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NGOs’ Solidarity Provides Option to Migration, Maquiladoras for Crisis-Ridden Southern Mexico’s Residents
In Chiapas, Organic Coffee Growing Faces off with Plan Puebla-Panama
by John Ross | August 6, 2002
The Hernández Comfort travel agency in rural Huixtla, in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas, does not feature full-color posters of shining beaches and bikini-clad nymphets. It provides no travel brochures touting the latest bargains in Acapulco or Cancun. Indeed, the only evidence that the office deals in travel arrangements at all is a single, hand-lettered sign informing prospective customers that the bus for Tijuana leaves every Thursday.
The basic ticket price for this 4,000-kilometer odyssey from the southern to northern border is $116, explains a bus driver. But for $20 dollars more, the Hernández Comfort travel agency will guarantee a job at a Tijuana maquiladora "like Hitachi, Panasonic, or Sony" upon arrival. Should a traveler wish to venture further north to the United States and Canada, polleros (migrant traffickers) will guarantee delivery from Tijuana to the doorstep of choice for an additional $1,500.
Agencies such as the Huixtla operation are popping up like mushrooms all over the state of Chiapas. From Pijijapan on the coast and Motozintla in the sierra to the agricultural plain of the Fraylesca and including the highlands and the jungle regions of the southeast that define the influence zone of the largely Mayan Indian rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), passengers are piling aboard the aged migrant buses that head north every week.
According to the Conapo, the National Population Council, Chiapas accounts for 13% of the nearly 500,000 residents of seven southern Mexican states who have fled north in the past five years. State demographers consider the Conapo’s 12,000 a year out-migration count to be grossly undercalculated.
Disaster, Coffee Prices Prompt Danger-Fraught Exodus
Despite the displacement of about 20,000 villagers, the Zapatistas’ 1994 rebellion did not provoke much Chiapas out-migration. Rather the big boom began after massive storms and flooding hit the Chiapas coast in September 1998, burying whole towns and destroying the regional agricultural economy. The storms were a prelude to Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Central America that October and put half a million non-Mexican damnificados (victims) on the road north.
Since 2000, the out-migration stream has been accelerated by the collapse of coffee prices in the coffee-growing region stretching roughly from Puebla state south of Mexico City all the way to the Central American isthmus, the area encompassed by Mexican President Vicente Fox’s grandiose Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP) development project.
With prices at an all-time low, 500 Chiapas coffee farmers are pulling up stakes each month, about 6,000 a year, according to Gov. Pablo Salazar. Daniel Pensamiento, a reporter for the daily national newspaper Reforma , who recently accompanied the Huixtla bus to the northern border, notes that three of the 45 passengers had sold their coffee patches to pay for the price of the tickets.
The long haul north was a grueling, 80-hour passage punctuated by numerous migration, army, and federal police stops. Since the Zapatista rebellion, Chiapanecos , as residents of Chiapas are called, are regarded with suspicion by authorities, and extortion is frequent. Passengers carry rolls of small bills to buy their way to the border.
Moreover, the Chiapanecos are often mistaken for Central Americans with whom they share both this migration and the ethnic identity as Mayan Indians. The ready availability of falsified Mexican voter registration cards in Tucum Uman on the Guatemalan side of the border complicates migration. Last January, six Mexicans from Frontera Comalapa, Chiapas, were wrongly deported to Guatemala by migration authorities after arriving in northern Sonora state to pick in the grape harvest. Pensamiento witnessed several Chiapas farmers pulled off the bus by the Mexican migra (migration authorities) and accused of being illegal Central American migrants.
Fraught as they are with discomfort and danger, the migrant buses are a luxury most Central Americans cannot afford. Chapinos (Guatemalans) and other Central American workers who pour across the border at Tapachula, Chiapas, usually try to hitch a free ride on the daily freight train east toward the Atlantic Coast state of Veracruz. Crowded with scrambling hangers-on, the train is the scene of frequent accidents, and many fall to their death or are brutally maimed. One week this June, the severed limbs of three migrants were reportedly found along the track.
First stops for the Huixtla bus when it reached the northern border were Agua Prieta, and Altar, Sonora, where Pensamiento observed most of the passengers disembarking for the long trek into the United States through the scorching Arizona desert. Hundreds of migrants have died during this hike in recent years, and in 2002, the bodies of the migrants are beginning to come home to Chiapas.
So is their money. At Western Union-Dinero Expreso (Money Express) offices off the plaza in the old colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, the capital of the Mayan highlands, Jose Gabriel Madrigal confirms that his business took a "barbarous" leap in 2001, concurrent with the crash of coffee prices. Madrigal figures he now handles about 50 migrant remittances a week. Most of his clients are indigenous women from surrounding coffee-growing communities, for whom the checks represent their only income.
International coffee prices–battered by world glut and the bitter harvest of World Bank credits to foment export agriculture in developing economies, such as those that have made Vietnam the No. 2 coffee-exporting country on the planet–hit their lowest point since 1882 on U.S. commodity exchanges this past March: 44 cents.
But for Chiapas’ 200,000 small plot cafe cultivators, most of them indigenous, 44 cents would be a fortune. This year, coyotes (intermediaries) are offering less than two cents, and many farmers have abandoned their coffee crop to grow marijuana, which at $1.30 the kilogram can at least keep a family minimally fed.
The other alternative is to hit the road north. In some Chiapas villages these days, investigators report that the only residents are women, children, and old men–a phenomenon of abandonment traditionally associated with Mexican out-migration from feeder states such as Michoacán, Zacatecas, and Oaxaca.
Cross-border Solidarity Cushions Crisis
Ironically, communities that support the Zapatista rebels are doing better in keeping their villages intact than their arch rivals in towns long dependent on government handouts from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for 71 years and still controls many. Projects in the EZLN influence zone initiated by the Catholic Church and national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have taken root, providing a much-needed cushion of survival.
A recent visit to Oventic, a highland Zapatista gathering center in a coffee-growing area and the object of much NGO attention, revealed a flourishing community, its general store packed with customers, and the number of new structures suggestive of a building boom. Oventic officials insist that no Zapatista farmers have abandoned the ejido (village organized as a rural production unit.)
The 38 Zapatista autonomous municipalities in Los Altos and the jungle also have an outlet for their weavings and artisanry on San Cristobal’s downtown tourist row–Nemezapata, run by the painter and long-time EZLN promoter Beatriz Aurora.
Essential to keeping the Zapatista communities out of the migration stream are solidarity groups, such as the Minnesota-based Cloudforest Institute and Denver’s Human Bean Company, which deal in fairly traded organic coffee. Both buy from the Muk Vitz cooperative which takes in 27 Zapatista villages and six autonomous municipalities in the highlands near the town labeled El Bosque on the government map and San Juan de la Libertad on the Zapatistas’.
Interviewed at a recent San Cristobal peace conclave, Kerry Appel, founder of the Human Bean Company, which markets Zapatista brand coffee, explains that he is paying $1.61 a pound to Muk Vitz farmers, including a 20-cent premium for infrastructure development. "You have to remember that these guys don’t accept any government money," notes Appel.
Still, organic coffee only accounts for 15% of the Muk Vitz harvest. The rest is sold at the rock-bottom commercial price. Appel’s present project is to get 500 Zapatista growers certified organic by international standards, so they can benefit from eco-labeling.
In contrast to the organic coffee strategy for keeping the Zapatistas on the land, the Fox administration has drawn a corporate bead on slowing down the out-migration flow: the Plan Puebla-Panama, designed to bring international investment to resource-rich but otherwise-poor and Indian southern Mexico.
President Sees Maquiladoras, Plan Puebla-Panama as Antidote
One key PPP component is the so-called "march" of northern border-based maquiladoras to the low-wage south. If this strategy pays off, travelers from Huixtla on their way to promised jobs at Hitachi et al in Tijuana may soon be passing those same maquiladoras as the latter are heading toward Chiapas.
Some 300 maquiladoras now churn out blue jeans for the U.S. market in Tehuacan, Puebla, on the PPP project area’s northern boundary. A maquiladora zone is plotted for the Tehuantepec plain on the Oaxacan isthmus and a handful of maquilas have sprouted up on the Yucatan-Campeche peninsula.
San Cristobal’s first maquiladora, Trans-Textile International, opened its doors this April. Owned by the Mexican KN Industrial Group, Trans-Textile International currently provides jobs for 400 Tzotzil Indians from nearby San Juan Chamula, 60% of whom are women. They assemble knitwear for U.S. apparel giants Guess and Nautica; all production is for U.S. export. The workforce is expected to total 1,500 when the factory is at full capacity.
"We provide women here with an opportunity to earn an income," production chief Maclovia Perez affirms. Although she will not say what the wages are, the regional minimum wage, which Trans-Textile is certainly paying, is about $5 a day or 60 cents an hour, a considerable savings for Grupo KN over the $1.20 an hour that is standard in Tijuana maquiladoras.
Like maquilas everywhere in Mexico, Trans-Textile is housed in a low-slung building with banks of florescent lights overhanging long work tables at which Chamula women, master hand weavers by tradition, manipulate mechanical looms and synthetic fibers. Although management was reluctant to allow a U.S. reporter to speak with workers, according to Andres Aubry, a long-time San Cristobal investigator who keeps tabs on the Trans-Textile operation, the women are already complaining about compulsory overtime and painful eyestrain.
Despite charges by globalphobes like Aubry that the maquilas are transnational invaders attracted by low-wage workers and that they corrupt traditional Mayan Indian communities, Fox pushes their march south as sustainable development. But the economic survival of these assembly plants brings such sustainability into question.
San Cristobal de las Casas, for instance, is scant miles from a border, but it is the wrong border if the maquiladoras are trying to get their product to the U.S. market. Moreover, the city sits atop a winding, dangerous mountain road that is going to make for transportation cost increases that will offset low, hourly-wage savings. San Cristobal, in fact, is so far away from the market the maquilas serve that it might as well be in China–a republic to which more than 200 formerly Mexican maquiladoras have moved in the past year to take advantage of succulent subsidies and even lower wages than Trans-Textile International now pays the Chamulas.
John Ross is a veteran Mexico reporter whose most recent book, The War Against Oblivion, chronicles the Zapatistas’ eight-year saga.
Sources for more information:
"Crisis in Chiapas: Report on Chiapas by the Human Bean Company" | Human Bean Company, January 6, 1998
"Cloud Forest Institute Mission" | Cloud Forest Institute
"Immigrants Found Dead in Truck; Two Drivers Are Charged" | New York Times , July 29, 2002
"Golf-Club Makers Find Greener Grass in China" | Wall Street Journal , July 24, 2002
"Migrants Flex Their Muscle Back Home" | Financial Times , July 23, 2002
"Plan Puebla-Panama’s Merida Summit," Americas Program, July 24, 2002
"U.S. Anti-Migration Efforts Move South," | Americas Program, July 8, 2002
"Development in Mexico: As Established Policies are Nurtured, the Hopes of Many Mexicans Wither on the Vine," | Americas Program, October 2001
Published by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2002. All
John Ross, "In Chiapas, Organic Coffee-Growing Faces Off with Plan Puebla-Panama," Americas Program Feature Investigation (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, August 6, 2002).