Plan Puebla-Panama Advances: New Name, Same Game

By  |  10 / September / 2009

This post is also available in: Spanish

At the “IX Tuxtla Summit,” held July 24 in Costa Rica, the declaration against the Honduran coup d’etat captured the headlines of regional newspapers. The declaration nearly overshadowed the main purpose of the meeting, which is the advancement of a regional integration plan previously known as Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP).

“We Don’t Want Plan Puebla Panama.” Photo: La Otra en Campeche.

The regional heads of state, plus the Dominican Republic and Colombia, agreed to continue with the integration plan that includes infrastructure mega-projects to make the region more “competitive” within the framework of neoliberal globalization, or the “Washington consensus.” This framework has been rejected by many experts and communities, given the global financial crisis that it has provoked and the grave impacts of accelerated inequality, the displacement of local communities, and environmental destruction.

The PPP was re-launched by President Felipe Calderon of Mexico in a meeting in Campeche in April 2007. At the Tuxtla Summit in 2008, the PPP was re-baptized the “Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project” (MIDP). Promoters felt compelled to change the name due to widespread local, national, and international resistance to the PPP. Grassroots organizing managed to halt several projects and put a serious crimp in the multimillion-dollar public relations efforts to promote the plan.

Leaders at this summer’s summit reviewed the 2008-2009 report on advances in the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project. The Project changes very little of the original PPP, designed to facilitate foreign investment and link the region to the needs of the U.S. economy. Priority projects currently under the MIDP include the construction of an Interconnected Electric System for Central America (SIEPAC) with a transmission line running from Guatemala to Panama, the construction of 381 hydroelectric dams, a 10,209 km. network of highways throughout Mesoamerica, agribusinesses, and the construction of biofuel plants. According to the latest information available, the PPP-MIDP encompassed 99 projects with a cost of more than $8 billion.

The new version adds a few social projects in education and health and creates a new institutional framework. However, it does not modify the model of integration/fragmentation that is oriented toward the international market and the exploitation of natural resources by transnational corporations.

The summit’s final “Declaration of Guanacaste” acknowledges the principle financers and collaborators of the project: the Inter-American Development Bank, BCIE, CAF, CEPAL, SG-SICA, and SIECA. It calls on the Executive Commission of the PPP-MIDP “to increase its efforts to provide the MIDP with management instruments, incorporating baselines and indicators that facilitate tracking and monitoring activities and a work plan,” “incorporate Finance and Treasury Ministers into the permanent structures to reinforce the link between regional initiatives that the project finances and the pertinent budgeted national programs,” and “implement the actions laid out in the report.” The highlighted priorities are the program “Acceleration of Pacific Corridor of the International Network of Highways (RICAM), port projects, and acquisition of transportation rights needed to finalize the SIEPAC infrastructure within the timetable.”

These projects imply serious damage to the environment and the displacement of local communities and small-scale farming and fishery activities. Although the MIDP incorporates some mechanisms for consultation with affected communities, they fall far short of respecting the necessary minimum that is established in Article 169 of the ILO and other conventions.

Attack on Biodiversity

The PPP-MIDP covers one of the largest areas of natural resources and biological and cultural diversity on the planet. Referred to as the Mesoamerican “hotspot,” it contains 7% of the world’s known species and around 5,000 endemic species. It is a region in danger—just 20% of its original vegetation has been preserved.

One example reveals the damage done by the regionally imposed integration model. A study done by Strategic Conservation concludes that one section of the RICAM that passes through the Mayan Jungle would incur the deforestation of around 311,170 hectares of the jungle over the next 30 years. It would also fragment jaguar habitat into 16 pieces; increase the vulnerability of the ecosystem to hurricanes and wild fires; facilitate land invasions, illegal logging, and illegal flora and fauna trade on the black market.

The study finds very few benefits in the project for the local campesino and indigenous populations while finding many possible damages to their traditional economic activities. It undertakes a cost/benefit analysis taking into account the cost of at least 225 million tons in carbon emissions with the global environmental cost of at least $136 million (at the current monetary value) and concludes that even the economic results are negative:

“This study calls into question the implementation of a development model, characterized by large infrastructure projects such as those proposed by the Plan Puebla-Panama and the Mundo Maya Project, within the Mayan Jungle. In some cases, these models demand that developing countries make enormous investments with few results, high debt, and as seen in this particular case, both economic and environmental losses. To make the situation worse, frequently these projects are under-utilized and will generate permanent costs in maintenance and constant outlays of taxpayers’ money.”

The affected social organizations go even further in their criticisms. The Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH) states: “The five corridors made up of 13,000 km. that will, according to the designers of the project, promote connectivity and competition in the region, puts the habitat of the majority of the indigenous populations in Mesoamerica in danger.”

“For the OFRANEH and the Garífuna people, the Mesoamerican Project is nothing more than an intervention on our territory, and currently we see how one of the projects, financed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), is finishing off the wetlands of Laguna de Micos in Tela Bay, putting neighboring communities in danger with the filling up of 80 hectares of wetlands. The situation is exacerbated by climate change that could bring about fatal flooding.”

The Conceptual Framework

The PPP-MIDP seeks to insert the Mesoamerican region into the global economy, oriented toward the U.S. market at a time when it is in the throes of a recession and restructuring. It permanently dismantles small-scale production activities at the national level in favor of large-scale foreign investment at a time when foreign investment is contracting and the environmental and social crises created by this type of development is becoming more and more obvious and unacceptable. The production model based on raw materials and extraction activities, prescribed by multilateral banks for countries in the region, requires expensive modern mega-infrastructure, paid for in part by developing countries in crisis that have an enormous social debt with their populations. Much, if not most, of this price winds up in the pockets of foreign contractors and investors.

The view of regional integration from above sees the communities in the region—in many cases indigenous and campesino communities, like the Mayan Jungle population and the OFRANEH—as objects and not subjects. The PPP-MIDP offers a few token production projects and assistance programs for these communities, separated from and sabotaged by the overall regional development plan based on foreign investment. In southern Mexico, where the PPP-MIDP has made inroads in implementation, the indigenous organization UCIZONI of the Tehuantepec Isthmus reports that these programs “have had negative results in our communities, since the negative impacts of foreign investment are not compensated with government assistance programs. In the current context of cuts in education, health, and agricultural subsidies, and the deregulation of investment, it is believed that this negative effect will worsen.”

According to the MIDP vision of regional integration, these local populations are objects to be manipulated as needed and often simply obstacles to the designs of transnational investment. Major land-use changes implied in converting natural forests to monoculture plantations, eliminating peasant faring, flooding whole communities in dam projects, building highways through jungles and other sources of natural biodiversity, and extracting minerals by devastating the natural landscape and human communities, create a net loss of jobs and push local inhabitants to migrate.

The Security Issue – The Trojan Horse of PPP-PM Integration

The July summit in Costa Rica was the second since the beginning of the new Mesoamerican Project phase. The summit consolidated the integration of a new issue in the regional integration scheme—security. The Guanacaste Declaration includes 10 points dedicated solely to the war on drugs and organized crime. The second of these establishes the direction of this “war”:

Receive with enthusiasm the Merida Initiative as an important instrument for international cooperation in the fight against transnational organized crime, in particular drug trafficking, based on a focus on shared but different responsibilities between the states. Equally, manifest the desire to increase regional cooperation against organized crime and the urgency of increased funds for the development and strengthening of capabilities in each state. In this sense, reiterate the request made to the government of the United States of America to increase cooperation resources destined for this issue.

Security issues were first incorporated into the PPP-MIDP at the 2008 summit. The Merida Initiative is a regional security plan designed by the government of George W. Bush to promote the objectives of its National Security Strategy and counterterrorism model. Mexico’s experience with the Merida Initiative and the “war on drugs” model that it promotes illustrates the risks and negative impacts of applying this model to the rest of the Hemisphere. Since its application in 2007 with U.S. aid, the presence of military troops in Mexican cities and communities has increased exponentially to 45,000; there is a six-fold rise in reports of human rights violations by the army; growing levels of violence have produced 12,300 deaths related to drug trafficking; interdiction has been reduced by half between 2007 and 2008; and there has been no evidence that flows of drugs to the U.S. market have declined. The Merida Initiative includes repressive measures to control the flow of Central American immigrants and has led to documented accusations of the criminalization of social protest, with leaders and members of social movements falsely accused of drug trafficking, drug production, and terrorism.

The framework of cooperation within the initiative, which does not include any obligation on the part of the United States despite being the world’s largest market for illicit drugs and a zone of easy access, allows for increased operation of U.S. government agents in Mexican territory and in national agencies key to its national sovereignty including the military, police forces, intelligence organizations, and the courts. Instead of promoting an integral analysis of the security problem in the region, from the perspective of the region itself, the Summit calls for an extension to this failed model with extreme costs to society in terms of human rights and civil liberties.

The OFRANEH points out the risks in Central America:

“The Mesoamerican Project is the carrot tied to the Merida Initiative stick, a local version of Plan Colombia. Drug trafficking and Mara salvatrucha gang members have become the pretext for the gradual militarization of the isthmus though the two problems both carry the visible label ‘made in the USA.'”

FTAA Integration Through Infrastructure

The summit also renewed the relationship between the Mesoamerican infrastructure plan and the free trade model embodied in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its failed expansion, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). One of the points in the declaration was “Reiterate that economic integration is a path to increased competitiveness for the countries of the region and in this sense, we congratulate ourselves with the beginning of a negotiation process to reach a convergence of the Free Trade Agreements between Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico.”

The declaration ratifies its agreement with the “Paths of Prosperity” process. This alliance of countries along the Pacific Rim was an invention of the Bush administration to unite those countries that have free trade agreements with the United States and consolidate a bloc to undermine the union of South American nations that have rejected the neoliberal model. In the last meeting, even Sec. of State Hillary Clinton questioned the validity of this division based on FTAs, suggesting the incorporation of other countries, among others, Brazil.

Along the same lines, the declaration calls for the continuation of the Doha Round, stating “the conclusion of these negotiations will contribute to the global economic recovery and increase the benefits of the multilateral system of trade.” It calls for “the elimination of internal agricultural assistance in developed countries,” however it does not question the uncompensated asymmetries between wealthy countries and poor ones within the WTO approach that is at the center of the Doha Round’s stagnation. In practical terms, the PPP-MIDP is part of the revitalization of the FTAA, after having hit a wall of resistance in the Andean and Southern Cone countries. Despite its fresh makeover, it is still recognizable. These projects are oriented toward integration into the global economy at the expense of local communities. It is a model that offers optimal conditions for foreign capital and investment, while eroding local communities and real sustainable development.

One comment

  1. The Puebla Panama project has its good and bad parts. For the tourism sector it will allow greater access to more parts of the country as it provides better infrastructure for the country. This will help hotels in Panama compete more for business.

    Comment by Elena Tripshico on November 18, 2014 at 12:12 am

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