Mexico shows how not to conduct a land resettlement

Landowners broke off talks with the government on Friday, though the airport project is not dead yet.

President Vicente Fox and his team of technocrats are learning the hard way what development experts have been saying for years: If you want to build an airport, talk to the farmers before you consult the engineers.

Two weeks ago, the government managed to peacefully resolve a four-day standoff with machete-wielding farmers who objected to the expropriation of their land for a new $2.3 billion airport project. But the project is still in trouble. On Friday, Texcoco landowners voted to break off negotiations with the government entirely, despite a seven-fold increase in the government's original purchase offer.

"We are peaceful people, but our land is sacred to us," says Maria Elena Jimenez Valdez, a mother of 10 whose family stands to lose its tiny plot. Gesturing to a portrait of Mexico's patron saint hanging on her wall, she adds: "Taking our land away would be like moving the Virgin of Guadalupe to the United States."

Some observers say the Fox administration is in the process of demonstrating how a government should not handle a land resettlement issue. It's a hard lesson that many countries have had to learn, they say, and one that could affect the Mexican government's ability to execute future development projects.

Large-scale projects – such as dams, highways, and airports – eject about 10 million people worldwide from their homes every year, according to the World Bank, a higher figure, on average, than the number of people displaced by war and civil conflict.

Resettlements can go smoothly, experts insist, and those that do end up costing government less overall, and even benefiting the people moved. Governments who don't plan ahead and don't engage the people first usually suffer the consequences, both financially and politically.

"It is morally incumbent on a democratic government that has to relocate people to resettle them so they can share in the gains of development, and not only in its pains," says Dr. Michael Cernea, a World Bank senior social policy adviser with more than 25 years of experience working on resettlement policy.

Bad examples abound. Locals protesting the construction of Tokyo's Narita Airport destroyed the control tower in 1978, adding years more work and billions more dollars to the final project. A $500 million project to dam Brazil's Uatuma River flooded 1,500 square miles of rainforest killed thousands of Waimiri Atroari Indians who refused to move or were resettled to uninhabitable land. Dozens of other countries have faced unrest related to development, which commonly turns violent.

"The attitude that 'we are going towards development and the impact does not matter' is a recipe for disaster," says Vincent Abreu, an expert on resettlement at the University of Michigan.

Colombia and China eventually adopted national policies to ease resettlements after growing unrest over develop- ment projects led to fears of widespread social upheaval. But Mexico, which itself canceled a massive 1992 dam project in the wake of violent reactions to plans to relocate 30,000 people, appears to have failed to bring the locals on board.

Protests erupted initially last October, when the Fox government first announced airport construction plans that would affect 4,600 small landowners in 13 Texcoco communities.

The federal expropriation decree didn't specify much in the way of compensation, saying mainly that farmers would be paid as little as 70 cents per square yard for their land. For small landowners, many with only a couple hectares of land, "that buys nothing more than a one-way ticket to life on the street in Mexico City," says Mr. Abreu.

Only after the communities had launched legal efforts to block the airport did government negotiators begin visiting Texcoco villages in February 2002 to sweeten the deal.

An official in Mexico's Federal Electricity Commission, which created an internal resettlement division after the 1992 dam project failed, said they were surprised that airport planners never called them for advice. "It's pretty clear they never anticipated any of this," says the official, who would not be named.

"These consultations should have come before the airport was announced and not after," says José Antonio Reyes, a village representative in Santa Cruz de Abajo.

In an interview, lead government negotiator Francisco Curi said offers of new land, scholarships, and vocational training were made, and that many in Texcoco looked forward to one day working at the new airport.

"Radicals with machetes," he says, have failed to realize that "their lives will be better with the airport there than without it."

Analysts agree that political groups trying to trip up Mr. Fox's already struggling government have clouded government channels of communication in Texcoco, creating confusion that fueled fear and led to violence.

But many locals remain skeptical about the government's ever-changing offers. "Sure we'll get [vocational] training," says farmer Sergio Jimenez Sanchez. "They'll teach us how to wash the terminal floors and carry the luggage."

Such a high level of distrust bodes ill for the Fox administration, which wants to launch other major projects, like his comprehensive Plan Puebla-Panama to develop Mexico's south.

"The airport project could create a serious problem for the Fox government," says Mr. Cernea. "Farmers across Mexico are probably thinking, 'Today it happens to them, tomorrow it happens to my land.' "

Few observers think the airport project is entirely dead. Negotiators will need to develop a resettlement package that makes the farmers feel like winners to make it work again, they say.

"The issue here is even bigger than this big case," he says. "Behind the airport, for Mexico looms the problem of the absence of a fair, humane, national policy for resettlement processes."

For farmers in Texcoco, the matter is simpler.

"They say the airport is for the public good, but when are any of us going to get on a plane to Paris?" says Mr. Jimenez. "We don't want their money.... We just want to live in peace here."

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