Citizen Action in the
Americas, No. 2


Resisting the Plan Puebla-Panama

Americas Program,
Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC)

by Wendy Call

Marching to protest the PPP in Guatemala.
Photo by Indy-Media, Chiapas.

The Grassroots Agenda
A dynamic, crossborder citizens’ movement in Mexico and Central America has emerged to challenge the Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP) an industrial development program being promoted by the Mexican government and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). In just over a year, the movement has managed to bring significant public scrutiny to bear on the PPP, both on the home front and internationally.
In September 2000, Mexico’s President-elect Vicente Fox announced an ambitious industrial development plan for southern Mexico and Central America called the Plan Puebla-Panama. The plan was named for the region it encompasses, which includes the nine southern states of Mexico—Puebla, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz, Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatan—and all seven Central American nations. This 25-year, $20 billion program has become the Inter-American Development Bank’s highest priority for the region. The PPP calls for 5,565 miles (8,977 kilometers) of new or improved highways, 1,130 miles (1,830 kilometers) of new electrical lines to distribute power generated by gas and dams, and six massive “development zones” for maquiladora plants and processing facilities. The PPP, in essence, would create the physical infrastructure required for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)—Vicente Fox often quips that the PPP and FTAA work “hand-in-hand.” It would also facilitate trade under the proposed U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).


There has been no serious consultation with communities affected by the PPP by either the IDB or the involved governments.
The budget priorities of the PPP are dramatically skewed. In the Mexican government’s 2002 budget for the program ($697.4 million), 82% of funding is devoted to transport projects while only 2.9% is targeted for health or “social development” projects. Meanwhile, there is no specific attention to rural development.
Few, if any, PPP-related projects call for environmental impact statements. While some of the proposals outline plans for studies of their ecological effects, to date none of these studies have been undertaken.
Public information about the PPP is scattered, incomplete, and confusing. The single largest document available (at is devoted to general information about the demographics and natural resources of the region, with no details about PPP projects. Documents at the IDB website give spotty details and contradict each other. A country-by-country breakdown of projects and budgets is not available anywhere.

Although the Mexican president remains the PPP’s lead promoter, he is not its mastermind. Documents penned more than two years ago by planners with Mexico’s then ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) provided the general framework for the PPP.
But the real force behind the PPP is not based in Mexico City, rather in Washington DC. The IDB, for instance, designed both the PPP and its South American counterpart, the South American Integration Infrastructure Initiative. Bank president Enrique Iglesias is the head of the PPP Financing Commission, while a Presidential Commission, with one representative appointed by each involved nation’s president, is technically responsible for program design and implementation. The group holds regular meetings—often in Spain or other countries outside the region—and the IDB plays a key role in those discussions.
The IDB has organized the PPP into eight different “initiatives” for promotional purposes. They are: sustainable development, human development, natural disaster prevention and mitigation, tourism promotion, trade facilitation, road integration, energy interconnection, and telecommunications development. Recent IDB documents clarify the nature of the eight PPP initiatives in ways their formal titles do not. Under the trade facilitation initiative, lowering tariffs is first priority. For natural disaster prevention and mitigation, the focus is on “developing the insurance market.” The first priority listed under the tourism promotion initiative is “strengthening airport security.”
According to the incomplete budget information currently available, nearly 90% of the funding sought for the PPP will go toward transportation infrastructure improvement and energy interconnection. So far, these two initiatives—the only areas where formal agreements have been reached among the involved countries—have made more progress than the other six. In fact, large-scale construction on PPP transportation and energy projects has already begun.
While the notion of improving access to transportation and energy for communities in the affected region may seem attractive, plan priorities are problematic. The PPP is based largely on unsustainable development patterns and meets the needs of big business, not local communities. The proposed transport system emphasizes superhighways, not local improvements to help connect area communities and local markets, and lends only minimal attention to rail transport and similar lower-impact options. The PPP’s electrical integration program relies heavily on natural gas and hydroelectric dams to provide power. At a June 2002 PPP “Investment Expo,” in Mérida, the Mexican government announced construction of four hydroelectric dams along the Usumacinta River between Mexico and Guatemala. Several of the dams had been proposed in the past, but were later canceled because of community opposition and concerns over environmental damage. There has been no mention of environmental assessment for these resuscitated dam projects. Projects related to land use focus on large-scale irrigation projects, monocrop tree plantations, and privatization of communal and indigenous lands. And the land-use model promoted by the PPP—large highways connecting newly urbanized industrial zones across tracts of privately controlled agricultural land—is the antithesis of the traditional land use patterns of the region’s indigenous and peasant communities.
In the months after it was announced, Mexicans and Central Americans learned about the PPP only through rumor and the mass media, if they heard about it at all. Neither the governments of Mexico and Central America nor the IDB has shown any real interest in informing the communities that would be affected by PPP projects. In April 2001, perfunctory meetings were held in the capital cities of several Mexican states, and in June 2002, one meeting each was held in Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. Very few organizations were informed of or invited to the sessions. The IDB did post a cursory report on the meetings to its website—making it accessible to the approximately 1% of Mexicans and Central Americans who have Internet access. Although the IDB requires minimal public consultation for the projects it funds, it claims it cannot push a broader PPP consultation without infringing on the sovereignty of the eight nations involved. The governments of those nations have shown no interest in public involvement.
Given the scale of the program, the majority of the region’s 65 million residents could be affected in some way. The people of these eight countries speak more than 100 different languages. At least one-quarter of them are illiterate, and many in that group do not have access to television or even radio broadcasts. Despite these immense challenges, in the last year hundreds of community organizations throughout the region have made the Plan Puebla-Panama more familiar to area residents, if not completely understood.
Although civil society’s education efforts are still in their early stages, hundreds of regional and local meetings have introduced thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people to the PPP. The Mexican government formally presented the Plan Puebla-Panama to the media on March 12, 2001. Exactly two months later, civil society held its first international meeting on the subject, in Tapachula, Chiapas, to discuss the plan’s potential impacts. Today, members of the movement to confront the PPP are not only sharing information but are also coordinating strategies to challenge the plan and comparing notes regarding alternative development models.
The public declaration made at the end of the Tapachula forum reflected the growing concerns of Mexican and Central American communities about the PPP: “[W]e firmly reject the Plan Puebla-Panama because it is a rejuvenated, brutal colonization plan…that will deepen the poverty of our communities, and the destruction of our cultures and the natural world. We categorically reject the attempt to impose this plan over the desires and interests of our communities.”
The Grassroots Agenda
Since the May 2001 gathering of 250 community groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Tapachula, Chiapas, civil society has organized two other large-scale international gatherings on the PPP. More than 300 groups attended a November 2001 meeting in Guatemala, and 350 participated in a July 2002 forum in Nicaragua. The next meeting of this network is planned for 2003 in Honduras. Meanwhile, other international meetings of activists and citizens have focused on particular issues relevant to the Plan Puebla-Panama, like a June 2001 conference on biodiversity and biopiracy held in Chiapas, Mexico, and a March 2002 forum on hydroelectric dams convened in Petén, Guatemala.

Citizens’ Critiques & Recommendations Regarding the PPP

The PPP responds to U.S. interests, not the needs of communities in the region.
The development model that underpins the PPP will destroy local and rural economies and will reduce regional food security.
The lack of public consultation regarding the PPP violates international agreements, including Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization on indigenous rights.
The PPP represents a grave risk to the rich biological and cultural diversity of the region.
The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor program—which the Mexican government plans to incorporate into the PPP—represents a threat to local peoples’ land tenure.
One of the PPP’s aims is to reduce migration by Central Americans and Mexicans to the United States, but the plan fails to realistically address the social and economic problems that spur migration.
The PPP should be canceled and replaced with a regional development plan that: supports rural development and enhances food security; does not rely on assembly plant maquiladoras or agroexports; respects the diverse cultures and customs of the region; protects biodiversity; provides local communities with electrical power not based on large-scale dams; and involves affected communities in both planning and implementation phases.

Full text of presentations, closing declarations, and additional documents can be found on the websites of the various regional PPP forms. See p.8.

Protests related to the PPP are also increasingly common: On August 16, some 10 to 15 thousand Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Tojolabal Mayans took to the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas in an anti-PPP march led by Roman Catholic Bishop Felipe Arismendi.
One recurring theme in all of these events as well as at smaller, local meetings: The PPP must not move forward until the communities affected by it are fully included in the planning and implementation process. All three international forums on the PPP have ended with closing conference statements similar in tone and content. (See the box, “Citizens’ Critiques and Recommendations Regarding the PPP,” on page 2.)
Like the plan itself, the movement to confront the PPP is complicated, multifaceted, and even inconsistent. While impressive (if loose and incomplete) communications networks have developed among NGOs, indigenous rights organizations, cooperatives, unions, women’s groups, and environmental organizations in Mexico and Central America organizing around the PPP, these networks do not share a single agenda.
Generally, there are four broad, recurring strategies in civil society’s resistance to the PPP: Insist on being included in the PPP planning and implementation process, and refuse to accept the plan otherwise; gather information on PPP projects from a wide variety of sources and disseminate it as widely as possible; fight the most destructive elements of the plan with direct action, media advocacy, government pressure, and other strategies; and document and promote alternative development strategies that are being planned and implemented at the local level.
Though incipient, the PPP organizing movement has already won several victories. Here are five examples:
Since the PPP was first announced, a major criticism has been the lack of public information regarding the project. Pressure from citizens groups and nongovernmental organizations has since led to a modest improvement on this score, at least as regards the IDB. In early 2002, the bank began posting monthly PPP progress reports to its website. It is important to note that the IDB and other plan promoters need some semblance of public consultation in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the international investment community, and opposition groups are very wary of these processes.
The movement to confront the PPP has garnered significant media coverage in Mexico thanks to a combination of savvy organizing by grassroots groups and blunders by the Mexican government. During their March for Dignity and Indigenous Rights in February and March 2001, for instance, leaders of the high-profile Zapatista movement spoke repeatedly against the PPP. Additionally, the Mexican government chose March 12, 2001—the day after the Zapatistas arrived in Mexico City—to formally present the PPP to the media. Media attention focused on the march and PPP opposition, while the government’s pro-PPP line was buried on the back pages of national papers.
In 2001, a coalition of NGOs and community organizations in Petén founded the Solidarity Group for Action and Proposals, organizing educational workshops, hosting public forums, and publishing a regular newsletter called Alert! Wake Up Petén! about the PPP. One of the group’s primary concerns was a planned highway that would cut across Petén’s Maya Biosphere Reserve—the heart of Mesoamerica’s forest corridor. The Guatemalan government fought to have the road included in the PPP highway program. The IDB balked. When the PPP financing commission published a report on highway plans in June 2002, the controversial Petén highway was not included.
In another success story, the Association of Indigenous Communities in the Northern Zone of the Isthmus (UCIZONI), based in Matías Romero, Oaxaca, Mexico, has collaborated with organizations in the United States, including the Data Center in California and the Vermont-based Action for Community and Ecology in the Regions of Central America (ACERCA), to gather information about PPP initiatives. UCIZONI has disseminated this information through popular education booklets and workshops, reaching thousands of rural residents in one of the high-priority areas for PPP transit development: Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. As a result of the pressure, UCIZONI has forced high-ranking officials of both Mexico’s national oil company, PEMEX, and representatives of the PPP presidential commission to the negotiating table.
Long before the PPP was announced, Hondurans began protesting a proposed dam on the Lempa River, which would displace 20,000 indigenous Lenca people. The joint project with the Salvadoran government was strongly opposed by many organizations on both sides of the border, including the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). Recently, the El Tigre dam project was linked to the PPP. In July 2002, the proposal was put on indefinite hold, when the Salvadoran government refused to include any sort of environmental impact study in the program—something required by Honduran law. Without strong grassroots pressure, the Honduran government might well have overlooked that legal obligation.
Local-Global Linkages
Perhaps the greatest challenge to communities facing the Plan Puebla-Panama is the program’s many connections to other issues. The PPP literally paves the way for the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement, the Canada-Central America Free Trade Agreement, and the hemisphere-wide FTAA.
At the same time, the complex nature of the PPP offers interesting opportunities to the hemispheric movements related to indigenous peoples’ rights, sustainable development, and biodiversity protection. It opens the door for broad-based discussions about these key issues and gives face and name to that often-amorphous threat: economic globalization. Neoliberal development theory becomes concrete with the PPP: rural people move to growing cities; communities are separated from the land that has nourished them for centuries; local and national assets are handed over to foreign interests.
The diverse, even disjointed, nature of the anti-PPP movement can be confusing for northern organizations seeking to link up with the struggle. Complicating the picture are differences of opinion among the groups involved. Some believe the PPP can be made more sustainable and humane via policy advocacy and engagement; the majority, however, feel the scheme should be rejected outright and call for its replacement with an alternative development plan—that is regionally focused and not aimed at integration with northern markets, and which forwards an explicit social agenda. However, for the long-term success of the movement, diversity is strength. While the IDB, World Bank, and national governments seek the support of investors around the world, they must also deal with the brushfires burning at home. In Oaxaca, Mexico, indigenous Mixes, Chontals, and Zapotecs fight an unwanted superhighway. Just to the north, in the state of Puebla, campesinos have slowed down the state government’s “Proyecto Millennium,” which aims to transform high-quality agricultural land into a corridor of maquiladora parks and highways.
Though specific concerns vary from place to place, one fundamental demand remains the same: the people affected by PPP projects must be fully informed and fully incorporated into the planning process. After one and a half years of international organizing, there has been some progress on this front. While the IDB’s public consultation has been far from satisfactory, without public pressure it probably would not exist at all. This bodes well for future progress, especially as this citizens’ movement raises its international profile.
At the third international public forum on the PPP, held in Managua, Nicaragua in July 2002, more than 1,000 people were in attendance—three times more participants than the first such event in May 2001 in Tapachula, Chiapas. By the event’s close, attendees agreed to a series of coordinated actions and strategies, indicating that anti-PPP organizing efforts are evolving from a loose network toward a coherent social movement. Their plan of action begins with an international day of opposition to the PPP on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 12, 2002. Meanwhile, efforts to raise awareness regarding the PPP and its impacts and highlight alternative approaches to development will continue, and a fourth international forum is being planned for 2003 in Honduras.
At the same time, concern and involvement by groups based outside the region is increasing. Organizations including Action for Community and Ecology in the Regions of Central America (ACERCA), the Bank Information Center (BIC), Global Exchange, the International Development Exchange (IDEX), the Mexico Solidarity Network, the Network in Solidarity with Guatemala, the Nicaragua Network, and others are educating U.S.-based constituencies about the PPP and helping advocates connect across the South-North divide.
—Wendy Call
Wendy Call is a freelance writer who divides her time between Boston and Oaxaca. She can be reached at < >.

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Mexican and Central American Organizations
U.S. and Canadian Organizations
Online Articles

Mexican and Central American Organizations

More than five hundred different NGOs, community organizations, cooperatives, unions, and other groups have participated in forums and meetings about the Plan Puebla-Panama. It would be impossible to represent the breadth of this movement here; the list below includes just a few examples. Some of the websites listed below give contact information for other organizations and resources. Many of these organizations maintain relationships with allied groups in Europe, South America, and other parts of the world.
Central American and Mexican Organizations
Centro de Asistencia Legal Popular (CEALP)
Tel: +(507) 263 1970 or 263 1971
Centro de Estudios Internacionales
Tel: +(505) 278-5413
Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y Políticas de Acción Comunitaria (CIEPAC)
Tel: +52 (967) 674-5168
Chiapas-based nonprofit working extensively on the PPP. Website rich in PPP information.
Consejo de Investigaciones e Información en Desarrollo
Tel: +(502) 635-6825
Guatemala-based research and advocacy organization working on trade, human rights, the environment, and related issues, including the PPP.
Grupo Solidario de Acción y Propuesta
Red Mexicana de Acción Frente al Libre Comercio (RMALC)
Tel: +(52 55) 5355 1177
Leading Mexican nonprofit working on trade, development, the environment, human rights, and related issues and engaged in PPP issues. Extensive PPP information on website.
Red Nacional de Consumidores
Tel: +(505 2) 663-982
Nicaragua-based consumer rights organization. Played an important role in organizing the PPP forum held in Managua in July 2002.
Trópico Verde
Tel: +(502) 339-4225
Guatemala-based environmental organization working on PPP issues.
Unión de Comunidades Indígenas de la Zona Norte del Istmo (UCIZONI)
Tel: +(52 972) 722-16-46
Network of Mixe, Zapoteca, Zoque, Chinanteca, Barreña, Mixteca, and Mestiza communities in the isthmus region of Oaxaca. Leading player in the citizen’s movement in resistance to the PPP. Extensive directory of groups working on the PPP at .
U.S. and Canadian Organizations
Action for Community and Ecology in the Regions of Central America (ACERCA)
Tel: (802) 863-0571
Member of the U.S.-Canada Plan Puebla-Panama Coalition promoting locally driven development as a PPP alternative. Good PPP information on website.
Tel: (514) 982-6606 ext. 2001
Bank Information Center (BIC)
Tel: (202) 737-7752
Is tracking projects financed by the IDB and included in the Plan Puebla-Panama.
Committee in Solidarity with the People of Central America (CISPES)
Tel: (212) 465-8115
Global Exchange
Tel: (415) 558-9486
Email: or
Working to educate audiences in the United States regarding the PPP. Extensive collection of PPP-related links on website.
Grassroots International
Tel: (617) 524.1400
International Development Exchange (IDEX)
Tel: (415) 824-8384
Helping to build a campaign to counter the PPP and promote alternative development models for Mesoamerica. A member of the U.S.-Canada Plan Puebla-Panama Coalition.
Mexico Solidarity Network (MSN)
Tel: (773) 583-7728
Developing action and education strategies regarding the PPP. Member of the U.S.-Canada Plan Puebla-Panama Coalition.
Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala
Tel: (202) 518-7638
U.S.-based advocacy and solidarity organization. Member of the U.S.-Canada Plan Puebla-Panama Coalition. PPP information on website.
Rights Action
DC Tel: +1 (202) 783-1123
Guatemala tel: +(502) 232-9414
Social Justice Committee
Tel: +(514) 933 6797
Central American Bank for Economic Integration
Federación de Municipios del Istmo Centroamericano
Foro Managua 2002
Foro Tapachula 2001
Foro Xelaju 2001
Indy Media—Chiapas
Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía, e Informática (INEGI)
Inter-American Development Bank
Investigación Rural
Presidency of Mexico
Online Articles
“Development in Mexico” | Americas Program, Oct. 2001
“Farms vs. Factories” | Texas Observer , Feb. 1, 2002
“Fox Strives to Spread Maquiladoras South” | borderlines UPDATER , Aug. 7, 2001
“Last Harvest? Industrialization plan threatens Central America’s Indigenous” | Resource Center of the Americas, May 1, 2002
“Nicaraguan Transportation Corridor Developers Hitch Hopes to Plan Puebla-Panama | Americas Program, April 10, 2002
“Plan Puebla-Panama: Done Deal or Emerging Flashpoint?” | Americas Program, April 9, 2002
“PPP Plays into Washington’s Hand for Latin America” | borderlines UPDATER , Aug. 7, 2001
“The Mesoamerican Isthmus: Globalization, Ecology and Security” | ALAI
“Plan Puebla-Panama: Development or Devastation?” | The Other Side of Mexico , May-June 2001
“Regional Leaders Gather in Merida to Advance PPP | Americas Program, July 24, 2002

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