It was a day like any other. Villagers in the tiny town of Pizotia, in Southwest Mexico, were attending church or shopping in the open market.
Rodolfo Montiel Flores, along with his wife and daughter, were strolling down the main street. While they were talking with neighbors, shots suddenly rang out. A local compesino (farmworker), shot in the head, fell to the street and died.
Flores and his colleague, Teodoro Cabrera Garcia, were taken by the military. Tortured at gunpoint, they were coerced to confess to being terrorists and drug traffickers. However, local villagers knew what their real crime was – they had organized compesinos to stop logging in the mountains of Southwest Mexico.
In 1995, Boise Cascade Corporation signed a five-year deal with the state of Guerrero to log forests there. This was courtesy of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Compesinos saw entire forests removed and experienced a decline in their ability to produce basic food staples, such as corn and beans. Streams and springs began drying up. The mountain forest ecosystem functioned as a sponge. Without that sponge, the water cycle in the area was altered. To add insult to injury, many of the forests were old-growth pine and fir.
In the mid-90s, many compesinos, including Flores and Garcia, decided to stage a demonstration against these injustices in the state capital of Guerrero. Along the way, they were stopped by hundreds of federal police. Without provocation, the police opened fire, killing 17 compesinos and injuring 20 more.
Not to be intimidated, Flores and Garcia helped organize the Organization of Ecologists of the Sierra de Petatian. They used peaceful approaches, such as writing to the Mexican forestry agency to evaluate the ecological effects of the logging. They also distributed informational leaflets to educate other compesinos of the consequences of widespread logging and the impact on their lives and livelihoods.
The compesinos attempted to collect tolls from the trucks, and when they could, block them from reaching the forests. When they had some success at this, it angered many caciques, or local landowners, who profited from selling the trees to Boise Cascade.
These caciques were known to have close ties to the military and corrupt elements in the government. When Boise left the area, citing an inconsistency of wood supply, tensions mounted.
Flores and Garcia were illegally arrested on May 2, 1999 and had their conviction upheld on July 17 of this year. Over 100 environmental and human rights groups have come out in support of their plight and the fight to save Mexico’s forests. Flores has won the Goldman Environmental Award while imprisoned. Pressure from these groups, as well as Amnesty International and the Sierra Club, have forced even President Vicente Fox, former CEO of Coca-Cola, Mexico, to come out for their release.
Labor unions, including the AFL-CIO and central labor councils, need to make their voices heard. Jobs, lives, the environment and basic civil and human rights are at stake here. As Boise Cascade closes its headquarters in Idaho, what better way to rip the mask off of NAFTA claims of jobs and prosperity for all? This is only one example. NAFTA and other similar agreements have generated environmental degradation and struggles all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the very tip of South America.