Saving Mexico’s Eden: Chontal resistance against national oil giant

Mexico City, Mexico (openDemocracy– In the Mexican state of Tabasco an environmental catastrophe has slowly been unfolding. Decades of reckless expansion by Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Mexico’s state-owned oil company, has affected all aspects of life and livelihood in the oil-rich region of the Chontalpa. This past spring, I visited the Chontal Mayan communities that live atop Mexico’s most important hydrocarbon reserves, to understand how they have fought against and endured the destruction of their ancestral lands since Pemex first arrived.

The welcoming communities of the Chontalpa shared with me their deep-seated history of nonviolent struggle against the oil behemoth — decades of marches, nonviolent occupation and media messaging. The most recent mobilization was triggered by the massive explosion of well site Pozo 123 in Oxiacaque in October 2013. The force of the blast was so strong that several houses in the area were leveled and fissures ripped through the matted dirt roads. Community based organizing by the Chontal began even as the cratered well site still burned: it was not the first time they would mobilize against Pemex.

As a journalist covering Mexico’s underreported flashpoints, I found that the country’s contemporary context — one with pockets of organized crime, impunity and corruption — clouds the context in which the Chontal are waging their struggle. The memory of the nominally successful mass mobilization in 1996 — the first of its kind in modern-day Tabasco — laid the blueprint for the current phase of the conflict. But I wondered: how can the Chontal communities of Tabasco successfully confront the impunity of the national oil company in the country’s rapidly changing landscape?

Tabasco: from “Eden” to wasteland

The eponymously named Chontalpa region of Tabasco is home to the Chontal Mayans who live off a network of wetlands famed for their fertility — so much so that a popular adage in Tabasco says that a seed cast to the ground will be a fully bloomed tree the following day. Tabasco is blessed with one-third of the country’s fresh water, fed by a complex network of rivers. This system carves the state into an interconnected and hyper-productive marsh. It is no wonder the earliest records of the region refer to Tabasco as “an Eden.”

When the massive oil fields that lie beneath were discovered in the late 1960s, Pemex relocated the bulk of their infrastructure to the Gulf state. Both state government and Pemex persuaded the people of the Chontalpa to buy into the idea that oil production would bring a veritable black gold rush their way. They promised wealth in ways the previous attempts to spur development in the area had not been able to deliver.

Since then, Pemex has riddled the verdant state with explosion-prone well sites, leaky oil ducts and asphyxiating flare stacks. The much-touted windfall from oil never left Pemex’s coffers, while the Chontal farmers were saddled with the environmental bill. Unfettered pollution and environmental degradation swept through the Chontalpa in the decades that followed. Routine leaks from hastily installed wells rendered acres of productive ancestral wetlands permanently barren and bountiful rivers toxic. I heard several times from the Chontal that since Pemex arrived, people who have wished to express a grievance have experienced the same sequence of events over and over: file a complaint and expect it to languish in bureaucratic limbo.

Well explosion ignites resistance

Rubicel Lopez, a Chontal farmer and local community leader, awoke that night in October 2013 with an orange hue of the blaze burning over the tree line. As an elder of the village he immediately rushed to the raging fire with other leaders. By the time they got close enough, the flaming crater from the blast was pouring burning oil into nearby rivers and lagoons. Rubicel took me to the site and pointed out that the area around the explosion — once a fertile grove used by farmers and with plentiful waters for fishermen — had been permanently poisoned. There he explained that the year-long mobilization he would eventually lead started that very night.

The morning after the explosion, Chontal elders of each community organized meetings in communal buildings where they agreed to demand accountability from Pemex. Rubicel’s status as an elder made him the voice of the village of Oxiacaque. From the very beginning, solidarity and collaboration at the local level were key for the movement to coalesce. Once organized, Rubicel and other village elders led their communities to occupy wells near the blast site to pressure Pemex to respond. The company dismissed the growing movement, accusing the people of looking for handouts even while Pozo 123 was still in flames.

Local indigenous state congresswoman Veronica Perez then stepped up to build coalitions between the affected Chontal and Tabascans at large. Over the next six months, thousands of people engaged in sit-ins at the Pemex headquarters, including a 44-day nonviolent occupation, and continued obstructing vital Pemex infrastructure. Leveraging her position, strengthened by these direct actions, Perez negotiated with Pemex on behalf of the Chontalpa, despite significant risk to her safety. Having suffered millions of dollars in losses, Pemex was ready by mid-2014 to open an inquiry into the claims of negligence surrounding the explosion at Oxiacaque.

However, the momentum was short-lived. In February 2015, a year and a half after the explosion at Oxiacaque, the official inquiry presented its results. In a move that shocked no one, Pemex cleared themselves of wrongdoing, only acquiescing in an offer totalling 6 million Mexican pesos (about US$364,000) to select parties, and annulling the 48,000 outstanding claims filed against the company for the catastrophe at Oxiacaque. Although these results were extremely disappointing, already managing to force Pemex to react and be held accountable in the slightest was a small victory on which to build continued Chontal resistance.

The spring of ‘96: strategies of success

The 2013-14 mobilization was not the first time the Chontal came together to resist Pemex oil production. In early 1996, decades of ignored claims leveed by Chontal communities against Pemex boiled over. Comparatively, the 1996 mobilizing was more successful than the more recent campaign for a number of reasons. At the time, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) had risen up in the neighboring state of Chiapas against the violent incursions into their land by a mix of armed state and paramilitary groups. The EZLN famously launched an armed insurgency to overthrow the government, but were quickly rebuffed by the military. More importantly, the communities they represented did not support a violent campaign. In understanding the rapidly changing context that did not align with their original plan, the EZLN turned their struggle towards the nonviolent path.

The Chontal quickly learned from the EZLN experience and capitalized on the group’s momentum and media attention to make a move against Pemex. Though the EZLN and the Chontal did not interact all that much, the EZLN did issue statements of solidarity as they considered their struggles “similar and convergent.” Their aim was to draw further global attention to the campaign unfolding in Tabasco.

The second major element in jumpstarting the 1996 mobilization was the backing of local politician Andres Lopez Obrador who pushed for civil resistance against Pemex and the state government. His plea to mobilize was heard by communities from across the region. Heeding his call, entire Chontal villages amassed to occupy Pemex installations in the area. With the support of Lopez Obrador and his then-party, the PRD, relaying information and helping coordinate actions between different communities, the Chontal achieved a broad cross-sectional coalition that could no longer be ignored.

In terms of nonviolent tactics and overall strategy, Chontal-organized resistance, both in 1996 and now, consists mainly of protests, occupation and obstruction of critical sites, hunger strikes and marches (including several 750km/466 mile marches to the Pemex headquarters in Mexico City) — all with the aim of placing Pemex in crisis mode and pressurising it to address the environmental damage caused by oil extraction.

These tactics led to several small victories in 1996. For example, a major inquiry was opened to investigate decades-old complaints reaching settlements that had long eluded the disenfranchised Chontal. At its height in March 1996, with extensive coverage from Mexican and international press, the movement was over 30,000 strong; all united in bringing environmental justice to Tabasco.

Nevertheless, countless claims went uninvestigated, and the unrestricted extraction plaguing Chontal communities only continued to ramp up. Pemex’s historically untouchable status, from its inception to the present, soon allowed it to revert to ignoring the demands of the Chontal, once media attention turned elsewhere.

The road ahead, paved in impunity

The present conditions in which the Chontal strategize have only further deteriorated over the past 20 years. The changing sociopolitical context in Mexico has seen a rise in organized crime, impunity and an accelerated breakdown in rule of law. With the well explosion fading from collective memory, the Chontal no longer have a “moment” to seize, or prominent figures standing alongside them. Their resistance efforts have grown distant from civil society and other groups engaged in similar struggles within Mexico.

Furthermore, intimidation in the form of targeted violence, mainly by criminal groups and hostile pressure from local government, has become overwhelming. The veiled threats against civil society have become brazen. For example, while promoting an auction of oil fields to foreign companies on a local radio station, the secretary of the interior (SEGOB) spokeswoman Liliana Díaz Figueroa stated, “Local leaders must be eliminated for the benefit of these companies.” The Chontal face all of this with scant motivation, or time to create avenues for the repression to backfire.

Moreover, with foreign companies soon arriving to develop the remaining oil fields, the Chontal’s most enduring ally, Codehutab, the lead human rights organization in Tabasco, feels that their ability to organize against oil production is “less effective.” Pemex learned from the 44 days their headquarters waere occupied; they moved their headquarters 800 kilometers back to Mexico City. This means organizers would need greater resources to target the Pemex nerve center. Coupled with the harsh economic realities of working polluted agricultural land during a time of a historic drought, the Chontal have grown demoralized.

Regrouping to remobilize

Codehutab’s legal counsel, Armando Dorantes comments that the organization has moved to playing a more central role in helping local Chontal communities organize with trainings in organizing and nonviolent actions. It is Codehutab’s belief that the current political system is discredited, and that the only way to fight back is to rely once again on other members of civil society.

Rubicel, Codehutab and other veteran Chontal organizers are developing a joint strategy to raise awareness and rebuild alliances. Dorantes suggests that building a Chontal network of elders was the easy part. Now Dorantes and the rest of Codehutab intend to build a broad coalition of organizations worldwide that support the fight for justice. Their focus will broaden from Pemex to encompass the foreign oil companies that are soon to arrive as well. He admits this will be an uphill battle but, like the EZLN, to survive, the movement must adapt to the present context.

In a last conversation with Rubicel at his home in Oxiacaque, visibly weary, he stressed why he continues to fight: “I used to take my boy to see the land we owned. He asked me after the explosion to take him again. I told him ‘I can’t take you right now,’ knowing it was destroyed. And he insisted and insisted. He didn’t let up until one day I put him on my shoulders and walked to what was left. And I told him ‘this is what they have left you.’ So I ask, what hope does my son have if we don’t come together and make a stand?”

Written by TOMAS AYUSO for openDemocracy.