(written by El Kilombo; http://www.elkilombo.org)
The land where the compañeros and compañeras are now is their own property, property we recuperated. We discovered... that what [capitalism] does is make us prisoners of where we work. That’s how capitalism functions: you work on ranches, or work in factories, and the profit is not for the working people. As you will see in this Encounter between Zapatista Peoples and Peoples of the World, the compañeros have much to tell you about their experience because they have in their hands the means of production, the land [...] and they have now constructed more things [...] like zapatista schools, zapatista clinics, warehouses for buying and selling their goods. The compañeros and compañeras of the Zapatista communities, when they took into their hands the means of production, that is, the land, they began to work it communally, on local, regional, and municipal levels, in collectives, societies, and cooperatives. [...] Without this, we wouldn’t be where we are today. It is clear to us as zapatistas that since we became owners of these lands, as they are our means of production, this was and is the base from which to attack capitalism [...]
All of this now, everything we have and do now, good or bad, it is we as zapatistas that decide and do it, not the bosses/masters [...]
This is the change we have undergone; this is what gives strength to the autonomous government of the compañeros. If we had not taken the means of production, the land, in our hands, the autonomous municipalities would not function, [autonomy] would be only words...
—Teniente Coronel Moises, July 19, 2007, CIDECI roundtable, San Cristobal de las Casas
Little over three short years after their conception, the autonomous Good Government Councils of the five zones of Zapatista territory attended the First Encounter Between Zapatista Peoples and Peoples of the World in December of 2006 to report on their progress in the organization of self-rule and direct democracy, the community-based organization and exercise of justice, and the implementation of autonomous institutions in health, education, and agricultural and artisan production. In July of 2007, at the Second Encounter Between Zapatista Peoples and Peoples of the World (described at more length in next section), the roundtables are held by the EZLN bases of support, the civilian, campesino men and women, many illiterate, describing their daily work of organization, production, and governance in the autonomous systems to thousands of people from all over the world. These people have not been “given the floor” by anyone; the manifestation of democracy, the demonstration of responsibility and accountability to their communities and to the world watching, the collective courage and creativity of the path of self-determination presented here is the result of a long process of constructing a place from which they can speak for themselves.
The summary below is not intended to document the autonomous projects in great detail or specifically by zone, but rather to present what the autonomous systems have enabled for the Zapatista communities materially as well as the kind of individual and collective subjectivity that is created in the process of such serious—in the sense of the stakes involved—self-determination.
2.a. A Territory
The 1994 uprising and taking of seven municipal seats in Chiapas resulted in the recuperation of an estimated 500,000-700,000 hectares (1,235,483-1,729,676 acres, or 1,930-2,701 square miles) of lands, previously controlled by latifundistas (large landowners, like plantation owners). Not all of these lands were occupied by Zapatistas (other indigenous and farmer organizations took advantage of the latifundista exodus to occupy lands) but those that were, which may approximate 250,000 hectares, were converted into communally-worked plots for the indigenous communities in Zapatista territory. The significance of the recuperated lands in the Zapatista rebellion must be understood in the context of their existence before the uprising, and in the context in which they now live. Telling the stories of their abuelos (grandparents and previous generations), the indigenous men and women of the Zapatista communities describe lives as peons, in near slave-like conditions, that the indigenous experienced under the rule of the latifundistas. Some describe a day working 6am to 6pm for two pesos per day, or 18 hour days paid in merchandise or vouchers from the ranch store, or in locally-brewed liquor. Latifundistas had agreements with each other, they explain, to cooperate to catch runaways; punishment might entail being left stretched in the sun for days without water or relief. All of the indigenous workers were made to be submissive, but women in particular were subject to the whims and demands of the landowners, in all that entails. The taking of the lands in the 1994 rebellion gave the Zapatista communities not only a form of subsistence, but a freedom and control over their lives and forms of organization of which they had long been deprived through the trajectory of colonialism, imperialism, racism and marginalization, and neoliberalism. It is on these lands, liberated territory both in geographic and social terms, where autonomous systems of education, health, commerce, and justice were generated as the Zapatista communities went about creating a new society.
2.b. Good Government
Each of the five caracoles, representing the five zones of Zapatista territory, has a “Good Government Council” (JBG by its Spanish acronym), a form of rotating autonomous government which serves as a local justice system, a representative body for interaction with other regions and projects from outside the zone, a source of financial and ethical accountability for the distribution of funds and the coordination of collective projects, and a delegated body to carry out the mandate of the community assemblies they are chosen by and accountable to. Beyond the existence of the JBGs, each zone creates and decides on its own autonomous programs and processes. The term lengths, form of rotation, number of members, and other details of the JBGs are thus decided locally by each zone, ranging from turns of a week to three months serving in the zone’s caracol as part of the governing body. Common across all zones, community members take their turn governing, and then return to the cornfield or the kitchen, and each community covers the work of its currently governing members with funds from collective projects or through collective labor. The number of women members of the Councils, while not yet equal to that of men, is increasing steadily, and the restructuring of family and collective life to allow women to leave the duties of the home to govern is slow but significant. The JBGs in general, as well as the EZLN in particular, now report regularly on the rates of women’s participation on community and zonal levels, a source and show of accountability unprecedented for a social movement and nearly unheard of for a guerrilla force.
One of the most interesting aspects of autonomous governance is the justice system, where issues, conflicts, and crimes are debated, reconciled, or punished as decided by the people in each zone. The JBGs explain for example that the perpetrator of a murder receives the punishment of sustaining both families, his own and that of the victim, for the rest of his life. In one case a human-trafficker charging Central Americans exorbitant prices to take them north across Zapatista territory received seven months of community labor, while the migrants were given food and lodging and permission to stay in Zapatista territory as long as they liked. “We are a bridge,” the JBGs say, we listen to each case and investigate the charges and allegations of each side. Each region decides for itself, based on the case and the situation, what the punishment or resolution should be. We don’t want high-security prisons, they say, we want justice and the reconciliation of someone in violation of our laws back into the collectivity and cohesion of the community. The JBG justice system is also in charge of land disputes and protecting the lands recuperated in the 1994 rebellion against expropriation. “We have a commitment as Zapatistas: we will not permit that they take those lands from us again. We will defend them so that our children will never have a master.”
Those trained to work in the health and education systems are called “promoters” rather than teachers or medics to describe a different relationship with those they teach or care for: “we feel our patients’ pain and accompany it”; “we learn with our students, we are not their bosses.” In the education systems they emphasize that the promoters are not an authority over the children, but rather partners in a learning process, members of the same community and thus the same collective process. This must be understood in relation to the government schools previously available, the communities explain, where teachers from the SEP (Secretary of Public Education) were known to be either indifferent or discriminatory towards the indigenous children, who often did not speak Spanish. The autonomous schools teach in indigenous languages and in Spanish, and children are taught not to “memorize like machines,” but to understand the history and traditions and problems of their communities and to think critically about them. The children must learn how to learn from others and from each other, the promoters report, as well as to create new thoughts and knowledge by themselves and among themselves. Most of the schools spend part of the school day in classrooms and part in productive projects, like school gardens, or in tasks, like interviewing the elders of the community. Education is understood not just as a set of lessons to be learned, but as integrated with other parts of creating one’s life: knowing how to cure oneself, for example, or learning to “live without fear.” The most important part of autonomous education, it was said repeatedly, is to not separate intellectual activity from manual activity; “That is a capitalist concept,” they explain, “to build autonomy we must be capable of conceptualizing and carrying out a task.”
The health systems vary widely in the tools and capacities present, but all express an emphasis on prevention, on knowing how to care for and heal oneself, and in understanding health as a collective phenomenon. Health is not just lack of illness, they express, health is also desire, such as the desire to participate, and knowledge, knowing how to respect and take one’s compañero into consideration; “individualism is ill-health.” Prevention and knowing how to care for and cure oneself includes caring for nature, they add, as this helps us to be well not only in terms of the knowledge of plant medicines and herbal remedies, but also in understanding how nature creates a healthy living environment and how the community can preserve this. The clinics usually consist of a combination of laboratories and western technologies with herbal pharmacies and traditional remedies. The supplies and training in each zone vary from capacities to do blood analysis, vaccinations, and basic health screenings, to treating external hemorrhaging and carrying out minor surgeries. An ophthalmology center in one zone includes the capacity to treat conjunctivitis, myopia, and to manufacture lenses for eyeglasses. There is a special emphasis on sexual education and women’s reproductive health across the zones, with some promoters trained specifically in this area, including midwives who use a mix of traditional customs and modern technologies to assist births.
This again must be understood in the context of what was previously available to the communities in terms of health care. In every zone’s presentation, across what is a large land area and a population of hundreds of thousands, they expressed the same thing: before the uprising and the launch of the autonomous systems, the sick almost always died in transit. If one made it to the hospital, they would be treated, if they were treated at all, with discrimination and scorn, subject to treatments or medicines without consultation, or sterilizations without consent. Babies commonly died of diarrhea and the women and children of malnutrition and curable diseases. Through the autonomous health systems the communities have been able to lower maternal and infant deaths, diagnose and treat basic illnesses, generate a circulation of knowledge and practice promoting community health, and organize safe transit to hospitals in serious cases, with some zones in possession of their own ambulances. “We make a commitment to health so people can struggle with strength and truth for their dignity and rights as humans.”
In the area of productive projects and technology, there is an extensive variety of coffee cooperatives, artisanship collectives, garden projects, collective bakeries, chicken coops, and other projects which collectivize work and commerce in order to minimize labor and costs and provide increasingly self-sustainable production that doesn’t depend on the whims of the market or the cuts taken by intermediaries. One the most notable projects is that of the collective warehouses in the Jungle zone. These warehouses provide the communities with a collective storage space and accessible commercial center which allows them to beat the market game of selling low and buying high, to avoid the high transportation costs which nearly eliminates their profit margin in going to market, and to produce quality food and supplies for themselves. These warehouses have been so successful that they are able to use the extra earnings to support other movement activities—such as marches or encampments—and to send their own solidarity to other places of struggle: last year corn was sent to the people of Cuba; this year contributions were sent to the resistances in San Salvador Atenco and Oaxaca.
2.f. Creating Amidst the Destruction
It should be pointed out that these systems and practices are not ideological or trivial achievements, but have had real material effects on the lives and well-being of the population in resistance. Infant mortality rates for children under five have dropped in Zapatista territory, along with maternal mortality rates and general indices of severe poverty, and, as the EZLN recently declared, hunger no longer exists in Zapatista territory.
The justice systems have proved to be so successful and well-received that non-Zapatista communities often opt to take their cases or complaints to the JBGs rather than to the official municipal or state courts. Autonomous schools are open to Zapatista and non-Zapatista children alike, and the clinics will treat anyone regardless of organization affiliation. The great majority of the costly parts of these programs has come from outside donations—usually international solidarity—which continues to be the principal source of support while the autonomous systems build their own self-sustainability. “The compañeros are reporting back to you,” one of the EZLN comandantes reminds the crowd at the Encounter in July, they are telling you where your support has gone and how it has been used all these years.” One JBG member says, against the background of a green foggy valley surrounded by mountains and over the sound of monkeys howling from the trees, “we thank you for your support with our air, water, rains, and mountains, which is all we have to offer here.” But it isn’t all they have to offer. These systems have been created from almost zero material infrastructure and with no state aid, by people who must scramble for their individual and collective survival, and without any model or instructions to follow in taking on such a monumental task. “Compañeros, we didn’t have a manual to do all this work,” Comandanta Sandra reminds us.
Nor did they have a privileged time or space. The autonomous systems were not built in the paradise of an accomplished rebellion; rather, their resistance has had to be constant, subject to a long-term low-intensity war with periods of siege, outright attack, and assassination. The militarization of Chiapas by the Mexican army, the creation, arming, and training of paramilitary groups all over Zapatista territory, the cooptation and division of communities by political parties and state forces, and the introduction of programs to either directly buy out people in resistance or coerce them into releasing land has aimed constantly over the past 14 years at weakening the resistance, dividing the organization, and eliminating leaders.
Despite this, the Zapatistas have never, thus far, returned to the trenches of open warfare, nor have they shrunk into fear or helplessness against the attacks and what is sometimes the overwhelming weight of poverty. They have continued building autonomy, slowly and steadily, giving themselves voice and searching out that of others with whom they can co-inhabit the daily makings of the new world they are committed to creating. They have understood a historical lesson as well as a collective dream: a system so comprehensively social, economic, and political does not fall because you tip it over, but because something new is created which makes it irrelevant.
The plans and the dreams of the Zapatistas, however, have never been contained by the boundaries of their territory. What has always been a global project—“We can walk a good path if all of you who are us walk together” —was made explicit in the Sixth Declaration and the Other Campaign: “This is our simple word which seeks to touch the hearts of humble and simple people like ourselves, but people who are also, like ourselves, dignified and rebel... in order to explain how we see the world and our country, in order to say what we are thinking of doing and how we are thinking of doing it, and in order to invite other persons to walk with us in something very great which is called Mexico and something greater which is called the world... This is our simple word, because it is our idea to call on those who are like us and to join together with them, everywhere they are living and struggling.”
Autonomy is not just for the indigenous, the EZLN has said over and over. And in the communiqués surrounding the release of the Sixth Declaration they say it again: You can participate directly, they address their civil supporters, or you can distance yourself from what we do next. You can stick to supporting the indigenous fight, thanks for your help, or you can join us and fight for yourselves.
[Continued in Part III.