from CrossRoads Magazine
The author provides geographical and historical background to the Chiapas revolt by the poorest of the poor. The following is an edited version of a presentation made by the author in a panel on the Chiapas uprising held at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco on January 13, 1994. I would like to give some geographical/historical background to the conflict in Chiapas to shed some light on some of the apparent contradictions in the news. Let's start by looking at the different areas of Chiapas where the conflict is taking place and where the guerrilleros originated. The state of Chiapas has a very varied geography. The southwestern part, on the coast, is lowlands with extremely fertile soil. The central area is a high altitude plateau known as the Altos de Chiapas, or the Chiapas Highlands. This zone is very rocky, with steep slopes and very thin topsoil. It's not very fertile land and is difficult to work. To the east lies the Lacandon rainforest or jungle. The soil here is fine for maintaining a rainforest but useless for agriculture, although the indigenous native Lacandon people successfully carried out a traditional form of cultivation based on manipulating the species composition of the forest. Before the Spanish conquest, when all of Chiapas was theirs, the different Mayan groups had their centers of agricultural production in the fertile lowlands. After the conquest, over the next 300 to 500 years, the indigenous peoples were gradually pushed back toward the worst soils in the highlands. By the 1950s these highland areas were so densely populated that many Mayans had no land to plant their crops. A slow process of migration began toward the only place where there was still unused land: the Lacandon rainforest. The population density there was very low, with only the Lacandons practicing their traditional cultivation, and thus it was attractive for colonization. As a result of this migration from the highlands, the majority of people in the Lacandon area today are not from there, but rather are from highland ethnic groups, mostly Tzotzils, Tzeltals, and Mams. Other colonists of this area were poor peasants from Oaxaca, Guerrerro, Michoac n, and other parts of Mexico who were also in search of land. Because the rainforest soils lose their fertility after one or two years of annual cropping, these people rapidly became the poorest of the poor in Mexico. Today the indigenous people of Chiapas live either on the poor soils of the highlands or on the even worse soils of the rainforest. The pacific lowland area with fertile soil is now used for commercial export agriculture -- cotton, sugarcane, cattle-ranching, some coffee. Meanwhile the indigenous people depend primarily on corn production. While the people who had migrated to the rainforest became steadily poorer, a crucial development for the highlands took place. The end of the 1970s saw the Mexican oil boom to the north. There was also a related boom in construction in the central area where the three largest hydroelectric plants in Mexico were constructed. The people of the highlands now had access to wage-labor employment for a few years, in oil and construction. They were also able to obtain extra earnings by seasonal labor in Pacific plantations. So the peasants in the highlands occasionally had access to sources of income other than agriculture, but the peasants in the Lacandon area saw their situation grow worse and worse. Because of their isolation, they had no source of wage income; you can really say they were the poorest of the poor. SOCIAL DIFFERENTIATION When the Mexican dept crisis put an end to the boom economy, people returned to the highlands, but their communities were transformed. The result of wage labor being available for a few years was a process of social differentiation. Some people had made a lot more money than others; they returned to the highlands from the oil fields or other boom areas and began buying up the land and investing in transportation; they became relatively rich within the highland indigenous communities. Other people became or remained poor, losing their land to the newly wealthy. So although the indigenous people all appear to be poor to an outsider, they are in fact sharply differentiated or polarized into rich and poor within each of the highland communities. The newly wealthy people in the highland communities, those who had gotten rich when they went to the oil boom regions or into construction, became what are now known as the caciques -- village strongmen -- of these communities. They dominate in every way; they control agriculture and transport and they have aligned themselves with the dominant party in Mexico, the PRI. Thus they control the political structure and choose the town councils as well as municipal presidents. During the '80s and early '90s the poor people in the rainforest settlements and the newly destitute in the highlands became even poorer. This is because of structural changes in the Mexican economy -- "structural adjustment" and "free trade" -- leading to a worsening level of living standards throughout the country. They may soon get even poorer because the reform of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution means the end of agrarian reform and thus no hope of the landless obtaining land. Given that those in the Lacandon area are the poorest of the poor, we can understand how so many of the EZLN, the Zapatistas, would come from this zone. If we look at the places where the uprising took place, demonstrating the tremendous degree of organization among the Zapatistas, we can see that those areas are all on the edge of the Lacandon zone. San Crist"bal de las Casas, the old colonial capital of Chiapas, is the only place not on that fringe -- but it is an important target because of tourism and because it's the economic and administrative center of the highlands. Also, just outside San Crist"bal is the recently built Rancho Nuevo military base, which was one of the main objectives of Zapatista attacks. New forms of organization had developed in the Lacandon settlement area, as the uprising indicates. The fact that the area has long been very isolated, with no government services and almost without a government presence, allowed for this to happen. Also, the mixture of indigenous people together with landless mestizos from other parts of Mexico may have encouraged new forms of organization. This may explain why the declarations of the Zapatistas do not speak about specific ethnic demands even though the authors are mostly indigenous people. The declarations are directed toward the poor peasant masses of the entire country. The social differentiation in the highlands explains the differences in attitudes toward the EZLN. When the Zapatistas brought the war from the rainforest to the highlands, the caciques -- the new power structure aligned with the PRI -- would be expected to be very much against them, while the poor of the area are likely to have sympathy or enthusiasm. That is why we find varying responses in news reports, which refer both to townspeople welcoming the guerrillas and to townspeople rejecting them. We should also remember that some supporters may be unwilling to express their feelings publicly because cacique control makes them feel that they are not free to speak. In conclusion, understanding that the EZLN comes from an isolated area inhabited by the poorest of the poor, allows an understanding of why they rebelled. Once you know that their communities consisted of poor Mayans living together with poor mestizos from the rest of Mexico, you can see why their rhetoric is nationalist rather than ethnic. And finally, understanding the economic polarization inside the highland indigenous communities provides an explanation for their variable responses to the arrival of the Zapatistas from the rainforest.