Is Mexico an isthmus

The mega project

Only 304 kilometers of land separate the Gulf of Mexico from the Pacific Ocean on the isthmus, but the eye of the needle is a region with diverse natural riches and mineral resources. In addition, the isthmus is of great strategic and political importance due to its geographical location. Alexander von Humboldt had already recognized this when, at the beginning of the 19th century, he proposed opening a canal here that would connect the two oceans. The canal was finally inaugurated in Panama in 1915, but a railway line had already been built for it on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in previous years. And with good reason: In the region and the neighboring areas, North American timber companies had started to exploit tropical precious woods, which were now transported by rail to the two coasts and from there to the USA and Europe. Basically it has stayed that way, only the products have changed over the decades: rubber, coffee, cattle and oil have replaced the precious woods after they were deforested.

Alternative to the Panama Canal

But now the isthmus is threatened with intensification of exploitation, which finally threatens the social and ecological survival of the region. With the Programa Integral de Desarollo Económico para el Istmo de Tehuantepec (Oaxaca-Veracruz), or “mega project” for short, presented by the government a few months ago, the future is taking on a face. Railways, highways, the expansion of ports, the settlement of the petrochemical industry, the intensification of oil production, maquiladoras and large-scale agricultural projects should, as the document shows, transform the isthmus into an industrial corridor that should extend to all of southern Mexico.
According to the Torrijos-Carter Agreement, the USA had to withdraw from the Panamanian Canal Zone at the end of 1999. But a transport route between the oceans is still of enormous strategic importance for the USA, but also for the East Asian industrial powers. So it is no wonder that other projects are being considered to compete with the Panama Canal. Concrete projects are already being worked on in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Colombia. And at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec the Mexican government put the old Humboldtian idea back on the agenda for this occasion. No canal is planned, but the expansion of the railway line between the Atlantic port of Cotzacoalcos and Salina Cruz, its counterpart on the Pacific, which has existed since 1907. Here, after the expansion of the ports, containers are to roll over the isthmus in the future. At the same time, a four-lane motorway is to be built, financed by foreign capital.
According to the planning, the transport routes will only be the backbone of a newly created industrial region. The Mexican oil industry is already concentrated on the Atlantic side of the isthmus in the states of Veracruz, Tabasco and Campeche. 80 percent of the as yet undeveloped oil reserves are also underground here. According to La Jornada, a total of 39 billion barrels of crude oil are believed to be underground, which at current prices on the international markets would bring sales of over 500 billion US dollars. For years, international oil companies have been putting pressure on the Mexican government to finally privatize the state oil company PEMEX, as has already happened to most other state-owned companies in the past neoliberal decade. But resistance is great: The PEMEX, nationalized in 1938 against bitter resistance from foreign oil companies, represents the symbol of national sovereignty in Mexico. Nonetheless, lucrative areas of at least oil processing have already been privatized or opened to foreign capital. With the mega project, the promotion is now to be intensified and new refineries (in Salina Cruz) and petrochemical industries (in Cosoleacaque, Coatzacoalcos, Ixhuatlán del Sureste and Salina Cruz) are to be established. In addition to transnational oil multinationals, the German corporations BASF, Bayer and Hoechst have also announced investments. (Financiero, September 27, 1996)

From the rainforest to the rubbish dump

The estuary of the Rio Coatzacoalco is already one of the most polluted regions on earth. Both the water, the air and the earth are polluted by toxins produced by the extraction and processing of crude oil. 2,400 fishing families have already lost their livelihoods. In February 1995, among other things, there were uprising protests by the Chontales indigenous people in Tabasco when they blocked oil production facilities. Los Pantanos, a 150 square kilometer unique ecosystem, became a waste dump for the petrochemicals of Cosoleacaque and the refineries in Minatitlán, Pajaritos and Cangrejera, which are located on the Coatzacoalcos River. It doesn't take much imagination to imagine what the ecological consequences of a further intensification of oil production will be.
In addition to the petrochemical industry, there are also specific investment projects in various major maquiladora projects that are to be created along the transport routes. Every year hundreds of thousands of people, mainly small farmers, whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the neoliberal agricultural policy, migrate from Oaxaca and Veracruz to the cities or to the northern border with the USA in order to earn their living there. With the mega-project, the low-wage industry is now to be located in the region from which the migrant workers come. The first textile factories have already opened in Coatzacoalcos and Los Tuxtlas. There are also specific investment projects for the extraction of minerals such as marble, sulfur, sea salt and lime, which are neatly listed in the government's infrastructure plan.

International Paper is cutting down

In addition to the transport routes and petrochemicals, paper production is the most important part of the mega-project. On over 300,000 hectares - for comparison: a smallholder family cultivates three to five hectares - huge eucalyptus plantations are to be planted for paper production. The water-poisoning cellulose factories are also already on the drawing board. Nobody less than International Paper, one of the largest paper companies in the world with a sales volume of 14.966 billion US dollars, wants to invest on a large scale. Officially, the eucalyptus plantations operate as reforestation projects, but the eucalyptus tree actually removes water and minerals from the soil, so that all of the flora and fauna around it die. In many regions of the world, eucalyptus plantations left depleted and destroyed areas.
With tough lobbying, International Paper ensured that excellent framework conditions were created for it. In a letter dated July 27, 1997, Edward Kobacker of International Paper presented conditions to Luis Téllez Kuenzler, head of the office of the President of the Republic. Their fulfillment, from the allocation of suitable sites to the privatization of ports and transport routes to subsidies, was promised a month later in a hundred-page memorandum from the Ministry of the Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries (Semarnap). No wonder, because the negotiator on the Mexican side was Claudio Xavier González. He is the Mexican President of the multinational Kimberley Clark Corporation, which also manufactures paper products and has a keen interest in eucalyptus production. The eucalyptus project is now threatening the Los Chimalapas region, the largest contiguous and untouched tropical rainforest in Mexico with 462,000 hectares, a region with one of the highest biodiversity in all of Central and North America. Endangered jaguars, quetzal birds, eagles, reptiles, monkeys and tapirs are just as native here as over 1,600 different types of plants.
The entire mega-project follows a development strategy that corresponds to the interests of export-oriented capital and geostrategic US interests. There is no room for the inhabitants of the isthmus and their peasant and indigenous traditions. If the plans turn into reality, they will spend their future in the low-wage factories. But it's not that far yet: at a Foro Nacional El Istmo es nuestro at the end of August, several dozen campesino and indigenous organizations as well as numerous NGOs announced their resistance. Among them is the strongly anchored COCEI (workers, farmers and student coalition of the isthmus) as well as ecological groups and the opposition PRD. As the daily La Jornada found out, the plans for the isthmus project have been in the drawers of the Ministry of Communications and Transport (SCT) since the beginning of 1995. In September 1996 it became known that due to the political instability of the region - the troubled Chiapas borders the isthmus to the south and the EPR (Revolutionary People's Army) operates to the north - the tender for the concession of the railway has been postponed. Now, however, it seems to be getting serious.