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Thursday 11 September 2003


'Serpents Nest' Surrounded by Poverty

Diego Cevallos

CANCUN, Mexico, (IPS) - This Mexican resort city on the Caribbean coast was all decked out Wednesday for the arrival of 146 trade ministers and their entourages, but in the poor neighbourhoods just beyond the luxurious hotels nothing had changed.

Hotels are at 100-percent capacity this week in the ”serpents nest”, the English translation of the Maya word ”cancún”.

Posters and stickers repeating the slogans ”Our life is tourism” and ”Take care of Cancun” popped up throughout the city in the last few days, in preparation for the World Trade Organisation's Fifth Ministerial Conference, Sep. 10 to 14.

Giving the 33-year-old Cancun that extra shine are new layers of paint on buildings and recently pruned trees in parks and along avenues.

Every year, more than three million tourists come to this beach town to take in the sun and enjoy the white sands and the turquoise-coloured sea. But today its imposing hotels hold thousands of government delegates and civil society representatives attending the WTO official meeting.

Also in Cancun are thousands of activists, who are gathering in parks and plazas, out of view of the heavily guarded official conference venue. These non-governmental organisation campaigners are discussing the effects of the neoliberal economic globalisation model now in force, and strategies to change its course.

But the local residents are not reporting many benefits from the event that has filled the city to overflowing. They are complaining.

”There is no way to circulate in the area of the hotels. Everything is under heavy security, and the shops can't operate normally,” taxi driver Cristóbal Trinidad told IPS.

And the tourist activities that made Cancun famous are limited, also for security reasons. No boats are allowed near the coast, sea tours have been cancelled, and even vehicular traffic is sharply limited on area streets. The entire hotel zone is surrounded by hundreds of police and by temporary fences.

Construction began here in 1970 as part of the government's Cancun-Rivera Maya project for a 150-km stretch of nearly virgin Caribbean beaches. Numerous archaeological sites and ruins form the millenniums-old Maya culture can still be found in the region, which now also holds 26,000 hotel rooms.

The project could be considered a great success, if not for the poverty of the communities living not far from the major tourist spots.

Just 10 km from Cancun's hotel district, where the WTO conference is taking place, live some 750,000 people: 60 percent are poor, with 39 percent considered indigent.

Most residents have moved here from other points in Mexico with the aim of finding work in the international tourism industry.

Many have indeed found jobs, and work during the day and into the evening, returning home at night to their small wooden houses, located in neighbourhoods with unpaved streets and no potable water or electricity.

”Cancun is the model of success in global tourism, but also the reflection of worst poverty. Here misery exists alongside great wealth, and one only has to take a short walk around the city to see it,” Marco Origel, an activist with environmental watchdog Greenpeace and participant in the civil society forum, told IPS.

According to figures from the Mexican government, the average monthly income of Cancun's poor population is around 400 dollars, while those considered extremely poor earn less than 250 dollars.

In contrast, for the tourists staying at the luxury hotels in Cancun, spending 250 or 400 dollars per night on a room is considered relatively economical. In some of the best hotels, a suite can cost more than 5,000 dollars a night.

South of Cancun, two hours by car, is the municipality of Solidaridad, founded in 1993. It is another of the examples of poverty that tourists are not likely to see when they visit the region, arriving via commercial airlines and cruise ships.

Many of Solidaridad's 110,000 residents work in the hotels and tourism services along the coast. But at home, 30,000 people do not have electricity and 70,000 do not have potable water.

The Cancun-Rivera Maya project focussed on tourism, but not on the people who would be drawn to the area in search of work, Agustín Cruz, of the local environmental group Society for Vital Ecology, said in a conversation with IPS.

Population growth in urban Cancun and in Solidaridad is more than 20 percent a year, far above the national average of less than five percent in this country of 100 million people.

”Cancun is one of the best examples of the globalisation of tourism: a lot of money and rich people enjoying vacations on the shores of misery,” said Greenpeace activist Origel.


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