Students Witness the Struggle of Indigenous Populations in Southern Mexico

Global Perspectives in Real Estate

First Quarter 2005

Students Witness the Struggle of Indigenous Populations in Southern Mexico
By Megan R. Abraham

In March 2004, I was one of sixteen Chicago-area grad school students who traveled to Chiapas, Mexico for a one-week study abroad course on Sustainable Development and Non-Government Organizations (NGO's). We are studying for our Master's degrees in Public Service Management from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

Chiapas is the southernmost state of Mexico, along the border with Guatemala. It is home to one of Mexico’s largest indigenous communities. Ancestors of the current indigenous population of Chiapas have been living in the area for over 4,000 years. Chiapas is home to the breathtaking Mayan ruins at Palenque, which we visited at the beginning of our journey to enhance our understanding of the ancient culture
of the area.

The focus of this journey, however, was not sightseeing. Our purpose was to learn to recognize important features of projects involved in sustainable development, and how to communicate what we learned about globalization and the role of non-profit organizations. Along the way, we met many NGO representatives—health care promoters, social activists, fair trade cooperative members, international human rights observers, protectors of indigenous rights and cultures, researchers, lawyers, and government officials. One of our key findings was how little any of us knew about the struggles facing the indigenous populations of Southern Mexico.

Here is some of what we were told.

The Zapatista Uprising
On January 1, 1994, the effective date of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an armed group of indigenous people occupied several areas of Chiapas, including the colonial capital of San Cristóbal de las Casas. The armed group was named the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) or Zapatistas for short, named for the father of Mexico’s agrarian reform of 1915, Emiliano Zapata. Their demands included indigenous autonomy, democracy for all in Mexico, and economic policies that would benefit all Mexicans. In 1992, the Mexican government had reversed Zapata's agrarian reforms to pave the way for the private ownership of land required for the implementation of NAFTA. Since the uprising, the Zapatistas have participated
in numerous talks with the Mexican government but many of their demands remain unmet.

The Zapatista Community of Roberto Barrios
Roberto Barrios is a settlement in Chiapas, outside of Palenque. The citizens of Roberto Barrios work the land, growing corn and beans for subsistence. They also grow cash crops like coffee to sell through cooperatives, and they maintain a handmade textile cooperative. Children attend the community school, which teaches in the native dialects and in Spanish. Many indigenous peoples in southern Mexico know little Spanish. The community is building a high school.

We met with a group of Zapatistas at Roberto Barrios to understand their struggle. The citizens of Roberto Barrios believe their land to be sovereign indigenous land within the sovereign nation of Mexico—refusing any support from the Mexican government—but the government does not currently recognize it as such. They wear black ski masks and red neck scarves to declare solidarity with indigenous groups in other countries who feel unrecognized by their governments, by religious groups, or by globalization. The Zapatistas of Roberto Barrios are acting locally by resisting the Mexican government’s stronghold on land, but it was their hope that, by speaking with our group, they case would be heard by the global community.

Las Abejas:“The Bees”
In the Chiapas town of Acteal, we met with the executive committee of Las Abejas, to hear the history of the group’s struggle to withstand the forces of globalization and promote indigenous rights through peaceful resistance. Las Abejas is Spanish for "The Bees," and the group chose this name because of the symbolism of many worker bees protecting the queen bee, emblematic to them of their land and human rights for indigenous people.

They told us that, in December 1997, just a few days before Christmas, a group of Mexican paramilitaries discovered a meeting of Las Abejas in a church in Acteal. Assuming that the group included armed Zapatistas, the paramilitaries opened fire, and killed almost fifty people. The victims of this massacre at Acteal were mostly women and children, and they were unarmed.

The Struggle Continues
Following the Zapatista uprising of 1994, Mexican military and paramilitary groups descended upon Chiapas in response. Religious conflict in the area among Catholics and Presbyterians has led to the formation of numerous paramilitary groups. The area remains home to the largest number of troops in the country.

As students, we were observers of the struggle of these indigenous populations for recognition and survival in a changing world. We came away with a better understanding of the plight of the historic owners of the land around the world and a resolve to influence the forces of globalization in some small way to acknowledge their claims of ownership.

Editor's Note: This article presents a point of view that is contrary to that of the Mexican government. The Institute for Liberty and Democracy is assisting the Mexican government to define and codify private property rights in Mexico along the lines discussed in this issue's cover story. NAR takes no official position on this matter, but sees value in presenting information from various viewpoints in order to inform real estate professionals working in these markets and enable them to shape their own positions on issues.

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