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MEXICO
Right to land, territory and forests
Louisa Reynolds
3/9/2016
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Peasant leaders fight to preserve communal land tenure.

Abisaín Solís López, president of the Chicoasén ejido committee, in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, paid a heavy price for his community’s opposition to the construction of the Chicoasén II hydroelectric dam on communal lands.

Established in the 1930s and rooted in prehispanic tradition, ejidos are areas of communal land used for agriculture, on which members individually farm designated parcels and collectively maintain communal holdings. Once regarded as one of the key components of the post-revolution agrarian reform, their privatization and sale was legalized under the former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari administration (1988-94) in the early 1990s.

In January 2015, the Mexican government awarded the contract for the construction of Chicoasén II, which will be located on the Grijalva River, to Sinohydro, a Chinese company based in Costa Rica, and to Mexican corporation Omega Construcciones.

But four months later, a federal judge upheld an appeal put lodged by 11 of Chicoasén’s 460 ejidatarios, who belong to the zoque indigenous group, in which they argued that the construction of the hydroelectric dam was illegal as the documents purportedly allowing the sale of their lands had been signed by ejidatarios who had been dead for over seven years.

Within days, Solís López, 65, was abducted and beaten by strangers in the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Days after he failed to return home, his daughter, Claudia Solís Hernández, found him lying unconscious on a hospital bed with signs of torture. His throat had been slit and his right earlobe had been severed. Solís López was so traumatized by the attack that he cannot recall who abducted him although the ejidatarios are certain it was a reprisal for their opposition to the dam.

Illegal expropriation
On Oct. 21, 2015, the authorities issued an arrest warrant for the 11 ejidatarios who lodged the appeal on charges of riotous behavior after they carried out a peaceful protest. “The arrest warrant is illogical given that we’re talking about 80-year-old men with walking sticks,” Solís Hernández told Latinamerica Press.

In protest against the arrest warrant, the ejidatarios went on a hunger strike for several days but even then, the government refused to heed their demands. Concerned for the welfare and safety of the ejidatarios, The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center, a local human rights organization, reported their alleged harrassment and intimidation to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in November 2015.

The Chicoasén ejidatarios contend that the government expropriated their land by fraudulent means in order to build the dam and that peasant homes located on the riverbank will be flooded once the project is inaugurated in August 2018. They also claim that they were never compensated for the expropriation of communal lands to build another dam, also located on the Grijalva River, known as Chicoasén or Manuel Moreno Torres, which has a generating capacity of 2,400 MW and is one of the 10 highest hydroelectric dams in the world.

“We have never opposed the project [Chicoasén II]; the problem is that we have never been taken into account”, says Solís Hernández.

Marco Aurelio Ramírez García, who oversees the Chicoasén II project, claims that the community’s concerns have been taken into account and argues that the surface that will be flooded (180 hectares) is small compared to other dams, such as Angostura, also located in the state of Chiapas, which periodically floods 65,000 hectares of land.

On Feb. 12, tensions rose at the entrance gate to the Chicoasén II project, after employees of the Federal Electric Energy Commission (CFE) denied ejidatarios and a group of reporters the entrance to the site, under the argument that a written request had to be submitted in advance, for safety reasons. During a heated exchange with CFE employees, the ejidatarios brandished their communal land titles and insisted that nobody could lawfully prevent them from accessing their own property.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about; you’re just defending your job”, 78-year-old, Juanito Núñez González, one of Chicoasén’s ejidatarios, told a CFE employee, visibly angry. Finally, after 45 minutes, they left the site.

Privatization of ejidos
Chicoasén II has been touted by the Mexican government as a project that will bring employment to impoverished peasant communities.

“It’s a lie. We haven’t been offered employment because the government says we’re not qualified. Back in the 1970s, we used to grow cocoa, coffee and henequen but they took the best lands to build the [Manuel Moreno Torres] dam. Many people in this community have been forced to emigrate to Monterrey [an industrial city close to the United States-Mexico border] to work for multinational corporations,” Marco Antonio Solís Hernández, son of Abisaín Solís López, told Latinamerica Press.

According to the Secretariat for Agrarian, Territorial and Urban Development (SEDATU), in 2012, 51% of Mexico’s total land surface (196 million hectares) was owned by ejidos and other forms of communal organization, a surface area as large as Venezuela and twice as large as Spain that contains 80% of Mexico’s forest land, 74% of its biodiversity and two thirds of its coastland. Mexico has a total of 29,442 ejidos — with Chiapas being the state with the largest extension of communally owned land after Veracruz — and a total of 5.2 million ejidatarios.

Filipino academic Walden Bello, author of The Food Wars, analyzed the privatization of Mexico’s ejidos. His findings — that the changes to the system have failed to improve agricultural productivity and have contributed largely to worsening rural poverty, migration and the conversion of a country where the cultivation of maize originated into a net-importer of this basic food crop —, echo Marco Antonio Solís Hernández’s statements. —Latinamerica Press.


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Ejidatarios who oppose the construction of the Chicoasén II hydroelectric dam support the president of the ejido committe. / Louisa Reynolds
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