The Zapatista Uprising    

n New Year's Eve, 1993, the Mexican state of Chiapas was thrust upon the international scene as the Zapatista guerrilla army simultaneously seized control of the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas and 5 towns in the surrounding Chiapas highlands. Though this immediately calls to mind the recent conflicts of neighboring Central America, the Zapatistas showed a much greater degree of organization and military strength in their first action than had the FSLN in Nicaragua, the FMLN in El Salvador, or the URNG in Guatemala. And unlike most of the Central American guerrilla organizations, their rank and file are composed almost exclusively of teenagers and young adults from the ethnic Mayan groups of the highlands.

What at second glance appears to be another ethnic conflict in a decade of ethnic strife around the world, is both that and more. The roots of the struggle do indeed spring from the history of marginalization and racism to which the Mayan Indians have been subject, but their Declaration of War and other statements clearly reach out to the poor of all ethnic groups across the length and breadth of greater Mexico. With a greater understanding of the cultural and social nuances of Chiapas this and other paradoxes begin to make sense.

"We have nothing to lose, absolutely nothing, no decent roof over our heads, no land, no work, poor health, no food, no education, no right to freely and democratically choose our leaders, no independence from foreign interests, and no justice for ourselves or our children. But we say enough is enough! We are the descendants of those who truly built this nation, we are the millions of dispossessed, and we call upon all of our brethren to join our crusade, the only option to avoid dying of starvation!"

- Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) Declaration of the Lácandon Jungle, 1993


Geographically the state of Chiapas is part of Central America, the volcanic isthmus where we find the southernmost frontier of the indigenous cultures of North America. The central region is a high elevation plateau composed of steep rugged terrain, known as the Chiapas Highlands. To the Southwest are the fertile Pacific lowlands, to the East is the Lacandón jungle, and to the Southeast lies Guatemala. Originally part of the Captaincy of Guatemala during the time of the Spanish Colony, Chiapas was annexed by Mexico following independence. Nevertheless the highlands can be thought of culturally as the Northern extension of the Altiplano of Guatemala, inhabited by closely related Mayan peoples. Today Chiapas is one of the two poorest states of Mexico.

The historical roots of today's conflict go back to the pre-conquest era when the Pacific lowland areas served as the breadbasket of the indigenous civilizations. The arrival of the Spanish, however, ushered in a period of 500 years during which indigenous people were progressively pushed off those lands by the expansion of plantations owned by Spanish-speaking Ladinos (people of mixed Spanish and Indian descent). By the turn of the century, the fertile lands of the region were mostly occupied by cattle ranching and sugar, coffee and cotton plantations, while the indigenous people of Chiapas were forced to farm the thin, rocky soils found on the steep slopes of the highlands. Not only did the original inhabitants of the region lose their lands, but they have also been subject to centuries of fierce racism and discrimination on the part of the dominant Ladino society, which continues virtually unabated to this day. Yet the last 40 years have probably contributed as much to the current situation as did the 500 years since the Conquest.

In the 1950's the shrinking plots of land in the highlands could no longer support the Indian population and the poorest began to migrate toward the last frontier, the sparsely populated Lacandón jungle area to the East. There these colonists cleared tracts of rainforest land and exposed red clay soils that lose their fertility within one to three crop cycles. They were soon joined by Spanish speaking peasants fleeing poverty in many other areas of Mexico, many of them with experiences in local peasant revolts.

Meanwhile those who remained behind in the Chiapas highlands saw a dramatic redrawing of social configurations within the indigenous villages during the 1970's and 80's. In the late seventies the oil boom in bordering states initiated a cycle of social polarization in the highlands that has accelerated by the debt crisis of the early eighties. Class lines were accentuated within the communities, with the increasing alignment of local, indigenous elites or caciques with the governing party, and the emergence of a burgeoning underclass of the newly dispossessed. These latter families once again initiated a cycle of migration and colonization of still unexploited lands in nearby lower elevation areas.

Together, with the indigenous peoples of the neighboring state of Oaxaca, the lowland colonists and the destitute in the highlands were the poorest, most desperate people in Mexico. As if that were not already enough, the conditions faced by most of them have worsened substantially during the past 10 years, as successive Mexican presidents have implemented structural adjustment and free trade policies that have eroded fully 40% of the purchasing power of the Mexican poor. Finally, Mexican President Carlos Salinas' controversial Solidarity anti-poverty program never reached the Lacandón area to any significant extent. Thus it should come as no surprise that the lower elevation Lacandon settlements of highland colonists should be the incubators for armed rebellion.

What lessons should we be taking from the events in Chiapas? One answer is that you can't force a people to live under progressively more intolerable conditions for centuries and not expect a violent response. Beyond that, we can use these events to better understand the dynamics of rural indigenous communities.

Conventional wisdom among anthropologists and others has long assumed that such communities are relatively insular units, with little relationship or integration into the larger, non-indigenous or non-peasant society. According to such reasoning they engage primarily in farming activities, and only relate to the nation state through a defensive or reactive posture. If we believe this we are forced into a sort of black and white form of thinking: either we romanticize their lifestyle, imagining it to be pristine, unaffected by and better than modem life, or we assume that they are backward and inefficient, an obstacle to modernization. These polarized viewpoints have cut across the political spectrum, with indigenous rights activists and many traditional conservatives tending toward the first view, and socialist state planners and neo-liberals agreeing upon the latter. None of these positions have been translated into effective policy, however, witness rural development debacles across the world and it is clear that we are now in desperate need of a more nuanced understanding of peasant societies.

A recently completed study of Highland Chiapas by Stanford University anthropologist George Collier is a good first step toward such an understanding. By focusing on the oil boom and the subsequent debt crisis he has found a much more subtle and far reaching degree of connectedness than previously thought between apparently "insular" Mayan communities and the national economy of Mexico.

The boom in the nearby oil fields and the employment that was generated in related construction, transport and development activities, exerted a pull that drew able bodied men out of the highlands and into remunerated wage labor, in some cases quite well remunerated, for periods of up to several years. This labor exodus led to a collapse of highland agriculture. Conventional views of peasant societies would have predicted that once this process had occurred it would be irreversible - that peasant agriculture would never recover. Yet Collier found that when employment opportunities in the lowlands evaporated during Mexico's 1982 debt crisis, Mayans returned en masse to the highlands and in fact resumed their farming activities. This revitalized peasant agriculture was, however, very different from the traditional agriculture that existed before the oil boom. Farmers had not previously used chemical fertilizers and pesticides, instead growing corn with shifting cultivation in which the lengthy fallow period allowed the notoriously poor soils to recover some degree of fertility before being planted again. The key productive input was labor, for clearing and preparation of fields but especially, for weeding during the growing season.

When the men returned to their villages after the oil boom they brought with them two things, the money some of them had saved and a taste for modern technology. They capitalized their agricultural production via the introduction of fertilizers and herbicides, which are now ubiquitous in the highlands. This change in agricultural practices has contributed to two profound transformations, changing both the highland landscape and social relations within indigenous communities.

Aerial photographs show quite dramatically the change in the landscape surrounding Apas, a highland community, for, which Collier has assembled three decades of data. The area in crops dropped substantially during the oil boom, but later rebounded to cover an area much greater than ever before - a consequence of the decline of shifting cultivation. Fertilizers are now used to provide soil fertility in place of the fallow cycle, and herbicides allow continuous use of land that would once have been left fallow for several years. From a landscape that was dominated by second growth and forest it has been transformed to one dominated by annual crops.

This has had an important environmental consequence: a dramatic increase in soil erosion as the heavy rains wash away the earth that is barely protected by annual crops. This degradation of the land and associated loss of soil fertility lowers the ability of the land to sustain human populations, contributing to the tendency toward outward migration.

While land and family labor were once the essential production factors used in highland farming, the capital to purchase chemicals and to hire additional labor has now become the most important 'input.' The newly competitive, commercial nature of agriculture has meant that access to capital has become the axis around which farming activities have been reorganized. Those who accumulated more capital during the oil boom, particularly those who invested in trucks and other transport vehicles, now control highland agriculture through money lending, sharecropping, land rental, labor contracting, transport and other activities. These are the caciques. People at the other extreme have become the newly destitute referred to above, in some cases working as day laborers but in many cases emigrating from their communities, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes forcibly, as political, religious and community relations have fractured along the lines of the economic polarization wrought in agriculture. These people have founded new communities in the interstices between the older ones, or have migrated permanently in some cases to urban areas and in other cases to the agricultural frontier in the Lacandon lowlands, where they have joined the earlier colonists.

The earlier colonists were perhaps in even worse shape than the more recent arrivals, as the isolated nature of the area in which they live meant that few, if any of them participated in the oil boom employment, and because their soils are even worse than those of the highlands. It is this area of frontier settlements in jungle clearings that has produced the Zapatistas. This is where the poorest people in Mexico live, and while most of them speak indigenous languages of highland origin, the presence of Spanish-speaking migrants from elsewhere may have provided the final ingredient of insurgent peasant ideology. Worsening economic conditions of recent years and developments such as NAFTA, with it's provisions for lowering the price of the corn they produce, seem to have triggered events leading to the armed struggle that these poorest of the poor have now carried to the highlands from whence many of them came.

One factor that the Zapatistas have referred to repeatedly in their communiqués is the reform of Article 27 of the Mexican constitution that President Salinas pushed through in preparation for NAFTA. This amendment ended the agrarian reform that has been carried out sporadically, since the Mexican resolution; thus effectively dashing the hopes of landless peasants of ever owning their own small farms.

The nuances revealed by Collier's work explain two things in the news that at First seemed contradictory. First, why has there been a mixed reaction to the uprising in highland communities? Why were rebel prisoners beaten by townspeople in Ocosinao, while other local civilians expressed support for the guerrillas? This ceases to be a paradox once we grasp the non-homogeneity of these villages. Although all seem poor to the outside observer, there are in fact townspeople who are wealthy by local standards, who have hitched their fate to the dominant political party, and who thus have much to lose in an uprising which surely is at least in part against them.

The second apparent contradiction is found in the rhetoric used by the Zapatistas in their pronouncements. If this is an ethnic rebellion, and indeed the vast majority of the fighters barely speak Spanish, why do their press releases contain no statements of ethnic nationalism? Rather than rejecting the legitimacy of the Ladino Mexican state, they use the constitution to justify their actions. Their "Declaration of the Jungle" contains the following language, reminiscent of the U.S. declaration of Independence:
"We call upon Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution which states 'the people have at all times the inalienable right to alter or change the nature of their government.' Therefore, in accordance with our Constitution, we issue this DECLARATION OF WAR... People of Mexico, we call for your total participation in this struggle for work, land, housing, food, health care, education independence, liberty, democracy, justice and peace."

This is no declaration of ethnic warfare. It is strikingly different from the words used by the Shining Path in Peru or the Bosnian Serbs. In fact, taken as a whole, the various press releases of the Zapatistas paint a picture of an uprising of the poor, regardless of ethnicity, calling for basic human rights. It is likely that the mixing in of Spanish speaking peasants in the Lacandon settlements contributed to the inclusionary, rather than exclusionary, nature of their rhetoric.

The broad appeal of the Zapatista message has led to a degree of David vs. Goliath sympathy among the general population of Mexico, provoking large solidarity, marches. And it has thrust the very nature of the neo-liberal economic model of the Salinas administration onto the national agenda for discussion, as urban elites wake up to the reality that there are now two Mexicos: the yuppie Mexico in the capital and Northern cities that has fed upon market liberalization and NAFTA-related investment, and the ever larger and ever more marginalized poor Mexico. The easy transition that President Salinas expected to his hand-picked successor suddenly doesn't look so easy. He has already had to make concessions on electoral reform that were unthinkable even last year, and topics that were taboo, such as the role of the military in Mexican society, are now openly debated. It would appear that the Zapatistas have let the genie of popular inconformity out of the bottle, and it remains to be seen if Salinas and the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will be able to get it back in.

What sort of changes would be necessary to provide a decent life to the indigenous people of Chiapas and poor peasants throughout Mexico? Is peasant farming an anachronism that must disappear if we are to eliminate rural poverty?

At Food First we believe that these questions are linked, and that in answering with a qualified no to the second we can approach a response to the First. As social relations and land tenure are currently configured in Chiapas, and indeed across Mexico, peasant agriculture is not viable. But that is not an intrinsic characteristic, but rather the product of trade policies and land concentration.

What is needed is both a new land distribution program and a favorable macroeconomic environment. Mayan communities must be given communal ejido holdings in fertile lowland areas, with guarantees of secure tenure. This is not so far-fetched as it seems, as previous Mexican land reforms have given some villages limited access to quality lowland farmland which they work on a seasonal basis. Fair credit must be made available too and crop prices should be supported sufficiently, to allow for a sustainable livelihood, much as is done in Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere. This is best achieved through barriers to cheap imports rather than subsidies, thereby avoiding deficit spending. Finally corrupt local authorities linked to the PRI must be thrown out, as has been demanded in the many peasant takeovers of towns that have taken place since the start of the Zapatista uprising.

Of course these changes would require democratization, some rollback of NAFTA and the restoration of Article 27 of the constitution, but these are just the sort of issues that the Zapatistas have thrust into the national debate in Mexico.

Peter Rosset is the Executive Director of Food First. In 1992-93 he was the Executive Director of the Stanford University Regional Center in San Crist6bal de Las Casas, Chiapas. He has a PhD. in Agricultural Ecology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Shea Cunningham is a research assistant at Food First.


Torture was frequently used by law enforcement agents, particularly the state and judicial police, throughout Mexico. Most of the victims were criminal suspects but some - including leaders of indigenous communities and human rights activists were apparently targeted solely for their peaceful political activities.
-Amnesty International, 1993

Over the past four years, Human Rights Watch/Americas Watch and other human rights organizations have documented a consistent pattern of torture and due process abuses in a criminal justice system laced with corruption; electoral fraud and election - related violence; harassment, intimidation and even violence against independent journalists, human rights monitors, environmentalists, workers, peasants and indigenous peoples when they seek to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly; and impunity for those who violate fundamental rights.
-Americas Watch, 1993

As of February 1. 1994, the Secretariat for Human Rights of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the principal left opposition party, reports that 263 of their members, activists and supporters have been assassinated since the beginning of the 1988 electoral campaign. I myself lived in San Cristóbal de Las Casas until December 15th, and while I was no longer there when the Zapatistas arrived, many of my friends were. Jenna and Michael work on an organic farming project nearby. This is from a fax that Jenna sent to stateside acquaintances:

Michael and I were at home on the first day of the new year of 1994, when they say this all began. Perhaps it really began 500 years ago. As I awoke, a familiar and dramatic nasal voice, punctuated with static, permeated my consciousness. I thought of the sounds of Nicaragua. It was the recognizable sound of a revolutionary broadcast. I rolled over. Within an hour we were in the plaza recording on film bright, young Indian men, women and even children, wearing clean and freshly pressed polyester khaki uniforms, sporting one-shot rifles, bayonets, homemade grenades, machetes, axes, and AK-47s. We talked with the masked leaders. The message was not new, not a surprise to anyone living here: we want land so we can grow food access to health care, free schools, a decent wage, an end to racism. Our lives are not worth living if things do not change. We would rather die fighting than watch our children die of malnutrition or curable diseases. The state of Chiapas is a world divided by racism and by rich and poor. A majority of the Mayan Indians here live in wood slat and mud houses with dirt floors. Eight to ten people sleep together in one room on three or four beds. Most have access only to dirty water from a nearby stream for cooking, cleaning and drinking, and for dumping their own waste. Children readily die of diarrhea and dehydration, of tuberculosis, or of some other preventable or curable disease that stalks their malnourished bodies. On the fifth day of the war we listened to the bombs drop all afternoon while we tended to the seedlings, tucking them into the soil, and gently watering them. All the while the army was at work with their bombs, destroying homes, killing civilians, and forcing others to flee from their communities. How strange to be caring for such fragile little plants, while the army was busy destroying...


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