Saturday, January 10, 2009

History Repeats Itself

There was once a great city in the valley of Mexico. In the span of only a few hundred years its numbers swelled to the point where the people and houses pushed beyond the city's boundaries. They did not grow their own food nor mine the area's resources but rather grew rich off of the making of ideas. 

This place was Teotihuacan. It also describes modern day Mexico. Separated by thousands of years but appearing in the same valley, both cities thrived--Teotihuacan as the religious capitol of Mesoamerica and Mexico City today as a global service economy. It is quite possible, however, that the modern day capitol faces the same fate as the city of the past: a scarcity of resources. Indeed, in order to thrive off of ideas alone the people of Teotihuacan traded with surrounding areas: agricultural products from the Maya, shells from the coast, silver from the north. Water was scarce and brought in to the city from a diverted river. At the population's peak, even the the surrounding area was deforested so the trees could be used as building materials.

But at some point the rains stopped coming and the trade slowed down. The people of Teotihuacan suffered. They blamed the priests for the lack of prosperity and burned the city multiple times in mass riots. Eventually no one returned to rebuild it. The people disappeared and the city was left much as it is found today, with only the stone pyramids left behind.

Mexico City, along with most large cities in the world, faces the same problem as Teotihuacan did sixteen centuries ago: it is not self-sufficient nor environmentally sustainable. Will it face the same fate?

Today, at the beginning of the 21st Century, it is quite possible. But if history is doomed to repeat itself, chilangos are most worried about another fate: that of the Aztecs, conquered by a foreign power in the 15th Century.

Ever since the Mexican American War in the mid-1840s (Mexicans prefer to call it the War of Northern Aggression) when the US took half of the Mexican territory, Mexicans have been more than a little weary of their neighbors to the north. Anti-US rhetoric shapes national politics, appears in the lectures of professors at all but the most conservative universities and even characterizes dinner-time conversations at my host family's table. Indeed, their accusations are not without merit. In a slightly more discrete but no less violent takeover than the Spanish, American companies (along with their international counterparts) have been buying up Mexico's public industries since the financial meltdown of the 1980s. In violation of the 1917 Constitution, subsoil resources such as minerals and water were forcibly sold off by the World Bank, an American institution, and landed in large part in American hands. With the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992, some feared that the US takeover was complete.

With the fear of foreign domination taking center stage, the fate of Teotihuacan is all but forgotten. Today most of the vendors at the site barely know its history: they hawk Aztec trinkets, Maya calendars, and Virgin Mary blankets in a conflation of cultures. But the fate of the ancient city holds a crucial lesson: a city, or even a country, that cannot secure and protect its own resources, regardless of outside threats, is doomed to failure.

Mexico is not poor. It has immense petroleum and mineral wealth. It has a growing working-age population. Its movies, TV shows, and companies export to countries throughout the Americas. It has vast agricultural lands. Carlos Slim, a Mexican telecommunications mogul, is one of the world's richest men.

The problem for Mexico, as if nothing has changed in sixteen hundred years, is that a mismanagement of these resources has created a scarcity. Like any other urban center, Mexico City imports all of its food from the countryside. As growth and overpopulation occur, food and other resources are becoming harder and harder to secure. The environment grows taxed. Less work is available. Fewer funds are devoted to sustainable growth. Mexico City, like Teotihuacan, is in trouble.

Part of the problem lies in the mismanagement of resources. Where women once carried purchases home in baskets and clay pots, every grocery store outlet and panadería today offers their customers plastic bags, a non-renewable, non-recyclable resource. The highways leading out of town are littered with plastic soda bottles, Cheetos bags and baby diapers. Landfills fill up faster than the sanitation department can find room for them. When there is a leaky faucet, few bother to fix it. Mexico City today is not only one of the biggest cities in the world but one of the most polluted. In their quest to become a modern, industrialized country, Mexicans are living beyond their means. Globally, we all are.

The problem also lies in an increasingly weak Mexican agricultural sector. During the past hundred years of intense industrialization, agriculture was virtually ignored by the national treasury as the money flowed instead to urban projects. People went where the money was, leaving the poor rural areas for slum life in the capitol and jobs in the factories. The ejido system, created by President Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s to protect peasant lands, ended under neoliberalism in the 1980s. Again many people were forced out of agricultural production and into the cities. A swelling urban population meant the country was importing an increasing amount of food from abroad. When corn prices soared during the ethanol boom, many went hungry. Rural peasants had once been able to avoid starvation by eating what they had grown, even if in bad years it was only a little. In the cities, people were left with nothing.

In the most grim outlook for Mexico, we can say that the country will face both the fate of Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan. Today, the country's resources are threatened not only by internal factors but external ones as well. Since the 1970s, Mexico has experienced a growing balance of payments debt, meaning it imports more than it exports abroad. While industrial production has increased in the country, the final step of the process, where most of the value is added, often occurs in the US or China. The same for petroleum production. Trade agreements, such as NAFTA and GATT (of which Mexico was not a member until 1986), have forced the country's borders open, flooding the market with subsidized US corn and allowing entry to aggressive multinationals. In an increasingly globalized market, capital flight in the 1980s virtually left the country bankrupt overnight. As more and more of the nation's resources fall in to foreign hands, Mexico becomes increasingly impoverished.

Already massive unrest is occurring. When the price of corn rose in 2007, people took to the streets against the PAN government. When the conservative party won what was considered an unfair election in 2006, the entire main boulevard of Mexico City was closed off in protest for weeks. That same year, teachers in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in the country, clashed with police and the state governor over corruption and a lack of funds. Many took to the streets, burning buses, blocking off roads and taking over radio stations. The 2003 WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico, was forcibly shut down by protests.

This is not to say that Mexico is doomed. In fact, massive unrest is also a sign that the people are willing to fight in order to save their country. In 2000, an historic election led to the end of one-party rule in Mexico. Today, positive environmental steps are being taken to compost Mexico City's waste, where every street garbage bin and every household separates their waste into "organic" and "inorganic" sections. I pointed out in an earlier post the fluorescent lights are beginning to appear in cathedrals. Mexicans have not yet avoided the fate of those who came before them, but in learning from them they just may be able to write a new chapter. 

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