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Sierra Magazine

Treasure of the Costa Grande | Eco-Thugs in the House

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 and Acapulco.

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 south."

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 down."

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 offering.

"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 border.

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

Andrea Seastrand
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 (R).

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.

Nathan Deal
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.

Collin Peterson
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."

Dick Chrysler
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."

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.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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