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Rebuilding Oaxaca, Mexico

Blasius Erlinger Oaxaca

Photo: Blasius Erlinger

The balance between prosperity and equality is hard to strike, even in cities that haven’t been riven by six months of protests that ended in bloodshed. There is a lot of talk of change in Oaxaca. Foundations such as the Institute for the Nature and Society of Oaxaca are looking into how to channel tourism revenue into more hands, and some business owners are also discussing giving more back—at least once the industry recovers. Groups affiliated with the APPO, meanwhile, talk about tourism development from the ground up. The obvious success stories, so far, are few, but heartening.

One organization that could provide a useful model for effective tourism is a small cooperative called Pueblos Mancomunados. The group, which represents a set of northern mountain villages with fewer than 1,000 people in each, was started in 1994 in an effort to bring community-based ecotourism to an area that was hurting from falling crop prices.

"The youth from our pueblo were leaving to find work in the United States," Griselda Santiago explains from her desk at the small Pueblos Mancomunados office in Oaxaca. "The idea was to bring jobs to our people."

The effort has proved to be a remarkable success. Before the protests began, the villages received several hundred visitors a month, and each pueblo created an "ecotourism committee" to help direct business and manage its cultural and environmental impact. Tour agencies used to give the pueblos a small cut, under 50 percent, of the profits; now the villages get almost everything, plus a degree of control over how the infusion of visitors affects the community.

Even as she expresses some sympathy with the overall goals of the APPO, Santiago acknowledges that the conflict had been bad for business. Pueblos Mancomunados has suffered considerably since the protests, with only a few dozen visitors arriving in each village even months after the government cleared the city. But Santiago is optimistic that business will recover—and that when it does, Pueblos Mancomunados will be able to show the rest of Oaxaca a way out. "We think that if people look at us, they will see that it can be done," she says. "They will see that fighting is not the only way." ✚

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs.

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