This last August, I joined a delegation to Chiapas, Mexico organized by Global Exchange, a U.S. non-profit organization. Like most North Americans, I had associated Chiapas, Mexico’s southern-most state, with the Zapatistas. This armed, left-wing group staged an insurrection against the central Mexican authority in 1994, gaining worldwide attention due to their daring tactics and anti-globalization message. However, what I did not realize until traveling to Chiapas is that the Zapatistas by no means address the needs of all the individual indigenous communities. In fact, many of Chiapas’ indigenous communities are engaged in desperate struggles for land independent of any Zapatista leadership. I also learned that, far from always being united, many of the indigenous communities are battling each other, and are prey to divide-and-conquer tactics by the Mexican government.
Our delegation visited several communities in the El Desempeno region of Chiapas’ Lacandon Jungle. They are similar to many of the organized indigenous communities in Chiapas that traditionally have asserted community rights to land, self-governance and indigenous identity. The testimonies of four specific communities made it very clear that not only is their community land under threat, but there are many obstacles and enemies in their struggle.
In 1972, the Mexican government wanted to obtain unlimited rights to the resources of the Lacandon Jungle, yet felt that it would be too politically controversial for the government itself to take over the land. Instead, the government preferred to make it appear as though the government simply was resolving land disputes between different indigenous groups. It unjustly granted 614,321 hectares to a cooperating group of 66 families, but obtained back from them unlimited rights to exploit the land’s natural resources. Even though the 66 families had come from the Yucatan in the 19th Century, and there were other indigenous communities in the Lacandon Jungle, the government arbitrarily recognized the group of 66 families as the “Lacandon Community.”
Evicted by the 1972 land grant to the 66 families, the communities of Flor de Cacao, San Jacinto Lacanja, Ojo de Agua el Progreso, and Viejo Velasco Suarez moved to new lands. Tension mounted between the Lacandon, on the one hand, and these and other indigenous communities, on the other. The government finally ended the turmoil in 1984 by establishing a legal settlement of land claims. However, this settlement did not endure the test of time, and the same indigenous communities have been fighting for their land to this very day.
In fact, over the last few years the government and Lacandon’s effort to evict the indigenous communities has intensified. Despite having legal documentation and topographical maps from the 1984 land settlement, 28 communities were threatened with forcible eviction. The Lacandon used many different methods of intimidation, from hiring engineers to go into the communities to plan redistribution, to actual occupation. Finally, the government agreed in 2005 to good faith negotiations to be held in El Limonar with representatives of the 28 communities. The communities were assured that their lands would be legally theirs by December 2005. Most importantly, the 28 communities decided when the El Limonar negotiations began that no community would be left behind, and that either a deal would be made with every community or none at all.
Unfortunately, neither of these two pledges was fulfilled. The claims of 24 of the Limonar communities were resolved, leaving four communities — Flor de Cacao, San Jacinto Lacanja, Ojo de Agua el Progreso, and Viejo Velasco Suarez — behind to suffer alone. Some witnesses stated that corrupt representatives were responsible for the exclusion of the four communities; yet, the story of how the coalition split varied from town to town.
The government had successfully implemented the age-old tactic of divide and conquer. With the coalition’s collapse, the government and the Lacandon became much more aggressive towards the four communities. They tried to label Flor de Caocao as an entire community of delinquents. At times, the government would blame crimes (even homicides) that the Lacandon committed on the communities. The government and the Lacandon also worked hand in hand to exploit the reality that Spanish is not the first language of many people in these communities, and would often purposely mistranslate documents.
Especially effective, and what the Global Exchange international observers got to see first hand, was the Lacandon’s tactic of making transportation in and out of the communities very difficult. The Lacandon have nearly exclusive rights to the most convenient routes in and out of the four communities. Our group of international observers was denied access to the boat passage to Ojo de Aqua, which would only take one hour. Instead, the only available route was a four-hour hike through the jungle itself, in shin-deep mud. As one can imagine, the state government’s assurance that medicine and education will reach the communities is utterly ridiculous. One mother explained that the Lacandon have created such obstacles that even in an extreme circumstance, even when the children are sick, it becomes very hard to get out of the community to a clinic.
Some members of the communities gave testimony that the government has on occasion stopped them and demanded they relocate, warning that there will be a massacre. When asked who would commit the massacre, the government officials answered “the neighboring Guatemalans.” According to the communities, this is a blatant lie, considering that there is no conflict with the Guatemalans. If there were to be a massacre, they believe that the Mexican government would surely be behind it. The communities expressed extreme frustration with having to constantly live in fear of this possibility.
Then, sure enough, the government and the Lacandon actually started forcible evictions. First, they infiltrated Viejo Relazco. Currently, only one family is left in that community; the other 42 families either fled in fear or were bribed to leave. Yet another community, Ojo de Agua, is in imminent danger of becoming another Viejo Relazco. Just a month before our visit, police came into the town on July 15 and reportedly began a practice of throwing personal possessions into the river and burning homes. Twenty families left because there was no other option. Five families still remain, yet are constantly threatened by the police and the Lacandon. Ojo de Agua in particular is now trying to give their collective testimony to any party that has a chance of attracting public attention.
None of the testimonies we heard offered any explanation for the exclusion of Flor de Cacao, San Jacinto Lacanja, Ojo de Agua el Progreso, and Viejo Velasco Suarez from the 2005 land settlement and for the continuing actions against these communities. However, we can infer that the government has specific political motives. Perhaps most importantly, the location of these communities near the Usumacinta River could pose an obstacle to the government’s plan to build hydroelectric dams on the river as part of Plan Puebla-Panama, its joint program with Central American countries to develop infrastructure needed for factories and the exploitation of resources. Also, extremely valuable woods make up the environment of three of the communities. Both the government and the Lacandon are interested in exploiting this lucrative natural resource. Similarly, several testimonies indicate that the Lacandon and some nearby communities working with them want to develop tourism around the nearby archaeological site, Yaxchilan. Additionally, the representative from Viejo Velasco claimed that his community’s affiliations with the EZLN (the Zapatistas) were a likely cause for its eviction.
Although the government certainly acts illegally and maliciously against these four indigenous communities, it is important to consider that the government’s actions may have some social benefits. While it is true that the government gains from the sale of the jungle’s extracts, the pharmaceutical industry hopes to use these unique natural resources as cures and treatments for many serious illnesses. Though improbable, the resources on indigenous lands could hold secrets for the fight against cancer or AIDS. Therefore, I find that passing moral judgment on the government’s interventions in the region to be more complicated than I expected. However, the facts remain that the government neglects the rights of the indigenous to land, autonomy, and peace.
With so many different parties, and different sides to the story, what is the role of the international presence? As North Americans, what difference can we make? Delegations can end up feeling powerless, and also confused because they can morally align with conflicting parties. Nonetheless, we cannot fail to take action. In addition to valuing the communities’ testimonies and writing a report, our delegation directly influenced the struggle. The police heard that we were coming to hear testimonies and, on that day, left the communities for the first time since their occupation. Maybe, if a lasting international presence were established in the area, the government would end its efforts to evict the indigenous communities.
* Laura Krinsky is a high school senior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City.