Report On The Chiapas Support Committee's 2002 International Women's Day Delegation (Part 1 and 2)

The Chiapas Support Committee celebrated International Women's Day 2002 with a delegation to Chiapas. This was our third March delegation and definitely not our last. We were ten delgates, four from the Chiapas Support Committee. Seven of us were from the San Francisco Bay Area (6 from Oakland) and three from other states (1 from Michigan and 2 from Colorado). We were 9 women and one man. The purpose of the delegation was consistent with our mission: to educate ourselves and others about the conditions in Chiapas and to raise funds for the communities and organizations with which we work.

What follows is a brief report on our experience:

Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, Mexico - March 4, 2002
For most, the delegation began on March 5, 2002 in San Cristóbal. However, several of us arrived a day early to meet with representa- tives of the Human Rights Coalition for the Ethnicities of Chiapas (the Coalition). We discussed the current happenings around the state: privatizing title to land; the conflict between the Governor and the president of the State's human rights commission; the conflict between ORCAO and the EZLN; and the impending eviction of communities in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

Enrique Perez Lopez, former president of the Coalition, explained his new duties. He is now president of the Association of Producers, LA JORNADA, A.C. His goal is to create a trust which will take title to lands in the name of the trust. The purpose is to avoid placing title to OPEZ communities in the name of each individual who lives in a community. Perez Lopez said this process is very divisive and his organization, the Emiliano Zapata People's Organization, seeks to avoid it.

We made arrangements with Hidelberto Morales Ramírez, current president of the Coalition, for one of our members to attend and film a Human Rights Workshop in April. The Chiapas Support Committee (CSC) sponsors these workshops for community defenders.

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico - March 5 - 8, 2002.
Arriving in San Cristóbal was somewhat of a surprise. This beautiful colonial city of sparkling cathedrals was experiencing a cold wave (onda fría). So, at night we added thermal pajamas or sleeping bags to the blankets at our posada and went on with business as usual. Days were warm. Another surprise was that as we were entering San Cristóbal, we found ourselves in the middle of a military convoy whose officers were scrutinizing us. It was the first glimpse of the many, many Mexican Army soldiers we saw.

San Cristóbal is home to the non-profits who work with the state's indigenous communities. The Chiapas Support Committee's 2002 Delegation visited 3 of these organizations: Enlace Civil, the Highlands Coordinator of Civil Society (La Coordinadora) and the Center for Economic and Political Investigations of Community Action (CIEPAC), all of whom described the Plan Puebla Panamá (PPP) as the neoliberal economic mode's nightmare for the destruction of Mesoamerica (which includes Chiapas).

"It is a problem that (adversely) affects us all," we were told by those Chiapas non-profits dealing with the implementation of NAFTA and the Plan Puebla Panamá. "North American workers in the United States and Canada will suffer the loss of jobs. Mexican and Central American workers will be exploited in sweat shops and indigenous people throughout Mesoamerica will be driven from their ancestral lands, uprooted from their culture."

Control of the land is fundamental to economic "development." Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari successfully urged Congress to revise Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution so that communal and ejido lands could be divided, privatized and sold. Prior to these revisions in late 1992, these lands were owned by those who worked them and could neither be privatized or sold. Salinas paved the way for implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has devastated the price of corn and sugar for campesinos in Chiapas and elsewhere in Mexico.

In Chiapas, where the lands of the rich were not divided, registration of ejido land was delayed and indigenous people were given the poorest land, we are now seeing a new kind of land struggle. Over the last six months or so, Chiapas has seen more and more land struggles where the fight is now for private title. The government has conditioned the granting of economic projects on private land title. It is not hard to look down the road a few years as the infrastructure for monocrops, maquiladora factories, bioprospecting, luxury tourism, etc is put into place. Land values will rise and the campesinos with private title will sell out to the multinational corporations. This is only ONE way the transnational corporations plan to take land away from the indigenous and campesino population. There is no end to their trickery!

We were shocked at how clever the engineers of this economic imperialism were in driving people from their lands. PROCEDE, the government program to privatize land title, works hand in hand with the banks and agencies that loan money to communities for commercial purposes. We found out that once the land is privatized, the banks can take the land if crops or other economic projects for which money was loaned fail. That cannot currently be done with ejido or communal land. International lending institutions sometimes play one region of the world against another, depending on where they want to take away land. For example, the price of Chiapas coffee has fallen dramatically (from 24 pesos per kilo in 1994 to between 4 & 6 pesos per kilo now) due in part to the World Bank's insistence on economic investment in coffee in Vietnam.

Take African Palm trees, for example. The World Bank is financing the planting and production of African Palms throughout Latin America. They produce tons of oil for cooking. What happened in Malasia and Indonesia when those countries planted African Palms is that they produced such volumes of oil that the price fell and the campesinos could not repay their loans, so their land was taken away by the banks. There are currently African Palm plantations on the Pacific Coast of Chiapas. They are also being offered to campesinos in other regions of Chiapas. What happens when the banks take away the land? Campesinos are forced into the cities to peddle on the streets or work in a sweat shop.

Eucalyptus trees are another example. They are being grown in Chiapas to make paper products. International Paper, a U.S. multinational corporation is involved in this project.Eucalyptus trees mature in 7 years. So, companies are renting land from campesinos for 7 years. This sounds good when it happens, but at the end of the 7 years, the land is drained of all its minerals and will not produce. It is no longer of any use to the campesinos and they will have to leave it. Where do they go? Sweat shops in the cities!

Hydroelectric dams will flood campesino land and they will have to move to the cities, along with those whose lands have been taken by banks or ruined by eucalyptus trees. What will await them in the cities are maquiladoras (sweat shops), which will pay as little as $.50 pesos per hour. This is called "development." Businesses pushing this kind of development call it progress because it will be easier to provide health care services and education to the poor if they do not live in remote areas! Nothing like rationalization!

Polhó Refugee Camp - March 7, 2002
We took a day trip from San Cristóbal to visit Polhó, headquarters of the Autonomous Municipio of San Pedro Polhó, and home to 1,000 native residents and 7,000 EZLN bases of support who live in refugee camps inside the head- quarters of the rebel municipio (county). Before our visit, we received an amazing briefing on the general situation in the indigenous communities and the specific situation in the community of Polhó itself.

The drive to Polhó is spectacular. The paved road winds through mountains with terraced cornfields reminiscent of the Guatemalan highlands. Polhó is located in Los Altos (the Highlands), about an hour and one-half north of San Cristobal. It is within the official government municipality of Chenalho. Its residents are Tzotzil Mayan.

We met with representatives of the Autonomous Council and they explained their duties: resolving internal community problems which the local representative cannot resolve and organizing the community representatives to work more closely with each other and within their communities. Additionally, the Autonomous Council must resolve problems which arise between EZLN bases of support and others (members of the PRI or PRD) who live in the same communities. The Council has 15 members.

Polhó was named headquarters of the Autonomous Municipio of San Pedro Polhó in February 1995. The paramilitary groups began to form in 1996. The municipio includes 34 communities and 17 barrios (small neighborhoods). Inside Polhó, the refugees live in different camps, each camp made up of people from 3 or 4 communities. 14 communities fled to Polho when paramilitary groups drove them from their homes, beginning mid-1996 and ending in December 1997. All fled to the municipal headquarters for protection. The situation of these refugees remains precarious.

The refugees live in makeshift houses which often have holes in the roofs and do not protect them from the elements. Exposure to the elements and a lack of food cause sickness. The children are the most affected because their immune systems are weaker.

The International Committee of the Red Cross provides Polho with 50% of the corn necessary for survival. This has been the situation for almost a year now. (100% was provided until mid-2001.) The remaining 50% depends upon national (Mexican) and international civil society - folks like us. Food is distributed among the refugees by a committee of 50 people from all the camps.

The Mexican Red Cross has a trailer in Polho which serves as a clinic. It serves ALL the people in the area - PRI, Independents and EZ bases alike. It has doctors and free medicines. There is also an autonomous health clinic in the community where some doctors come to train the health promoters. The autonomous clinic has to charge a little for medicine, but they also have healers. The Red Cross also has vaccines for major diseases. People have a choice of using the Red Cross or the Autonomous Clinic.

Representatives told us that there are 14 military camps nearby. Each camp has between 2-300 soldiers. We drove by one of them, but there were no checkpoints in the road.

After our talk with the Council representatives, some of our delegates challenged the Council to a basketball game and lost. They were very good. We walked around and shot photos of the impressive murals on the walls of nearby buildings. We also bought crafts at a local tienda and coffee house and from a member of the autonomous council who said he made the crafts himself. The situation of the refugees is in sharp contrast to the beauty of their lands.

San Cristóbal Riot - March 7, 2002
After we returned from Polhó, some delegates went out and ran into a full-fledged riot in San Cristóbal. Apparently, the police went into one of the outdoor markets intending to arrest those who sell pirate CDs and cassettes. The sellers resisted and before long several vehicles were burned, store windows broken and merchandise looted. Police responded by busting about 60 people and bloodying heads. Several delegates got it on film. Most of those arrested were released from jail, but 13 people have to stand trial, including the local leader of the evangelical indigenous people expelled from Chamula. They live in a large community in San Cristóbal. .

(Part 2)
Friday, March 8, 2002 - International Women's Day
After an amazing talk by CIEPAC, many delegates attended the International Women's Day March and Rally. Attendance was low due to the events of the previous evening and the heavy presence of security police in the city, but the speeches were nonetheless lively and to the point. We also have some of that on film.

In the evening, we were treated to dinner and dancing at the home of a friend. I suppose this is an appropriate place to say that all the while we were in San Cristobal we were joined by friends. They accompanied us, translated for us, participated in our meetings and parties and, generally, shared the experience with us. It was wonderful!

Saturday - March 9 - Into the Cañadas
On Saturday morning we headed out of San Cristobal towards the commercial center of Ocosingo (to the East) and then on into the canyada of Patihuitz towards one of our destinations - the Aguascalientes of La Garrucha, headquarters of the Autonomous Rebel County of Francisco Gomez. There were 12 of us in the van plus all our baggage, food and water. The dirt road was in deplorable condition (the worst I have seen it since 1996) and the van literally inched its way along. At a stop along the way, a large military convoy passed us. We finally arrived and set up our sleeping bags, air mattresses or hammocks in the Peace Camp. The weather was strange there too. Although we were there during the dry season, it rained heavily.

We visited with the women who operate the women's store and then discovered a new coffee house in the community. There were tables and even a TV and VCR for entertainment. So, we hung out there until bedtime. We showed those in the cafe our video footage of the San Cristobal riot.

The next day was a volleyball game, a photo session and a meeting with a reception committee. Members of the Committee explained that the region currently has 3 priorities: health, education and support for the Autonomous Council's functions. Although there are other important projects in the region, they have decided to prioritize these three right now. The person responsible for each area explained the needs.

Health - there are 70 communities in the region which are served by health promoters. These health promoters need on-going training workshops. If doctors are available to conduct the workshops, that is a plus. In their absence, however, the health promoters with many years of training and experience can conduct the workshops for the newer folks. There is also an on-going need for medicines. The leading causes of death in both children and adults continue to be from malnutrition and parasites. Some new diseases have appeared which reflect the stress of low-intensity warfare: gastritis, migraine headaches, premature births and miscarriages.

Education - The autonomous primary schools in the region need school supplies. There is a non-profit from Mexico City which provides training workshops for the education promoters, but there is no money for school supplies or transportation to the workshops. Autonomous schools provide a bi-lingual education according to the culture and tradition of the indigenous communities of the region. All are Tzeltal-speaking communities.

Autonomous Council - The Council meets two days each week to resolve problems which arise within its jurisdiction. It does not resolve land disputes. It substitutes for a lower court in the official municipio of Ocosingo, where indigenous people have traditionally been discriminated against. As one of the representatives of the Autonomous Council told us, the government in Ocosingo dispenses the law according to who pays them. The Autonomous Council dispenses JUSTICE, he told us proudly. Indeed, his demeanor conveyed both the wisdom born of many years of experience and the justice of a kind heart. Their immediate need is for transportation money and modest office supplies.

We brought books and pamphlets for the health promoters (courtesy of a friend) and also made contributions to the region's projects as per its stated priorities. The meeting ended on a happy note for everyone with an agreement on how our relationship with this important region would proceed in the future.

It is important to add that while we were in the community, there were several military overflights. Planes flew low over this EZLN Aguascalientes (cultural center). Although the reception committee did not mention any problems, we had the feeling that just below the surface there was considerable tension. Perhaps that is related to the intent of the state and federal governments to evict a number of communities from the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. An eviction is imminent. Some of the first to be evicted belong to the autonomous county of Ricardo Flores Magon, one of the 4 autonomous counties belonging to the Aguascalientes of La Garrucha.

San Jose del Carmen - March 11, 2002
In the morning we loaded our gear into the van and headed back towards Ocosingo. It didn't take long to realize that the enormous potholes in the road were now full of mud and the van had little traction. It took us 5 hours (instead of one and one-half) to reach the half-way point of San Jose del Carmen. One time we were hopelessly stuck and an army patrol had to pull us out so that it could pass. Embarassing!!

Our visit to San Jose del Carmen was planned. The community moved its women's store to a new building right on the highway in order to attract business from passersby. The new store is much larger than the original one, obviously well-stocked and successful. With some of the profits and our cooperation, the villagers hired a band and threw a party for us. We brought them paint for a mural (or two or three) and everyone began to paint until it got dark and the music started. The dance was a huge success and people danced until 1:30 or 2:00 AM. The next morning, there was breakfast and more painting.

San Jose del Carmen is a new community, located on land taken after the 1994 Zapatista Uprising. Its residents came to live here from other communities. Their community spirit is an example for all. The men are supportive of the women's store and they all pitch in to help. The store is a central meeting place for the community. Everyone is friendly and the children are playful and full of energy. They loved taking photos with our cameras and also loved having us take their photos. The children shot video footage of the dancing - lots of feet and knees - but some good ones too.

March 12, 2002 - Patria Nueva
The road was better between San Jose del Carmen and Ocosingo. We next visited another new community named Patria Nueva. It is just outside the city of Ocosingo and is one of the two headquarters of the Autonomous Municipio of Primero de Enero. Patria Nueva is a beautiful community located near the foot of a mountain. We were given permission to walk around and take pictures of the many exquisite murals while we waited for a talk with the Autonomous Council.

When we met with 4 members of the Council, they told us a little about their history. They all lived in other areas and had no land. They took back this land in April, 1994. 74 ranches were recovered in April, 1994 so that the land could be worked collectively. In 1995, the military came to evict them and took 7 compañeros to Cerro Hueco (a state prison). They came back a second time, took a truck and arrested 32 more. The truck and the prisoners were returned. Of those who formed this region, 4 were lost in combat in 1994.

In 1994 they began to form their commissions and autonomous authorities. In 1999 they began to call it the Autonomous Council and the autonomous schools began to function. There are two regions within Primero de Enero - Patria Nueva and Jerusalen. It has 2,000 people. In 1999 they divided the land into communities. The Natural Resources Commission oversees the land and forest.

They denounced what happened on February 25 of this year on the Valencia ranch. Municipal police arrived and shot into the air trying to scare us off. It was the local government, the PRI, who wants this land. ORCAO also wants this land. The Organization of Autonomous Coffee Growers of Ocosingo (ORCAO) is an independent organization to which they all used to belong. It was affiliated with the PRD. Many of its members left ORCAO to become EZLN bases of support and there is now a dispute over land they used to share. ORCAO wants the land to raise cattle from the government. The Zapatistas do not want cattle on their land. The two groups are trying to resolve their land disputes through discussions.

The conditions of many of their communities are precarious. There is no safe drinking water, no resources for the schools, no electricity and few resources for the autonomous council.

A representative of the women's commission addressed us regarding how women organize themselves in the region. They have candle-making cooperatives, bread-baking cooperatives and vegetable garden cooperatives. They also make blouses to sell. They have a collective store where they can sell their products. Indeed, beautiful murals on the Women's Building depict the women's cooperatives and their collective store. We visited the candle-making workshop and saw the women at work. They make candles for use in the church, at fiestas and to sell to visitors.

We asked the Autonomous Council about the Plan Puebla-Panama. The response was that they consider it an attack on indigenous people and that its mother is NAFTA! It is the same plan that Salinas had. They consider Fox no different than other presidents. PROCEDE is the government process to privatize and legalize land. It is not clear what specific PPP projects may affect them. There was a proposal to pave the road into the community, but they do not know where it stands.

Moises Gandhi - March 12, 2002
We were behind schedule by almost 3 hours and were unable to spend much time in the community of Moises Gandhi. There was no one to meet with, so we took photos of the murals and bought crafts from their community store. We visited the collective store on the highway which was part of a dispute between EZLN communities from 7 autonomous municipios and the ORCAO. The Zapatistas continue to maintain a guard around the store for security, but the conflict has decreased considerably and so the number of guards has also decreased.

It is important to mention that the firm stand taken by the Zapatistas in defense of their collective store put social organizations and others on notice that the Zapatistas were not going to sit idly by while former friends ripped off their land and labor. The peaceful taking back of the store by the Zapatistas drove home a point!

We returned to San Cristóbal in the evening and had a dinner party with friends before turning in for the last night of our trip.

Wrap Up
This was an ambitious delegation. We visited many communities and had excellent informative interviews everywhere we went. It served as an enlightening introduction for both those delegates visiting Chiapas for the first time (5) and an amazing update for those returning after several years (4). The experience served to inspire all 10 of us. We acquired mountains of information and heard excellent analyses. We cooked and lived collectively everywhere and were able to make solidarity contributions to projects we visited. We distributed the Spanish version of our newsletter to organizations and communities alike and spent time with many friends. We also partied together and enjoyed each other's company. Many thanks to all who made it possible.

We arrived in Chiapas soon at the conclusion of the 3rd visit of the Commission of Civilian Human Rights Observers (CCIODH) from Europe. We met some of them who remained awhile in Chiapas. Their preliminary reports express concerns about the conditions in civilian communities. The report also observes that the Zapatista communities are in a period of strengthening their autonomous institutions. Everything we saw and heard leads us to agree completely with their preliminary analysis. Conditions in the indigenous communities we visited are below the poverty level. They live in conditions which the United Nations classifies as ``extreme poverty.´´ I would be quick to add that this classification refers to economic conditions. There is a rich culture in these communities from whose values we could all learn.

I would also add to the CCIODH preliminary report that there seems to be a renewed counterinsurgency strategy at play against the civilian communities: paramilitary activity in the Northern Zone, including the EZLN Aguascalientes of Roberto Barrios; paramilitary activity in the Aguascalientes of Morelia; new Zapatista political prisoners; more flyovers; more soldiers; and the threat to evict communities from the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

It is important to use this inspiring experience to increase our level of commitment to necessary work here at home. We invite each of you to join us in that work. You can start by passing this report on to friends or to other lists you may be on. You can also attend our Report Back at La Pena in Berkeley on April 25 at 7:30 PM and obtain more information.

 



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