proliferated.

Miguel Angel Alvarez, the assistant mayor said, “The CFE gave some support, but the very minimum. At the same time they came in and divided the community.” It all came down to the money, in a town where many are cash-strapped and numerous residents have crossed the border to work in the U.S. since they can no longer make it as farmers. “Here in Huexca, human rights are for sale. Here the politicians are for sale.”

The people of Huexca are not alone in their fight against the PIM

In their struggle against the PIM, the people of Huexca have joined the Front of Communities in Defense of Land and Water (FPDTA for its initials in Spanish) of Morelos, Puebla and Tlaxcala. The towns that make up the Front are all impacted by the PIM and other infrastructure projects in the region and in addition to Huexca include Jantetelco, Amilcingo, Nealtican, Calpan, Juan C. Bonilla, Atlixco, Texoloc and Teacalco. The Front has used alternative and community media outlets to publicize their struggle and inform the local communities of the displacement and environmental destruction the PIM and other infrastructure projects cause.

Beyond the FPDTA, there are other less likely actors who are critical of the project and its execution. October 6th of this year, 2014, the workers at the thermo-electric plant, sub-contracted by a Mexican construction company, went on strike. They claimed that although construction had been completed, they had still not been paid. When asked about the amount of back pay, they replied that the amount is confidential but that it is millions of dollars.

The legal representative of the company, Miguel Angel Saviñon, said, “What we want is that beyond being paid for our work, is that they [the international companies] recognize and treat with respect the Mexican companies they work with. The Spanish company doesn’t pay attention to us and they pay us less than what we agreed to. This has to change.”

Amongst residents of Huexca there is a rumor going around from the workers at the plant that it is not going to operate correctly; that there are missing pieces they have haven’t been able to install, that there will not be enough water supply, that it’s poorly constructed. It is worth mentioning that these suspicions mirror the story of another project of the Spanish company Abengoa in Mexico. Abengoa built a wastewater treatment plant in the state of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City. Various irregularities were reported in the construction process, including environmental and human rights violations. The community in Zimapan, Hidalgo sought to have the project canceled and was successful. However the company has now sued Mexico before a World Bank tribunal, demanding that the Mexican government pay more than $73 million for compensation. The court ruled in favor of the company and has ordered the government to pay $50.5 million.

Huexca could repeat the pattern of transnationals that intend to build large-scale infrastructure projects in Mexico and end up charging the Mexican government over-size compensation for their losses when these projects cannot go forward. These debts of the Mexican government are passed along to the people of Morelos and the rest of the country. Whether or not the plant eventually operates, the Mexican people should not have to pay for projects they do not solicit, and are not even informed about.

The movement stands up against state repression

Across Mexico, authorities are detaining activists who defend territory and community self-determination on fabricated charges to fragment and destroy movements. On April 7th 2014, Juan Carlos became the latest casualty, charged with obstructing construction and destroying infrastructure. Juan Carlos remains in prison even though his lawyers have said he will soon be released.

Juan Carlos is the most prominent yet not the only political prisoner who has fought against the PIM. There is also the case of Enedina Rosas, 60, a local elected official in San Felipe Xonacayucan, Atlixco, Puebla. After spending a month in jail, she was placed under house arrest due to her deteriorating health.

In this struggle, community members who defend their territory and workers defending their rights have a shared interest. They are fed up with the imposition of unjust policies and projects that only serve the interests of a national and international elite. Each of them has their own analysis, their own reasons to opposed the PIM, but they know that united they can have a powerful impact. When a government representative arrived at the picket line of the workers on strike and saw the banner of the community members of Huexca who oppose the plant, hanging in support of the strike, he said to a construction manager not to associate with those people, that they are opposed to the plant. The manager said, “They too have a right to protest.”

The Huexca “mega-project”, as its critics call it, promoted by international actors and the Mexican elite, has serious consequences not just for the people of Huexca, but on a national level. The public debt, health and national sovereignty are all for sale to the highest bidder in the new landscape of Mexican energy politics. It is small but determined towns like Huexca that feel the first impacts and fight back, sounding the alarm for the rest of the country.

Sonia says, “Our territory is priceless. We are fighting against this project and we are going to keep fighting until we win.”

Martha Pskowski is a writer and researcher based in Mexico City, originally from the Washington, DC area. Martha holds a B.A. from Hampshire College and works in the fields of anthropology and geography. She is a member of the CIP Americas Program team at Octavio Morales is a Mexico-based writer.

*Name has been changed at the interviewee’s request, due to acts of retaliation faced by people who have organized against the PIM.