30 November 2007

Viva The News

The News, Mexico's English-language daily, on sale at the Jardin in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.

The News

17 November 2007

'Bridge between politics, culture' faces uncertain future

David Agren
The News

The National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, selected a new rector last Tuesday. But given the media coverage of the secretive selection process, one could be forgiven for thinking the country had elected a new president.

Or as some observers perhaps more aptly put it, named a new Pope.

José Narro Robles, former dean of the UNAM medical school, officially takes over as the university’s rector on Nov. 20.

Unofficially, he assumes a much larger role in Mexico’s cultural and political life as the leader of the country’s pre-eminent institution of higher education, which has been described by outgoing rector Juan Ramón de la Fuente as the “grand social project of the Mexican nation.”

“Rectors have always had an important role, like that of a [cabinet] minister without legal recognition, someone [whose position] had enormous weight,” said UNAM professor Imanol Ordorika, who studies higher education institutions and co-authored a book on UNAM’s internal politics.

“The rector has an enormous influence in the national political scene.”

That influence stems from the stature and size of UNAM, which educates nearly 300,000 students per year, carries out roughly half of the nation’s scientific research and has produced graduates who went on to become presidents to Nobel Prize winners to billionaire businessmen – former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, writer Octavio Paz and impresario Carlos Slim Helú, to name three.

Its sprawling Ciudad Universitaria campus in southern Mexico City recently attained status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And the school’s professional soccer team, Pumas, has a long history of success and a large and loyal following.

UNAM also defines and dominates much of the nation’s intellectual scene and is affiliated with La Jornada, a left-leaning daily newspaper. As UNAM sociology professor Roger Bartra Muria put it, “[UNAM] is the principle bridge between politics and culture.”

Outsiders agree about UNAM's role. The university is a “very important, very influential institution,” said Carlos Briseno Torres, rector of the University of Guadalajara, the nation's second largest public university.

The school has always held a proud place as a public institution providing generations of Mexicans from all social classes with a secular and free education.

But UNAM’s sway has diminished somewhat with the advent of private universities. Private schools now educate approximately 40 percent of the nation’s university students, a 400 percent jump over the past three decades, according to Ordorika, who added that the federal government hasn’t invested in expanding access to public higher education over that time.

Although widely regarded for its profession programs, some UNAM humanities and social sciences graduates entering the job market report having their credentials belittled by private sector employers.

Thus, one of Narro’s biggest challenges will be maintaining the national university’s stature as Mexico’s educational and political landscape continues to shift. And already, the new rector has pledged during his candidacy to uphold the tenets of secularism and free access, which perhaps give the national university its greatest fame.

“The big challenge is to put [UNAM] in tune with the needs of Mexico and the challenges of the future,” the new rector said on Thursday.

Many UNAM professors have already expressed approval for Narro’s approach.

“For the population that doesn’t have easy access to education, the university resolves that problem,” said Rafael López González, an UNAM professor and coauthor of a book on the university’s political history.

“It’s a fundamental institution for higher education in Mexico.”

UNAM students only make a voluntary payment of 20 cents towards the cost of their studies. According to political science student Lucía Alvarado, “When you pay, you get a stamped receipt that costs more than the actual fee.”

Alvarado opted for studying at UNAM instead of an expensive private university costing 7,000 pesos per month, explaining, “UNAM is a better school in terms of research, freedom of thinking and the humanities.”

She also liked UNAM’s approach of admitting students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

"There are all types of people ... including the children of important political figures studying here," she said.

"We're all equal friends here ... in the [private schools], there are so many cliques."

Many of Alvarado’s classmates lacked her educational options, though.

Adrián Paredes, also a political science student, said he enrolled in UNAM for “the quality of its programs,” but more importantly, “It’s accessible.”

He noted, however, that the lack of resources generated by a tuition fee creates challenges for UNAM. The school only accepts about one-third of all applicants on an annual basis. It also urgently needs to upgrade aging classrooms and fading athletic facilities, Paredes added.

University administrators proposed a tuition fee in 1999 as a means of funding infrastructure improvements, but the plan sparked a backlash that shut down the school for nine months.

Outgoing rector De la Fuente assumed UNAM’s top job in the midst of the student strike. But during his eight-year tenure the school regained some of the stature it lost during the shutdown. It climbed into the ranks of the top 100 universities in the world on a prestigious survey of higher education institutions and undertook ambitious research projects, including developing the most powerful supercomputer in Latin America.

In spite of the fact he's inheriting a top university, Narro will face challenges as the new rector. Already, he has faced criticism, albeit indirectly.

Some faculty members, observers and protesting students – who burned down the doors to the rectory building on Thursday night – objected to the perpetuation of a management style they described as secretive and not fitting with the country becoming more open and democratic. They also took exception with the 15-member UNAM Board of Regents’ less-than-transparent method of choosing De la Fuente’s successor.

Ordorika compared the selection process to that of the Vatican.

“It’s like a conclave of cardinals, where the cardinals – in this case, 15 cardinals – meet behind closed doors and decide who is going to be rector,” he said.

Narro’s ascent into the rector’s office was greeted on Wednesday with newspaper headlines and commentaries inferring that De la Fuente was instrumental in naming his successor – a charge the outgoing rector and board members deny. But Ordorika noted that 13 of the 15 current board members were appointed during De la Fuente’s tenure by the UNAM University Council.

Additionally, “The proposals made by the rector are always approved,” Ordorika explained.

The list of eight aspirants vying for the rector’s position also drew scorn from some UNAM faculty members, who were hoping for candidates who would usher in a new era of leadership, untainted by previous political connections.

Bartra, the UNAM sociologist, said, “Many of the candidates are actually old PRIistas.”

He noted that all but one of the candidates either had deep roots in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, or have recently switched to the governing National Action Party, or PAN.
Only candidate Rosaura Ruiz Gutiérrez, who rose through the ranks of the faculty unions and student movements, lacked such a background. (Narro previously headed the IMSS during the administration of former president Ernesto Zedillo.)

Still, with a PAN president in Los Pinos, Bartra sees opportunity for UNAM and Narro.

Previous PRI presidents would often meddle in the rector selection process and by proxy, the UNAM agenda, according to Bartra.

But with the PAN – a party whose senior officials mostly attended private universities – now occupying presidency, he ironically saw an opportunity for UNAM to part with the remnants of the old PRI system.

“I believe this is a good thing,” he said.

“It implies more autonomy. A real autonomy.”

And with increased autonomy for the university – which President Felipe Calderón has promised to respect – Bartra expressed cautious optimism about the future of UNAM.

“It seems that now UNAM is in a new stage that hasn’t ever been explored,” he said.

“It’s something fascinating to witness.”

14 November 2007

Small farmers use courts, not machetes, to block dam project

By David Agren
The News

It’s a public works project of the grandest scale.

La Parota, a massive hydroelectric development 28 kilometers northeast of Acapulco, is projected to produce at least 765 megawatts of power, enough to light up the entire state of Guerrero for an entire year.

Its curtain is to tower 162 meters over the Papagayo River and its reservoir will flood more than 17,000 hectares, an area 10 times the size of the Bay of Acapulco.

The dam is also supposed to create 10,000 construction jobs, ensure a steady supply of drinking water for rapidly growing Acapulco and increase economic development in a marginalized region populated by subsistence farmers.

For the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), La Parota is a crown jewel in a string of high-profile projects meant to produce clean energy and help power the ambitious economic growth plans envisaged by the federal government.

There’s just one problem: The dam is expected to displace hundreds of small farms, many of which are organized as ejidos, the communal properties distributed to landless campesinos following the Mexican Revolution. And the farmers, or ejiditarios, don’t want to leave.

In the past dozen years, machete-wielding ejiditarios have derailed several high-profile development projects, including a $300-million golf course development in Tepotzlán, Morelos and a new airport for Mexico City in Atenco, State of Mexico.

But in the case of La Parota, a group of residents from the village of Cacahuatepec have opted for law books rather than machetes.

And in a story evoking the tale of David versus Goliath, the farmers took CFE to court and won an injunction in September against the dam, successfully arguing that the Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) and the National Water Commission (CNA) improperly granted permits for the project.

On Nov. 7, however, federal Judge Livia Lizbeth Larumbe Radilla reversed her decision, ruling that the laws permitting the dam’s construction would not directly deprive the complainants’ access to their land and water.

The villagers and their lawyers plan to appeal.

“We’re now in the second round of the game,” said Xavier Martínez, an environment lawyer with the civil rights firm that argued the landholders’ case.

Still, he called the judge’s original decision to halt construction “unprecedented,” and said the dam was not being impeded by the courts, “but a social movement.”

The CFE is not likely to walk away from the $800-million dam project - despite the legal roadblocks. Its crews have not yet returned to the La Parota site, according to Martínez.

Even so, say experts, the precedent set by the villagers of Cacahuatepec could complicate future large-scale infrastructure projects that require relocating established communities.

“Previously, the state would throw all of its weight behind the construction of these types of projects and nothing could be done about it,” said Arturo Pueblita Fernández, a law professor at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

“Now there’s more openness and an attempt to avoid social conflicts. Therefore, it could be the case that construction on this project might never happen.”

The ongoing legal complications surrounding La Parota – and conceivably at other locations in the future – could complicate the economic growth objectives of President Felipe Calderón, who in September won congressional approval for a fiscal reform overhaul that was designed, in large part, to help overhaul the country’s sagging infrastructure.

Three decades in the works

The CFE first proposed building La Parota in 1976 on the Papagayo River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean southeast of Acapulco on the Costa Chica, a thinly populated and underdeveloped region known for its Afro-Mexican inhabitants.

The rugged hills of Guerrero, home to some of the nation’s poorest communities, have spawned numerous armed uprisings against the federal government. Its populace includes the People’s Revolutionary Army, or EPR, a long-standing Marxist guerilla group that has made recent headlines with a series of attacks on Pemex gas pipelines. According to lawyers working in the region, it is instinctive for Guerrero’s marginalized populations to fight back when encroached upon by outsiders.

The La Parota project, however, received little attention until CFE construction crews arrived unannounced in 2003. Then, a local movement to fight the dam was formed almost immediately.

Mario Patrón, a lawyer with the Guerrero-based Centro Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan, worked with some of the residents fighting the dam. He said the locals’ determination to stay put grew even stronger as they learned of the impact of previous public works projects, including hydroelectric developments in Nayarit and the Mexico City-Acapulco highway, which displaced thousands after opening in 1989.

“At La Parota, an opposition movement was generated because … they’ve known that hydroelectric projects don’t bring development for those that get relocated,” Patrón explained.

“The campesinos said that they didn’t want to be kicked off their land and leave for [Acapulco] where they would be working in some bad-paying menial job.”

Despite a clause in the Constitution requiring compensation for land expropriations, the CFE has never made “a firm offer” to any of the impacted landholders, he added.

CFE spokesman Gerardo Cubos declined to comment on La Parota, citing the ongoing legal actions.

However, in comments published by the Mexico City daily El Universal shortly after construction was halted in September, CFE manager Gerardo Cruz Velázquez acknowledged to a business audience in Acapulco that the CFE fell short in pitching La Parota-area residents on the virtues of relocating.

He also accused international rights groups protesting against La Parota of being naïve to the situation in Guerrero and the dam’s potential benefits.

“It doesn’t interest them that people [here] eat nothing more than a tortilla with chilies once a day and they have to carry water jugs on their heads from the river to their homes,” Cruz Velázquez said.

International attention

Two United Nations representatives visited the impacted area in early September and expressed dissatisfaction with the CFE’s attention to transparency and human rights.

A recent Amnesty International study also expressed concerns. According to its August 2007 report, intimidation has been rife in the area and three people have been killed. In one of the killings, an opponent of the dam, Eduardo Maya Manrique, was dragged from his home by three unidentified men and stoned to death in January 2006, according to the report. No one has been charged in the matter.

The report also questioned the true number of people the dam would impact.

According to the CFE, approximately 3,000 people would have to be relocated, but Patrón put the figure at closer to 75,000, explaining that the CFE failed to account for residents indirectly impacted by the dam and its reservoir.

Even properties not submerged could be negatively impacted, he added. Two settlements, for example, would become islands. In other places, ground water would become scarce. The Papagayo River would also be permanently impacted.

The CFE’s website provides little information about the dam, its potential impact and prospects for future completion, although it boasted of other large ongoing and recently completed projects on the Santiago River in the western state of Nayarit.

Regardless of whether La Parota is ever completed, the ongoing judicial action in Guerrero is likely to have a significant impact on future public works projects undertaken by the federal government, said Martínez, the environmental lawyer involved in the farmers’ case.

“They just can't keep on building projects like the way they were,” he said.

SIDEBAR: When machetes beat back development
The News

Atenco, 2002:

In July 2002, local farmers in San Salvador Atenco, backed by left-wing, anarchist and anti-globalization groups, fought with police for three days over a government plan to build a $2.3-billion airport in their town.

The airport would have taken over approximately 10,000 acres of land in 13 villages in the municipality outside Mexico City. In exchange, the farmers were to be paid $3,000 per acre as compensation, but the locals rejected the offer and took to the streets with machetes in hand.

Dozens of people were injured in the ensuing clashes. Nineteen public officials were taken hostage and later exchanged for imprisoned farmers in an act that critics said rewarded violence.

The government later raised its compensation offer to an amount reportedly seven-times the initial bid, but the farmers rejected it.

Finally, two weeks into the showdown, Transportation Secretary Pedro Cerisola announced the government was abandoning plans to build the airport in Atenco.

Tepoztlán, Morelos, 1995:

Golf Course Inflames Mexico Town
The News, with files from The New York Times News Service

A coalition of campesinos, small-business owners and environmentalists in this town south of Mexico City reacted violently in August 1995 after the municipal government approved a golf course development and industrial park in an ecologically sensitive area.

After 12 days of unrest – during which time the protesters beat back riot police with rocks and barbed wire, seized hostages and occupied city hall – the mayor backed down and promptly resigned.

Some Tepoztlán residents had accused Mayor Alejandro Morales Barragan of rubber-stamping the development project behind their backs.

Opposition to the projects drew together an unusual alliance of affluent people, who wanted to preserve the town's character, and villagers suspicious of the promises of foreign corporations.

Tepoztlán has become a favorite weekend retreat of Mexico City's wealthy elite. But many of its 13,000 residents still cling to the village's peasant traditions.

Development backers balked at suggestions their plans would have ruined the town, explaining that the project would have created more than 9,000 construction-related jobs and nearly 3,000 permanent service jobs. The land, they added, was indeed located inside of a national park, but was privately-owned. Environmental impact studies had also been completed.