By Viktor Göranson

In 1992, after years of negotiations back and forth between the US, Canada and Mexico, the North American Free Trade Agreement was finally delivered to the desk of Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The agreement was his trophy, one of his proudest moments that would come to define his presidency. The final choice to sign and ratify it would have consequences he and his associates could not foresee. The signing of the agreement would yet again put a sensitive subject on the political agenda – the question of land rights for indigenous people.

On the first day that the agreement came into force, the 1st of January 1993, Mexico woke up to the news that an unknown militia group had emerged from the depths of the Lacandón jungle in the southernmost state of Chiapas to seize seven towns and declare war against the government. The group that named itself the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) consisted of 6 000 rebels who demanded social and economic reforms for the marginalised indigenous people of Mexico. The leader of the EZLN, or the ‘Zapatistas’ as the group became referred to, the mysterious and always masked leader ‘Subcomandante Marcos’ where amongst those rebels that seized the historically important town of San Cristóbal. When addressing the public for the first time from a balcony on the main square he stated that the agreement represented “a death sentence to the indigenous ethnicities of Mexico, who are perfectly dispensable in the modernisation programs of Salinas de Gortari.”

For the Government, the entering of NAFTA represented a continuation of the new neoliberal era that the administration of Miguel de La Madrid instigated in 1982. For indigenous people in the politically marginalised South, the entering of the agreement represented a final, fatal blow to their way of life. The central authorities in Mexico City sought to establish the country on the International scene, it was an opportunity to send out signals to the world that the ‘United Mexican States’ now were a wealthy, developed, country that could compete with other markets. The rebels, on the other hand, reminded the world that, in the shadows of development, a considerable number of Mexicans were still facing inequalities and poverty to a degree that they were willing to take up arms and demand change.

The introduction of neoliberal politics in general, and NAFTA in particular, struck the rural farmer communities hard. Many of them have been around already before the Spaniards arrived and now their autonomy was threatened once again. The logic of NAFTA is that countries should specialize in goods and services in that they have a competitive advantage. Yet, the rural farmers of Chiapas just cannot compete with the industrialized production of US grains. Neither can they keep up with the large-scale enterprises that historically represented a real threat to farmers of being evicted from lands that have been tilled by their family for generations. Thus, their communities and traditions are undermined by the urge for efficiency and the scaling up of production in order to compete in an open market. Thereby, the incompatibility of the will of the market and the will of the indigenous communities is evident.

The political repression of the highly diverse indigenous population of Chiapas must be understood in a context of oppression; these communities have never enjoyed the benefit of being sufficiently represented where the real policies are shaped. Their struggle for rights and the defence of their way of life has been a constant in Mexico, predating the neoliberal paradigm and tracing back to the conquest of New Spain. Thereby, the Mayan civilization of that many present-day indigenous transcend, were, thanks to the rough vegetation of the jungle and the decentralized leadership, never really defeated by the conquistadores. Compared to other pre-Hispanic civilisation they managed to keep a strong identity, an identity that has been shaped in opposition.

Historically, the indigenous voice of Mexico has primarily been represented by Emiliano Zapata who, after years of armed struggle in the Mexican revolution, managed to influence the creation of the 1917 constitution of the United Mexican States. The outcome was article 27 stating that all land, water and mineral rights were to be the property of the Mexican people. Thus, his movement secured the rights of rural communities to cultivate the lands that had been theirs for generations. Now the farmers did not have to suffer the risk of being evicted from their own lands, at least in theory. Nearly eight decades later that same article 27 was imperilled by the entering of NAFTA. As a response, a group that’s name is a homage to the original creator of the article emerged out of the jungle after eleven years in hiding and re-instigated the armed struggle for indigenous rights in Mexico. In connection with NAFTA, article 27 was reformed, the land was deregulated and opened up for foreign investments. Thereby, the neoliberal paradigm was formalized in the agricultural area for all regions in Mexico.

To have an agricultural reform that applies the same rules for every community in such a diverse and unequal society as Mexico is an effective way of ending the era of indigenous agriculture. With it, the indigenous way of life is severely threatened. In order not to destroy such a heritage, reforms will have to acknowledge the huge regional differences in demand that exists today. Some things may be worth to be protected from the narrative of constant growth and progress.

How did events unfold for Subcomandante Marcos and his revolution for indigenous rights? The fighting did not last long after the government’s offensive push. A dialogue between the parts was initiated that soon became a monologue without the government listening. The movement may not have achieved what they originally sought but they managed to create a vibrant social movement that the people in power always will have to include in decision making processes. If not, they risk further fuelling the conflict about who has the right to be a part of present-day Mexico.

Viktor Göranson is currently studying the bachelor program in Peace and Development studies in Uppsala. He is still trying to recover from an exchange semester in Mexico City. When he´s not thinking about solutions to save our world he prefers to spend his time biking around the streets of summer Stockholm.

Illustration: Emelie Isaksen

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