‘Sustainable Rural Cities’, a Nightmare Come True in Chiapas

The construction of Santiago El Pinar, the second Sustainable Rural City, 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.


More than three years ago torrential rains flooded the northern and central regions of the state of Chiapas. The rain seriously affected more than 1,200 families in 34 municipalities. This disaster, coupled with the inept dredging strategies of the National Water Commission (Conagua) and the Federal Electrical Commission (CFE), kept 404 households in 33 villages and 960 hectares of productive land under water for more than three months.  

Of all those concerned, the community of Juan de Grijalva suffered the worst fate: it was buried by the breaking away of a hill in the town of Ostuacán, in northern Chiapas. Shortly after the tragedy, the government, in the guise of a ‘philanthropic organisation’, held out its hand in solidarity to the people of Juan de Grijalva. Two years later they erected the brand new city of Nuevo Juan de Grijalva, the first Sustainable Rural City (SRC) in the whole of Mexico.

From being a poor village, Juan de Grijalva had become a leading city that had all the services that any Mexican could wish for: decent housing and quality basic services; drinking water; a water purification plant; drainage and sewerage; a waste treatment plant; electricity and public lighting using solar voltaic cells; a communications tower for fixed and mobile telephones; access to the Internet and information networks; a comprehensive basic education centre equipped with advanced technology; kindergarten, elementary and secondary schools; and a Health Centre with expanded services in the area of ​​telemedicine equipment and technology. In addition, the inhabitants of the newly developed city were provided with opportunities for decent and gainful employment. Projects were launched for intensive production such as: greenhouses, nurseries, packing stations for tomatoes, poultry farms and a dairy processing plant. They also started ‘productive reconversion’, which allows residents to keep their land by replacing traditional crops with others of high commercial value.
It all sounded too good to be true. And, indeed, the dream became a nightmare. The city was from the beginning doomed to failure. There was not even the will to make a decent project: the houses are mousetraps, the basic services are inadequate, the health centers do not even have doctors, etc. But beyond these ‘details’, the new town is part of a state-wide program to rearrange the scattered population. As if we were in the sixteenth century, the aim is to create ‘authentic Indian villages’.

An Imposed Project

Under the pretext that most of the villages of Chiapas are scattered and that this high dispersion makes the provision of services and the economic and social development of communities difficult, the Rural Cities Program aims to focus on rural people in small villages. The aim is twofold: firstly, to take the land away from the small farmers (campesinos) and exploit it (with the participation of large businesses) and secondly, to concentrate the inhabitants of several villages in one place to serve as an ‘industrial reserve army’.
The ‘Believing People’ (el Pueblo Creyente) from the parish of San Pedro Chenalhó expressed it in these terms: “We are concerned that the rural cities project has been imposed, and that the people in the communities have not been consulted as to whether they agree with it or not, and if they do consult them, the consultation is based on lies and omissions, the government does not say clearly what this mega project actually brings or whether it is for the good or ill of the people. For example, it does not explain what ‘productive reconversion’ means, or who will be the beneficiaries of this reconversion.
“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 Wider Context

To address the issue of fighting poverty here in Chiapas, we must analyze the Sustainable Rural Cities in a broader context. On the one hand, 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. Clearly, the Sustainable Rural City is a challenge to the Zapatista caracoles, who have built true autonomous systems of health, education and production. It seems that the government forgets that it is dealing with the same people who took up arms in January 1994, a dignified people and one increasingly more aware.
As we said, so far they have established two Sustainable Rural Cities: Nuevo Juan Grijalva and Santiago El Pinar. There are three more under construction: Jaltenango, Ixhuatan and Emiliano Zapata (and a final one in the process of being built: Copainalá). It is obvious that private interests are a fundamental component of the Sustainable Rural Cities, so it does not take much imagination to realize who the real beneficiaries of this project are. Certain companies (among whom stand out Telmex, Fundación Azteca, BBVA Bancomer, Banamex, Grupo Carso, Farmacias del Ahorro and Coparmex) who operate through their ‘third level’ employees (the governor and his cronies), and certain university institutions (IPN and UNACH ) are the ones who have assessed, evaluated and supported with funding the construction of the ‘self-sustaining cities’. All these have a place of honor on the Advisory Council of the Sustainable Rural Cities.
With even more irony, these companies have their place within the very broad commercial corridors included in the plans of these ‘cities’, in places where little is known about money and where the people are still dying of curable diseases. Now, the residents will not only be free to sell their labour, but they will also be free to obtain un-repayable micro-loans, cell phones, domestic electrical appliances by means of small payments, and other ‘benefits’ that the modern world brings.

No Longer Slaves?

In fact, the two Sustainable Rural Cities are a disaster for their new inhabitants. The plan promoted by the government is solely focused on benefiting the companies involved in the construction of these cities. We all need to inform ourselves about these illusions and publicly denounce the government’s plans.
The Sustainable Rural Cities affect all the communities of Chiapas and are intended to alienate the people from their land, thus making the land available to large multinational corporations who focus on “cheap labour”, destroying ancient farming practices, imposing community development models and forcing the population into the financial circle of capitalism. We conclude with the words of the Civil Society organisation The Bees (Las Abejas):
“We are not the only ones who know that this project [of rural cities] is part of the Mesoamerica Project, previously Plan Puebla Panama. This plan did not start with the bad government of Calderon nor with that of Sabines, but with Salinas de Gortari when he signed NAFTA (the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) which caused the uprising of our Zapatista brothers and sisters in the year 1994.
[…] Now they say we are no longer slaves, but it is just the same to make us work in their Mesoamerica Project with its plans for mines, sweatshops and plantations, which explains the campaign that the bad government is starting. This campaign is to have what they call ‘productive restructuring’.
“They do not explain much what this means, but we understand that now they do not want us to sow our cornfields (milpa), and our other ancestral foods any longer. They tell us that it is better for us to sow African (oil) palm and pine nuts, the reason they give us for this is to prevent fires.
“But what we see is that with the corn and beans we nourish ourselves; with oil palms and pine nuts they plan to produce biofuels to feed the cars and trucks. Do cars have more right to the food of Mother Earth than we do?”
Article originally published in Spanish by Koman Ilel, 26th April 2011