Treasure of the Costa Grande:
NAFTA opens Mexico to U.S. timber giants.
by John Ross
The front page of El Sol de Acapulco features a full-color photo of RubČn
Figueroa, then- governor of the Mexican state of Guerrero, with a brace of U.S. timber
barons from Boise Cascade. All are smiling broadly as they sign a five-year agreement in
the spring of 1995 to bring the timber giant to the Costa Grande, a guerrilla-ridden
stretch of coastline that winds between the luxury Pacific Coast resorts of Zihuatanejo
The agreement was a salutary one for Figueroa, who was otherwise known for his spotty
record on human rights (74 members of the left-center Democratic Revolutionary Party were
killed in his state in his first three years in office). Allowing Boise Cascade exclusive
rights to buy from local forestry ejidos (villages organized as communal production
units) under terms dictated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) translated
into hundreds of jobs, and--theoretically--a welcome lessening of social tension.
The Boise Boys had good reason to smile, too. Their operations in the Pacific Northwest
have been harried in recent years by thinning inventories, toughening environmental
regulations, and dogged demonstrators. Last year at the company's Sugarloaf logging site
in southern Oregon, more than 200 "environmental extremists," as Boise Cascade
calls them, were arrested, including members of the Sierra Club. (Sierra was barred
from the company's Mexican mill sites, according to spokesperson Doug Bartels, because of
"the politics of your organization.")
Having logged off much of the Pacific Northwest, Boise Cascade is now moving on. It has
already closed mills at Joseph, Oregon (1994), and Council, Idaho (1995). "How many
more mills will be closed depends on what Congress does," Bartels told the Idaho
Statesman. "The number of timber sales will determine our decision to move
Boise Cascade isn't exactly hurting: third quarter 1995 profits were a record $18.5
million. Nevertheless, it is one of 15 U.S. wood-products companies to set up operations
in Mexico since the ratification of NAFTA in 1994. Costa Grande Forest Products, its
wholly owned subsidiary, has access to a million acres of old-growth white and sugar pine
and white fir, plus an enormous pool of cheap labor. And even at its most vigorous,
environmental regulation in Costa Grande can best be described as lax.
Had the timber execs read further in the issue of El Sol de Acapulco graced by
their photos, they might have pined for the days of tree-sitting Earth First!ers. The
paper reported on a tense standoff between militant farmers from the Campesino
Organization of the Southern Sierra (OCSS) and loggers backed by heavily armed state
police near Tepetixtla, a dirt-poor town of 20,000 not 30 miles from Boise Cascade's
proposed mill sites. "They had already taken out a hundred truckloads of pine and
cedar," says Rocio Mesino, the 20-year-old daughter of an OCSS director now in
hiding. "We saw how this lumber company [owned by local lumber baroness Isabel
CalderŪn, not Boise Cascade] was taking out our forests without returning anything to the
people and we decided to stop them. We stopped the trucks, took down the logs, and
returned them to the community. Then the owner sent two big logging rigs into the mountain
and we burnt them. We are farmers. The forests bring water. We can't allow them to be cut
With arrest warrants issued against OCSS leaders and squads of police assembled,
tragedy was averted only by an agreement to curtail all logging in the area. But Figueroa
reneged on his promises, and two months later, on the rainy morning of June 28, 1995, a
truckload of OCSS members descended the muddy road to the coast to demonstrate against
him. At a mountain wash named Aguas Blancas ("Whitewater") they were met by a
police squad under the direction of Comandante Manuel Moreno. The police opened fire
without warning, killing 17 farmers and wounding 20 more. Weapons were placed in the hands
of the dead to try to justify the massacre, but the cover-up failed when an unedited video
version of the massacre was aired on national television. A special prosecutor jailed 28
police officers and four officials, including Moreno, for homicide and abuse of authority.
Governor Figueroa was forced to resign in March.
"Logging was at the root of the killings," sighs Julian Rodriguez, a member
of Tepetixtla's development council, leaning against a mud wall in his chairless home.
"This all began up in the forest and now 27 compaŅeros are dead. [Ten more were
killed after Aguas Blancas.] They were all hard workers and valuable men."
Even so, the logging business is booming for Boise Cascade's Mexican operation, which
intends to cut 20 million board feet a year for five years, all of which will be exported
to the United States. Costa Grande rents a former state-owned sawmill at Papanoa and is
negotiating for a second mill in nearby Tecpan. But its pride and joy is a spanking new
planer mill that can be packed up and shipped out when the forest is gone. Through
contracts with 24 ejidos, logs are pouring into the enormous Papanoa yard 24 hours a day,
because Boise Cascade is paying $60 a cubic meter--three times what the local mill was
"We are the salvation of the ejidos," boasts Papanoa superintendent Carlos
Vega, adjusting his Boise Cascade cap. "Before we came along, they owed the banks so
much money for machinery they'd bought on credit that they were on the verge of going
under." Now, he says, Boise Cascade is building roads into the mountains ("they
will be works of art") and is putting hundreds of locals to work at $4.75 a day--well
above the Mexican minimum wage, but barely a 30th of what Boise Cascade pays north of the
The boom times extend to Boise Cascade's U.S. crew here as well. The 30 workers--mainly
supervisors, technicians, and millwrights--are housed behind thick walls with an armed
guard standing sentry at the wrought-iron gate. In the restaurant, Merle Haggard belts out
"Okie From Muskogee," and the perks are great. For a 30-day stint they get six
drinks a day, Cuban cigars (Monte Cristos), scuba diving in "Aca" and
"Zihua," and weekend trips to Costa Grande red light districts. Asked what he is
being paid, James "Tiny" Wegner laughs. "Not enough," he says,
although he is making considerably more than his $22-an- hour U.S. wages: he misses only
his motorcycle (he displays fond photos) and his freedom. On trips to town, Wegner
complains, "we're not allowed to step off the pavement." Kidnapping is a major
industry here, with more than a hundred incidents in the last three years.
Boise Cascade's boom is setting a new pace of deforestation on the Costa Grande. In
order to compete with the gringos, the huge El Balcon ejido mill has pushed production
from 3,000 to 40,000 cubic meters in the past three years. But while El Balcon is
responsible to its ejido owners and is rooted in the area, Boise Cascade is free of local
attachments, and can rip and run.
In Mexico City, Undersecretary of Natural Resources Gonzalo Chapela worries about
"the amount of wood this project will take out of the area," conceding that his
ministry never looked very closely at the Boise project in the first place. According to
John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League, "Boise wasn't willing to follow sound
environmental law in Idaho; now they've gone to where people are poor and desperate."
"There is no control over the way our natural resources are being exploited,"
says Homero Aridjis, director of "The Group of 100," Mexico's most prestigious
environmental organization. "Permission is granted to these foreign corporations
without environmental-impact studies. All of this is being done silently--the trees are
cut down silently and they are exported silently. No one knows anything; everything is
hidden. From our point of view, NAFTA represents ecological neocolonialism."
Meanwhile, Boise Cascade is already planning for the post-Guerrero future, looking at
sites in Oaxaca, Malaysia, Chile, and Siberia.
John Ross writes frequently for Sierra from Mexico.
Eco-Thugs in the House
by Paul Rauber
The spectacular central California coast region suffered a major disaster in 1969 when a catastrophic oil
spill spread across the Santa Barbara Channel. In 1994 it inflicted disaster on itself by electing Andrea
Seastrand's career as an eco-thug started in the California State Legislature, where she voted to risk her
district's coast again by continuing offshore oil development. Since winning election to the 104th
Congress by only 2,000 votes, she has carried on that tradition with a League of Conservation Voters
(LCV) rating of 0, reflecting her lockstep with the congressional leadership's War on the Environment.
"She shows unwavering support for the leadership's agenda, even when it threatened local interests,"
noted The Wall Street Journal. "She cast, for example, a vote in favor of a spending bill that
included a drastic reduction of federal funding for the nearby Mojave National Preserve."
Seastrand was selected by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to be on the steering committee of his
Task Force on the Environment. There she joins such other luminaries as representatives Mike Crapo,
Barbara Cubin, Mike Oxley, and Billy Tauzin, all of whom register fat zeroes on the LCV charts.
Seastrand blames California's natural disasters--fires, floods, and earthquakes--on adultery, child
pornography, divorce, "all that evil." If natural disasters are "God's wrath," who is responsible for mishaps
like Unocal's ongoing oil spill--at 30 million gallons, now the largest in U.S. history--at Guadalupe Beach
near the mouth of the Santa Maria River? Many of Seastrand's constituents are blaming her for the
unnatural disasters she has either acquiesced to or enthusiastically sponsored. On November 5, they get to
exercise their wrath.
In 1992, the Sierra Club made the mistake of supporting Nathan Deal, whose beautiful North Georgia
district includes the Blue Ridge Mountains and the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. Once elected,
Deal climbed aboard the War on the Environment juggernaut and his LCV score nosedived to a dismal 15
percent. Despite coming from the most heavily forested district of his state, he voted for the "logging
without laws" salvage rider (see Field Truths ). Despite his
Ninth District's famous waterfalls and whitewater rivers, he voted to weaken the Safe Drinking Water Act
in 1994 and the Clean Water Act in 1995.
With the political winds now shifting, Deal wants to have it both ways. He started out as a Democrat, then
switched to a Republican. After cosponsoring the extreme Young-Pombo rewrite of the Endangered
Species Act, he also put his name to the much-improved compromise attempt by Gilchrest-Saxon. He's
guessing the voters won't care--but they can tell a bad Deal when they see one.
He could have been a contender, but instead he's just an eco-thug. As a state senator representing
northwestern Minnesota, Collin Peterson was an innovative leader, and had the full support of the
environmental community in his previous congressional bids. The Sierra Club celebrated when he was
finally elected to Congress in 1994. But like his colleague Nathan Deal, Peterson choked when put to the
test, proving himself unable to resist the special interests and their campaign dollars. After a promising
start, his LCV rating plummeted to 15 percent. "We can have clean water and protect our lakes and
rivers," he wrote, defending his vote to gut clean water protection, "without a whole lot of regulation and
bureaucracy." Minnesotans aren't buying it: the St. Cloud Times accused him of being "part of
Washington's back-to-pollution movement."
Freshman Representative Dick Chrysler's mostly rural district west of Detroit is rapidly industrializing
and citifying. Its list of serious problems includes urban sprawl, toxic-waste dumps, possible groundwater
contamination--and Chrysler, a millionaire businessman who spent $1.7 million of his own money in a
failed election bid in 1992. He was finally swept into office in the Republican landslide of 1994, where he
became a cheerleader for the Contract With America. Local wags joked that "a Newt is driving this
Chrysler earned his 8 percent LCV score in part by voting for further delays in cleaning up his own
district's Superfund sites. Angry Sierra Club members at a town meeting recently challenged his voting
record. "We've done nothing to hurt the environment," Chrysler claimed. And maybe he hasn't. After all,
Sierra Club activists have been able to stymie the worst anti-environmental aspects of the Speaker's
contract--but if Chrysler hasn't done any harm, it wasn't for lack of trying.