‘Sustainable’ Rural Cities in Mexico

by Melissa García Lamarca

Just over a year ago, in mid-September 2009, the first new ‘rural city’ known as Nuevo Juan de Grijalva was inaugurated by President Calderón and other high level officials in Chiapas, Mexico, amidst great fanfare. The 410 families that moved into Nuevo Juan de Grijalva came from eleven surrounding localities characterised by their isolation, difficult access and proneness to flooding – where one such event largely destroyed one of the villages from which residents were relocated. This first rural city’s inauguration heralded the official start of a larger federal and state project known as ‘Sustainable Rural Cities’, whose premise is to centralise what are now extremely dispersed and impoverished local communities towards meeting the objectives of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Indeed, according to the UN, Nuevo Juan de Grijalva is the first and only sustainable rural city that meets the objectives of the MDGs.

While such flattering discourses filling the mainstream Mexican press to the brim over the past year (i.e. this is a typical example) on how this project combats poverty and brings sustainable development clearly sound great, the reality on the ground is – unsurprisingly – something completely different. As pictured above, the ‘rural city’ is artificial, faceless and monotonous, with row upon row of 60 square metre houses each sitting on 300 square metres of land. The employment promised to residents has not manifested to the scale where people can actually support their families, and the small lots behind houses are insufficient to grow food, meaning that purchasing this basic commodity is now a new cost for families. Many people are thus forced to travel by bus daily to their land (sometimes up to 5 hours away), a journey creating yet another burden on their meager incomes, to continue their agricultural work. Although through such centralised living arrangements people can more easily access health care, telecommunication and energy services, residents interviewed recently by CIEPAC (see below) in Juan del Grijalva note that the clinic is in very high demand and very little medication is available, and that electricity bills are extremely expensive, to the point where many small shop owners are becoming severely indebted. It appears that most families are staying for the moment because their children have access to education.

Video footage containing interviews with residents released last month by CIEPAC (Centre for Economic and Political Community Action Research) as well as an article from NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) take further steps in damning this initiative. The latter places the Sustainable Rural Cities project square in the region’s larger Plan Puebla-Panamá neoliberal development, now known as the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project. There is also concern that new ‘sustainable rural cities’ will serve as a paramilitary strongholds used to undermine local indigenous autonomy, to stealthily combat Zapatista support bases.

In the meantime, Mexican President Calderón has plans to create at least 25 other ‘sustainable’ rural cities. Time will tell what further critiques and issues will arise from those clearly unsustainable existing sites (from social, ecological and economic perspectives, for now including Nuevo Juan de Grijalva and Santiago el Pinar) and those to come in the future.

Credits: Image of UN Millennium Development Goals from UN MDG website. Image of rows of housing in Nuevo Juan del Grijalva from La Jornada. Aerial view of Nuevo Juan del Grijalva from rumbopolitico.blogspot.com.


  1. Thanks Melissa for this interesting post. Somehow, it looks deeply wrong. If I was asked to plan something like this, I'd start finding out, from the poeple's perspective, what kind of external support they'd need in order to meet the MDGs. It looks like the project didn't include that step. Moreover, it looks like the rural version of the extremely unsustainable proliferating periurban new towns in Mexico DF, like this one:

  2. I absolutely agree with you Jordi, and it is really concerning that the vast majority of press found on the Internet regarding the initiative only talks about how great it is. According to an early PDF document that I found cited on the NACLA critique of the project, which appears to be an old draft of the proposal and process (from 2007 I believe), 'social participation' is mentioned as a principle, but there is obviously superficial or no implementation.

    Also, the great link you included reminds me of Livia Corona's photo that won the Public Choice award at the PhotoEspaña 2009 festival. When looking at the photo, click on 'read text' on the bottom left of the screen as well, to read more about her excellent work.