Fri Sep 3, 2004

Locals Fight Wal-Mart Store Near Ancient Mexico Ruin

By Lorraine Orlandi

TEOTIHUACAN, Mexico (Reuters) - In the shadow of colossal pyramids left by a great Mexican civilization, a Wal-Mart rises, and some locals have gone to court to overturn its approval.
The sprawling warehouse-style Bodega Aurrera, a unit of Wal-Mart in Mexico, is due to open in December in Teotihuacan, the site of major archeological ruins outside Mexico City.

Workers are putting on the roof this week.

"It's not just that commerce in Teotihuacan will be affected. It affects first of all our soul, our identity," said local teacher Emanuel D'Herrera, who joined legal action to stop the store.

As a young father, he planted his newborn son's umbilical cord at the ancient temples for protection.

"We are Mexicans and very proud of our history," he said. "One of the landmarks of our history and culture is Teotihuacan."

Amid rising controversy, Mexico's government said a small pre-Hispanic altar was found buried under what will be the store's parking lot, located in a commercial area within the archeological zone.

The construction lies less than a mile from the gated tourist park housing the main ruins and is visible from atop the Pyramid of the Sun that has defined the skyline for 2,000 years.

Wal-Mart Mexico has local and state approval for the store. Federal archeologists monitoring construction say it poses no threat to the ruins, and officials say most people welcome the store for the low prices, investment and jobs it will bring.

"This is a development opportunity," town secretary Jorge Lopez said. "We need water, drainage, pavement, schools."


Opponents have acted to block the store from operating by filing a criminal complaint that the authorities acted illegally in approving the project. A civil complaint was filed on the same grounds. There is no timetable for a decision by either court.

All opposition has not been passive. Wal-Mart said in an earlier statement that protesters attempted to shut down construction on Aug. 6 and became violent and threatening.

"Wal-Mart energetically objects to these violent acts and reserves the right to go before the proper authorities," it said.

But opponents say Wal-Mart will erode a tradition of family-owned enterprises such as handicrafts and a community lifestyle dating back centuries.

"This is a classic case of modern corporate greed against the traditional cultural values of a society," said Al Norman, a U.S. author and activist who has taken on Wal-Mart Stores Inc . . "American tourists can go from the monuments to the Wal-Mart store and buy a rubber pyramid, made in Beijing."

No one knows for sure who founded the ancient seat of power and then abandoned it around 600 AD. The Aztecs later came upon it and named it Teotihuacan (The Place Where Men Become Gods).

The National Institute of Anthropology insists the project is strictly monitored. "The argument that it's a threat to the ruins is really weak," said spokesman Ruben Regnier.

Supporters of the store say opponents are a small minority, mainly merchants, who fear losing economic clout.

Lifelong resident Emma Ortega disagrees. A local restaurateur and healer, she was named spiritual protector of Teotihuacan by a council of elders. She has fought commercial encroachment before.

Next to the Wal-Mart site stands the rust-colored Hotel Quinta Sol, a project she and others failed to block. A huge yellow sign for the Elektra electronics store chain and a broken Coca-Cola billboard dot the landscape.

Ortega, 59, climbed the Pyramid of the Sun on Thursday and turned to the four corners of the world, asking for strength.