From the Coffee Farms of Chiapas to the Shrimp Farms of the Sinaloan Coast, One Common Struggle


Sinaloa’s Fisherman Tell Subcomandante Marcos How They Are Being Forced from their Waters by Big Fishing Companies, New Regulations and Tourism Development

The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign in Sinaloa October 11, 2006

After its five-month suspension, the Other Campaign is underway once again in the coastal state of Sinaloa. The first stop in this state was the municipality of Escuinapa, where fishermen are fighting for their right to work, their dignity, and their very survival.

As in many parts of Sinaloa, fishing and shrimping is the way of life in the town of Teacapan, Escuinapa. Its significance was underlined during lunch, when Teacapan adherents to the Other Campaign treated the caravan to a local specialty: shrimp tamales (something quite strange for many of us who are used to bean and chicken tamales).

Because fishing is so culturally important in Sinaloa, it is a pivotal political organizing focus. In a country were many of the workers’ unions are still run by the state, Sinaloan fishermen’s union representatives have been democratically elected since 1981 (when the Institutional Revolutionary Party still held Mexico in an iron grip).

According to Joventino Ramos, a member of the Regional Fishing Front, about 400 ships catch about 1,200 tons of fish daily in the Pacific Ocean. The Mexican government uses this over-fishing by large corporations to impose strict limits on small fishermen and their cooperatives. Since 1991, “Law 02″ has made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to obtain permission from the government to fish in the very same waters they’ve fished for over 100 years. Law 02 prohibits fishing and shrimping by ships that weigh less than ten tons because their smaller size puts the fishermen’s lives “at risk.” But Ramos argues that rather than protecting fishermen, the government acts as “an accomplice to the huge fishing companies, the private sector, and the bourgeoisie.” Escuinapan fishermen note that they were never consulted about their supposed wellbeing, and that the government ignores their need to provide food for their families.

 

Fishermen Are Treated “Like Trash”

The Other Campaign also stopped in the fishing village of Dautillo in the Navolato municipality, where the government does not permit small-time fishermen to catch shrimp. Fishermen here have endured attacks by the Mexican Navy when they attempt even subsistence fishing. On September 15, 2005, the Navy detained two Dautillo fishermen and, after harassing them with low helicopter fly-bys, damaged and nearly sunk their boat by ramming it. The collision knocked one of the fishermen into the water, who survived thanks to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

But the fishermen’s problems aren’t limited to harassment and physical violence. In a striking parallel to the situation Zapatista coffee farmers have faced in the “free trade” coffee market, the fishermen barely break even. Sometimes they even find it more expensive to work than to not work because the costs are so high and the shrimp prices are so low. The fishermen lack the equipment to freeze and ship their shrimp directly to more favorable markets, so they are stuck selling their shrimp to middlemen. Because the huge fishing companies flood the market with shrimp, the middlemen are able to name their own price. The “middleman” in this town is Ocean Garden, a multinational corporation based in California that controls approximately 25 percent of Mexico’s shrimp production and generates annual sales of over $250 million dollars. Not surprisingly, when Ocean Garden was privatized in February 2006 after years of being run by Bancomext, the Mexican national development bank, the company was sold to a consortium of three of the largest fishing companies in Sinaloa. It therefore has a vested interest in keeping shrimp prices for small farmers below the costs of production—it wants to drive them out of the waters entirely.

Aside from the dire poverty caused by the exploitation and repression, Dautillo has another, and in some ways more insulting, problem: lack of trash collection. Caravan participants noticed the stench before they even entered the town, but didn’t mention it to Dautillo residents out of politeness. But they didn’t need to; in the public forum, several impassioned Dautillo women stressed the need to organize for trash collection. They complained that when friends come to town for visits, they hold their noses because of the offensive smell.

Garbage trucks never come to Dautillo to collect the waste. It sits alongside a marsh where the trash is burned, plastic and all. The result is devastating: the trash attracts flies and maggots that spread disease and make the children sick. For such an impoverished town, the increased economic burden of trash-related medical expenses is unbearable. This hardship is exacerbated by the fact that fishermen aren’t entitled to social security benefits, which would help them cover medical expenses. The trash also pollutes the surrounding land and water, affecting the chickens and shrimp. This, of course, drives shrimp prices down even further.

After listening intently to the town’s trash complaints, Delegate Zero did what he does so well: he put the problem into perspective by stating the obvious. Why, he asked, does the trash sit in Dautillo, a very poor fishing village, instead of in front of the governor’s house?

 

They Call This Development?

The government’s criminal neglect of Sinaloan fishermen doesn’t end with fishing prohibitions, lack of social security, and lack of trash collection. The Mexican government is pushing a new so-called development scheme in this area: the Escalera Nautica, or “Stairs to the Sea.” The fact that the name’s English translation is catchier than the Spanish version hints at whom this mega-project is aimed. In a Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels (Miami) press release about Stairs to the Sea, Gregory Rumpel, Executive Vice President of the company, says, “The Mexican government is encouraging Southern California boat owners to travel to this region” with marinas geared towards tourists, sweet real estate deals, and hotel development. Riding on the coattails of Stairs to the Sea are oft-opposed projects like dams and canals, the latter of which have already submerged towns and carry shrimp away from fishing villages and into the nets of corporations’ massive ships.

Bundling hotly contested, environmentally and socially devastating development schemes like dams, canals, and tourism together into one mega-project – such as the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), Plan Puebla-Panama, and the Stairs to the Sea — is becoming the weapon of choice for governments and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Single projects are too easily defeated by affected communities; tens or hundreds of projects at once are much more difficult to fight.

Escuinapan fishermen have already begun to feel the heat from Stairs to the Sea. Boasting the largest marina in the Pacific, Ecuinapa is located on prime real estate. Not surprisingly, corporations are buying up their lands (and privatizing the nearby beaches and water) for tourism development. Fishermen’s access to the sea is restricted in the name of tourism and business, and the small fishing towns are economically neglected in favor of seaside tourist “development.”

Indeed, many affected communities still lack potable water, sewage treatment, and satisfactory schools, while over $1,200,000,000 pesos (approximately $109 million dollars) have been invested in Stairs to the Sea since 2001. According to Joventino Ramos, “Government economists believe that the politics of servitude is going to allow us to overcome dire poverty. Surely tourism is for businessmen’s benefit, because nowhere in Mexico have the people benefited from tourism.”

Indeed, the Escuinapa marina project has thus far only produced development for the rich, at the expense of coastal towns. All of the Escuinapans who spoke with the Other Campaign agreed that they prefer to provide for themselves as they have for the past one hundred years, as fishermen, rather than work as waiters, waitresses, and maids serving tourists in luxury resorts.

 

The Other Power

The Other Campaign’s stated goal is to travel across all of the states in Mexico, listening to the people’s complaints and struggles and sharing them with the rest of the country and the world. Despite so many hardships, the Other Campaign trail is filled with hope, not desperation. This hope comes from the people themselves, from their organizing and networking. Delegate Zero has made it very clear to these fishermen that “we are not politicians…. We don’t come here to make promises…. We don’t come here to tell you what you need to do….

We have alternative media in the caravan whose job is to report the news from below. They take your voices, your images… your pain, indignation, and spirit of rebellion, and they report them so that fishermen in Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Veracruz, Guerrero, and Michoacán, who before didn’t know about your struggle, or that your town even existed, are now listening to you.” In every town and city he stops in, Delegate Zero tells the people there about struggles in other parts of the country and in other parts of their very own state – struggles like theirs, people like them. He told fishermen in Dautillo about the Chiapan coffee-growers who fight against the middlemen just like they do. The fishermen in Escuinapas fighting for their land and livelihood against tourism development learned about farmers in Tepic, Nayarit, who are also struggling to keep their land.

This is the hope and the power of the Other Campaign: that previously isolated people and struggles spread out across Mexico will organize themselves, learn about and support struggles like their own, and take back their lives from the rich and the politicians.

 

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