The thirst for petroleum knows no morality, recognises no boundaries and respects no one's dignity. As the millenium draws to a close the internal combustion engine has become a serious threat to the survival of indigenous peoples around the world. The Nigerian writer Ken Saro Wiwa was recently executed simply for raising his voice against a genocide inspired by the quest for oil at any cost. In 1999, Mexican Indians are being driven from their tradtional lands for the simple reason that there is black gold underneath their very feet.
On Thursday, August 12th, seven soldiers and some military topographers appeared in the indigenous community of Amador Hernandez, located in the environmentally protected area of Montes Azules. They had come to carry out preparatory work for a military road through the village which the local population had strenuously objected to. It was a threat that had united supporters of the Zapatista guerrillas with members of the peasant organisation ARIC, so the response was immediate and decisive. The handful of soldiers were chased out under a hail of stones and mud. They promised to return with reinforcements.
The following morning some fifty paratroopers dropped from the skies into Amador Hernandez. Over 500 more troops arrived by land, down a muddy path that takes five hours to walk and is impassable by vehicle. Military equipment and local reporters working for the tabloid press were airlifted in. The peasants stood firm against a wall of riot shields, semi-automatics and hostile cameras, still pelting the paratroopers with mud and hurling abuse at every opportunity, but in the newspapers - controlled by families close to the local governing elite - they were depicted as a gang of savages brutalising a defenceless corps of "unarmed" peacekeepers.
Ironically, there was a forum being held only forty miles up the road in the rebel capital of La Realidad, to consolidate resistance to the federal government's plan to privatise the entire national heritage. When the event finished on the Saturday, 30 students from the National School of Antropology managed to make their way into Amador and join the indigenous people in the showdown. They were backed up by another group of 30 students three days later, and the army realised they had a fight on their hands. A barbed wire fence was erected to allow the soldiers some respite, and the campaign of media misrepresentation was intensified. State governor Roberto Albores made inflammatory statements to the effect that the people of Chiapas had had enough and would no longer tolerate the interference of foreigners and student agitators causing trouble among the indigenous population. Actress and human rights promoter Ofelia Medina was given 72 hours to leave the city of San Cristobal, with a veiled threat of violence if she did not comply. Government supporters are being goaded by the local media into acts of aggression against those they believe guilty of threatening the fragile status quo.
Many of the students have now left the area, while more human rights observers battle their way up to the scene of the confrontation. Last Saturday a truck carrying a small peace brigade composed of several Mexicans and two Spanish citizens was forcibly stopped on the road to Amador. The passengers were beaten with sticks and the driver's wife had her clothes torn off her. There was clearly no way through. Police have also blocked several roads - in one reported case felling trees - to cut off the indigenous communities and make sure that the only observers allowed through are journalists known to be in favour of the repression. The official line is that the new road is being built to bring progress and civilisation to the indigenous population.
The real motive for the roads and the huge military presence is less abstract. The Federal Government desperately needs to take control of the region in order to be able to exploit both new and existing oil wells in the Lacandon Jungle, the largest tropical rain forest in the Northern hemisphere. Petroleum deposits in the neighbouring state of Tabasco are being to run low. Little matter that the corollary of such "civilisation" is open and unrepentant barbarism against a people who have already suffered five centuries of repression.