Building Cities, Constructing Citizens: Sustainable Rural Cities in Chiapas, Mexico

Valente Soto & Jeffrey M. Banister


This paper examines changes in socio-spatial practices that have resulted from the relocation of peasant and indigenous communities into Sustainable Rural Cities (SRCs) in Chiapas, Mexico. The SRC initiative aims to reduce poverty and inequality through the construction of housing in a “semi-urban environment” that offers services ranging from basic to complex. We analyze this initiative as an attempt to politically and materially reconstitute rural life in Chiapas in order to create governable spaces and submissive citizens. From this perspective, the government’s objectives can be seen as a move to dictate social and political practices through the construction of space and control over the means of production, resulting in an increasing dependency that reduces possibilities for self-organization. However, this process is also being contested, resulting in new patterns of semi-urban living that diverge significantly from the official vision.


In November 2007, the community of Juan del Grijalva, located in the municipality of Ostuacán, Chiapas, experienced a catastrophe when a hill collapsed over the Grijalva river. The ensuing flood caused the death of 26 people, and the authorities ordered the evacuation of eleven communities. More than 1,800 people were moved to temporary shelters, challenging the different levels of government to manage the territory and populations at risk. Governor Juan José Sabines immediately promised a fresh start for the affected families, using the occasion to roll out a development program that his administration had been crafting. Sabines’s Plan de Desarrollo Chiapas Solidario 2007-2012, in its second section called, Desarrollo Social y Combate a la Desigualdad, states that one of the best strategies against inequality, marginality, and dispersion would be the creation of the Sustainable Rural Cities (SRCs) initiative. The catastrophe of Juan del Grijalva provided an ideal opportunity to implement the program. After two years and the investment of more than $34 million dollars (more than $628 million in 2011 pesos), in September 2009 Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón inaugurated the first SRC, Nuevo Juan del Grijalva.

The stated objectives of the SRCs are to: (a) concentrate Chiapas’ dispersed rural populations; (b) generate employment; and (c) elevate labor productivity in the Chiapan countryside through the creation of ...

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