July 31st, 2014
In Chiapas, Mexico, there are plans to build a motorway between San Cristóbal de Las Casas and Palenque – two of the most important tourist sites in the state. The Department of Infrastructure and Communications in Chiapas (SinfrayC) has said the road will be “a tool for the development of historically backwards regions of the state, providing them with mechanisms for self-sustainable economic growth”. However, just two days before that statement, 15,000 people marched through ten Chiapan municipalities between San Cristóbal and Palenque to show their opposition to this project, which was initially proposed ten years ago.
The march was organised for July 19th, with the diocese of San Cristóbal inviting communities to march “for peace” and for “the defence of life, mother earth, and local communities”. Women and men of all ages responded by marching from 9am to 2pm in Huixtán, Tenejapa, Oxchuc, Cancuc, Pantelhó (Altos), Altamirano, Ocosingo (Selva), Chilón, Yajalón, and Tumbalá (Tujilá), chanting “it will only benefit companies, not communities” and “it will damage Mother Earth”. 
“The road will only pass through our municipalities if people allow it”
The project is currently in the hands of the Department of Communication and Transport (SCT), which has hired Mexican engineering consultants ‘Cal y Mayor’ to design the road. The plan is for a 153km-long two-lane road to be built between San Cristóbal and Palenque, along with a 16.3km connecting road to Ocosingo, though exact details have yet to be published. In 2009, the motorway was due to pass through 31 communities in the municipalities of Chilón, Tumbalá, Tila, Salto de Agua (Tujilá), Palenque (región Maya), and Macuspana (Tabasco), but those plans have changed several times. In February 2014, the SCT said it was still looking into a new route as a result of communal opposition to the initial route. Dozens of communities in the municipalities of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Tenejapa, Huixtán, Oxchuc, Ocosingo, Chilón, and Palenque could all now be affected.
“The road will only pass through our municipalities if people allow it to pass through, and for that reason we should not stop fighting”, affirmed one Huixtán resident who participated in the march on July 19th. According to him, the route of the road could affect up to ten communities in his municipality. He hopes, however, that popular resistance will lead to the suspension or cancellation of the project, in spite of the federal government’s commitment to beginning work this year.
To understand the issue in greater depth, it’s necessary to take a closer look at why thousands of Chiapans are opposed to the road passing through their communities:
1) Violation of the Right to Consultation and Lack of Government Communication
One key issue is the lack of government communication and the violation of the right to consultation. As we have seen, the plans for the road are still not clear, and the indigenous people in the region (from Tzotzil, Tseltal, and Chol communities) are committed to asserting their right to free and informed consultation before the government-corporate coalition begins the project. According to Agreement 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which refers to the rights of indigenous and tribal communities, they are entitled to demand that the Mexican government, which is signed up to the agreement, respects this right.
Up to this point, however, indigenous communities have not been involved at all in the process of designing the road. In certain areas, ejidal assemblies have gathered on their own initiative to vote “no” to the road project, but have still seen engineers fly over their territories in helicopters in an attempt to study the feasibility of building on their land. According to one resident of the López Mateo Ejido in Huixtán, this was precisely the case in his community, where an assembly officially rejected the project at the end of 2013.
2) Destruction of the Environment
Communities are also opposed to the road because they believe it will affect their environment, crops, and housing. The building of the road, for example, will require openings to be created in the hills surrounding the route between San Cristóbal and Palenque – land where houses, crops, woods, and springs are found.
According to the most recent SinfryC statements, the motorway will include three bridges – of 400, 450, and 500 metres in height. The two lanes, meanwhile, will be twelve metres wide in total, though a further 60 metres will be a ‘no-go zone’ for local inhabitants, according to a 2009 environmental study carried out by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat). When the study was released, there were employees of the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (Conanp) who told an Ecoportal journalist that they were personally opposed to the project because of the environmental damage it would cause.
Although the planned route has changed since 2009, Semarnat has yet to publish another study of the predicted environmental impacts.
3) Dispossession and Displacement
One resident of the Chilil Ejido in Huixtán fears that the houses, lands, and “whatever [the inhabitants] have” will be “invaded” if they happen to be near the route of the new road. As a result of such worries, the Tzotzil inhabitants of Los Llanos (a municipality of San Cristóbal) set up a defence group in January 2014 in order to protect their land, in the hope of preventing the road from being be built there. They said they opposed the megaproject because it “puts [their] food sovereignty at risk and violates their right to land, autonomy, protection of their environment and natural resources, and freedom from discrimination”. They also affirmed that the sinister behaviour of government officials was responsible for their actions. Fidencio Pérez Jiménez, for example, from the council of San Cristóbal, “came here to warn us that the motorway would pass through our common land and that, if we resisted, the authorities in our community would be sent to jail and the Army would come in to set the construction project in motion”.
4) Not for the People?
The project will not be free. When it was restarted under President Calderón in 2008 (after being forgotten about for years), it initially looked set to be a toll-road under the control of the Spanish-Mexican company CAS (Concesionaria de Autopistas del Sureste). This firm, owned mostly by the Spanish group Aldesa, has been the owner of the road from San Cristóbal to Tuxtla since 2008, and charges a minimum of 48 pesos (far out of the reach of the majority of inhabitants in the area). According to SinfrayC Secretary Bayardo Robles Riqué, the San Cristóbal-Palenque road will not be a toll-road, even though estimates suggest it will cost around 10,600 million pesos. For precisely this reason, critics do not believe Robles’s claim, asserting that the government will seek to recover its money in some way.
5) The Road to Exploitation
Inhabitants of Chiapas also feel that the road will facilitate the arrival of extractivist companies which will plunder their land. The General Secretary of Government, Eduardo Ramírez Aguilar, was interviewed by the Heraldo de Chiapas in January 2014, and laid out clearly the intentions of the government. The main reason for the building of the road, he said, would be to “connect Chiapas”. He insisted that “we cannot bring investment if we don’t have the infrastructure”. Both foreign and national companies ask for “good road links” before investing, he asserted, adding that “in Chiapas we have very few”. And, as these are in a poor state (having been “built more than 30 or 40 years ago”), Ramírez said it’s no wonder they “don’t want to invest in Chiapas”. The road project, he argued, would open up a “horizon of opportunities”, and was therefore worth the “economic… and social investment” of the government.
6) Corporate Profit Is the Driving Force
Perhaps the most important reason for the opposition of Chiapan communities to the road project, however, is that they will not be the ones who will truly benefit. They will indeed be able to sell more of their handicrafts and crops to tourists at some point in the future, but that will be nothing compared to the profits that big companies will get when they enter into the territory of indigenous communities without problems to profit from their natural resources. Nature will simply become a commodity, and will be commercialised and privatised more and more as the number of eco-tourist or ‘adventure’ projects multiplies. The land and lives of ordinary Chiapan inhabitants, on the other hand, will see themselves threatened.
The San Cristóbal-Palenque motorway will allow companies to build factories a lot more easily and, in Huixtán in particular, residents fear that Coca Cola will set up a plant near to one of their natural springs, threatening their water supply in the process (see video below). Energy megaprojects such as reservoirs and mines, meanwhile, which require large machines and trucks, will benefit immensely from the construction of the new road. The simple fact is that, thanks to the government’s approval of the Energy Reform (which has legalised privatisation of land and resources for supposed ‘public gain’), the road will facilitate a capitalist orgy of extraction of whatever resources are found underground. And that is precisely what many Chiapan communities want to avoid.
Note: Videos of the marches for “Peace, the Defence of Life, and Mother Earth” in Huixtán and Cancuc can be seen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpHUa9v3NiM and here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPEhhnnNiDs
Article translated by Oso Sabio from an article originally written in Spanish at: http://otrosmundoschiapas.org/index.php/temas-analisis/31-31-resistencias/1718-porque-los-pueblos-originarios-rechazan-la-autopista-san-cristobal-de-las-casas-palenque