Talking to the people here I am grateful that there are few paramilitaries based in the area around Diez de Abril. But as we finally stream out into the open air, beginning to chat among ourselves again, an army helicopter flies low over our heads. This is part of the constant psychological war of nerves the government is waging against the communities, reminding them just how precarious the situation is. In fact there are thousands of soldiers in camps all around us, ready for the next raid the government decides to launch on these "criminals" who have dared to demand that there be justice, freedom and democracy in Mexico.
My friend Antonio merely shrugs at the noise of the rotor blades above. It's a daily occurrence by now and besides, there is work to be done bringing maize from the milpas several miles away to feed his family. Many of the crops will be harvested late this year due to the freak weather conditions earlier on, which would normally mean a period of near starvation for the peasants, forced to live and farm on the poorest of land. Yet since they occupied this ranch over three years ago there has been access to good, fertile land and even the young people - for whom there was formerly no land to be had and hence no future except in the huge sprawling slums of the cities - have been given plots to work and to build their small wooden houses on. 1998 has been hard, of course, but Diez de Abril has survived. Land is a vital part of the Zapatista struggle.
The former landowners are not happy. They complain angrily that the EZLN is still occupying over 40,000 hectares of the most productive land in Chiapas, neglecting to say that these ranches would formerly have been in the hands of less than a hundred families, while the indigenous labourers were paid less than a pound a day for their work. Things have come to a head this Christmas as the government party has managed to win a couple of local municipalities, using a new and more ingenious system of fraud. Even so they can only boast of having won the votes of 15% of the electorate, a curious kind of "legitimacy". It has given the local oligarchy the excuse to threaten mass evictions from the occupied farms, driving the descendents of Mexico's first inhabitants back into oblivion. The 1st of January seems like a likely date for this to begin. Tension is very high. Nobody knows what to expect.
New Year's Day passes off peacefully in the end. The official PRI party has been forced into negotiations with some of the opposition groups and there is a brief respite for the men, women and children of the maize fields. Nevertheless they are still nervous of what the last year of the millenium may bring. The previous 500 have not been easy.