Sunday, February 27, 2011

Zapatista Spring

The Chiapas government has launched another wave of repression against the Other Campaign in that state. Movement for Justice in El Barrio has convoked a Worldwide Day of Action. It is within this context that Subcomandante Marcos has broken two years of silence with "About the Wars, Part 2" - the first fragment released of a letter to sociologist Luis Villoro.

This blog has often been a place to explore the ways and meanings of solidarity. From pieces such as Rethinking Solidarity to my own ruminations to Simón Sedillo's thoughts coming out of his years in Oaxaca. Whereas much of my concern has been with the work we do closer to home, this chapter below (from the forthcoming book) explores the dynamics of solidarity as an Irishman spending extensive time in Latin American peasant communities... here in the Zapatistas' autonomous municipalities:

Zapatista Spring: Anatomy of a Rebel Water Project
by Ramor Ryan
from the Institute for Anarchist Studies' Perspectives

“Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is in solidarity, it is a radical posture.”— Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Roberto Arenas is a small tseltal(1) community of twenty-three subsistence farmer families located in the Chiapas Lacandon Rainforest, a six hour drive from the nearest major commercial center, the market town of Ocosingo. The occupants, adherents of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN, its Spanish acronym), formed a nuevo poblado, a new community, here about three years ago. The land makes up part of the territory that was taken over or 're-cuperated’ by the Zapatistas in the midst of the January 1st 1994 uprising, as the land owners fled and the rebels took control of the zone. Under the mantle that the land is owned by those who work it, the Zapatistas began slowly dividing out the vast swathes to Zapatista militia and support base families – usually landless indigenous peasants or campesinos who previously labored on large fincas under difficult conditions. About 300,000 hectares of land were recuperated by the insurgent Zapatistas after the tumultuous state-wide uprising. The newly formed community of Roberto Arenas, fell under the jurisdiction of the Francisco Gomez Autonomous region, a self-governing Zapatista municipality where there is no state authority and, as the sign entering the municipality announces, “Here the people govern and the government obeys!”

Like hundreds of other little villages dotted throughout the region, theirs is a community characterized by pastoral simplicity. The roughly hewn, earthen floor dwellings are scattered around the undulating hills, and converge on a grassy community plaza with a muddy basketball court, flanked by a couple of rustic wooden structures that serve as church, community hall, and school. Although the community would probably be considered to exist in extreme poverty by any standard indices, they are poor mostly in the sense that they lack buying power—surviving on less than $2 a day. Nevertheless, all vital needs of daily life are satisfied with farming and the natural resources around them, and only a small part of their needs are satisfied in the market. Roberto Arenas is a frugal rather than impoverished community, it is self-sufficient in a traditional way, and would only approach extreme poverty if they lost the forests, rivers, and commons that are part of their home.

Like most other indigenous settlements in the region, Roberto Arenas has no electricity or potable water. Water for washing is hauled from the jungle river and drinking water is carried from a small water-hole 1 kilometre away. There are few latrines, and, as is customary, adults and children alike mostly use the natural surroundings. Almost all water sources are contaminated by human and animal feces. Waterborne illnesses affect the population (predominantly children) including those related to amoebas and giardia, and there is a threat of cholera and typhoid. Lack of potable water sources increase the risk of scabies infection, lice, salmonella, ascariasis and enterovirus diarrheas.

Good, sweet water is available from an abundant freshwater spring 2 km up the mountain, but is unattainable as the villagers lack everything they need to pipe it into the community. The cost of basic materials like pipes and tools is beyond the community budget, and they lack the technical know-how to implement such a project. Historically, generations of colonizers of the Lacandon jungle dealt with this problem by taking basic precautions like adding iodine or boiling the water—but these are inadequate. Some communities would make do with the most basic of water systems, budget allowing—a makeshift concoction of pipes connected to the nearest water source. If the community was fortunate it might get some institutional support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), charities, or church organizations. In a region where the government does nothing to provide basic services, water systems are few and far between. The lack of this basic necessity, added to the long list of communities’ grievances and the injustices suffered, ultimately resulted in the Zapatista uprising. Off the political map in the eyes of the state, they are ignored and cast into the void. So, typical for the region, Roberto Arenas has received no institutional support from either government or NGOs.

Without government or state, how does political autonomy work in the Zapatista zone? How do the people organize to get things done, like realizing a water system for the community? In Roberto Arenas, like all Zapatista villages, the community assembly—with representatives from each household—meets in the community hall, weekly—or more frequently if there are things to decide. Together they determine the manner and method of developing their own village, taking into account what resources are available. Decisions are made by the assembly, preferably by consensus. If there is a split and no clear decision, the debates and discussions go on until the assembly reaches a consensus. Occasionally, this can take days on end. This is participatory democracy in action, warts and all.

This kind of assembly-based decision-making process is not unique to the Zapatistas: indigenous communities throughout the region have always worked like this, most likely since pre-colonial times. It is in this forum, that all the major decisions concerning the community are taken – from land issues to community development, to justice—and are then passed on to the relevant commission for fine tuning. The decision to join the Zapatistas and go to war on January 1st, 1994 was taken in such an assembly. And if asked what influence the EZLN has had on the traditional community assembly procedures, compañeros and compañeras will mention how more women and youth are now involved in the decision making than before. Previously the assemblies were dominated by older male members but with Zapatista influence, the old patriarchal ties are not as binding.

So it was that Roberto Arenas decided that their biggest priority was getting a fresh water supply. This necessity was prioritized over other pressing needs, like electricity, new work tools, a hammock bridge to span the river that separated them from the dirt road, and the construction of a church building.

The assembly nominated three water “commissioners” to investigate the matter and to petition the local autonomous council for help and support. The three made their preliminary survey of what would be needed and walked the arduous mountain paths through the jungle, arriving at La Garrucha, the regional autonomous municipality center. They attended the weekly council meetings— or juntas— overseen by the council representatives there by rotation, and attended by community members from any of the several hundred communities in this particular autonomous municipality (one of seven throughout the Zapatista zone of influence). This system of local governance is part of their aspiration to organize in a participatory manner, from the bottom-up instead of the top-down. The Zapatista slogan— to lead by obeying— captures this concept.

The de-facto autonomy of the Zapatista zone is a result of the never-ratified San Andreas Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture negotiated between the EZLN and the Mexican government in 1996. Under provisions of the agreement approved but never sanctioned by the government, majority indigenous municipalities would be granted limited autonomy over land, habitat, exploitation of natural resources, the environment, education, health, and agrarian policies. Authorities and municipal posts would be designated by traditional usos y custumbres(2) instead of being divided up among political parties. In response to the government’s betrayal of the San Andreas agreements, the Zapatistas set up autonomous structures without official state authorization. Such pirate action has resulted in a burgeoning and successful system of rebel autonomy that exists under the constant threat of dismantlement by the Mexican Army.

The three compas of Roberto Arenas patiently wait their turn at the autonomous municipality seat of La Garrucha, prosaically entitled the Good Government Council “The Path of the Future” Caracol. The wait could be days as the business of the municipal council is long and complicated, but eventually they will present their petition. The various representatives listen, take note of the petition, and discuss the project. Everything is taken into account and the three compas return to their village to await the outcome.

The good government committee of the autonomous municipality refer the case to their elected water commission and the options are weighed. The commission consults various parties including the local EZLN commander and clandestine committee members, and so, in the end, after the issue has been bandied around what seems like half the inhabitants of this particular region of the jungle, the community of Roberto Arenas is notified about the eligibility of their request. It’s a process similar to what happens anywhere in the world at a local council level, except for one significant difference: the state authorities have no involvement whatsoever; this is an autonomous process overseen by the communities’ people. There is no separation between who is governed and who is governing—they are one and the same. The various committees and bodies are overseen not by elected or appointed officials, but by members of the community, a duty performed by rotation. Here, in a place off the map, a nowhere of sorts, the people have adopted an enlightened form of governance. This is how an autonomous administration functions. This is peoples' power in action.

And, most significantly, for this particular little story, the decision for the community is… Affirmative! Yes to assigning a water project to Roberto Arenas! So the momentum to bring potable water to the isolated rural community on recuperated Zapatista lands begins. Now to find a way to make it happen!

Not surprisingly, the Zapatista autonomous municipalities are chronically lacking in funding and resources. Revenue comes from their own base—from Zapatista agricultural ventures like coffee or honey, from NGOs (local, national, and international) and from solidarity groups. In the case of getting water to a base community, the municipalities have a couple of options: A fairly basic project—a DIY job—can be self-financed, though is often only a temporary solution. A more sophisticated water system is very costly and requires local engineers and plumbers to be hired to oversee the project. Another option is to petition an NGO or solidarity group to support and realize a community water project.

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