Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mexico's flood survivors blackmailed into biofuels

posted by Dustin Mulvaney

13 May 2008 11:11:00 GMT
Written by: Gregory Berger and Ben Wisner
Reuters and AlertNet are not responsible for the content of this article or for any external internet sites. The views expressed are the author's alone.

A Mexican couple wades through floodwaters in Villahermosa, Tabasco, the state neighbouring Chiapas, November 2007. REUTERS/Manuel Lopez

Did you know that Mexican farmers who lost everything in floods last year are being forced to grow African oil palms for biodiesel?

I was in southern Mexico covering another story, and found flood victims being offered loans and grants by the Mexican government to resume their farming activities, but with a catch. They need to agree to stop growing corn and beans - their traditional crops - and replace them with the oil palms that are native to West Africa.

I was told this by multiple, reliable sources who wish to remain anonymous for fears of their own safety.

The town of San Juan de Grijalva in the southernmost state of Chiapas was completely destroyed last November when a nearby hill collapsed into the Grijalva river, a major waterway. The impact caused a wave of over 50 feet (15 metres) which destroyed every structure in the small town of a few hundred people.

San Juan's residents now are being relocated away from the Grijalva river into purpose-built settlements. These so-called "rural towns" are central to the scheme to make the region - from southern Mexico down through Central America - an exporter of biodiesel.

Chiapas state congressman Luis Darinel Alvarado, a member of the congressional Agrarian Reform Committee, confirmed the policy of African oil palm production.

Governments throughout the region - Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, for example - have biofuel dollar signs in their eyes as petroleum rises above $120 a barrel.

In 1999, after Hurricane Mitch had battered the banana industry in Honduras the previous year, 30 million kilos (66 million pounds) of palm oil were exported as it took over as one of the country's major commercial corps.

Chiapas is geographically and historically linked with Central America. New industrial development of Chiapas and Central America is tied together under the controversial Puebla Panama Plan (PPP) was introduced the start of the millennium under former Mexican President Vicente Fox and recently revived under President Felipe Calderon.

The initiative includes overhauling infrastructure, establishing new industries, and changing agricultural practices to favour new international trade relationships. These new "rural towns" of flood victim residents tending oil palm plantations fall precisely in line with the plan's vision.

Critics say that the push for Puebla Panama is a major factor in the rise of reported paramilitary violence against supporters in Chiapas of the Zapatista movement, an armed movement who rose up in 1994 fighting for local people's rights.

The Zapatistas actively oppose the Puebla Panama Plan, arguing that it will destroy indigenous communities and devastate the ecosystems of Chiapas, which has more biodiversity than any other region of Mexico.

African oil palm has also promoted as a "substitute crop" by U.S. government agencies assisting countries such as Bolivia and Colombia in eradicating coca leaf cultivation, used to produce cocaine.

Small-scale farmers have lost their land, and in Colombia the resulting large-scale African oil palm producers have been linked with paramilitary organisations.

All this is happening as we witness a steep rise in worldwide food prices stirred up by a "perfect storm" of factors. One of the factors identified by the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food and others is the shift of farm land from food crop production to biofuel production.

Competition with U.S. industrial corn producers under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has driven many small Mexican farmers out of business.

Even before the current crisis, the maize-based staple - flat corn patties called tortillas - became more costly as a result. Conscious of this recent history, displaced flood victims are likely to have second thoughts about relying on biofuel production for income to buy food. Rural Mexicans traditionally value their ability to grown their own food and are adverse to risk.

There are certainly pros and cons to African oil palm production. However, the displaced farmers from San Juan Grijalva should be able to decide themselves whether they want to grow them.

Farmers may see its advantage if oil palm is grown on small-scale, mixed farms, marketed in an honest way, and used as a local energy source.

But under coercion and in the face of rapidly changing market conditions for both biofuel and food, they probably fear the worse and feel trapped between a rock and a hard place.

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