There have been protests in the city of Oaxaca for the past month but unlike most demonstrations here, education is not the issue.
Work began in early June on the construction of the Oaxaca City Convention Center (CCCO), a project many agree is much needed by the city, whose main source of income is the seasonal flux of national and international tourists.
But that seems to be the only point of agreement among citizens. The chosen location for the CCCO is the Cerro del Fortín, or Fortress Hill, which is located just northwest of downtown Oaxaca. The highest point in the city, it is also the location of the Guelaguetza Auditorium and has become iconic among locals and visitors.
Proposed by the state government as a means to draw business-related, non-seasonal tourism, the project has faced strong opposition from environmental organizations and the general public.
Detractors claim that the hill is one of the last “lungs of the city” and that its remaining forest should be preserved. They also question the urbanistic viability of the project as the added vehicular traffic to and from the convention center would put more pressure on the city’s already congested streets.
Along with the environmental concerns is the worry of a conflict of interest. The Tourism Secretariat has been in charge of the project since its inception, and its head, José Zorrilla, is a shareholder in Hotel Victoria, which sits about 100 meters away from the site. As Tourism Secretary, Zorrilla had a say in the project’s design, infrastructure requirements and location, and also actively lobbied for endorsements and support.
In addition, Zorrilla’s cousin, Francisco Zorrilla, is head of the Logistic Development Trust of the Tourism Secretariat and the operations chief for the project.
The Tourism Secretary has conceded there is a conflict of interest and has since distanced himself from the project.
For the Association of Architects of Oaxaca there is another worry: UNESCO, it believes, could withdraw the city’s World Heritage Site designation because the conservation plan issued by it states that “it is strictly prohibited to alter the topographic profile of hills, hillocks, and headlands [like the Cerro del Fortín].”
The plan also warns against any major construction of new buildings or modifications in the center of the city that may cause congestion, but encourages the development and growth of sub-centers in the northern and northwest zones.
Those opposed to the CCCO project are demanding that all work on the site be suspended until its future and its location are determined through public consultation.
Painter and social activist Francisco Toledo is one of many figures in Oaxaca who have raised their voices against the convention center and on two occasions has led demonstrations at the construction site.
Toledo and those he represents have proposed two alternative locations and their plan is to invite the government to a negotiating table at which all three locations could be discussed and assessed.
“We are going to tell the government that all projects like this must be discussed [with the people]. When the government says that they are the owners of the Cerro del Fortín, they are lying. The government owns nothing. Everything it has belongs to the people because it was bought with their money,” said the painter.
There have been confrontations between detractors, who have organized themselves as the Defense Front of the Fortín, and unionized construction workers, resulting in minor injuries and at least one person being injured when fireworks were used by workers to drive protesters away.
Those who support the project, for their part, praise the creation of direct and indirect jobs that would result, as well as the off-season tourism it would attract. They also claim that deforestation accusations are false, as the project includes reforestation and preservation programs.
Many have introduced another controversial issue into the discussion by offering their conditional support: they will get behind the CCCO if the state government solves the CNTE/Sección 22 issue by removing the protesting teachers from the city’s Zócalo and putting a stop to their demonstrations and blockades.
But Gov. Gabino Cué doesn’t see the construction operations shutting down any time soon, nor does he contemplate any changes to the project.
Cué says the convention center is a necessary development as different sectors and service providers have been demanding it for 25 years, and is therefore part of his State Developmental Plan.
“The project was not created out of thin air,” said Cué, adding that it is “backed by the greater part of the population.”
The Environment Secretariat Semarnat reports that it has received no environmental impact requests for the project and therefore cannot determine its environmental viability.
The leader of the Collective of Environmentalist Organizations of Oaxaca, Nazario Ramírez, said that its members “have never endorsed the construction of the convention center. What we ask for is that the natural park area remain untouched.”
Ramírez also stated that the collective supports the development of Oaxaca, “but it must be sustainable. It’s OK to defend the Cerro del Fortín, but there are many other green spaces that require our attention, like the Parque del Amor.”