Archive for the ‘Development Issues’ Category

WILD 9 Congress in Mérida

My last entry on this blog about Eugenia Leon is dated 4th August 2009, over three months ago. Since then I wrote two more entries –  firstly about corruption and politics and then corruption and education – but removed those from the blog following the advise of a colleague at the university where I work.

Just before taking off the two posts about corruption, I had already decided to remove a previous post about a conflict over land on the Michoacán coast. My blog address was printed in a local paper in the area, together with translations of comments made by an American, which were being used as evidence of his meddling in the internal affairs of Mexico. Given the delicate, tense, potentially violent and complex nature of this situation, I decided to remove the post. I have to say I felt cowardly doing this. Interestingly, all my Mexican friends thought it was best to do so. A case of discretion being the better part of valour.

I then asked my colleague what she thought of the two posts about corruption and she advised me to remove them. Since then I have written nothing.

Coming to Mérida, however, to attend the 9th World Wilderness Congress has inspired me to get back onto the horse again. In this post I will write about the Congress and in another post(s) about some of the delights of Mérida.

The World Wilderness Congress (WWC), organised by the Wild Foundation, is held once every three or four years. It began in Africa in 1977, and this is the first time it is being held in Latin America.

The programme this year states that the WWC:

“Continues to work for a world in which a healthy and prosperous human society understands wilderness, and has an animated relationship with the complex biological, spiritual, cultural and economic benefits provided by wild nature”.

The first thing to say about this congress is that it is long! An initial event of three days from 6-8 November followed by another event of five days. I’m writing this on the second day of the second event. My impressions too are filtered through the bronchitis which I have been suffering from since I have arrived last Friday which maybe has made me somewhat jaded.

The congress has had a high profile this year. Mexican Presidente Felipe Calderon dropped in last Friday evening, and, Jim Prentice, the Canadian Minister for the environment gave a keynote speech. Dr Mario Molina, the Mexican Nobel prize winner for his work on chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere also gave a key note talk.

In addition, there was a strong corporate presence. Most of Saturday morning was given over to business presentations about work being done in their companies to address the environmental challenge. CEMEX, Coca Cola and Bimbo (a very large Mexican bakery company) were given platforms to show what they are doing.

CEMEX is actively involved in the creation of a wilderness area called El Carmen on the Mexico-Texas border. Coca Cola, through its Fundación Coca Cola is planting many trees throughout Mexico. Interestingly, it has also made a commitment to put back, every drop of water it uses to produce Coca Cola. It was not clear to me how they will do that. For example, the reforestation project is part of this. Bimbo has also created a civil society organization to be involved in reforestation projects.

There seem to me to be many contradictions in these huge companies giving their commitment to the conservation of wilderness. In an earlier post about Chiapas, I wrote how a Human Rights organization there was organizing the boycotting of Coca Cola products.

More fundamentally, however, I think questions need to be asked of these companies (Coca Cola and Bimbo) promoting themselves as, and winning awards for being, socially responsible businesses when it can be argued that their basic products do not promote healthy nutrition. Mexico is facing a health crisis due to an impending diabetes and obesity epidemic. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Mexico also has the highest rate per capita of consumption of Coca Cola in the world.

Jane Goodall with young people from 'Roots and Shoots'

The main thrust of the conference, though, was given over to conservation of wilderness areas, with a particular focus on the possible effects of climate change. There were some remarkable and inspiring speakers, notably Dr Jane Goodall who especially talked about the work she is doing with young people, which goes under the name of Roots and Shoots.

Thomas Lovejoy gave a detailed account of some of nature’s response to climate change. Seeing this kind of presentation, with its wealth of evidence, painstaking and wide-ranging studies, made me wonder how anyone could not take climate change seriously. The conference was full of scientists and environmental activists, with a deep commitment to the work they are doing.

There were however aspects of the conference that made me uneasy.

•    First from a learning point of view, the format was incredibly traditional. A series of key-note presentations for the first three days and even in the second week the workshop sessions in the afternoon seemed the modern equivalent of ‘chalk-and-talk’ – a sequence of powerpoint presentations. As Rob Hopkins commented in his recent Transition Town blog:

“For me the panels of speakers model is a bit past its sell by date at this stage, all the great gathered wisdom in the room, and we just all have to sit and listen to speakers all day.  However good they are, it always feels like a missed opportunity to network, share ideas, discuss and find out the amazing things people are up to.”

•    It seemed to me that very little conscious attention had been given to the need to create more space and opportunity for dialogue. Not easy with 1000 people, of course, but still possible. As always, people were networking like crazy in the coffee and lunch breaks, and renewing friendships and contact. But even a simple tool like a list of participants showing their organizational affiliations was not provided. I came to the conference hoping to meet more people in Mexico involved in environmental issues and it was not so easy to do this.

•    The building where the conference was held, the Siglo XXI conference center in Mérida is incredibly ugly. To me it is the embodiment of a certain kind of Mexican monumental authoritarian neo-brutalist architecture – almost as far away from wild nature as you could get!

•    The food was utterly conventional, over-priced, without taste, and generated vast quantities of plastic waste. What an opportunity missed to show-case the delights of Mexican food and maybe even find some small producers or local restaurants to show off what they could do. I appreciate this would be difficult but it seemed to me an incongruency in the organization of the event not at least to try and consider this aspect. For another perspective on how to green events, have a look at ecogatherings.

•    In a similar vein, the tour company selling tickets to visit all the amazing Mayan and other architectural sites in this part of Mexico was a conventional tour company. In a conference, extolling the virtues of eco-tourism, could it not have been possible to try and find some local eco-tourism companies? I don’t underestimate the difficulties of doing this. I’m sure agreements exist between the conference center and the other businesses that are allowed to operate there. But I had a sense, maybe wrong, that the organisers of the conference had not considered this.

•    Overall, all these points indicate to me a certain lack of imagination in the design of the conference. They help to reinforce a sense that it will be science (with its rational, materialistic underpinnings), closely followed by conventional economics, that would help get us out of the fix we are in. Everything is now being turned into a market. There was an afternoon session on the emerging markets in not just carbon credits, but also in biodiversity, fresh water and marine life. I understand the argument that it is important to value ecosystems and the services they provide, but I can’t help wondering that it is this kind of thinking and mindset that has created the problems we now face. 

On reflection, this last point seems a little glib. I think the subject of the role of science and market-based solutions to the ecological crisis is complex. For a good critical outline of market-based solutions see Naomi Klein’s very recent article in the English newspaper the Guardian.

Better to end with Einstein’s quote that:

“In times of crisis the imagination is more important than knowledge”

Circle of Identities


Last weekend, I went with a friend to visit her cousin and other members of her family who live in Uruapan, a very typical Mexican city in Michoacan, about 260kms east of where I live. Uruapan is usually known as the principal region in Mexico where avocados are grown and exported, though it achieved notoriety in September 2006, when armed men burst into a night club in the town, and rolled five severed heads on to the dance floor. This was the first major incident of beheadings which has subsequently become more common in the wars between the different drug cartels.

My friend’s cousin, Salvador, and his wife, Aline, run a delightful, small (only four guest rooms) bed and breakfast in the heart of the city, called the Casa Chikita.


Salvador is an artist. Continue reading

Another possible success story?


Through my involvement with a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) business here, in which I am one of four partners, I have come to know an American, Jason, who has been helping us with internet marketing. He is one of three owners of an American software company, called Nearatec Technologies, that has started an office in Ciudad Guzmán in the recently developed software park. At a birthday party for Nacho, one of the other partners in the TEFL business, I was introduced to Luis, the manager of the software park.

In conversation with Luis and Jason, it became apparent that the two of them had made many links with the local Technological University, but had had no contact with the regional center of the University of Guadalajara, where I work as a ‘Profesor Honorífico’. (This means I give one class a term in the Masters in Business Administration Programme without being paid – though that is set to change – and in return, the University gives me an office, the use of their facilities, and the chance to hang out on the campus).

I then talked with people I knew at the University and we set up a meeting that was scheduled to be between myself, Jason, Luis, the Head of External Relations at the University, the Coordinator of the Degree Programme in Information Technology, and the Head of the Division in the University, in which the Degree Programme falls. I saw this as a relatively informal meeting in which people could get to know one another, better understand what each was doing, and which could be the first steps in a process of collaboration.

When I arrived at the University with Jason and Luis, expecting a relatively small meeting, I realised that a number of others had been invited – the Secretary of the Division, the Coordinator of the Degree Programme in Agronegocios, and the Head of Department responsible for the programme in IT. As nearly always in Mexico, everyone takes these unexpected changes in their stride.

The meeting essentially focussed on the development of the software park, and the potential role of the university in providing human resources to meet the needs of the companies starting to come to the park. The local government here have donated land to build the first stage of the software park, which now occupies five hectares, and the park has the possibility of expanding into a total of 15 hectares. The second stage of the project, a new three storey building, to which the Federal and the State Government will each contribute about 2 million US Dollars, is planned to start shortly. There are currently about 15 people working in the park , and it is hoped these numbers will grow to 600 by the end of 2009.


The project is a good example of collaboration between government at its three levels of Local, State and Federal, academic institutions, and private enterprise (in the form of mainly foreign companies). The organization that Luis works for, IJALTI (the Information Technology Institute of Jalisco) has played a key role in setting up this project. IJALTI has already developed a successful software park in Guadalajara (the capital of Jalisco and the second largest city in Mexico) with over 30 companies that is now saturated. So it had been looking for other venues in the State of Jalisco to set up another software park. Similarly, the local government here in Ciudad Guzmán is keen to attract business (which means employment) to Ciudad Guzman.

Traditionally, the primary economic activity in Ciudad Guzmán has been agriculture, and the city then further consolidated itself a regional center through the development of a service sector. The city is also an important educational center hosting the most universities in Jalisco after the capital, Guadalajara. The current local political administration have a vision of creating high value, ‘clean’, jobs here, and locating Ciudad Guzmán firmly within the knowledge-based society.

IJALTI fist looked at Chapala as a possible site for the new software park. Chapala is close to the International airport in Guadalajara and is situated on the shores of Lake Chapala, a beautiful, (but heavily contaminated), lake. It has become a center for a large ex-patriate community of mainly Canadians and Americans. it is said that there are more foreigners living there now than Mexicans. Interestingly, too, DH Lawrence used to live there in the 1920’s, and it is the setting for his extraordinary and controversial novel, ‘The Plumed Serpent’.

However, problems occurred with the land bought for the software park, which meant there was no room for further expansion, so the area will now specifically become a media park . Additionally, the cost of living in Chapala, especially housing, is very high compared to the rest of Jalisco. So the decision was made to locate the new software park to Ciudad Guzmán. Nearly everybody seems to be very happy about this. The businesses that come to Ciudad Guzmán will benefit from skilled labour at a much lower cost than in other countries. The local government is fulfilling its obligations to help create employment, especially skilled employment, which is a priority here, as in all of Mexico. It is foreseen that the software park will be the catalyst for the development of other services and work in the region, such as more housing, better education, hotels and restaurants, tourism, and entertainment


One of the selling points of Ciudad Guzmán to international and Mexican companies is the quality of life that can be offered here – which is why I like living here. The city enjoys a location within easy reach of Guadalajara, allowing people to enjoy the benefits of a large city, and is also relatively close to the beautiful, and mostly unspoilt, Pacific Coast. It is surrounded by hills on the eastern side, a large lake on the northern side (also, unfortunately, heavily contaminated) and is overlooked by the huge bulk of the Volcano del Nevado, on the western side. As Luis pointed out in the meeting, people working in the software park will be able to enjoy great views of the volcano due to the design of the buildings there, and this is precisely the kind of environment that favours the creative work the software park is set up to offer.


So everything seems set for success. At the meeting, all the people from the University were very keen to get involved, and try and catch up with the march already stolen on them by the Technological University.

However, as the meeting went on, I began to wonder……… would the arrival in Ciudad Guzman of a number of foreign businesses significantly transform the city?…..would the very thing that is special about Ciudad Guzmán, and which is why businesses might want to relocate or expand here, be lost?……. if the city were to become substantially wealthier, what effect would that have on public security, as up until now, Ciudad Guzman has been one of the safest places to live in Mexico?…………..would the same thing happen as in Chapala, where the housing costs have become prohibitive for ordinary Mexicans, and where the culture has become an amalgam of Mexico , the United States and Canada? For example, it was said that one of the things putting off IBM coming to Ciudad Guzmán is the lack of first-class executive style hotels – I suppose they mean there are no Holiday Inns, Sheratons or Marriots (thank God). ………would the international companies move to another location if one became available with better or equal resources and/or cheaper costs………And, perhaps, most importantly, ultimately who will gain from this development? Will it be the already wealthy elite of Ciudad Guzmán, who own the restaurants, hotels and businesses that will benefit from increased profits? Or is there expected to be what is known as the “trickle-down effect”, or the “rising tide lifts all boats” argument, which can also be seen more controversially as the poor being left to pick up the crumbs?…….And are these concerns, on my part, just an expression of what is known in England as Nimbyism? (NIMBY standing for Not In My Back Yard)