Globalization in Oaxaca: Isthmus of Tehuantepec Case Study Review

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 9.49.41 AMBy Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

In No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy (University of Nebraska Press, 2011), author Wendy Call, a self-described grassroots organizer and researcher, makes an impassioned plea, if not for halting the invasion of the global economy into Oaxaca’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, then for proceeding only after critical evaluation of environmental and cultural impact studies.  Ms. Call spent two years living and working in the Isthmus, in addition to shorter visits totaling a further year.  

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is a 120-mile strip of land between the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s been inhabited by indigenous groups with different languages and customs for millennia.  Since colonial times it’s attracted both national and international attention because of its important geographical location and richness of resources.

The federal government proceeded with its Trans-Isthmus Megaproject by commencing the construction of a four-lane highway through the region, in some cases as a bypass around small Oaxacan towns and villages otherwise connected by potholed two-lane roads.  It became part of then-president Vicente Fox’s Plan Puebla Panamá (PPP), an initiative to extend Mexico’s main, relatively new highway system from the US border through to Central America.  

The scope of the PPP megaproject initially included 150 proposed projects, including oil refineries, plantations, industrial parks, commercial shrimp farms and a highway-rail network to carry products to national and international markets. The project would inevitably alter both the environmental and cultural landscape.  Townspeople opposed development of the region mainly out of fear of the unknown due to a lack of information and consultation. Government and commercial interests were intent upon forging forward. 

Call’s contention is that development would result in irreversible adverse impact to the natural environment, and to inhabitants by altering their means of eking out an economic existence, while at the same time destroying other cultural indicia such as traditions and language. The book centers upon objection to construction of the highway system and the proposed replacement of small fishing operations with large industrial shrimp farms.

In No Word for Welcome, Call chronicles family histories and livelihoods as well as opposing individual points of view.  This is accomplished by providing detailed examinations of the lives of individuals she came to know intimately in the course of living in the Isthmus, and to a lesser extent through interviewing civil servants and proponents of the project.  

Call’s novel-like use of colorful, detailed description draws you in. She holds your interest by weaving together the stories of her subjects (i.e. the activists, the fishermen, the uneducated schoolteacher); otherwise often dry archival evidence of the historical importance of the Isthmus; the sometimes violent and destructive manifestations of opposing positions; and her own viewpoint.

You cannot help but become extremely opinionated, either by jumping on Call’s bandwagon or being critical of how her political point of view affects the presentation of her thesis.  She approaches her chapter centering on Huatulco, which was created by FONATUR (Mexico’s national tourism development agency), with disdain, though she does note positive impressions of its Mexican residents.  She seems to mock the government when she writes that the FONATUR office “felt more like a travel agency than a government agency, with overstuffed furniture, brochures filled with beaches and bikinis, and the hollow air of a place with more infrastructure than activity.” How else does one attempt to sell tourism, sun, sand and surf?

But it’s Call’s style of writing, inevitable as a consequence of her very reason for being on the Isthmus, which contributes to keeping the reader engaged, either cheering for the cause and hoping that “the people” prevail, or cringing at naivety – the arrival of the global economy in the Isthmus is inevitable and could have been foreshadowed since the 1500s.

The description of the lives and hardships of fishermen and their environs is rich and compelling.  Yes, perhaps industrial shrimp farms destroy the mangroves and might have a short lifespan, leaving a swath of destruction.  But we’re given little in the way of alternatives for the area and its industry

Both industrialization and the residents themselves have played a part in marginalizing existence and requiring government intervention. But there appears to be a lack of understanding on the part of residents of the complexity of the issue and the part they have played in creating the current conundrum; Call’s job is not to educate in this regard. A fisherman surmises that his people have been harvesting shrimp, fish and crabs for over a thousand years, so asks why he should pay attention to some mestizo government regulation banning the use of large rectangular nets.  He seems to deny any direct role as a contributor to the problem and states that you cannot trust a government whose solution would create a bigger problem (industrial shrimp farms).

The area has become overfished. Fishermen were not forced to begin using motorboats.  They discarded their smaller nets, each of which took a year of spare time to make, in favor of buying the large $100 USD Japanese machine-made ones, and proceeded to trap their catch by extending these new nets across the river’s mouth.  The result was that small shrimp and other marine species could not get through the nets and into the mangroves to reproduce. The government had to ban the use of these nets in order to protect the industry.  The fisherman is adamant that he needs to harvest that much fish to survive. 

Many in the fisherman’s position opt to head to the US. Call notes emigration in passing from time to time but it’s not fully addressed in her book, perhaps because it is not consistent with Call’s thesis.  One rarely finds an anthropological writing of this nature which does not deal with emigration head on.  But Call is not an anthropologist, and in fact is critical of social scientists, for some reason lumping them together with others working in the Isthmus:  “I tried not to act like so many of the journalists, anthropologists, folklorists, and sociologists I’d encountered while living on the Isthmus.  They tended to come for just a few hours, days, or weeks, blurting out questions before their bodies had warmed a chair.” Though I hope not, perhaps anthropological fieldwork has changed dramatically since my days in graduate school.

The superhighway and a network of smaller roads and rail do result in physically dividing populations, and yes, they can adversely impact indigenous culture.  Relocating populations into neighborhoods with street names such as Poblado One, Two, etc., rather than retaining names of heroes of The Revolution or pre-Hispanic gods and royalty impacts a pride in one’s society and heritage.  But globalization is inevitable, for the benefit of not only a few rich Mexicans and foreigners seeking to capitalize on NAFTA, as is submitted in the book, but for the residents of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Of course, as Call suggests, cultural and environmental impact studies are crucial for minimizing destruction of peoples and their lands.  And yes, they are sometimes not done or are ignored and politics and power often govern.  What I found missing were propositions regarding the least detrimental alternative, which in these circumstances I would suggest, is the best one could hope to achieve, rather than a wholesale halt to all. When subcomandante Marcos’ caravan was en route to Mexico City in 2001, and he assured all that he would take President Fox the message that “the Isthmus is not for sale,” perhaps someone should have suggested a rental agreement with terms maximizing the benefit for the Istmeños. 

No Word for Welcome is well written, holding the reader’s interest throughout. I recommend it for visitors to southern Mexico because its descriptions of life are extremely accurate, from the workings of local politics, antics, strategies and sometimes destructive forces used to make a point, to the richness of detail, to the lesson in history.  The expat living in Mexico will find Call’s experiences familiar and reaffirming on many levels (a department store employee is indeed often taken aback when you ask how much a refrigerator costs for cash, not credit).  

For those interested in globalization in general, or understanding how competing interests are addressed and resolved in Mexico in particular, it’s a must.  No Word for Welcome is written with a strong bias, and as such it stirs emotion.  The reader is anxious to learn how it all turned out, and to some extent is informed.  

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal 

Educational Excursions of Oaxaca


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