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Human rights, access to land, environment in Montes Azules, Chiapas, Mexico

Rolf Isar | 23.01.2005 22:25 | Zapatista

The construction of new infrastructure on the one hand and the relocation process of Zapatista settlements on the other, are the new features of the current situation. Whether irreconcilable environmental, corporate, governmental and community interests can confront each other in a non-violent manner remains to be seen.

Human rights, access to land, environment protection and economic interests –the current situation in Montes Azules

It has been a long day on the back of an open truck, for the last two hours we have been going uphill downhill on a shaky forest track, amongst burned trees whose solitary black stumps, covered by bromelia and moss, rise towards the dull, cloudy sky. We pass a loggers' camp, a village, another one where we turn left and reach our destination. Dusk has set in and, together with the dark clouds, it gives the place an uncanny, rather than cosy, impression.
Such was our arrival in *** (sorry, names of places not disclosed at this stage), a new zapatista settlement in the mountains of Las Margaritas, Chiapas, that has been established only a couple of weeks ago. Its inhabitants have abandoned their homes in “Montes Azules”, the single most contentious part of the Mexican state of Chiapas, where a multi-facetted struggle over human rights, access to land, environment protection, and economic interests continues. We have come in order to express our solidarity with the recently dislodged, and to learn about what made them decide to quit. We, that is three international observers participating in a Peace Camp.

We are received by Pedro (name changed) and his wife and their seven children. The house seems incomplete, a roof and two walls, a third one improvised with iron sheets, the front side is open. To the back wall maize is piled up in bags. There are hamacs for three, the others will spend the cold and damp night cuddled on the floor boards under woollen blankets. There is electricity provided by solar cell and car battery, a fire warms up people and tortillas. Soon supper is ready, beans and eggs, we contribute some rice. While eating, we start talking.
We learn that a mere five families live in this new village that is going to bear the same name like the old one. Most of the once nearly 30 families who used to live there have joined the government camp and have been provided with new accommodation elsewhere. The remaining six families were confronted with an eviction order as of October 31, after which they would have been forcefully removed. On October 25 five of them moved to this new place.
This is the preliminary result of a long-standing succession of threats and evictions. In the year 2003 soldiers showed up in *** and raided at least one other zapatista community. In ***, only the presence of international observers and the well-organised response of the inhabitants prevented the worst. Other communities are facing a similar situation.
Montes Azules is part of the Selva Lacandona, a vast expanse of tropical forest along the Guatemalan border, characterised by an outstanding biodiversity. Since the 1950s landless peasant families exploited or evicted elsewhere have settled here. In the late 1970s Montes Azules was declared a biosphere reserve. The decline of logging, cattle breeding and plantations gave way to new kinds of economic interest. The Zapatista uprising of 1994 was followed by a new phase of violence against indigenous communities, elements of which will be described below:
The militarisation and paramilitarisation known in other parts of the Zapatista area is modified here by the presence of the Lacandones indigenous group. Recently the "Moscamed" programme, officially designed to combat the Mediterranean fruit fly, has once again been blamed by Zapatista inhabitants of the Selva Lacandona as merely another element of low-intensity warfare.

Commercial interests in Chiapas have established a "tradition" of private armies in order to defend the land they grabbed as plantations or for logging, and subdue their workforce. Likewise, displacement further into the jungle has got a long history here. The case of *** is a prime example for its continuation. Its inhabitants had been compelled to move there only three years ago in search of land.
In August 2002 the federal government announced that all settlements in Montes Azules would be removed. After years of enormous military presence in the Zapatista territory, the new government of Vicente Fox has, since 2001, insignificantly reduced the number of military camps in the area as a sign of good will in response to Zapatista demands to reopen peace negotiations. The actual number of troops, however, remain more or less the same, as, for instance, the Junta del Buen Gobierno in charge of the Montes Azules area confirms. The new strategy is drawing a circle around, rather than permanently penetrating the region. Army camps concentrate on the edge of Montes Azules.
Meanwhile, other methods of low intensity warfare have been employed. Intimidations and attacks are carried out by forces other than the army, e.g. members of the Lacandon community. "They came once in a while, brandishing sticks, machetes and even guns", reported one *** settler.
The Lacandones are a small indigenous community inhabiting the Selva Lacandona. In 1972 a Presidential decree handed over a large part of the Selva, including the eventual biosphere reserve, to some Lacandones families. Tourists and observes are encouraged to believe that they are the only legitimate dwellers in the Selva, and the only ones whose "tradition" enables them to live in harmony with their natural environment (as opposed to all other settlers, whose farming practices are allegedly harmful to the ecosystem). Thus presented as the "Noble Savage", the Lacandones are highly favoured by official sources and encouraged to, even armed for, attacks on neighbouring non-Lacandones communities, especially those of Zapatista affiliation. The Lacandones case should be read as the Chiapas version of the familiar divide-and-rule strategy. Montes Azules is a striking example of how the protection of the environment is used as a cover for human rights violations, the two issues being set against one another. The Lacandones are being used as a vehicle not only for the discursive construction of "good" and "bad" forest dwellers, but also as a violent force seemingly acting on their own behalf, but conveying governmental interests.
In the emerging atmosphere of fear and insecurity, especially the former government party PRI managed to convince many Zapatista supporters to quit the movement and join the government camp. Formerly 100% Zapatista communities are now split, which creates tensions. While the Zapatistas insists the government will do nothing to their advantage, PRIistas in Montes Azules tend to agree to a resettlement on government terms. They usually receive a lot of assistance. However, there are cases of complaint about the food aid consisting in passed maize and vegetables, which made those feeling deceived even turn up at the Centre of Human Rights San Bartolomé de las Casas (Fray Ba).
Meanwhile, Selva inhabitants of all political camps complain about being adversely affected by the Moscamed operations. Moscamed is a joint programme of the US, Mexican and Guatemalan governments started as early as 1977, in order to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly in these countries. To this end, a variety of measures have been and continue to be used, including the aerial spraying with pesticides and the dropping of sterilised mail larvae, as well as animals like insects, worms, rats and snakes who are supposed to feed on the fly in various stages of its life cycle.
The benefactors of this are large commercial fruit producers, both in the USA (where the fruit fly is to be prevented from invading in the first place) and in Mexico (where fruit fly-infected produce inhibits access to the US market). Seemingly the fly is abundant in Guatemala, with Southern Mexico prone to be infected. The purpose of Moscamed operations along the Mexico-Guatemala border - a region without commercial export-oriented fruit production worth mentioning - is to create a fruit fly-free buffer zone. Apart from the fact that the whole idea of spilling toxics and alien species of animals over a whole region in order to combat a single type of pest is all but outrageous, the communities bearing the consequences of this can expect no benefit whatsoever. Various communities, Zapatista and non- Zapatista alike, have reported damage to pastures, livestock, coffee plantations, as well as the emergence of a worm entering the skin of cattle, dogs and children, and a general decline in food production and living conditions, as a result of Moscamed. Such complaints have occurred in waves since the 1980s, leading to temporary suspensions and modifications of the programme. Recently, the situation has worsened once again.
The communities denounce that they have neither benefits to expect nor any say in decision-making on Moscamed. This, together with the concentration in the contentious Selva Lacandona makes Zapatista communities suspect that the fruit fly is all but a pretext for a programme designed to make them abandon their villages in the face of deteriorating living conditions. “The aim is to ruin our crops and scare us. Few people have actually seen those aircraft, they usually operate during misty morning hours”, Pedro tells us. The application of such drastic pest prevention measures in the vicinity of, if not within, a protected ecosystem like M.A. gives some credit to this point of view.
After supper we move on to the church, at the same time an assembly hall. Here we meet with all the villagers. Our questions are translated into Tzotzil. We ask for the pressure they experienced before they eventually moved here. Nobody is keen on this topic, it seems. We ask no further. In the year 2004, unlike the previous one, organisations like Fray Ba counted no major attacks, but the intimidations and threats of violence continue. The federal and state governments are resolved to clear the Montes Azules area of all non-Lacandones human settlements. What are the reasons for this?

The Selva Lacandona is believed to harbour enormous reserves of crude oil. The oil industry with its usually devastating effects seems a rather "traditional" economic sector. Recent developments, on the other hand, make way for a reconciliation of genuine environmental protection and the generation of profits. The biotech "revolution" has put a price tag on nature, i.e. biodiversity. In this regard, the extraction of Montes Azules's riches is expected to create huge profits in the near future. This makes the conservation of the ecosystem in its current state mandatory.
Alongside, "ecotourism" has become a keyword in the tourism sector both worldwide and in Chiapas. The notion of "ecotourism" combines, in varying degrees, the ideas of tourism within nature, without destruction of nature, and in favour of nature, i.e. by providing funds for its protection. More often than not, a local population living in harmony with, and forming a part of, the environment, is involved. Tour operators in San Cristóbal de las Casas offer trips to the Selva, including an overnight stay in what is dubbed in leaflets "an Indian village". Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a Lacandones settlement.
Only if seen in this light, the construction of new access roads to the Selva Lacandona makes any sense. A new bridge across Río Lacantún currently receives public attention, especially in Zapatista communities in the area (La Jornada, December 2004). Given the intention to evict all population except few, the purpose of this bridge (and another at the other side of Montes Azules) cannot be to link forest communities - who are not supposed to be there.
All the above has to be understood in the context of comprehensive global and regional economic schemes, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Northern American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the planned Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) and, Plan Puebla Panamá (PPP). In Chiapas, the human rights question has always primarily been a land question. In the face of corporate interests, collective land titles for indigenous communities are regarded by the Zapatistas as the only means to ensure their cultural freedom and tenure security. However, NAFTA and PPP, apart from devastating effects on the terms of trade of peasant farmers, are entirely opposed to collective land rights and, by implication, indigenous self-determination based on collectivity. Which is why the areas to opened up to economic exploitation need to be emptied from oppositional indigenous populations.

The Zapatista struggle has always been connected to these larger economic developments. It was no coincidence that the armed struggle began on the day the NAFTA agreement came into force. On the local level, in a communique of October 2004, addressed to "the Mexican people and the national and international civil society", the comandancia general of the EZLN points out that the dispersal of the Zapatista communities in the M.A. area deprives them of many fruits of the Zapatista process. Therefore, a number of these communities are going to be regrouped in a single location. The concentration of the communities is also expected to facilitate resistance against ongoing threats and intimidations. Eight villages comprising fifty families are mentioned in the declaration. However, this requires enormous logistical efforts and sufficient funds, and will be carried out step by step over several months. The process has, according to Fray Ba, already begun. Support groups and observers took it the relocation would take place within Selva Lacandona, if not indeed within the biosphere reserve. The case of ***, apparently triggered by the immediate threat of eviction, to a place far from there contradicts this view. It is far from clear at the moment whether the regrouping of Zapatista communities is a negotiated withdrawal from Montes Azules or a fortification of resistance.

We close the meeting as we realise that most people have said what they had to say and get tired. Over a mug of coffee we continue chatting in a relaxed atmosphere, share jokes, fail to find the place on our map, where not even the road is depicted.
Next to the new village is another Zapatista settlement of four families, and beyond that an "official" village inhabited by PRI supporters. The place is a former ranch whose owner ran away in fear from the 1994 armed struggle. It was occupied and purchased by the EZLN. But of what kind of land is it? We are in the highland, bananas and sugar cane don't grow here, it is cold, unusually so for these five families from the tropical lowland. What is to become their milpas is, for the time being, a pine forest on a penurious soil hardly sufficient for subsistence, let alone selling cash crops. The maize they were able to bring here will be sufficient for six months, with next year's harvest due in September. Over four months without maize reserves will have to be dealt with. In the comunicado quoted above, the EZLN asks the civil society for assistance for this and other villages due to be relocated.
Pedro is thankful for the assistance of the Junta - who has enabled us to visit this place - in terms of provision of land, transport, wooden boards to build houses. Contact to the Junta is said to be excellent given the enormous distances. The relationship with the PRIistas in the neighbourhood is reported to be friendly, the Zapatistas visit their shops and they come over to sell goods, there are no threats any longer. Most important of all, however, is the fact that this land is Zapatista land and cannot be alienated. In spite of the otherwise harsh conditions, this is something to build on.
At daybreak, after a night spent freezing in the church, and breakfast with Pedro's family, we take off, with a sense that external solidarity means a lot to these people. While we are being shaken on the truck advancing on the bumpy road, the sun comes up and penetrates the mist and dissolves it, leaving its remains hanging in the deeper parts of the valleys. As if to bid farewell, the landscape presents its overwhelmingly beautiful side, no longer appearing as hostile as the night before.
In Chiapas on December 31, not only the New Year is celebrated. It is also the anniversary of the uprising. In spite of all the difficulties, this year the people of *** whose territory is available only because of the struggle, had every reason for a party. As for Montes Azules, the construction of new infrastructure on the one hand and the relocation process of Zapatista settlements on the other, are the new features of the current situation. Whether irreconcilable environmental, corporate, governmental and community interests can confront each other in a non-violent manner remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, as of 20th of January, the construction of *** is complete. And a second village is preparing to move to a new location.

Rolf Isar