Time of the Snails: Autonomy and Resistance in Chiapas

September 25, 2007

The people of Nuevo San Isidro watched warily as a helicopter appeared over the horizon, circled in over their seven thatched huts and landed somewhere on the far side of the Lacantún River. This Tzotzil indigenous community had migrated to the remote jungle near the Mexican-Guatemalan border in February 2001. They came from Chavajebal in Chiapas’ central highlands, a region of land scarcity and paramilitary violence, and wanted simply to work the land peacefully. But in October 2004, when government agents came in and promised to help them relocate elsewhere in exchange for government aid, their small community was divided: six of the original 13 families started taking the aid and seven refused. Those who refused identified with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and moved a few hundred yards upriver, establishing formal affiliation with the Zapatista Autonomous Rebel Municipality of “Freedom for the Mayan Peoples,” part of one of the Zapatista regional Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Juntas of Good Government) called “Towards Hope.” They now referred to the pro-government side of the village as the priístas, an old habit from the 71 years during which the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled Mexico.

While the Mexican government tries to uproot communities, freeing up more land and resources for the global market, the Zapatistas have continued to resist by constructing autonomous government. They began by building on community structures of local self-governance continually created since the 1950s by migrants from the highlands and other regions to Las Cañadas, the jungle canyons of the agricultural frontier of eastern Chiapas.1 When government troops encircled this region in a military offensive in December 1994, the EZLN declared the existence of 38 autonomous municipalities, including many in the highlands and other areas outside Las Cañadas.2 In July 2000, the EZLN grouped the Zapatista Autonomous Rebel Municipalities into regional autonomous government structures administered by five Juntas of Good Government based in governing centers called Caracoles (snails or conch shells, an ancient Mayan symbol).

The helicopter that circled over the newly divided community of Nuevo San Isidro had brought 19 government agents. The wary Zapatista side gathered on the riverbank to see their pro-government neighbors ferry their benefactors across the river by cayuco in groups of four. Some time after the last cayuco had crossed, as the villagers continued talking among themselves at the riverside, an agrarian reform official appeared in the clearing escorted by two priístas. She was a wiry, thirty-something woman named Alejandra, sporting close-cropped brown hair with frosted highlights. With the overly chipper air of a kindergarten teacher, she greeted the assembled crowd and launched into a speech about how she and her colleagues were here to help; they were going to have a meeting at the pro-government cluster of huts, and they wanted to invite everyone on this side to come and hear a proposal about “how to make the best use of the land.”

Gregorio (not his real name), who spoke the best Spanish, responded. “We are not with the government,” he began, pointing to a hand-lettered sign nailed to a tree at the riverbank that read “Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Entry by government officials is prohibited.” He continued, “We are a Zapatista community. We are in resistance. We don’t want government people here.”

Alejandra started to protest that she had only come to invite them to a meeting, and that it was about giving them land. “We already know that the government’s word is pure lies,” Gregorio replied. “Look what happened to the people in Santa Cruz. You promised them aid for three years and it ended after three months.” Alejandra broke in again: “I recognize that some mistakes have been made. But I’m here to make sure the promises are kept. You can pick out the land you want. Look, these people have already chosen their land!”

Gregorio kept his composure. “This is the same government that is responsible for the massacre at Acteal in 1997,” he said, “45 men, women and children massacred. The government also killed people from this community, on June 10, 1998, in Chavajebal. Why do they send soldiers from village to village to kill? Then they come with promises that are pure lies.” He switched back and forth from Spanish to Tzotzil for the benefit of the priísta escorts.

Alejandra, visibly agitated but maintaining her forced smile, responded: “No, I agree, that wasn’t right. I have nothing to do with what the soldiers do, I disagree with it, in fact, I have denounced it myself. But look, I just came to invite you to a meeting, so you can hear the proposal yourselves.” Gregorio effectively ended the conversation: “If you want to invite us to a meeting you can present yourselves at Caracol Number One, to the Zapatista Junta of Good Government, and see what response they give you. I’ll take you there myself right now if you want.” Alejandra backpedaled. “No, no, I already know where it is. Anyway, that’s all we came for. If you want to come, we’ll be meeting over there.” She said goodbye with a huge smile and a wave as she whirled around to disappear with her entourage.

The villagers lingered by the riverbank, chuckling that Alejandra was afraid to take her proposal to the Zapatista regional autonomous authorities. But there was an underlying sense that the stakes were rising, and that the community would be even more isolated if their neighbors were spirited off to faraway lands.

Since the government’s initial military response to the 1994 Zapatista uprising, the counterinsurgency has shifted emphasis toward state-sponsored paramilitary groups composed mainly of rootless young indigenous men who lack land and are given arms and money to attack communities of Zapatista supporters.3 This allows the government to portray the killing in Chiapas as inter-communal violence, and its own troops as a stabilizing force. The most intense military/paramilitary operations have shifted over the years from the jungle canyons of east-central Chiapas, to the northern zone, then to the central highlands and now to this southeastern slice of jungle where the government had demarcated the vast “Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve” nearly 30 years before. The government has been waging a campaign to evict settlers from Montes Azules over the last two years, particularly targeting Zapatista settlements of indigenous people who have recently taken refuge here.4

Officially, the government invokes a conservationist rationale for evicting settlers from the biosphere reserve. Yet, the Echeverría Administration in 1972 had conceded 614,000 hectares (1.5 million acres), including much of what in 1978 was designated the Montes Azules reserve, to a group of 66 indigenous families it had inaccurately labeled the “Lacandón Community.” The government gave them trinkets in exchange for exclusive lumber concessions to strip valuable hardwood from the forest. Over the decades, various communities of Tzeltal and Ch’ol people living within the overlapping Montes Azules and Lacandón Community boundaries also received recognition of their land rights under agrarian reforms. In the midst of all these overlapping concessions, the government only initiated evictions when communities of Zapatista supporters began to settle the southern fringe of the jungle reserve.

Another clue to the newfound interest in Montes Azules may be found in President Vicente Fox’s much-publicized “Plan Puebla-Panamá” (PPP), a grand scheme to attract billions of dollars of investment to southern Mexico and Central America.5 The PPP envisions port and railway facilities for expanded maquiladora plants and dams for hydroelectric power for the anticipated industrial boom. Part of the attraction of the region for foreign capital is the rich biodiversity found in this stretch of jungle. An exposé by local NGOs has already halted one bio-prospecting project by the U.S.-funded “ICBG Maya” consortium.6

Not far from the settlement in Nuevo San Isidro is the mysterious Chajul “ecotourism station,” which locals say is a base for bio-piracy, run by former Secretary of Environment, turned entrepreneur, Julia Carabias. Her pseudo-NGO, ENDESU, began building another station in 2002 at Río Tzendales, where a billboard proclaimed a “conservation” project to be supported by the Ford Motor Company. In mid-2004 the legislative framework for bio-prospecting was drafted in a proposed “Law for the Conservation of Biodiversity and Environmental Protection for the State of Chiapas,” denounced by human rights groups as a violation of indigenous rights to autonomous control of resources in their territories.7

Since the 1980s, the neoliberal agenda in Mexico has been implemented with the help of a series of programs designed to create new clientelistic mechanisms to divide and co-opt discontent. The prototype was the National Solidarity Program (PRONASOL), which selectively doled out benefits through local committees to compensate for the social impact of economic austerity (which far exceeded the payouts). A similar program called PROCEDE undermines the management of communal landholdings by offering individual titles to those who opt out of the collective agrarian ejidos. Resistance to the counter-reform is weakened as state resources are drained from this social property sector and the cheap products of U.S. agribusiness flood the Mexican market. Another program, PROCAMPO, gave direct per-hectare compensation payments to producers as price supports for peasant agriculture were being dismantled.

The Zapatista movement had its roots in independent rural organizing initiatives that demanded rights rather than clientelistic privileges. The Zapatistas insisted not only on individual citizenship rights within a democratic national framework, but also collective ethnic rights for indigenous peoples, a departure from the atomizing ideology of neoliberalism.8

The Zapatistas also continued pressing at the negotiating table for recognition of indigenous rights and culture, something the government formally conceded with the signing of the San Andrés Accords in February 1996. Implementing legislation, however, was never passed, so the Zapatistas inaugurated a second phase of the autonomy movement by proceeding to implement it themselves. The Zapatista communities boycotted the municipal elections of October 1996, and instead elected parallel authorities through indigenous usos y costumbres (traditional customs and practices). Since they lacked official recognition and resources, the autonomous municipalities were supported through five Zapatista multiservice centers called Aguascalientes. For the most part, however, the municipalities relied on local resources to launch production and social service projects, drawing on the indigenous tradition of a community labor tax in which each family contributed a quota of person-days.9

Following the collapse of the San Andrés process, the Zapatistas began a third phase by further institutionalizing their de-facto municipal governments, often expelling the official government authorities. The federal government launched a series of joint police-military raids in April and May 1998, dismantling the two autonomous municipalities of Ricardo Flores Magón and Tierra y Libertad. The Chiapas state government, meanwhile, approved a redistricting scheme creating seven new municipalities aimed at undermining Zapatista autonomy claims.

The fourth and most recent phase of the movement began in July 2003, when the Zapatistas launched a regional structure of autonomous government in Chiapas. Each autonomous municipality now sends rotating representatives to one of five regional Juntas de Buen Gobierno based in the Caracoles that replaced the old Aguascalientes. In a preliminary self-evaluation of the Juntas after one year, the Zapatistas celebrated advances in social-service provision, as well as the experience gained by community members serving one- to two-week shifts in the regional governments.10 Yet they recognized problems of inefficiency and discontinuity caused by the frequent rotation; as well as serious under-representation of women in governing councils that are distant from their communities. There was also uneven ability to attend to dispersed settlements far from the Caracoles. In October 2004, one of the Zapatista Juntas de Buen Gobierno decided to consolidate eight beleaguered, isolated communities from Montes Azules, including Nuevo San Isidro, in order to better integrate them into the resistance offered by their new regional structures of government.11

As the zapatista autonomy movement evolves, it offers potential alternatives to the neoliberal model, but autonomy is not without its dilemmas. One model of autonomy that predates the 1994 emergence of the EZLN in Chiapas is based on the concept of the Pluriethnic Autonomous Region (RAP).12 The RAP model envisions autonomy as decentralization, and creates an additional representative layer for an indigenous territory within the existing structures of national government. A variant of this model can be seen in the North and South Atlantic autonomous regions of Nicaragua. In essence, this created a fourth level of government, in addition to the federal, state and local. In the Nicaraguan case, implementation of a 1987 autonomy statute fell short of expectations due to problems of representation and the under-funding of the autonomous government structures.

Skeptics of the RAP model cite the danger of regional “bossism,” and the concern that it merely replicates the top-down structure of existing political institutions without developing new leadership capacity rooted in local communities. Some interpretations of a comparable experience in Ecuador suggest that a territorially bounded definition of autonomy might create a kind of self-policed homeland, limiting options for indigenous people whose subsistence and cultural identity depend increasingly on complex patterns of mobility.13 The Zapatistas themselves, while preferring to build autonomy from the community level upward, nevertheless remained open to a pluralism of autonomy models.

Another dilemma is presented by a version of autonomy without resources, i.e. the potential for the neoliberal state to pass off responsibility for the unprofitable provision of public goods to “autonomous,” but underfunded units. The market paradigm tends to privatize gains while socializing costs and risks. The apparent recognition of autonomous spaces in society could create new mechanisms for division and cooptation, as social sectors and regions compete with each other for a share of the shrinking pie. This could leave them vulnerable to clientelistic politicians or even paternalistic NGOs moving into the breach.

A third potential trap is what an analyst in the Guatemalan context called “managed neoliberal multiculturalism.”14 It is noteworthy, for example, that the 1991 agrarian counter-reform, which modified Article 27 of the Constitution and eroded the communal agrarian ejido, was coupled with reforms to Article 4 that for the first time explicitly recognized the multiethnic character of the Mexican nation.15 Both reforms were imposed from above without grassroots consultation, and taken together, they reflect the neoliberal model’s recognition of a plurality of indigenous identities, as long as those identities do not become the basis for collective organization around substantive rights. This allows entrepreneurial ecotourism and bio-prospecting ventures in the Lacandón jungle to pick and choose partners among the “diverse” indigenous peoples, while celebrating the Disneyesque concept of a multiethnic “Selva Maya.”

The limits of working within the neoliberal legal framework of individual property guarantees and corporate prerogatives are illustrated by the struggle over the San Andrés Accords. After the March 2001 Zapatista caravan to Mexico City demanding implementation of the Accords, the legislature passed a sham “indigenous rights law” that actually reneged on key provisions of the agreements.16 The original Article 4 of the indigenous rights law drafted by the congressional peace commission, COCOPA, affirmed that “indigenous peoples have the right to free determination and, as expression of that, to autonomy.” Its replacement begins with the affirmation that “the Mexican Nation is one and indivisible,” and adds that “the right of indigenous peoples to free determination will be exercised in a constitutional framework of autonomy that assures national unity. The recognition of indigenous peoples and communities will be done in the constitutions and laws of the federative entities.”

Rights of indigenous communities to elect their own authorities, in the revised version, would only be granted “within a framework that respects the federal pact and the sovereignty of the states.” In other words, the right to have rights will be at the discretion of the existing authorities. Crucial language guaranteeing indigenous peoples access and use of resources in their territories was replaced. Access would be decided “with respect for the forms and modes of property and land tenancy established in this Constitution and relevant law, as well as rights acquired by third parties or by members of the community, to the use and preferential enjoyment of the natural resources of the places inhabited and occupied by the communities, except those corresponding to strategic areas.”

Article 26 of the original COCOPA law requiring “the necessary mechanisms so that development plans and programs take into account the indigenous peoples and communities in their cultural needs and specificities” was eliminated along with a clause that “the State will guarantee them their equitable access to the distribution of the national wealth.” Indigenous identity was to be recognized, but stripped of collective rights.

When this “indigenous rights” legislation passed the Congress in a “fast-track” deal between the National Action Party (PAN) and the PRI, it was denounced by indigenous rights groups and rejected in all the states with large indigenous populations but ratified in enough states to pass. The Supreme Court rejected all 320 constitutional challenges to the law, claiming it had no jurisdiction over such matters, and the law took effect.

Meanwhile, since their inauguration in August 2003, the Zapatista Juntas de Buen Gobierno have been offering to serve both Zapatista and non-Zapatistas, and the Fox Administration has had to reluctantly concede that they are probably not unconstitutional. To overcome the dilemma of autonomy without resources and the danger of losing decision-making control to outside NGO funders, the Juntas have set up mechanisms for reviewing NGO development proposals and taking a 10% tax to redistribute to communities within each region.17

The juntas do not preclude other authority structures or autonomy models, but they do exert a greater discipline over who gets to claim the “Zapatista” label within a given region. This, in effect, means greater control over the movement by the Zapatista communities themselves, represented in the Juntas, rather than the insurgent structures of the EZLN. In some of the Caracoles, there are already signs of local acceptance of the legitimacy of the Juntas, even by non-Zapatistas, who turn to them for dispute resolution and other governance functions. But the October 2004 Montes Azules evacuation and regrouping of communities of Zapatista supporters illustrates the continued conflictive negotiation of space between the state as broker for global capital and the rebels representing community autonomy.

About the Author
Richard Stahler-Sholk is an associate professor of political science at Eastern Michigan University. He has served as a human rights observer in Chiapas on numerous occasions since 1994.

1. Xóchitl Leyva Solano, “Regional, Communal, and Organizational Transformations in Las Cañadas,” pp. 161-184 in Jan Rus, Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo and Shannan L. Mattiace, eds., Mayan Lives, Mayan Utopias: The Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas and the Zapatista Rebellion (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). The other chapters of this book provide an excellent picture of the many facets of the Zapatista autonomy movement.
2. The Zapatistas based the right of self-government on Mexico’s 1917 revolutionary Constitution. For the text, see EZLN, “Third Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle” (January 1995), .
3. See: Global Exchange, Always Near, Always Far: The Armed Forces in Mexico (San Francisco: December, 2000), Chapters 9-10; and “The Wars Within: Counterinsurgency in Chiapas and Colombia,” NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 31, No. 5, March/April 1998.
4. Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste, “Breve historia de la llamada ‘Comunidad Lacandona’” (San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: December 2002), and “¡No al desalojo!: El caso de la Reserva Montes Azules en la Selva Lacandona, Chiapas” (San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: April 2003); CIEPAC (Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y Políticas de Acción Comunitaria), “Nuevos Desalojos en los Montes Azules,” Chiapas al Día, No. 393, February 3, 2004, .
5. See: CIEPAC, “El Plan Puebla Panamá (PPP),” .
6. Andrés Barreda, “Biopiracy, Bioprospecting, and Resistance: Four Cases in Mexico,” in Timothy A. Wise, Hilda Salazar and Laura Carlsen, eds., Confronting Globalization: Economic Integration and Popular Resistance in Mexico (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2003), pp. 101-125; and “Mexico Biopiracy Project Cancelled,” November 9. 2001, .
7. CIEPAC, “El Pukuj Runs Loose in Montes Azules,” Chiapas al Día, No. 409, April 29, 2004; and “La Red de Derechos Humanos de Chiapas rechaza el proyecto de ley de biodiversidad para el Estado de Chiapas por ignorar a los pueblos indígenas,” Chiapas al Día, No. 418, June 30, 2004.
8. See Neil Harvey, “Resisting Neoliberalism, Constructing Citizenship: Indigenous Movements in Chiapas,” in Wayne A. Cornelius, Todd A. Eisenstadt and Jane Hindley, eds., Subnational Politics and Democratization in Mexico (La Jolla, CA: U.C.-San Diego Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies, 1999), pp. 239-265. For a comparative discussion of this reframing of indigenous rights in the region, see: Deborah Yashar, “Democracy, Indigenous Movements, and the Postliberal Challenge in Latin America,” World Politics, Vol. 52, No. 1, 1999, pp. 76-104.
9. For examples of implementation of community-level autonomy, see: Richard Stahler-Sholk, “Massacre in Chiapas,” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 25, No. 4, July 1998, pp. 63-75; Jeanne Simonelli and Duncan Earle, “Disencumbering Development: Alleviating Poverty Through Autonomy in Chiapas,” in Robyn Eversole, ed., Here to Help: NGOs Combating Poverty in Latin America (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2003) pp. 174-219; and June Nash, “Indigenous Development Alternatives,” Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 57-98.
10. Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, “Leer un video,” August 2004, .
11. Hermann Bellinghausen, “Comenzó la reubicación de poblados zapatistas en el sur de Montes Azules,” La Jornada, October 29, 2004; and “Reubicaciones de la SRA propician confrontaciones en la selva Lacandona,” La Jornada, September 15, 2004.
12. For a balanced assessment of the RAP model in Chiapas, see: Shannan L. Mattiace, To See with Two Eyes: Peasant Activism and Indian Autonomy in Chiapas, Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003). For a positive presentation of the territorial decentralization model including the Nicaraguan case, see Héctor Díaz Polanco, Autonomía regional: La autodeterminación de los pueblos indios (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1991). For a critical view of this model from a Zapatista advisor, see Gustavo Esteva, “The Meaning and Scope of the Struggle for Autonomy,” in Rus et al., eds., Mayan Lives, Mayan Utopias, pp. 243-269. On the political prospects of autonomy claims, see: Donna Lee Van Cott, “Explaining Ethnic Autonomy Regimes in Latin America,” Studies in Comparative International Development, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter 2001, pp. 30-58.
13. Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, “Autonomy and Interdependence in Native Movements: Towards a Pragmatic Politics in the Ecuadorian Andes,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, Vol. 9, No. 2, April-June 2002, pp. 173-195. For interesting analysis of the changing definitions of indigenous community in Chiapas in the context of globalization, see Jan Rus, “Local Adaptation to Global Change: The Reordering of Native Society in Highland Chiapas, Mexico 1974-1994,” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, No. 58, June 1995, pp. 71-89.
14. Charles R. Hale, “Does Multiculturalism Menace? Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala,” Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 34, Part 3, August 2002, pp. 485-524.
15. On the impact of the agrarian counter-reform in Chiapas, see: Neil Harvey, “Rural Reforms and the Question of Autonomy in Chiapas,” in Wayne A. Cornelius and David Myhre, eds., The Transformation of Rural Mexico: Reforming the Ejido Sector (La Jolla, CA: UCSD Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies, 1998).
16. For a textual comparison of the initial November 1996 compromise language for an indigenous rights law drafted by the Congressional peace commission (COCOPA), the executive’s December 1996 modifications, and the bill introduced in April 2001, see: EZLN, “Reformas a la Iniciativa de Ley de Derechos y Cultura Indígena,” . See also Luis Hernández Navarro and Laura Carlsen, “Indigenous Rights: The Battle for Constitutional Reform in Mexico,” in Kevin J. Middlebrook, ed., Dilemmas of Political Change in Mexico (London: Institute of Latin American Studies, 2004) pp. 440-465.
17. Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, “Chiapas: La treceava estela,” seven-part communiqué (July 2003), available at . English translation in ¡Ya Basta! Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising (Oakland: AK Press, 2004), pp. 589-625.

Tags: Mexico, Chiapas, Zapatistas, autonomy, social movement, resistance

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