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How luxury ecotourism destroys indigenous peoples and the jungle the live in.

UK Zapatista Solidarity Network | 27.02.2010 13:29 | Globalisation | Repression | Zapatista | South Coast | World

The government’s plans for tourism in Chiapas, and the implications for indigenous peoples and the environment.

On the 22nd of every month, the group Las Abejas commemorate the Acteal massacre. In their press release for 22nd February, they commented:

“‘What was the reason for the Acteal massacre?’ they ask. What happened in Acteal was designed to send a clear message: that of terror and death for those people who defend their land from neoliberal projects, and who demand respect for their human rights, especially indigenous rights. The conflicts in Agua Azul and Mitziton are the product of economic interests. Agua Azul is a rich area; but if there are people living there, it’s difficult for the government to build a tourist centre without having noise and obstacles in their way. That’s why it’s convenient for the Sabines government to make problems in these zones, so that people become divided and don’t have the strength to organize themselves against the construction of the tourist centre and the San Cristobal – Palenque highway.”

In order to understand events such as the attacks by alleged paramilitary groups in Bolom Ajaw, near Agua Azul, and Mitziton, situated near the start of the proposed new super-highway, and the recent evictions of communities in the Montes Azules biosphere reserve, it is necessary to consider the planned tourist developments for Chiapas. The development strategy for this plan was drawn up, for the federal government of the state of Chiapas, by Norton Consulting Inc. and EDSA, both based in Florida, USA. Norton Consulting describe themselves as ‘real estate and resort specialists’, and photos of the pristine turquoise waters of Agua Azul feature on the front page of their website. EDSA are landscape architects and urban designers who specialise in planning ‘the client’s vision’.
These consultants say the strategy is designed to ‘identify specific projects for development, which can elevate the tourism on offer and create a more vibrant tourist economy’. Eight ‘tourist circuits’ are to be promoted, within the ‘Jungle (selva) region of Chiapas’, focusing on Plan CIP Palenque (the integrally planned centre of Palenque). This will provide ‘a gateway to the Maya world’, Mexico’s ‘new window of tourism’. The jewel in the crown of this gateway and window will be the CIP tourist corridor from Palenque to Agua Azul, which will offer something different, as ‘it will not be a beach destination’.

The development strategy, which allocates 400 million pesos for the purchase of land in this area, and 100 million for the communication links between Palenque and the Agua Azul waterfalls, identifies the first actions needed. The improvements in access by land and air are already underway, but

“The state and local government must ensure that the tourists who visit Chiapas and Palenque feel safe and protected. The Zapatista movement is still strongly associated with Chiapas, but not with Palenque. The state should consider focusing the name of the project on Chiapas is still considered unsafe by many who are not familiar with the region”.

Four ‘ideal locations’ have been identified in the priority area, the only difficulty being the ‘ownership and control’ of the land which means that ‘the state may need to acquire additional land’. The ‘concept’ involves:

Concept 1: ‘a world class boutique hotel’, cost 15 to 20 million US dollars, 60 – 75 rooms.

Concept 2: lodge ‘retreat’ near the waterfalls of Agua Azul, cost 2 to 4 million US dollars, 10 – 20 rooms
Concept 3: 5 star European style hotel, cost 20 to 25 million US dollars, 200 – 250 rooms

Concept 4: hotel development , including a conference centre and 18 hole golf course, cost 25 to 35 million US dollars, 250 rooms

The government’s priority is Concept 2. “The waterfalls of Agua Azul represent a world class attraction which could become one of the visitor’s most memorable experiences. We believe that offering the operator of the Boutique Hotel the opportunity for their guests to live the waterfall experience could enrich their investment opportunity. We therefore assume that an appropriate site with a view of the falls could be acquired by the state”.

“As access to the site is so difficult at the moment, we would recommend that tourists arrive by helicopter or seaplane. The combined experience of arriving and viewing the waterfalls would make the Waterfall Lodge ‘Retreat’ resort ‘one of the most special experiences in the western hemisphere’.

There will also be a restaurant and bar with a view of the falls, an illuminated helicopter landing strip ‘which will be transformed at night into a ‘platform for astrology’, and ‘zip-lines’ for travelling between the hotel and the quay. The quay will be for boat trips on the river, and will also have a bar. Phase 1 will involve 20 accommodation units, and phase 2 an additional 20. These will be ‘rustic bungalows’ designed to ‘highlight the connection with nature by having outside showers and air conditioning only in the bedrooms’. During the rainy season, the lodge would be closed ‘as the colour of the waters is brown’.

However, “before attracting investment, the state must solve the problems of acquiring land and of access. The acquisition of land next to the cascades is vital for the preservation of the views and natural corridors, so that these views can remain unspoiled and picturesque”.

In other words, the only obstacle to this dream investment opportunity, which is to be offered to multinational corporations such as the Orient Express, the Luxury Collection, and the Aman group, the only problem delaying the development of the ‘gateway to the Maya world’, is the Maya themselves, who insist on their right to their traditional lands, and on protecting the natural environment. Long-term followers of the Zapatistas may be reminded of the memo from Chase Manhattan Bank in January 1995, which was followed by a military crackdown on the Zapatista movement: “While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas in order to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy."

On the 21st February 2010, the government of Chiapas responded to a letter from lawyers and academics denouncing the recent aggressions against the Zapatistas at Bolom Ajaw near Agua Azul. In their response, they asserted that their intention was to “return the jungle to its original inhabitants, the flora and fauna”.

Jose Pascual Rubio Cano, secretary for International Relations for the Spanish CGT, responded with outrage and astonishment on behalf of the union: “Such an assertion shows once again the contempt felt by the government of Chiapas towards its original peoples, who are the natural and ancestral guardians of the land, territory, flora and fauna and who today, as always, challenge and oppose the devastation inflicted by multinational corporations in the name of ecotourism and capitalist economic development.

“The flora and fauna cannot survive the capitalist depredation on their own... It is the indigenous people who practice a fair and just use of natural resources, based on respect and balance, since they view the earth as the source of life, while the Chiapas government and the multinationals view it as a source of income. It is not only necessary to respect the flora and fauna, it is also necessary to respect the people who live in these lands and the use these people wish to make of their habitat......

“Sr. Sabines Guerrero, the policies of your government are to wipe out the roots of the indigenous communities and their material, community and spiritual ways of life, using illegal and illegitimate deceptions, such as your recent ‘law for indigenous rights in Chiapas’, or ‘Sabines law’, through which you are trying to legalise the avaricious destruction of indigenous communities. The main aim of your government is none other than to destroy the Zapatista autonomous organisation and its army, the EZLN, which is the main focus of resistance to your mercantile plans......We demand that you respect the rights of native peoples laid out in national and international agreements such as ILO 169, and the San Andres Accords”.

1. The sources of the report quoted are FONATUR, March 2008 and the Secretary of Tourism and International Relations of the Chiapas government. They have been made available in Spanish by Frayba. Some areas of text have been highlighted for emphasis.

2. Bolom Ajaw is a Zapatista community located very close to the Agua Azul waterfalls, and with another spectacular but so far undeveloped waterfall on its lands. It has a long history of violence and provocation by PRI members from the Agua Azul community, who belong to OPDDIC, an alleged paramilitary group. The conflict is about the control of the land and of the entry fee for tourists, and the most recent outbreak was on February 6th this year, when one person was killed, and a number injured. There is now an intense military presence in the zone with constant patrols and helicopter overflights. The JBG of Morelia has made a proposal for dialogue, but the government is insisting that this take place in the Government palace in Tuxtla in the presence of governor Sabines. If a Zapatista representative could not attend, this could provide a pretext for an invasion by the Mexican army.

3. Juan Sabines Guerrero, governor of Chiapas, can be contacted at: Lic. Juan José Sabines Guerrero
Gobernador Constitucional del Estado de Chiapas
Gobernatura del Estado de Chiapas
Palacio de Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas
Av. Central y Primera Oriente, Colonia Centro, C.P. 29009
Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, México
Fax: +52 (961) 61 88088 +52 (961) 6188056

UK Zapatista Solidarity Network