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+ Echoing the Niger Delta, the south of Mexico is dominated by a government
which calls the tune of transnational corporations and neo-liberalism while
the people suffer poverty and repression. Emily Williams describes the
Zapatista's challenge to US-backed exploitation.
"We want peace with justice, respect and dignity. We will no longer live on
- Subcommandante Marcos (1)
With the cry of Ya Basta! (enough is enough!) the Zapatistas burst on to the
world stage on January 1, 1994. Armed and dressed in black balaclavas, the
indigenous Mayan community of southern Mexico took possession of five major
towns in the state of Chiapas. They demanded land and liberty, and full
recognition for the rights of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. They
declared war on the federal army and government, called for an end to
neo-liberalism and demanded the repeal of NAFTA, the North American Free
It is no coincidence that the initial uprising of the Zapatistas coincided
with NAFTA coming into force. To entrench the neo-liberal policies of NAFTA,
the government removed Article 27 from the Mexican constitution, allowing
the commodification of ejidos or communal landholdings. This effectively
eliminated the indigenous peoples' rights to the land, a right enshrined in
the constitution drawn up after the 1910 Mexican revolution.
Chiapas is a diverse, rich land and includes North America's last remaining
tropical rainforest, the Selva Lacandon. Transnationals from around the
world have had their eyes on Chiapas for some time, and most have been
waiting for NAFTA to come into effect to start the process of exploitation.
Marcos stated in a recent interview published in the Italian magazine Limes,
"There is petroleum and uranium in Chiapas. Business people from the US
discovered them... their intention was to come here immediately with the
start of NAFTA." The appearance of the Zapatistas, he said, created problems
for the US company's plans to "eliminate the indigenous people of the area
or move them to another area," or directly exploit them.
The IMF and World Bank have consistently chosen to fund projects which put
profits before people by giving substantial loans to the Mexican government.
At the recent Encuentro gathering of activists, Efren Capiz Vilegas,
co-ordinator of the Union de Comuneros Emiliano Zapata, stated, "The IMF has
given grants to the Mexican government to ensure the security of southeast
Mexico. They funded the guns that were used to shoot indigenous people!"
Huge tracks of the Selva Lacandon had been cleared prior to 1994 with plans
for whole areas of the jungle to be eliminated to exploit the natural
resources of the area. It comes as no surprise that the Zapatista army, the
EZLN, choose to base themselves here, deep in the forest. And as you travel
through Chiapas today its clear that the uprising has disrupted mining, road
building and logging. The Zapatistas want the right to collectively manage
their own resources.
"They, the indigenous of Chiapas, those without voice, those without faces,
are capable of leaving us with many marks stamped in fire on our hearts,
that we the people of Chiapas hope you will transmit to every person you
encounter on your way," write the non-indigenous peoples of the state of
Behind the romantic image of the masked men and women of the EZLN lie
hundreds of indigenous communities and an organisational structure of
democracy with roots deeply based in 2,000 years of Mayan tradition and
culture, and of fighting against exploitation and oppression. The EZLN are
under the control of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee
which is made up of elected representatives from each of the Zapatista
communities or areas. The representatives are responsible for bringing all
the proposals from the villages to the committee and visa versa. Everyone
must be consulted before any decision is taken.
The campesinos of Chiapas are well aware of what neo-liberalism means for
their communities, for their lives and the future of their children. They
have seen with their own eyes the destruction of their environment, the
hunger and pain that is left behind when companies choose to satisfy their
desire for profit. In a document drawn up before the uprising, one group
stated, "What we don't agree with is the selling of our country to foreign
interests... people who are not Mexican run this country."
Marcos adds, "Of course, according to some intellectuals this type of
consciousness of country or nation is not possible in an indigenous person,
but they don't know these indigenous people."
"Our voice began to sound centuries ago, and it will never again be
silenced." - Marcos
The seeds of the rebellion were planted decades before 1994 in the many
struggles waged by indigenous communities against exploitation. What the
Zapatistas have succeeded in doing is to bring the many indigenous struggles
80% of campesinos in the highlands of Chiapas suffer from malnutrition, and
yet the state is a massive exporter of foodstuffs for the international
market. Thousands of children die every year from curable diseases, and
there are more beds for tourists than there are hospital beds for the
indigenous people. Chiapas has the worst education system within Mexico, and
less than 1% of schools nationally are located in indigenous zones. Teachers
are hardly paid and most children don't make the first grade of elementary
school. 54% of Mexico's hydroelectric power is produced in the state and yet
two out of three homes have no electricity.
The people are very clear about the fact that for them the decision to take
up arms was the only option they had left. Maria, a woman from a Zapatista
community in Ocosingo stated, "We were not happy about taking up arms but we
had tried many, many peaceful ways and always we were killed and tortured.
We had no choice, it was the only way. We are fighting for peace, our land,
dignity and our rights. We do not want war but we were at war anyway, with
the government, with the landowners who took our land. We were dying anyway."
When you talk to individuals in the communities about the losses they have
incurred in the uprising, they continually tell you that they have suffered
many deaths before. Juan Jose said, "Before 1994 I lost two of my children
to diarrhoea. I lost one son in the battle for Ocosingo. All of their deaths
are a great sadness to me."2 Losses in the communities are dealt with
communally. Great sadness is a shared experience, as indeed is great
happiness. The people's ability to act as a collective in all matters leaves
a deep impression on visitors.
"There will be no peace until there is justice" - Marcos
Today Chiapas has army troops scattered throughout the region, conducting
psychological war against the campesino and indigenous peoples who live
there. Every village is surrounded by army camps. There may be a ceasefire
in Chiapas but there is no peace in southeast Mexico. Daily missions by
armed helicopters flying low over the jungle communities shatter the sounds
of monkeys screaming and children playing. The forest is cut down and water
deliberately contaminted. Human rights abuses are commonplace. There are
daily reports of arbitrary detentions, torture, executions, rape and plunder
of communal and personal property.
The USA is covertly involved in this activity. Under the guise of providing
helicopters, training and arms for the fight against drugs it has provided
the Mexican government with weaponry that is being used to destroy its
people. Today, the elite National Guard of the US army is lined up along the
Guatemalan border awaiting instructions for the next offensive by the
Mexican government on the indigenous communities of Chiapas. The land
occupations continue as campesinos reclaim what once belonged to them, but
the evictions are violent.
At the closing meeting of the encuentro, Felipe, one of two delegates from
the EZLN said, "We tell you, brothers and sisters, continue resisting as we
do, because the future of all of us is to triumph."
The Zapatistas have mounted an explicit challenge to the First World, to
neo-liberal policies and capitalism. It is unparalleled. Three years on the
struggle continues and the spirit of the Zapatista rebellion is spreading.
Solidarity and support for their actions has come not only from the peoples
of Mexico but from a growing number of indigenous and other communities
across the globe. "Other winds are beginning to blow," says Marcos.
"And all of you, what are you going to do?" - Marcos
The local human rights organisations in Chiapas are desperately short of
international observers, and this is a critical time when support is
urgently needed. If you are thinking of going to Mexico, can speak Spanish
and are prepared to spent a week or two with the indigenous communities as a
'campamento for the peace', then make contact with the Centro de Derrechos
Humanos in Chiapas using e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
There are monthly demonstrations outside the Mexican Tourist Office in
London on the first Friday of the month (contact fHuman) to which everyone
is welcome, and there are three groups in Britain which are part of a
network of international solidarity groups:
Chiapas Support Group, Box 19, 82 Colston Street, Bristol BS1 5BB, UK
fHuman, c/o BM-CRL, London WC1N 3XX, UK e-mail: email@example.com
Chiapas Action, Kings College, Cambridge CB2 1ST, UK
The Zapatista video 'Visions of Freedom' is available from the Chiapas
Support Group for £7.50 + 50p p&p.
1. Quotes from published material and from personal interviews by the author
in the Zapatista communities and the Encuentro. See also "Zapatistas!
Documents of the New Mexican Revolution," Autonomedia 1994. Available from
AK Press, PO Box 12766, Edinburgh EH8 9YE, UK. A portion of the cover price
goes to the indigenous and peasant communities in southern Mexico to aid
them in their struggle.
WOMEN IN THE STRUGGLE
"We aren't going to ask the government to give us freedom, nor are we going
to ask you male fools. We are going to ensure our freedom, our respect, and our
dignity as women and as human beings." - Early quote from the women of the EZLN
One of the first things you notice when you arrive in Zapatista territory is
that women in the communities meet and hold your gaze, often responding with
a smile and a reply to your Buenos Dias. To those arriving in indigenous
Mayan communities in Chiapas this small detail may not seem like much to get
excited about. But to understand the significance of this gaze you have to
stop looking at the act through eurocentric eyes. For behind it is a story
and a struggle for equality that has journeyed far in 10 years.
Women have been involved in the Zapatista movement from the start. They make
up a third of the armed combatientes in the EZLN. Many hold positions such
as major and captain, and three outrank Subcommandante Marcos.
There has been a revival and strengthening of some indigenous traditions
along with the consciousness-raising of the movement: women are involved in
projects to revive the practice of herbal medicine, for example. At the same
time the people do want development, but just appropriate development on
The exploitation and oppression of women was one cultural tradition that the
women involved in the Zapatista movement decided not to hold on to. They
what has become known as the Women's Revolutionary Law. It demands that
women be allowed to choose their husbands, be allowed to decide the number
of children they have, keep control over their bodies and its fertility,
that women be respected, that the act of rape be punished, that women have
the right to an education, and that they decide what type of work they do.
The law was translated into the five different indigenous languages in
Chiapas and representatives went into all the villages to explain it to the
many women who could not read.
The trickling down effect of these changes in cultural traditions to the
communities is already visible. The confidence of the little girls and young
women and their presence in the makeshift school houses is one example. The
fact that women in Zapatista communities have the right to participate in
meeting, speak Spanish and hold elected positions of responsibility is
another. The older women tell you much has changed in the last decade but
there is also much room for more change. As the female combatients come back
to the villages with their partners to have children, they in turn bring
back different attitudes. In Mexican macho society it is very rare to see a
man participating in any form of child care. In the Zapatista communities,
however, men and boys are not only carrying small children and babies around
but also comforting them. When you ask the women about this they laugh,
saying that women in the EZLN had learnt to carry guns, and that in the
communities men had learnt to carry babies.
Domestic violence was endemic in the indigenous communities prior to the 1980's,
mainly as a result of the high rate of alcoholism. Drinking was encouraged
by the ranchers and landowners who regularly stole land from the campesinos
only to employ them later as labourers. Wages were paid with alcohol. In all
the Zapatista communities now there is a notice as you enter which states,
"No alcohol or drugs - only peace and maize."
Commandante Ramona, in response to a question about why women participated
in the revolutionary struggle, stated, "Because women are also living in a
more difficult situation; because women are the most exploited and strongly
oppressed, still. Why? Because women, for so many years, for 500 years, have
not had the right to speak, to participate in an assembly. They do not have
the right to have an education, to speak to the public, or to hold any
position in their town... We get up at three in the morning to prepare the
corn, and from there we have no rest until everyone else is sleeping. If
there is not enough food, we give our tortilla to the children, to the husband."
The women's movement in the communities grew simultaneously with the entry
of women into the armed struggle. Major Ana Maria: "Women started to get
together and organise themselves and they started to join the ranks of the
army. And then other women did not join but organised themselves into
women's groups, women alone. And that is another way that women entered the
At the Encuentro, Eva, an indigenous woman from the Union de Comuneros
Emiliano Zapata based in Morelia in Central Mexico reported that the example
of the Zapatista women had encouraged other indigenous women in Mexico to
start organising in women-only groups.
She said, "When we occupy land we do not call this a land occupation, but a
land re-occupation - because the land belongs to us in the first place. When
the soldiers come to evict us from our land the men hide behind the women.
Sometimes the women get arrested but the other women who remain demand a car
to go to the local prison and release the arrested women. We women are
getting very good at this."
The EZLN has led the way in the demand that women be treated with equality,
but the struggle even amongst the combatients has been difficult. Marcos
states, "Many times in our daily lives as combatients, in couple
relationships, sexist attitudes are reproduced and because of this our laws
tend to favour the women."
He added, "The government doesn't like the fact that the indigenous people
have risen up, but we did it. The sexists don't like the fact that the women
are doing what they are doing but they are doing it and that's that."
Attitudes and traditions have been slow to change but the indigenous women
of Chiapas and Mexico are demanding and ensuring their rights are respected.
"We want all who walk with the truth to unite in one step" - Subcommandante
Inspired by the Zapatistas, activists from across the globe gathered
together in Spain this August for the 'Second Intercontinental Gathering for
Humanity and Against Neo-Liberalism'. Among the thousands of people who
attended were representatives of the EZLN and the Ogoni and countless other
grassroots groups from Indonesia to Britain.
People gathered under the hot sun to discuss the effects of neo-liberal
policies across the world and how they can be challenged. The conference was
split into 6 Mesas (tables) discussing different subjects from economics to
land struggles and ecology.
Particular attention was given to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), seen
as a new world government and made up of the most exploitative
transnationals. It was agreed by all that the WTO should be a target of our
The Encuentro was a great opportunity for networking and building a network
of action against transnationals. It was inspiring to meet people from
across the world who were fighting the extension of the free market into
their lives and particularly fighting the commodification of land by
governments, corrupt leaders and big business.
There was agreement between environmentalists and land struggle activists
about a different understanding of the land as a common resource. "For
capitalists or the rich the concept of the land is one of profit and of
exploitation. For many poor farmers it is something to make a living from
but for indigenous people it is much more. The indigenous people believe
that Mother Earth is to be respected. Our land has been worked collectively
by generation after generation. Our land is a source of life itself we do
not believe it should be bought and sold by the free market," said Efren
from the Union de Comuneros Emiliano Zapata at the meeting.
And it was clear that more than anything, the Zapatistas and peoples of
Southern Mexico want us to plant the seeds of change in our own countries.
(For further information, contact: Ya Basta, c/o Avon Gorge Earth First!,
Box 51, 82 Colston Street, Bristol BS1 5BB, UK.)
DELTA: News and background on Ogoni, Shell and Nigeria
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