On the Road with Via Campesina on a Caravan – Days 4 & 5

A report back from an international climate justice delegation in Mexico organized by La Via Campesina. (Day 4 & 5)

WhyHunger’s Global Movements Program Outreach and Partnerships Coordinator Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau traveled to Mexico, where he was part of an international climate justice delegation organized by La Via Campesina to coincide with the official climate talks (COP 16) taking place in Cancun. The first leg of his journey was a caravan from San Luis Potosí in the center of the country to Mexico City, stopping along the way in communities impacted by climate change and environmental destruction. The second leg was a caravan from Mexico City to Cancun. His fourth report follows.



Day 4 was spent mostly traveling from Mexico City to the city of Veracruz. We were supposed to leave Mexico City early in the morning, but our buses did not arrive until noon. This was just an example of getting accustomed to Mexican time, and actually it was quite nice as it allowed me to have a little more of the delicious street food in the capital. However, because of the delay, our caravan split up, with one group heading to the city of Puebla for lunch and a rally and the other group travelling on to Veracruz for dinner (we filled up 7 buses now that the 3 caravans joined together in Mexico City). I was in the group that headed for Veracruz, so I missed Puebla and the community groups there. We arrived in Veracruz, heard some great speeches, and then pressed into the night towards our next destination. 

Our trip to Coatzacoalcos, about a 4-hour drive from Veracruz, actually took us about 9 hours because the highway had been shut down by protesting farmers. There had been heavy rains which had washed out bridges, but the government had only restored bridges on the highway and had neglected the smaller roads that the farmers used to bring food to larger towns and cities. Additionally, we also heard that a recently elected governor of the municipality and a prominent attorney had been murdered, and that citizens were blocking the highway to demand that the federal police investigate. Traffic was blocked at the toll booths and they refused to let people pass. We simply avoided the blockade and drove on back roads, but the caravan that had gone to Puebla was stuck for hours. It turns out that protests at toll booths and blockading traffic is a common tactic in Mexico. Many communities are displaced by highways and are then asked to pay to use the roads.  This kind of analysis of the injustice of the highway and tollbooths is largely absent in the United States; it would be interesting to explore parallels here.

When we finally arrived in Coatzacoalcos, we ate breakfast and heard speeches from local food sovereignty and environmental justice organizations. One representative from Zaragosa in the southern part of the state of Veracruz (Veracruz is both the name of the state and of its capital) described the outrageous number of cancer cases in his community due to industrial projects like oil refineries. He said that there were 500,000 cases of cancer in Zaragosa, but that neither local, state, nor federal officials would investigate. Therefore, he focused his efforts on working with the community on local projects like organic composting, supporting local and traditional food and farming, and refusing plastic bags. He left us with the idea that a bird needs two wings: the first can protest and criticize, but the other wing needs to build at a small level to provide a new way out of the problem.

Coatzacoalcos is actually the headquarters of PEMEX, Mexico’s state-run oil company, and the site of four giant petrochemical complexes, making it one of the highest concentrations of petrochemicals in the world. News articles displayed in our meeting hall told of the numerous spills and poisonings that had occurred. The state of Veracruz is also the location of the pig CAFO operated by Smithfield which is presumed to be the source of last year’s swine flu, as  mentioned in my previous post

The state of Veracruz is an oil-rich jungle (whereas the cities we had been to earlier during the caravan were almost all in the mountains and the desert; Veracruz is at a lower altitude and much more tropical). Veracruz has many oil refineries, both in the jungle as well as in the sea, and leaders of the fishing community explained how the petroleum industry has polluted the water and killed the fish. Given BP’s recent mega-disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the still unknown long-term impact on fishermen, the stories and fears about oil destroying the traditional fishing industry make that possibility feel very real. In the afternoon we took a rickety bus filled way over capacity through jungle roads to the site of a massive oil refinery and drilling operation owned by PEMEX, the second largest company in Latin America. According to Wikipedia, revenue from Pemex accounts for almost half of the Mexican government’s budget. It was raining and foggy, so the visual impact of the smoke pouring from the stacks was muted, but even through the clouds, the refineries were still a blight on the land.

While processing the enormity of the environmental problems faced by the people of Veracruz, I was able to speak with the National Executive Secretary of UNORCA (National Union of Regional Campesino Associations, a member of La Via Campesina), Regio Alquiciras explained UNORCA’s analysis of climate change, the problems with the proposed “solutions” at the UN COP16 talks, the rural crisis, and the connection to hunger and poverty. It was a very fruitful and informative discussion that rekindled my hope for our mission in Cancun.

The enthusiasm continued into the night as we introduced ourselves to our new bus-mates (we had been shuffled around the day before and had slept for most of our first day together on the bus). There were some great people on my bus doing fantastic work in Mexico, Canada, the US, and other parts of Latin America. It was so encouraging! And we found out that two of the passengers on the bus were music students from Veracruz, and they both played guitar and sang campesino songs for hours entertaining the whole bus. Viva Mexico!


For additional reports from Mexico by Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau, see:

On the Road with La Via Campesina in Mexico: Day 1

On the Road with La Via Campesina in Mexico: Day 3

On the Road with La Via Campesina in Mexico: Day 4 & 5