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Globalization as a people mover

A taste of paradise turns bitter as economic growth divides a community

The writer's friend Avery Cohn slices a mango in front of his beachside bungalow. (Elizabeth Havice photo)

LA SALADITA, MEXICO — OK, OK, so it can't all be work, right? Especially not on the weekends. It didn't take much arm-twisting to convince me to leave Mexico's bustling cities for the tranquility of the Pacific coast. Warm waters, clean and smooth-breaking "olas" (waves), coastal mountains, and fresh, ripe mangos. how could I say no?

I and my colleague and friend Avery Cohn, who also attended the CEC conference, took an overnight bus from Puebla to the tourist mecca of Ixtapa. A native of Berkeley, Avery just earned his masters at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science. He's currently working on creating a "green" certification that will indicate that crops have been grown not only in an environmentally friendly way, but also have been cultivated and harvested by workers under acceptable labor conditions.

In Ixtapa, we caught another bus for the 30-minute ride to Los Troncones, the village closest to the peeling waves of La Saladita. Our local, rusted-out, noisy (diesel powered) schoolbus quickly left Ixtapa's tall concrete buildings and noise behind for verdant green hills and sweeping valley views filled with small agricultural plots. As we rounded a corner, we all at once got our first glimpse of the shimmering blue waters of the Pacific, a Pacific that brings moisture and humidity to the heavy, steamy air of the Mexican coast. It seems hardly even a distant relative of our own frigid, cooling and foggy northern Pacific! Drenched with sweat, Avery and I both were both looking forward to bounding into the salty ocean to cool off and play in the waves.

Our three days on the coast became an interesting combination of hedonistic adventure and serious contemplation of the impact our enjoyment has on the changing socio-economics of Los Troncones and La Saladita, and by extension, Mexico as a whole. Each day, on our way to the enticing, perfect waves, we drove past the communally operated and owned farmlands of the region. Each night, we slept in highly profitable beachside bungalows owned by Americans but operated by underpaid, overworked members of the community. How could these two industries have emerged side by side? How did Americans get the rights to the most profitable enterprise in the area? What does this pattern mean for the future of Los Troncones and La Saladita?

Investigating these questions by talking with community members, we discovered that the shift from government intervention to privatization that accompanies free trade, plays an important role in the development of tourism in agricultural centers such as Los Troncones. The farmlands adjacent to the coast are part of Mexico's "ejido" system, and until just a short time ago, the land that supports the privately owned hotels was also part of the ejido system. Ejidos are land holdings owned by the government but collectively operated and managed by peasant groups. The ejido system emerged at the end of the Mexican Revolution - a war in part born from peasant revolt over lack of access to land - as a constitutionally mandated commitment to lasting land reform throughout Mexico.

Although ejido land has been traditionally managed entirely by community members, the community members, known as "ejiditarios," were never granted title to the land and therefore could not mortgage or rent it. Further, they were required to regularly work the land in order to maintain their user rights. This traditional system changed dramatically in 1992, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was negotiated and Article 27, which originally created the ejido system was reformed. Land ownership was shifted out of the hands of the government and ejiditarios were granted title to their land. For the first time, they had the right to rent or sell their land for any purpose and for individual profit.

The challenges of surviving in agricultural markets where prices and profits are driven down by international competition are big. Few ejiditarios have the resources to build hotels or start new businesses on their land, or the opportunities to acquire loans from government agencies and private lending sources. Together, these two factors mean that more and more, ejiditarios are opting to collect what profits they can by selling their land. The result is evident in places such as Los Troncones and La Saladita, where communities seem caught somewhere between the agriculturally based ejido way of life of the past and the new internationally and capitalistically driven economy of the future.

While the privatization of the ejido system has certainly allowed several ejiditarios to escape economically, the juxtaposition of private homes and hotels with ejido property seems an unnatural and unsustainable condition. Los Troncones and La Saladita are small, poor communities. The land, particularly the land right on the coast, is valuable, and as more hotels are built, it will only become more so. (I met one surfer who had just purchased a few acres of beach front property for $25,000 - a large sum of money by Mexican standards. He plans to build a private vacation home on it.)

Panoramic view of a street in Los Troncones
A FORK IN THE ROAD: Click the image to see the full panoramic view of the main (and only) road in Los Troncones, which illustrates the turmoil begun by the privatization of the traditional ejido system, in which land was held collectively. (Havice photos)

The tragic aspect of this situation is that Mexicans are being bought out of not only having a say in the direction of development, but also the opportunity to participate actively in the development process. If ejiditarios don't sell their land, they continue to struggle in a failing agricultural system. If they do, they gain capital but lose their land, and with it the opportunity to lead their community into a new economic activity.

As it stands now, in my limited assessment, the Americans are earning money hand over fist, and the ejiditarios are losing their way of life as well as the chance to redefine their socio-economy by their own terms. Yes, the developing tourism industry will bring much-needed construction and service jobs to the area, but it seems unjust that those who have cared for the land for nearly a century are being cut off from playing a more active role in determining its future, and most importantly, from benefiting in the long run from the changes. Is there not a way that Mexicans can be empowered to be leaders in determining the changes in their communities, without selling their land? The process seems tragically short sighted, and the future of the communities of La Saladita and Los Troncones highly uncertain.

Bobbing in the warm waves on my surfboard, I watched smoky clouds emerge from the coastal hills as the daylight began to make way for twilight. Along the coastline, the disparate border between the speckled pink-and-yellow hotels on the beaches and the orderly agricultural fields lined up behind them was so evident that I wondered how this beautiful and tranquil landscape will be transformed over the coming years. Only time will tell how local communities and the ejidos will be integrated into the seemingly unstoppable momentum of rural development. I took a long smooth ride all the way into the beach as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon.

— Elizabeth