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Wal-Mart Duped Local Mexican Group to Build Store on Sacred Indigenous Site

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Published on Sunday, January 16, 2005 by The Sunday Herald (Scotland)

Wal-Mart "Duped" Locals to Build on Holy Site
A Mexican co-operative say they were tricked into helping the retail giant
defuse a row over its new store being built right beside ancient pyramids

by Elizabeth Mistry

For the small group of women entrepreneurs, it was a dream come true. One of
the world's biggest super market chains - as part of its much-vaunted
community initiative - wanted to sell the co-operative's collection of
natural beauty products, made from nopal and xoconostle or prickly pear,
cacti that grow in abundance around one of Mexico's most important ancient
pilgrimage sites - the pyramids of Teotihuacan.

But now the women believe they have been duped by Wal-Mart, the US-based
retailing giant which, they say, desperately needed to portray itself as a
good citizen after it caused national outrage by building a new store within
the boundaries of the Teotihuacan archeological zone, a 2000-year-old UNESCO
World Heritage site whose name means "The Place Where Gods Were Made" and
which receives more than two million visitors a year.

"Before the store opened, Wal-Mart asked us to start making the products -
200 a month - as soon as possible," a member of the cooperative told the
Sunday Herald. "We are only a small outfit and this was an important deal
for us, we had to take out a loan to get it all done on time. When we
finished, we tried to contact them to arrange delivery but they never answer
our calls and have never paid us. We have tried to contact them for months
but nobody wants to help us. Wal-Mart said that it would promote regional
producers in the new store. We realize now that they were just using us so
they can say on their website that they are working with the community."

Wal-Mart has been the subject of a string of lawsuits in the US ranging
from bullying to discrimination. Its new Mexican store, which operates under
the Bodega Aurrera brand, has prompted heated debate over convenience versus

Some argue that inhabitants of the nearby town of San Juan Teotihuacan
should not face a 15-mile journey to their nearest supermarket and that the
180 jobs Wal-Mart says it has brought are vital for local families. But
protesters claim the building damages the integrity of the 2000-year-old
site and that both local government officials and representatives from the
National Institute of Archaeology and History (NIAH), the state body charged
with safeguarding Mexico's archeological sites, colluded with Wal-Mart to
fast-track the store, located at a strategic point just off the highway
bringing visitors to the site.

Emma Ortega, a longtime resident of Teotihuacan, approximately 40 miles
north of Mexico City, describes herself as one of the ruined city's
spiritual guardians. She is one of the most vociferous members of the
campaign to close the store. Now recovered following a three-week hunger
strike she and other members of the Civic Front for the Defense of
Teotihuacan undertook to try and stop the opening of the 20-aisle store
which local market traders fear will put them out of business, she says that
by allowing the construction within zone C of the protected archeological
zone, NIAH is breaking the law.

She listed a number of irregularities that "in other circumstances would
automatically mean the end of the project" and cannot understand why, after
a number of remains were found on the site, the project was not shelved.

"Without a doubt this store has been built on land that was once part of
the ancient city. Recent excavations have found tombs, part of a plaza,
ceramic shards and an altar which was dated at 450AD. This proves that this
is an important site and yet the authorities who originally said that all
such findings were important seem to have changed their minds.

"What is the point of having an exclusion zone if you are going to ignore
it when someone with enough money comes along? It is clear that the
government is turning a blind eye and selling the country's heritage to
whoever is prepared to pay the most. NIAH's director should resign."

The decision to allow Wal-Mart - owners of the Asda supermarket chain in
the UK - to build the store is shrouded in secrecy. Even though the site is
listed by UNESCO and the World Monuments Fund as being of international
importance, the original go-ahead was apparently taken by the local head of
NIAH without being referred to a senior federal authority. Then, in a still
unexplained twist, it emerged that the official responsible resigned a few
days later, only for her replacement to be murdered shortly afterwards.

Bizarrely, the NIAH and the local authorities each claim that the other is
responsible for issuing permits. The matter has been complicated by an
apparently fluid interpretation of the law which has allowed a rash of
building - including shops, a luxurious gated residential compound and a
hotel - to go unchallenged within the protected zone in recent years. This,
argue those in favor of the new store, means that one more building will not
be a cause for concern.

Wal-Mart declined to comment. But its website highlights its work with
local communities. It prides itself on being a socially responsible company,
pointing to the fact that for three years running it has been recognized as
such by the Mexican Center for Philanthropy. This national organization was
established by the millionaire Mexican businessman Manuel Arango who has
devoted himself to good works - since selling the Bodega Aurrera chain to

To the protesters' dismay, UNESCO has accepted NIAH's assessment that the
store is not likely to damage the archeological site. But several NIAH staff
contacted by the Sunday Herald say they feel betrayed by the institute and
some of Mexico's best known writers and artists including Carlos Fuentes,
Elena Poniatowska and British painter Leonora Carrington have signed a
petition against the development.

Sergio Raul Arroyo, NIAH's director, admitted that the store has a bad
reputation, but he could not explain how, in spite of such opposition, the
government has apparently failed to intervene.

He told the Sunday Herald: "We cannot take into account moral or
sentimental issues. We are dealing with a tremendously powerful company
here. We don't have the money to fight this."

© 2005 newsquest (sunday herald) limited