The San Cristóbal-Palenque highway is back and so is the resistance

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Chiapas

By: Mary Ann Tenuto-Sánchez

The San Cristobal-Palenque highway is key to an elaborate tourism development plan, the Palenque Integral Center (CIP, its initials in Spanish), which includes a lush green jungle area in the northern zone of Chiapas, the Agua Azul Cascades, the Misol Ha waterfall and the magnificent archaeological site of Palenque. The highway faced a setback several years ago, perhaps causing some to think the government had abandoned plans for a superhighway and would just improve the existing highway connecting the colonial tourist mecca of San Cristóbal de las Casas to the archaeological site of Palenque and the city of Palenque. Recent news articles, however, indicate that rather than abandoning the highway, the government opted to re-route it through San Juan Cancuc. [1]

The San Cristóbal-Palenque highway and the Palenque Integral Center are part of a regional development plan for Mesoamerica, originally known as the Plan Puebla-Panamá (PPP). [2] The PPP included numerous infrastructure projects that prompted strong opposition from social, environmental and human rights organizations, as well as academics and organized indigenous communities. That led governments and planners to silence the most controversial projects contained in the plan and to re-name it the Mesoamerica Project. In Chiapas, at least up to now, the most controversial projects within the Mesoamerica Project have been the San Cristobal-Palenque highway and the Palenque Integral Center. They go together; the CIP needs the highway to facilitate tourism.

Residents of the areas affected by these projects have had two general concerns: 1) dispossession of the lands of indigenous communities of subsistence farmers through which the highway would pass and the effects on those communities and 2) the massive amount of tourism envisioned in the Palenque Integral Center. Perhaps the best articulation of why the Zapatista communities and other pro-Zapatista indigenous communities oppose and resist the superhighway and the Palenque Integral Center may be in the words of Miguel Vazquez Moreno, a Zapatista supporter from the San Sebastián Bachajón ejido, who was briefly a political prisoner as a result of resistance to the superhighway and the tourism megaproject.

“I am a native of the San Sebastián Bachajón ejido and I am part of the EZLN’s support base, an organization that defends its right to exercise autonomy and self-determination as indigenous peoples, its right to territory and to natural resources. They [the federal and state governments] want to impose neoliberal economic projects on our autonomous territory. As indigenous people, the land is our life, we eat from it, we work, our children grow and it is something sacred, therefore we consider that the land is not for sale but to work and care for. Our territory is rich in water, animals and natural resources. They want to make it into a ‘Chiapas Cancun’ by plundering the indigenous of our life, that is, the land, just so that foreign and national companies can become richer, as well as the government officials that benefit from these projects. They want to cross through our autonomous territory without respecting our rights. They want to impose these projects on indigenous peoples without giving importance to our word, and with discrimination they want to remove us from our lands for tourist purposes and only to benefit rich developers and the federal and state government, putting us aside because to them we give a bad appearance to those eco-tourist centers, being that we are original peoples, descendants of the peoples that have lived on these lands since before anything like an official government existed.” [3]

The San Cristóbal-Palenque highway would pass through small rural indigenous communities, both Zapatista and non-Zapatista, thus dispossessing each community of some of its land and, possibly, dividing those lands in two. It would also alter animal habitats, endanger animal species and cause air pollution from the giant tourist buses. This is not a highway to facilitate local traffic between one town and the next. It’s a superhighway (toll road) to facilitate international mega-tourism arriving by both airplane and cruise ship. Cruise ships dock at Puerto Chiapas and from there passengers can then board giant tourist buses to visit the world-famous Palenque archaeological site and other sites, such as the Agua Azul Cascades, within the mega tourism project that the CIP envisions. Imagine the volume of tourism a completed San Cristóbal-Palenque superhighway and CIP would bring when combined with a completed Maya Train station in Palenque bringing tourists to Palenque from Cancun! It would transform life and culture, as we now know it in that area of Chiapas. Like Miguel Vazquez Moreno above, some have dubbed the CIP “the new Cancun.” [4]

The CIP contains an elaborate plan to convert the area surrounding the Agua Azul Cascades into a “world-class resort destination.” The government plan includes a Boutique Hotel, a European 5-Star Hotel, a Conference Center with golf course, and a Lodge overlooking the waterfall at Bolom Ajaw, a Zapatista community on land reclaimed in the 1994 uprising. Luxury tourists would have to helicopter into the Lodge at Bolom Ajaw due to its remoteness, so plans for the lodge include a helipad!

Agua Azul Cascades

The Agua Azul area has been a flashpoint of conflict between pro-government communities (in favor of luxury tourist development because the government has promised them a cut of the income) and pro-Zapatista communities (opposed to development based on luxury tourism). The controversial project proposed for Agua Azul, of which a superhighway is key to attracting large numbers of tourists, has already generated three pro-Zapatista deaths (one in Mitzitón and 2 in San Sebastián Bachajón), numerous violent conflicts, serious bodily injuries, political prisoners, death threats, torture and the death of at least one government supporter in Bolom Ajaw. The San Sebastián Bachajón ejido includes the entryway to the Agua Azul Cascades.

The government argues that these tourist projects will bring jobs and income into a very poor state, while Zapatista supporters, their sympathizers and allies argue that the volume of tourism envisioned will damage the environment, their food security, their autonomy and their way of life; that is, their culture. Government planners envision converting autonomous subsistence farmers, who believe that the land is sacred, into busboys, maids and bellhops.

The Los Llanos court decision

The Los Llanos ejido is located on the current highway to Palenque, close to where the new highway was originally supposed to start. It is across the highway from the Mitzitón ejido, near the intersection where the current highway to Palenque forks off from the Pan American Highway. In January 2014, the Los Llanos ejido filed for an injunction against the new superhighway crossing through their lands, based on their right to a prior, free and informed consultation (consulta) about the project. [5] The government had not followed the United Nations protocol for consulting with Los Llanos before starting construction. A temporary injunction against highway construction was in place while the case was pending. Two years later, in January 2016, the court granted an amparo (permanent injunction) to Los Llanos, ruling that the government failed to conduct the required consultation with the affected communities. [6] The court decision prevented construction of the superhighway, but only in the municipalities of San Cristóbal de las Casas and Huixtán, where Mitzitón and Los Llanos are located, leaving open the possibility of either re-routing the controversial superhighway or improving the existing highway.

Approximately 9 months after Los Llanos filed its court case, opposition to the San Cristóbal-Palenque superhighway emerged again and it was from La Candelaria ejido in the Chiapas municipality of San Juan Chamula. More than 2,000 representatives, including people of faith belonging to Pueblo Creyente, attended this meeting at La Candelaria’s sacred site of Laguna Suyul and vowed to resist the highway. [7] The clear implication of this important meeting was that government planners intended to re-route the superhighway to begin in San Juan Chamula, a municipality bordering on San Cristóbal de las Casas, and pass close to the sacred Laguna Suyul site. A map of the route is shown in the article. The recent news article about resistance in San Juan Cancuc means that the new route remains pretty much the same as that shown at the time of the La Candelaria meeting and would pass through San Juan Cancuc over the mountains in the direction of the Agua Azul Cascades. Many of the municipalities and organizations represented in La Candelaria have joined San Juan Cancuc in resisting the new route for the superhighway. They issued a statement as members of the Movement in Defense of Life and Territory (Modevite). [8] The list of municipalities signing the statement is a good indicator of the superhighway’s new route and the municipalities that would be affected.

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[1] https://chiapas-support.org/2019/04/11/residents-of-san-juan-cancuc-reject-san-cristobal-palenque-superhighway-construction/

[2] https://chiapas-support.org/2014/03/25/the-plan-puebla-panama-is-changing-chiapas/

[3] Chiapas Update, August 2009, pp. 3-4

[4] https://expansion.mx/obras/pulso-de-la-construccion/chiapas-se-perfila-como-el-nuevo-cancun

[5] https://chiapas-support.org/2014/01/25/indigenous-file-lawsuit-against-san-cristobal-palenque-toll-road/

[6] https://chiapas-support.org/2016/05/30/indigenous-win-lawsuit-against-the-san-cristobal-palenque-superhighway/

[7] https://chiapas-support.org/2014/09/22/opposition-to-chiapas-super-highway/

[8] https://chiapas-support.org/2019/04/30/8-more-municipalities-reject-the-san-cristobal-palenque-highway/

 

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