by Michael McCaughan -San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.
While public attention focused firmly on the recent "Intergalactic Encounterfor Humanity and against Neoliberalism" in Chiapas, south-east Mexico andto a lesser extent on the disintegrating rebel-government dialogue, an event of perhaps greater significance took place last weekend, on a muddyhillside far from the media.
It began at 6am, on Saturday August 17th, when 120 Zapatista farmers formally occupied the 380-hectare ranch of Amador Alfonso, located within rebel-held territory.
Grandson of a local tyrant, Alfonso's property was a no-go area for local farmers, who had to make a huge detour to get to their own stoney farmland,while women carrying water were routinely assaulted by ranch cowboys.The rebel farmers immediately began to construct a huge wooden fence for the cattle they have expropriated from various ranchers in the area, wealthy ranchers who can only enter the zone accompanied by a military convoy.Lacking shovels and picks, the workers, of all ages, dug with sharpenedwooden sticks, then removed mud with their bare hands. A single chainsaw helped to even out the cross beams and by midday, the corral was almost completed.The local health promoter stirred the thick, hot Chapupote, a tar used to prevent rain seeping in to the fence stakes. The size of the poles seemed exaggerated, as smaller barbed wire fences usually suffice to keep animals inside."It's going to look just like the fences the 'Ricos' used to make," explained one worker, smiling with visible pride.
The old ranch, an elegant colonial home with tall pillars and high ceilings,has been emptied of its contents, from feather beds to old family photos in the manner of the Haitian 'Dechouke,' or removal of every last trace of hated occupancy of homes taken from the oppressor. Nearby, the thatched mud huts of the 'Peones', the landless serfs who ran the farm contrasted sharply with the splendour of the master's home, itself a mere shadow of the landowner's real mansion, located in "civilised" towns like Comitan and Teopisca.
The takeover and construction is part of a process to consolidate the Zapatista revolution and improve the living standards of dozens of communities in the area.
"Let's see the bastards come and clear us out of here," said one elderly man, who used to labour for a Peso a day on the same farm, "and lucky you were if they even paid you," he added.
When the Zapatista rebellion began in January 1994, all the landowners fled, (names are tossed out, like Liborio, Flor Solorzano, los Castellanos, los Kanter), ranchers with up to 4,000 cattle on 2,000 hectares. The army entered Morelia village on January 7th, 1994, looking for zapatistas,torturing and killing three men. Since then, the villagers have beenanxious to take the farms ("one for each Companero killed") and sow lifewhere death reigned in the past.
However, throughout 1994 and 1995, the local Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee, (CCRI) ordered locals to wait, expecting a region-wide land settlement after the 1994 dialogue. The first dialogue ended in a rejection by the communities of the government offer, while the current dialogue is going nowhere, as the government looks for ways to eliminate the Zapatista threat without ceding significant political concessions.
The rebels want "all or nothing," claimed Marco Bernal, chief government negotiator, rejecting rebel demands for participatory democracy, offering instead something more straightforward- nothing at all or nothing at all. Late last year, at a village assembly, the Tzeltal Indians of Morelia approvedthe establishment of a new village on land belonging to the hated Kanter family, baptised the 'Seventh of January', in honour of the fallen comrades. The third generation of Morelians, about 80 youths, moved in to the land and began to sow a new Milpa, or cornfield. The latest occupation consolidates the retaking of the valley.
The regular overflights in the region, by planes belonging to both state security forces and vexed landowners, left no doubt that the government knows what is happening, but does not want a confrontation. "A few more days of war in Chiapas and the whole of Mexico will be up in arms," said Leonardo, speaking of the latest guerrilla attacks in Guerrero and growing unrest in Mexico City.
"It was about bloody time we farmed these lands," said another old man, lines of sweat etched on his face. He looks 80, but he is barely 60, the strain of of endless machete farmwork marking his weary expression. The Zapatista command almost had a mutiny on their hands here in February 1995, when the Mexican army advanced, forcing several communities to flee into mountains.
Day after day, the local militia waited for orders to respond to the aggression, preparing home-made explosives, watching army movements less than a hundred metres away. It took the sharpest of Zapatista commanders to convince the militia not to ambush the troops, who casually washed in nearby rivers and lazed at camps set carelessly in hilly terrain.Over the past few months, landowners have made cautious representation to the local CCRI delegates, agreeing to forget about their lands in return for signed pieces of paper confirming the rebel takeovers. The landowners would then seek compensation from the government, as they have done for lostproduction earnings since 1994.
The rebels are still debating the request, balancing the historic right of the communities to retake lands unconditionally against a more pragmatic arrangement which would give the rebels written assurances that the former landowners are formally giving up the ghost on their lands.The Saturday work was voluntary and collective, as will the fruits of the labour, which have already yielded honey and coffee elsewhere in the region.With the dialogue a dead letter, the communities are planning for the years ahead, when they will fight alone, facing constant state pressure to give up retaken land.
"There is no more land to distribute in Mexico," said ex-president Carlos Salinas, in one of his memorable speeches on the death of land reform. Salinas slinks pathetically around Ireland these days, where a Chiapas support committee has begun collecting signatures to have the monster declared Persona Non Grata. Meanwhile the farmers breaking soil on Amador Alfonso's land consolidate an irreversible process.