Over 1,000 villages and small towns in Chiapas, Mexico have declared
themselves communities in resistance. Organised together into 38 Autonomous
Municipalities in eastern Chiapas, the Zapatista indigenous people are
building a new world. Visiting these communities is an inspiring experience.
Local people have taken control of the land, schools and health care,
and run things through a system of grass-roots democracy. In many communities
state officials and private businesses are unable to set foot.
The communities in resistance are the fruit of many years of grass-roots
organising. This struggle burst into the global headlines on New Years
Day 1994 when thousands of armed indigenous people took over the city
of San Cristobal de las Casas and the towns of Ocosingo, Altamirano, Las
Margaritas and Chanal in Chiapas.
The Zapatistas soon withdrew from the towns but in the indigenous countryside
the communities in resistance were busy being born. Many estate owners
fled and others were forced to give up most of their land, keeping only
that which they could work themselves. Local people took over the abandoned
land - 800 estates, totalling 80,000 hectares, according to a Landowners
Association. Some communities in resistance were formed by ejidos, an
officially recognised communal land owning system, deciding to go a big
step further and openly declare their total rejection of the government
and its system.
Land and Liberty
The communal control of the land is at the heart of the economy in the
Zapatista communities. They are totally opposed to the government attempts
to introduce privatisation of land through new laws and government agricultural
aid and projects. The economy is essentially subsistence agriculture,
maize and beans being staples, with coffee also grown for sale. Cattle
are raised in some areas.
"Our main production project is coffee. We pick the coffee beans
together and put them in great big baskets...Then we clean the beans well
and put them out to dry in the sun...We do all this together, and when
we sell the coffee the money is for all of us..." : A women's
collective in Morelia.
Some land In the Zapatista villages is worked communally, and some is
worked by families. A new development is the promotion of communal vegetable
plots, worked by both men and women, and growing a variety of vegetables
for local consumption, thus aiming to improve nutrition and health. There
are plans to widen the food available by interchanging products between
different Zapatista areas.
The Zapatistas are determined to resist the introduction of genetically
modified crops, which threaten the maize seeds indigenous people have
developed over centuries. The Mother Seeds in Resistance project based
at the Oventik autonomous secondary school is collecting, storing and
safeguarding such seeds.
All the shops I saw were co-operatives. I visited a co-op shoe and boot
making workshop, a "women in resistance" craft shop and wee
co-op village shops where the community members take turns to staff the
While people have to work really hard you get the feeling from seeing
people sing and laugh while they work that it's a big change from
the days of the harsh finca bosses.
"Our goal is to govern ourselves - to be independent and autonomous
of the state and federal government. We make our decisions communally
and we carry them out. All decisions here are made at the General Assembly.
Every man and woman over the age of 16 votes in the Assembly, and all
of us make decisions together." Zapatista villagers from Morelia
describing how in the communities in resistance decision making power
lies with the people.
The local village meetings also choose "responsables" to carry
out particular duties, and to represent that community's view in
the Autonomous Municipality. Autonomous Municipalities bring together
30 - 40 villages in the same area. Each Autonomous Municipality has a
Council chosen to carry out the day to day administration. This council
takes its instructions from the Assembly of the Autonomous Municipality,
with representatives from each community.
Important decisions affecting a whole Autonomous Municipality are taken
by a "consulta". First an assembly in each community discusses
the issue, and then sends its rep, mandated to express the view of that
community, to the assembly of the Autonomous Municipality. This assembly
discusses the issue, but cannot reach a decision there and then. What
it does is try to come to a provisional proposal. This proposal is then
put to another assembly in each community, for the communities to vote
yeah or nay. The final decision is arrived at by a majority vote of all
This system based on control by the grass-roots is expressed by the Zapatista
slogan mandar obedeciendo - to govern by obeying. Commandante Tacho
explains the nature of The Indigenous Clandestine Revolutionary Committee
"All us commandantes were democratically chosen in the community
assemblies or by the local 'responsables' who choose the regional
'responsables'. The assemblies choose the delegates of the CCRI
because the comrades at the grass-roots have to know who they are choosing,
and if these people conduct themselves badly the grass-roots will remove
them. Because here we are not talking about the work of an organisation
but the work of a people."
Before 1994 health in the indigenous communities was very poor, with widespread
ill health and preventable diseases. After the insurrection, people in
the communities came together to start a network of health centres and
health promoters. This process is based on what the communities themselves
feel they need. Health promoters from different villages come together
to discuss their local health needs. What illnesses are affecting people?
What kind of health courses are needed? Later, follow up meetings check
how work is progressing.
The communities believe that preventing illness is much better than having
to take drugs when you're already ill. Thus health education has
led to basic but vital changes, e.g. boiling drinking water, improving
food preparation hygiene, the construction of well situated latrines and
safe disposal of rubbish.
I visited two autonomous hospitals, both built by Zapatistas from far
and near donating their labour. Vital facilities like the kitchen are
staffed on a rota basis by unpaid volunteers from different Zapatista
villages, some walking long distances to carry out their work. These hospitals
run courses for health promoters. The health promoters then return to
their villages and work to develop good health there, often running a
small health house with basic medical supplies. Health promoter courses
include herbal medicine, pharmacy and dentistry. Despite no government
funding and the frequent lack of a reliable electricity and water supply,
the autonomous hospitals are striving to expand their services. An autonomous
hospital I visited provided a dental service, consultations with a qualified
doctor, a pharmacy, a laboratory which undertakes analysis of specimens,
and a wide range of herbal medicines and preparations.
Herbal medicine is being strongly developed. I attended a graduation ceremony
for 13 health promoters who had just completed a course in herbal medicine.
At the ceremony each student gave a short speech, telling how they would
return to their villages to practise and share their knowledge with their
neighbours. This hospital featured a recently built "herboleria"
where medicinal plants grown in the hospital's herb garden were processed.
In many respects the promotion of herbal medicine is a rebirth of traditional
In contrast to the rigid hierarchy of conventional hospitals, the autonomous
hospitals have an ethos of sharing and discussion. For example qualified
personnel like Doctors share in tasks like cleaning. Those involved recognise
that a huge amount remains to be done. Poverty and a lack of basic services
like good drinking water undermine good health. The autonomous hospitals
still largely lack facilities to deal with operations and severe illnesses
and injuries. But after only 8 years the foundations of community-based
health care have been created.
Many Zapatista communities have expelled the government teachers and formed
their own autonomous schools. The communities choose local people, often
teenagers, to be "education promoters", to learn to teach in
the autonomous schools. Where possible promoters take a six month course
in one of the two autonomous education centres.
Most autonomous schools are primaries but there are also autonomous secondary
schools, e.g. at Oventik where a young education promoter enthusiastically
showed me the computer room, library, and new classrooms under construction.
The idea is for promoters to develop a different vision of education of
their own making, also reflected in the development of new teaching materials.
The children are encouraged to learn and are not punished. Girls and women
participate fully. Education is non-competitive.
In addition to history, language, maths and the environment, etc. the
children learn how to organise themselves, how they can resist an exploitative
system, about the rights of children, about the rights of women. Indigenous
culture and language is fostered. Children learn about natural medicine,
herbs and plants, and about the need to preserve and protect nature.
In a Zapatista village I visited, the sounds of singing and music were
often heard from the school. One day I saw the children and the teenage
education promoter roving the village on a treasure hunt, an exercise
which led to the children drawing beautifully coloured maps of the village.
Plays were performed before the whole community at fiestas. I had not
anticipated that my journey to rebel Chiapas would include playing one
of the 3 Wise Men in the school Nativity play! When you see girl pupils
excitedly hug their dedicated woman teacher, you understand that this
is far from the authoritarian education system we are familiar with. Each
school has autonomy, the decisions to do with the running of the school
being made locally.
Autonomous education is for the adults too. In New Guadalupe Tepeyac in
the Lacandona jungle 60 women attended literacy classes 3 times per week,
and women participated in a textile workshop for an hour each day, providing
a communal break from domestic work.
Different adults sometimes also contribute to the learning process, coming
into school to speak about a particular topic. "The classroom is
a space where the community can share its ideas, everyone sharing their
ideas and in this way being equal." The Zapatista communities have
decided that it is not acceptable for adults to hit children, and this
In the small community I spent time in, the children and youths worked
as well as going to school, carrying firewood and rubbish, picking fruit,
etc. I gained the impression they were much more integrated into the community
than in the UK.
"We work collectively. When the organising started everybody, men
and women, started to organise. Women left their homes to go to meetings.
They didn't do their work at home any more. There was no time for
that. In the past we never worked collectively like we do now. Men used
to tell women that they had no rights. Now we know that we all have rights.
Young people work together - men and women together. Our lives are
better now. We are happier now because we all have the right to get out
of the house, to work in the projects and to participate in the life of
our town." Women and men from the Zapatista community of Morelia.
Women from Morelia speak :" We have a Women's General Commission.
We meet once a month, here or in other towns. These meetings are only
for women. When all the representatives from all the communities come,
there are about 150 of us. We had a meeting to draft the rules of the
Women's commission. We also had a meeting to discuss the Revolutionary
Women's Laws...These laws are very important. They are teaching us
about our rights as women. We think that our lives as women are better
now. We are happier now because we have the right to do what we want and
need to do..."
Before the insurrection women didn't have any say. They were often
forced to marry someone they hadn't chosen, when still very young,
e.g. 13 or 14. They didn't go to community meetings. Girls often
didn't go to school, having to stay home and help with the housework.
Women didn't play sports or even dance. Now in the Zapatista communities,
women participate in the meetings, girls go to school, girls and women
dance and play sports. Women hold positions of responsibility in the communities
and Autonomous Municipalities. Women are "health promoters"
and "education promoters". Women's collectives run shops,
organic gardens, bakeries, coffee production, animal raising and many
The Zapatista Women's Revolutionary Laws assert that women have the
right to freely choose their partner, the right to freedom from violence
by strangers or relatives, the right to occupy positions of leadership
in civil and military organisations, and other basic rights. The banning
of alcohol in the Zapatista communities was, I was told, largely a women's
initiative - women had suffered badly from alcohol-fuelled domestic
abuse. It is widely recognised that much still has to be done for women
to achieve real equality - but at last things are moving in the right
The poverty and lack of basic services suffered by indigenous communities
in Chiapas is difficult to imagine for people in the "First World".
Many communities don't have electricity, or have an erratic and unreliable
supply. It is exceptional for homes - which are generally wooden huts
with a dirt floor - to have piped water. Often water is gathered from
stand pipes in the village, sometimes it has to be carried some distance
from a spring. Generally the water has to be boiled before being drunk.
Communities do not have sanitation. Cooking is usually done over open
wood fires, leading to women especially suffering illnesses from the smoke.
The Zapatista communities are striving to improve the quality of life
by installing basic services, often with national and international solidarity.
Projects include supplying drinking water, generating electricity, sometimes
by solar power, building enclosed wood stoves, constructing compost toilets,
I worked for a short time on a water project called Kiptik. Together with
the local people we were installing a much-needed rain-catchment drinking
water system in a small Zapatista community which up till then had no
proper water supply at all. Kiptik works along with the Autonomous Municipalities,
who decide in which community the project's resources are most needed.
Skills and resources are shared to promote self-sufficiency. Community
based water committees provide a means whereby the drinking water systems
can be maintained. The Zapatistas refuse to work with NGO's who try
to impose their own priorities.
The Zapatista communities in resistance are among the many communities
in Chiapas who are refusing to pay the exorbitant electricity tariffs.
Many Zapatista villages sport an electricity supply which has been diverted
from a passing electricity line destined for a garrison or government-supporting
The Zapatista communities have a thriving communal culture. I attended
fiestas where hundreds of men, women and children arrived from dozens
of different Zapatista villages in that region, with the women often in
beautifully embroidered traditional dress.
At a big fiesta at the Zapatista Aguascalientes of Morelia a new football
pitch was especially created on the edge of the forest for the grand Zapatista
football tournament. Our internationalist team battled its way through
penalty shoot outs to the semi-finals, before crashing 5-0 to a local
team who were probably more used to hard physical activity at 7am than
us. My glimpse of the simultaneous women's basketball tournament
indicated it was equally hard fought!
The five Zapatista Aguascalientes, located in different zones of rebel
Chiapas, are large-scale resource centres and meeting places for the communities
in resistance, with facilities such as workshops, giant meeting halls,
dormitories and many communal buildings.
At one remote Zapatista village I visited, the population of 130 or so
doubled for the Christmas and New Year celebrations. Giant pots were employed
to cook over blazing wood fires. The unfortunate cow provided a welcome
change from the usual beans and tortillas as the whole village and their
guests sat down to an al fresco feast, under a specially constructed roof
over the courtyard of the autonomous school.
An afternoon of games saw both children and adults enjoy themselves in
competitions where all won a prize, the kids scrambling excitedly for
sweets. A short piece of theatre portrayed paramilitaries menacing an
indigenous community. Songs were sung, poems declaimed, music played as
dozens participated in a cooperatively created cultural extravaganza.
The day culminated in dancing under the stars to the local marimba band.
On Christmas Day I listened agog to the local catechista, or lay preacher.
"Here is the devil", he proclaimed, holding up a drawing that
bore a remarkable resemblance to a policeman. "Look how he is stamping
on a poor person", denounced the catechista. The devil/policeman's
uniform bears the number 666. The catechista holds up a second drawing
and explains: "The devil created this monster called capitalism.
See its seven heads." These heads are businessmen, bankers, merchants,
multinationals, politicians, land owners - and the 7th head is the
Religion - but not as we know it - plays an important role in the
Zapatista communities. A blend of liberation theology Catholicism and
elements of traditional Mayan belief produce a practice which often leads
to conflict with the Vatican hierarchy. I attended church services where
the reading was followed by political discussion, and saw a church painted
with the Virgin Mary and Che Guevara.
At the New Year fiesta the anniversary of the 1994 insurrection was celebrated
by heartfelt speeches by local people. Beneath a huge banner of balaclavad
Zapatista fighters swooping from the mountains to take the towns a woman
talks of how they need an end to malaria, an end to death from the curable
diseases that along with poverty plague the indigenous communities. She
talks of all the animals, wild and domestic, that live in that beautiful
area, and how they need to protect them.
"We need a world without exploitation." she insists.
Low Intensity Warfare
110 Zapatista villages and settlements are among many indigenous communities
threatened with eviction from Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, deep in
the Lacandona jungle, Chiapas. The Mexican government cites conservation
concerns, but the real motive is the economic and strategic interests
of transnational corporations and the USA and Mexican governments.
A recent report by Global Exchange "Human Rights, Biodiversity and
Local Autonomy: The Case of Montes Azules", states that the eviction
would serve two purposes: 1) it would attack the heart of Zapatista communities,
and 2) grease the wheels for the absolute exploitation of Montes Azules'
prolific natural resources. These include biodiversity, oil, uranium and
Since late July, a new wave of violence has broken out in and around the
Lacandona Jungle and around the Montes Azules Biosphere. Five Zapatista
villagers have been killed and over 20 wounded in conflicts involving
local paramilitary groups. Several Zapatista communities have fled because
of paramilitary violence. It is strongly suspected that the paramilitary
attacks in the Montes Azules area are linked to the eviction threat against
the indigenous communities there.
Low intensity warfare is being waged against all the Zapatista indigenous
people. In addition to paramilitary attacks, there is harassment by the
Mexican army, the state fostering divisions and manipulating conflicts
within the communities, selective bribery, building new roads for military
and commercial purposes. As the price of the coffee grown by the indigenous
communities drops drastically, further increasing poverty, Government
agricultural projects create division and promote land privatisation.
Over 12,000 people are living as internal refugees, displaced from their
The plans to exploit Montes Azules are linked to the Plan Puebla Panama
(PPP). Initiated by the USA, Mexican and Central American governments,
the PPP aims to generate major capitalist development from Puebla, in
southern / central Mexico, to Panama. Peasants are to be forced off the
land and into maquiladoras - sweatshop factories, benefiting from special
tax concessions. New highways and railways are to open up remote areas
rich in natural resources and potential cheap labour to exploitation by
the global market.
The PPP itself is part of the drive to create the Free Trade Area of the
Americas. In recent months, popular opposition has grown faster than the
Plan itself. In Veracruz and Chiapas, and in Guatemala and Nicaragua,
social and indigenous organisations have united to totally reject the
PPP. On August 16th, 15,000 marched against the PPP in San Cristobal de
las Casas, in the Chiapas Highlands.
Michael Cropley recently returned from six months in Chiapas where he
was working as a volunteer human rights observer and on a water project
in Zapatista communities.
Info / Contacts
Zapatista Solidarity: Chiapaslink, Box 79.
82 Colston St., Bristol, BS1 5BB
Kiptik water project
email@example.com and c/o
Info on Montes Azules
Never Again a World Without Us -
T.Ortiz, EPICA 2001
Edinburgh Chiapas Solidarity Committee, c/o 17 West Montgomery Place,
Edinburgh, EH7 5HA
Tel 0131 557 6242