VISTA HERMOSA, MEXICO — LESS than a year ago, Maricela Castresana strolled into this isolated village to chat with residents about the proposed Zimapan hydroelectric dam. She was met by a pistol-toting farmer. Trust was something Ms. Castresana and others from Mexico's Federal Electricity Commission's relocation team would have to earn. And they have.
``We are in agreement,'' says Galdino Cruantes Garc'ia, an avocado farmer in this tiny verdant valley, hemmed in by cactus and canyon walls, about 100 miles northwest of Mexico City. ``This [resettlement] work is more in our hands than theirs,'' says the head of the local landholding organization.
Mr. Cruantes' endorsement is unusual. The record of communities forcibly uprooted to make way for dam projects, then haphazardly replanted, is dismal in Mexico and worldwide, resettlement experts say. At Mexico's recently completed Cerro de Oro hydroelectric dam, the Army intervened a half dozen times to quell resettlement protests.
In the last decade, the World Bank has financed construction projects that displaced 2 million people. Until Zimapan, the Bank seldom, if ever, had taken pride in a resettlement program.
``Resettlement has rarely worked, because the engineers building the dams [and in charge of resettlement] weren't addressing the social questions necessary to ensure success,'' says Scott Guggenhiem, a World Bank planner and anthropologist.
It is early, but Zimapan's resettlement program could become an international model. World Bank officials have worked closely with the CFE to put in place more ``enlightened'' resettlement guidelines. They have been bank policy since 1980, but have only been applied in the last two years.
``For the first time, we share with the World Bank the policy objective of giving the dislocated a better quality of life,'' says Juan Jos'e Rodr'iguez Prats, the CFE's director of social development. Mr. Rodr'iguez's post was created a year ago. Its rank is on par with that of eight vice presidents who report to the CFE president.
``This marks the first time the CFE has had significant involvement with social planning at a high level,'' Mr. Guggehiem says.
Results on the ground are promising, too. The CFE used to design and build houses in an authoritarian manner, with little consideration for social patterns in the dislocated village.
This time, the CFE did a study of living habits of the 2,400 villagers being displaced by the Zimapan dam. Then residents were presented with a choice of three house designs and options for interior room arrangements. These include small items, such as being able to choose to have a bathroom outdoors instead of inside, as many residents prefer. The choice makes a big difference in family harmony and adjusting to a new setting, the CFE says.
``We recognize that they're not just changing houses. They're changing their lives,'' says Jorge Enriquez Hern'andez, who is in charge of CFE social policy at the dam site.
The CFE has taken care to insure that residents here are well compensated. Cruantes and the the valley's 215 other fruit-tree farmers are getting 2.6 times as much land as they had before. It is better quality land. And they have been paid $3.8 million for their orchards. Optimism, on both sides, is fairly high at the moment. But the process has also had problems.
There are disagreements over the layout of the new town three miles away. Three villages will occupy this new settlement in March. Residents are asking for more space between villages, which will eventually be distinct neighborhoods. They want room to expand the town when their children marry in coming years.
How the new farmland is to be used is also in dispute. About 500 acres of new land is located about 25 miles from the new town. It is a different climate and soil, more suited to forage crops, alfalfa, and sorghum, than fruit trees. Farming successfully here will require new skills. The CFE plan is for 25 farmers to run the farm as a cooperative commercial operation with other farmers collecting rent on the property.
Recognizing that fruit-tree farming is a way of life many will find hard to leave, the CFE plans enough land for trees beside each house. But there are questions about whether irrigation - indispensable for such trees - is technically and economically feasible.
Rebecca Taifeld, who used to work for the CFE at Zimapan, is just completing anthropological research here for a university thesis. She questions the CFE's approach, in which it paid an average of $17,750 to the farmers without providing an adequate investment plan.
``Some put it in the bank,'' Ms. Taifeld says. ``Others are spending it on trucks, furniture, clothes, and a few on guns, rather than saving it to finance a business in their new town or to buy land.''
The CFE does have a 20-person team of economists, agricultural specialists, a biologist, and social workers working in the villages, but no anthropologist. ``The CFE basically knows what it's doing,'' concedes Taifeld. ``But they have little idea what reaction the people are going to have to these changes down the road.'' For this reason, they need an anthropologist, she says.
Rodr'iguez, the CFE social development chief, recognizes the shortcomings and challenges of making this pilot effort work. ``It's premature to be too optimistic. It's a long process.''
Still, Guggenheim says, regular meetings between villagers and CFE officials, the amount of information given residents, and their participation are unprecedented in CFE resettlement programs.
``There is the intention in the CFE to do things differently,'' says Salomon Nahmad, a CFE consultant on Zimapan. ``But if it weren't for World Bank pressure, you wouldn't be seeing these changes.''
Mr. Nahmad questions whether the CFE will stick to the resettlement standards being set at Zimapan on future non-World Bank projects. For this reason, anthropologist Scott Robinson is doing preliminary work on legislation to fortify the rights of those displaced by development.
The Mexican Constitution requires that citizens be compensated for homes and lands lost in these cases. But it is unclear whether compensation means the replacement cost of property, or the assessed value given it by a government agency. Columbia and India are considering legislation for more explicit resettlement guidelines.
``I'd like to think Mexico could also be a part of this vanguard,'' says Mr. Robinson, a professor at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico City.