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Chiapas Under Siege by Global Industries

Monday 23 February 2009, by John Ross

The commodification of the Zapatista movement recently reached absurdist heights with the New York Times designation of rebel villages in southeastern Chiapas as a hot budget tourist destination. "Chiapas Is Cheap! Indian Villages Flourish And The Price Is Right!" read the cut line in the NYT’s Sunday Travel section November 16 –ironically, the eve of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN.)

The double truck spread also featured a photo of the Zapatista cultural/political center, or caracol, at Oventic, a 45-minute drive from chic San Cristobal. "Their failed revolution (sic)" has given the Zapatista zone "a frisson of danger" the Times’ so-called "frugal traveler" Matt Gross wrote a few days later after tricking his way into the caracol for a self-serving hit piece that even listed the bargain price of quesadillas at Oventic’s Che Guevara general store.

Spearheading the state of Chiapas’s all-out tourism assault on the rebel zone is the on-again, off-again through highway from San Cristobal ("the new Soho" according to tourism publicists) to the magnificent Mayan ruins at Palenque that would infringe on a dozen Zapatista autonomous villages en route. The push to open up Chiapas as a transnational tourist venue continues to generate violence between Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities over control of such sites as Agua Azul, an eco-tourist resort in the San Cristobal-Palenque corridor.

Further south, both Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities have been forcibly evicted from the Montes Azules Biosphere, a 300,000-hectare swatch of the Lacandón jungle as Big Eco-Tourism combines, backed by such transnationals as Ford Motors, stake a claim on the untrammeled sanctuary. The eco-tourism boom has brought five-star hotels and Israeli-led caravans to the region.

The exploitation of sacred Mayan sites like Palenque by the local and transnational tourist trade has also ratcheted up tensions in southeastern Chiapas. In January, Zapatistas threatened to occupy Mayan ruins at Tonina just outside Ocosingo, "the Gateway to the Lacandón Jungle," over a land dispute. Last October, six non-Zapatistas were gunned down by Chiapas state police after activist Tojolabal Mayans took over the ruins at Chinkultik in the Montebello lakes area near Comitán, demanding a bigger slice of the tourism pie.

Tourism is one of Chiapas’ "four horsemen of progress" notes daily La Jornada correspondent Hermann Bellinghausen, one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Zapatista struggle whose "Heart Of Time" (Bellinghausen wrote the screenplay), set in the Zapatista zone, was recently shone at Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival. Petroleum, biofuels, and mining also add "frisson" to this southernmost Mexican state’s future.

Interest in drilling for petroleum in the "Lacandón basin" was revived this past December by Mexico’s energy secretary Georgina Kessel. Although she failed to specify just what she meant by the "Lacandón basin," drilling for oil in the jungle is sure to conflict with that other horseman of Chiapas’ future, eco-tourism. PEMEX, Mexico’s state-controlled oil consortium, drilled sites in the rebel zone in the 1980s and early ’90s. The Nazaret complex of 31 platforms less than 10 miles from the Zapatista caracol at La Garrucha was sealed up after the indigenous rebellion exploded in 1994. Confidential assessments by PEMEX noted scant oil (400 barrels a day) at Nazaret, but tens of thousands of cubic feet of natural gas, exploitation of which was put on hold by the uprising.

The biofuel component in the horserace for Chiapas’s future is more transnational flimflam. Under the once-upon-a-time Plan Puebla-Panama, now re-dubbed Plan Mesoamerica and extended through Central America to Colombia, Colombian industrialists are growing 7,000 hectares of non-food biomass on the Pacific coastal plain near Puerto Chiapas. Although the plantation involves a non-food crop (pinion), it removes considerable land from food cropping. The biofuel project represents an initial collaboration between Colombia’s widely disparaged president Álvaro Uribe and Mexico’s illegitimately elected Felipe Calderón, both darlings of the U.S. State Department.

As the price of gold has soared, transnational mining is gaining a leg up in the race for Chiapas’ future. At least 55 permits for mining development have been granted by state authorities to mostly Canadian speculators in the sierra and highlands of Chiapas. Such transnationals as Linear Gold and Blackfire are decried for widespread deforestation, slave labor wages, and the suppression of workers’ rights at the mining sites.

While the state of Chiapas is being put out to bid, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation marked its 25th anniversary as a rebel force and its 15th year on public display over the year-end holidays with an annual conclave of supporters this year slugged, "The World Fiesta of Digna Rabia" ("Rage with Dignity"), a more modest outing than previous get-togethers. This year, special invitees such as the French-British critic John Berger sent along videotaped contributions rather than traveling to Chiapas for in-person appearances.

One international celebrity who did show up live was the Zapatistas’ quixotic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos who delivered what has become his yearly diatribe against self-designated political enemies. (Marcos’s public statements have been in short supply since the EZLN’s ill-fated "Other" campaign and his once-daily epistemological output was virtually reduced to zero in 2008.)

Headlining public sessions of the Digna Rabia Fiesta at San Cristobal’s University of the Earth, the Sup picked up where he left off last year by attacking Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the left leader of the Movement to Defend Mexico’s Petroleum and the Popular Economy, who was swindled out of the presidency by Felipe Calderón in 2006. Among other calumnies: Marcos damned AMLO and Calderón as two sides of the same coin. The Zapatista mouthpiece also accused López Obrador of being in cahoots with the CIA and labeled his movement, the broadest activist alliance in Mexico today (AMLO recently drew upwards of 100,000 to Mexico City’s Zocalo) as "sectarian, intolerant, and hysterical" – all pejoratives that could well be applied to the rebel Subcomandante.

In an excess of "mala leche" (spoiled milk), Marcos also equated the deaths of 11 young people during a stampede when Mexico City police raided a teenage hang-out last July to Israeli genocide in Gaza, and lambasted veterans of the watershed 1968 student movement and López Obrador’s successor as Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard for enshrining the government massacre of 325 students on October 2 of that year as a national day of mourning.

Other worms in the Subcomandante’s can include the unexplained exclusion of Barcelona solidarity workers led by Iñaki García from the Zapatistas’ international support network and the removal of French leftist Olivier Besancenot from the Digna Rabia panelists’ lists after he met with supporters of Senator Rosario Ibarra, founder of the Eureka Mothers of the Disappeared committee in Mexico City. Even the International Womens’ Day celebration of the life of the late Concepción García de Corral ("Mamá Corral") who lost two sons in Mexico’s 1970s’ "dirty war" and was a member of the Eureka committee is a backhanded slap at Doña Rosario, who was once close to Marcos but is now aligned with López Obrador.

The Subcomandante’s shameful performance at the Digna Rabia Fiesta is an embarrassment to long-time Zapatista supporters such as this writer who has authored four books chronicling the rebel movement. This writer offers his profound apologies for misleading readers about Marcos’s exalted status. In recent years, the Sup has transformed himself into a vituperative, narcissistic charlatan who is single-handedly responsible for the depreciation of the Zapatista movement as a national and international player on the Left.

But if Subcomandante Marcos’s public posture has been disastrous for the rebel cause, Zapatista communities in the highlands and jungles of southeastern Chiapas have continued to demonstrate the capabilities of collective action. The rank and file rebels’ creativeness in providing a Zapatista education for their children and their defense of their environment, particularly native plants, are exemplary.

Moreover, epidemiological studies as reported by former National Autonomous University rector Pablo González Casanova underscore the continuing excellence of Zapatista health care projects. In areas such as pre-natal care, Zapatista health providers have extended coverage to 63% of all expectant mothers – double that of non-Zapatista communities in the region. Three-quarters of all Zapatista homes have access to toilets as opposed to 54% in non-Zapatista homes and in terms of vaccination, increased newborn weights, and the diminishment of infant mortality, the EZLN health projects far outshine their non-Zapatista neighbors.

While the EZLN eschews the public spotlight and has auto-marginalized itself from participation in national and international political activism, autonomous Zapatista communities in southeastern Chiapas continue to be living proof that another world is possible.