Projects of Death in Mexico’s Sierra Norte - Community and Environment Under Attack


OLINTLA is a small village in the Sierra Norte, a remote, mountainous region to the east of Mexico City. The landscape there is dramatic, green and beautiful, mostly sunlit jungle, rivers and wildlife. The hillsides are occasionally populated by farming towns and villages, mainly indigenous communities whose way of life is constantly threatened. In recent years, the Mexican state has accelerated plans for the development of a vast hydroelectric power plant in the area, directly impacting the people in Olintla and about a dozen or so neighbouring communities. What appears on the surface to be a ‘green energy’ project is in fact closely bound up with community displacement and the aggressive extraction of local oil and gas reserves, primarily to the detriment of the region’s water resources and wider capacity to sustain life. Unfortunately, Olintla is far from an atypical case but represents how indigenous communities in Mexico, as in Latin America more generally, tend to bear the brunt of the state’s creation of opportunities for private capital accumulation, called ‘development’ by those in power and ‘projects of death’ by the communities affected.[1]


Recently, I travelled to Olintla with a friend who is researching community resistance to extractive industries in Mexico. Once we arrived, she introduced me to “Donna”, a remarkably resilient indigenous community organiser and “Édith”, an organiser in the country-wide indigenous peoples’ movement. We travelled to a number of houses in the area to discuss the planned ‘projects of death’ and, more importantly, the organisation of community resistance. For Édith, the primary purpose of these visits was to raise awareness of the consequences of the hydroelectric project for the people of Olintla and to encourage their joining in a vast mobilisation of indigenous communities against state violence and racism in Mexico City on December 16th.

Everywhere we went we were welcomed and a cup of sweetened coffee placed in our hands. We talked for hours as the night came on, the conversation broken by children running through the room or by neighbours stopping outside and joining in for a while before moving on. We spoke to a dozen or so men and women, young and old, over four hours. The conversation flowed, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in the local indigenous language. I was told that although the people in Olintla may appear poor they are, in fact, quite rich in their quality of life, including their natural surroundings from which they make a living as well as their friends and community ties.

Capitalism, the Zapatistas say, is like being forced to watch the same bad film, over and over again. I was reminded of this as I realised how similar the conversations in Olintla were to long-standing conversations over Shell in Rossport, Co. Mayo or newly emergent ones over fracking in Fermanagh and Leitrim.[2] Here too, the company had promised growth to local businesses, jobs to the unemployed and scholarships to school children. It neglected and downplayed the harmful consequences of the proposed development. To illustrate the point, Édith brought several newspapers for distribution. The front cover displayed an image of a man’s face destroyed by scars and burns that occurred after he washed in a river, newly acidified and poisoned, following a similar kind of project. More than one person expressed their fears of state and police violence. One man spoke of ex-members of Nicaragua’s Contras being hired as mercenaries in recent disputes with miners’ unions and indigenous communities.

Before we left, Édith warned the people present to be cautious in their dealings with newcomers in the coming weeks and months. Partly in response to the success of earlier indigenous campaigns, the state was commissioning a group of anthropologists to survey the communities in the region, ostensibly to gauge the ‘social impact' of the project. The real purpose of the survey, Édith explained, was to assess whether the community was organised and whether potential leaders could be identified, co-opted or otherwise eliminated. "One big march in Mexico City won’t be enough to stop the project", she concluded, "it will take a much wider network of informed and organised communities." It was agreed that the best response was for those present to educate themselves about the project and to join in forthcoming community decision-making forums  or assemblies. A few of those present volunteered to go and to inform their neighbours subsequently.

My friend and I stayed that night in one of the local organisers’ houses. We left Olintla early the next morning, loaded down with gifts of papayas and well-wishes. That community resilience remains strong and vibrant in difficult circumstances is heartening news to share with anarchists and the wider environmental movement in Ireland. More than that, as Naomi Klein has recently argued, science is telling us to revolt.[3] Avoiding ecological collapse in the coming decades will not be the work of states or corporations but rather of dedicated groups and social movements, who are prepared to take direct action against fossil fuel and extractive industries. Looking back in the light of the rising sun, Olintla and neighbouring communities appeared tiny in the vast expanse of the mountains. Yet on their opposition to capitalism’s projects of death, and on the opposition of those who would walk a similar path, hangs the future of our planet’s capacity to support life.  The struggle continues.

[1] In recent years, the WSM and the Latin American Solidarity Centre have worked together to bring speakers from campaigns against mining and community displacement to the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair. See AND