Big Pulp vs. Zapatistas
Cellulose Dreams in Southern Mexico

By John Ross

San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico -- Soon after the horrific Christmas-time massacre of 46 Tzotzil Indians in the Chiapas highlands by a paramilitary death squad almost certainly armed by the state security apparatus, the newly appointed governor met with the entity's three Catholic bishops, to pray for peace and reconciliation. Also in attendance was the Cardinal of Monterrey, Adolfo Suarez Rivera, a senior member of the oligarchy that has run Chiapas for the past century and a half. The Cardinal brought with him his good friend Alfonso Romo, whose Pulsar corporate empire includes brokerage houses, cigarette manufacturing, real estate in the north of Mexico, timber holdings in the south and paper production. The tycoon was on the platform to preach peace too -- reconciliation through investment and employment.

In a region of abjectly poor Mayan Indians, and in association with powerful U.S. pulp and paper producers (Simpson and Louisiana Pacific are mentioned in a company prospectus), Pulsar proposes large-scale junk tree plantations (largely eucalyptus) to generate jobs for tens of thousands of disgruntled indigenous people. Pulsar already projects enormous plantations dedicated to cellulose production in neighboring Tabasco state, where it now has 2,500 acres under experimental species in Balancon, near the Campeche border.

At present, Pulsar runs several test sites in Chiapas, including 150 acres in the Tujila valley, just outside of Ocosingo in a zone where the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) wields considerable influence. Romo's plan to pacify Chiapas apparently involves providing the insurgents with gainful employment, planting eucalyptus trees where the Lacandon jungle used to be.

"We have no political agenda," states Pulsar International spokesperson Jose Antonio Rios Bosch at company offices in Villahermosa Tabasco. "Of course we would like a peaceful solution to the Chiapas problem but our interest is in bringing jobs and sustainable agriculture to a difficult region."

Pulsar's plan to bring peace to Chiapas through junk tree planting enjoys World Bank backing. Romo toured the state soon after the January 1, 1994 Zapatista rebellion with Bank President James Wolfensohn, who later expressed his wholehearted endorsement of the tree-planting scheme as a viable way to calm Chiapas's turbulent waters. The World Bank has subsequently contributed up to $5 million in seed money to underwrite commercial tree plantations in Mexico's southeast. In the 1960s, the Bank contributed to the destruction of natural forests and heightened social tensions in the same region, by funding massive loans to cattle ranchers in Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz.

Since 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement kicked in at exactly the same hour as the EZLN chose to open its on-going uprising, a score of U.S. timber and pulp giants have either established Mexican operations or associated with national corporations to do business here. Some have hit pay dirt and some have gone bust. Louisiana Pacific terminated its Ensenada milling operation (logs were being barged in from northern California where timber is scarce nowadays), and Boise Cascade is losing its shirt in a guerrilla-plagued zone of Guerrero's Costa Grande. International Paper has been booted out of several ejidos (rural communal production units) in the highly indigenous Tarahumara Sierra of northern Chihuahua -- 80 percent of Mexico's remaining forestland is shared by 8,400 ejidos, 27 percent of which represent indigenous communities that are increasingly reluctant to cut sweetheart deals for their trees.

Given campesino resistance, endemic land conflicts and an appalling lack of infrastructure in accessing Mexico's natural forests, big U.S. timber and pulp outfits like International Paper have decided to grow their own forests on farm lands in the Mexican southeast, a region largely inhabited by impoverished farmers, many of them of Mayan descent, and not a few who are supporters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

Pharonic Projections

Before the European invasion commenced in 1519, the southeast of Mexico was covered by a dense forest canopy that stretched from the Yucatan peninsula to the Lacandon jungle and into Guatemala. Today, that forest exists only in museum-like enclaves such as the United Nations-sponsored Montes Azules biosphere, near where the Zapatista high command is encamped. Mexico loses almost 2 million acres of forestland annually to wood poachers, wildfires, the cattle industry and slash-and-burn agriculture. The nation's new forestry laws add incentive to cannibalize remaining forests -- once an area is deforested, it is reclassified degraded forest land and becomes eligible for tree-planting subsidies.

Transnational tree planters' projections for Mexico's southeast are pharonic. Twenty-five million acres of degraded forest land are available for cellulose production, although the Association of Forest Planters says that, for the time being, it will only put a tenth of that volume under eucalyptus and other fast-growing species. Pulsar, with strong government ties (former finance minister Pedro Aspe heads the conglomerate's brokerage house), has slated nearly a million acres in Tabasco and Veracruz over the next quarter of a century for cellulose production. The corporation's "Commercial Forest Production Plan," issued in November 1994, boasted of a $400 million investment in the region to churn out 6 million cubic meters of celluloid product annually. The plan even envisions a railroad spur to Dos Bocas, Tabasco, where, presumably, eucalyptus pulp will be disembarked for Northern buyers. The prospectus lists Simpson and LP as potential purveyors.

The Pulsar blueprint also features an environmental counter-insurgency strategy: anticipating environmentalists' objections, Romo and associates sketch a public relations offensive to convince the public that commercial tree production preserves native forests. Environmentalists decry mono-crop eucalyptus farming because the trees suck up enormous amounts of water and soil nutrients, and pesticides applied by commercial planters contaminate local ground water sources.

"We have looked closely at the environmental impacts of our projects. There is sufficient groundwater on these sites. We would not have selected them if there was not," responds Pulsar spokesperson Rios.

Big Pulp Players
Transnational operators in southern Mexican junk tree plantation speculation read like an industry Who's Who and include:

  • International Paper, which, undeterred by its Chihuahua experience, plans 300,000 hectares in Chiapas, Tabasco, Veracruz and Campeche.

  • The Texas-based Temple Inland Corporation, which is number six on the U.S. pulp parade and number two in cardboard box production, and has ex-CIA Director Bobby Inman on its board of directors. With the Mexican Planfosur, Temple Inland jointly owns and operates a 60,000 acre plantation in Huimanguillo, Tabasco.
    These same two cross-border associates project similar acreage on the Oaxaca-Veracruz isthmus -- nine tree plantation sites are integrated into President Ernesto Zedillo's "Trans-Isthmic Megaproject," which would, in effect, sell off the narrow neck of Mexico extending from the Caribbean to the Pacific, to multinational shippers as an alternative route to the increasingly clogged Panama Canal (see "Corridor of Destruction," Multinational Monitor, November 1997).

  • Smurfit Newsprint, which expects to put 65,000 acres under cellulose production in Campeche. Smurfit has U.S. operations in St. Louis and Oregon, but is homebased in Dublin, Ireland, where ex-Mexican President Carlos Salinas is currently in residence. The Smurfit family forms part of the group known as the "Celtic Tigers" which has had great success in the European Common Market. Also among the tigers, according Irish Times sources, is investor Tony Ryan, a Salinas confidente.

  • Kimberly-Clark, whose Mexican subsidiary is headed by Claudio X. Gonzalez, one of former President Carlos Salinas's pet industrialists. The company is proceeding with plans to turn vast tracts of northern Mexican natural forestland, mostly in Durango and Chihuahua, into toilet paper.

Chipping Away at Land Reform
The scheme to convert Mayan Mexico into one huge eucalyptus plantation is a direct descendent of Salinas's 1991 revision of Mexican constitutional article 27, a stepping stone to NAFTA. The revision allowed ejidos and comunidades (collective Indian land holdings) to associate with, sell or rent their land to transnational agribusiness. The revision was cooked up under then-Agricultural Secretary Carlos Hank Gonzalez. Hank, a magnate who annually makes Forbes Magazine's super-rich rankings, is the nominal head of the long-ruling (69 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) old guard, and one of the most powerful politicians in the country.

Article 27 was actually rewritten by forestry under-secretary Luis Tellez, later Zedillo's chief of staff, and now energy secretary. Tellez also authored two subsequent laws: a 1992 forestry measure that legitimized commercial tree plantations; and a 1997 re-write that literally granted the planters their wish-list. The new regulations implemented a series of proposals made in a June 1995 letter written by Edward Kobacker, vice president of International Paper's forestry division, to Tellez. The letter was leaked to La Jornada writer Jaime Aviles.

"Kobacker's Law," as Aviles labeled the 1997 regulations, authorized Big Pulp to acquire land parcels of unlimited size, despite Mexican agrarian reform limitations on holdings to the contrary. "This is a competitive business -- there should be no limits on the amount of land we can hold," says Jesus Rivas, Pulsar general coordinator.

Kobacker and his cohorts also won hefty subsidies. Under the new forestry law, the Mexican government will return 65 percent of investments during the initial seven-year growing cycle. Subsidies to commercial tree planters far outstrip allocations to natural forest enterprises -- in 1997, the numbers ran nine to one. Most applicants for subsidies to exploit natural forests are ejidos and Indian communities while tree planters are universally corporate, according to the Mexican Network of Farmers Forestry Organizations (Red MOCAF).

Finally, International Paper and its industry counterparts want government protection against insurrection, and a resolution of the ticklish situation in Chiapas, where Kobacker promised to dedicate 100,000 acres to cellulose production. Tightened military encirclement of the EZLN and its support base has been one palpable demonstration of the Zedillo government's commitment to the multinationals' security.

"International Paper didn't have to rise up in arms to get what it wanted," Aviles comments wryly.

Curiously, Victor Sosa, the new Natural Resources Secretariat's forestry director, is reportedly a former International Paper adviser.

The Zapatista Alternative
Kobacker's law is precisely what the Zapatistas, when they launched their uprising, warned would be the Mexican government's "final solution" to its agrarian problems. According to the EZLN's charismatic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, Salinas's revision of Article 27, the constitutional chapter that embodies the agrarian reform for which revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata fought and died, pushed the Chiapas poor, indigenous population over the edge and forced the rebels to declare war on the mal gobierno ("bad government").

Two weeks of shooting war and four years of low intensity ack-ack later, the EZLN remains as resolutely rebellious as ever. The focus of current Zapatista attentions is to prod the government into implementing an agreement on Indigenous Rights and Culture that Zedillo's representatives signed in 1996. The so-called San Andres Accords would grant Mexico's 56 distinct Indian peoples limited control over government administration and natural resources, define territoriality and provide a degree of protection for Indian communities from forced "association" with multinational and national agribusiness. In his angst over codifying the agreement into constitutional amendment, Zedillo repeatedly speaks of the "balkanization" of Mexico which, he avows, will be the result of such change. Critics call such rhetoric a smokescreen to mask the President's true neoliberal intentions: renting out Mexico's southeast to International Paper and its U.S. associates for the purpose of growing eucalyptus trees.

In March 1998, Zedillo finally sent a severely truncated version of the San Andres Accords on to Congress. In Zedillo's version, Indian autonomy is reduced to electing village officials by traditional means and catching chicken thieves. The initiative contains no definition of territory and its land ownership provisions greenlight the renting out of Mexico's Southeast to International Paper and its associates.

What Are We To Eat?
"The eucalyptus is the perfect neo-liberal tree" reasons Aviles, "It grows quickly, turns a quick profit in the global market and destroys the earth."

The nuts and bolts of the tree planters' scam would make Henry Ford envious. Cut off from government credits and besieged by middlemen ("coyotes") who buy their crops at minimal price, the ejidos and the communities of the southeast are so in hock to the commercial banks that they are in danger of losing their equipment and even their land. Pulsar and Planfosur show up dangling seven-year rental contracts and cash up front. The tree planters even offer profit sharing once the harvest is in -- T (for 'Tierra" or land) bonds which supposedly make the ejidotarios players on the Big Board and partners in the fluctuating global paper market. Land rental fees work out to $70 a hectare per year if the ground has been prepared for tree planting -- $40 if not. The rental agreement allows the ejido to apply up-front cash to outstanding bank loans.

Meanwhile, the titular owners of the land go to work on the plantations, sowing trees (1,000 a day quota) that will eventually destroy the soil, and spraying Dirty Dozen pesticides like Lindane, at 25 pesos a day, the minimum wage. According to the Tabasco-based Southeast Center for Environmental Investigation researcher Dr. Esperanza Tunon, up until quite recently, pregnant women were welcome on the spray crews.

Mexico has a paper production deficit that leads it to import more than a half billion dollars of the finished product annually -- nearly 85 percent of its yearly supply. But the nation's food deficit is far graver. Forty percent of the population suffers from some degree of malnutrition, reports the National Institute of Nutrition. For the 21 to 23 million Mexicans who now live in what UN parameters define as extreme poverty, the nutritional gap is widening. Taking food growing land out of production and renting it out to plant eucalyptus trees for the international pulp and paper market, is bad policy, argues Luisa Pare, an agrarian economics investigator and member of the national Civil Council for Sustainable Sylvaculture. Not only does it deprive the poorest of the poor -- mostly rural indigenous peoples -- of sustenance, but it increases dependency on global grain cartels like Cargill and Archer Danials Midland. Mexican corn production has dropped markedly and imports have skyrocketed since the 1994 start-up of NAFTA.

Moreover, says Pare, renting out productive land to the tree planters is just bad business. Five hundred kilos of corn per hectare returns $131 each year. A campesino who puts his or her hectare under tropical fruit like Mamay can earn $500. But desperation and rigged markets do not allow Mexico's peasant farmers much of a choice between making a long-term investment in a food crop or accepting the tree planters' money up front.

The eucalyptus plantations are spindly out along Laguna de Rosario, near Huimanguillo, Tabasco where Planfosur and Temple Inland have rented nearly 30,000 hectares from neighboring ejidos and plan to start harvesting in the year 2001. The land is prairie flat here and the air tropical and tinged with the faint smell of petroleum production -- major petrochemical complexes befoul the horizon 30 miles northeast, towards the coast. Everything in Tabasco, which holds the nation's biggest land-based deposits, smells of oil. Acid rain and pipeline leaks have scorched tens of thousands of acres and forced many ejidos to cash in and rent their degraded land to tree planters.

Despite Temple Inland's promises of big dividends just down the road, the ejidos are not as enthusiastic as they once were about becoming corporate partners in the paper and pulp industry. "The companeros at Nuevo Progreso say they lost out -- they don't even have a corn stalk anymore," relates Mariano Valencia, the commissioner of the Puente de Rosario ejido, an 80-acre patch surrounded on all sides by football field-length rows of eucalyptus trees.

"This is a small farm here -- we grow yuca, lemons, oranges, pineapples. We are only 14 families, but we work hard," Mariano says proudly.

"Planfosur came here and tried to convince us to rent to them for the eucalyptus trees but we're not giving up our land for seven years. They'll take up our water and dry out the soil and we'll never grow anything on it again. 'Then what are we supposed to eat,' I asked the man, 'paper?'"

John Ross is a freelance writer based in Mexico City, and the author, most recently, of The Annexation of Mexico -- From the Aztecs to the IMF (Common Courage Press, 1998).