Caracoles – The Resistance, part 5 – Roberto Barrios

by Gloria Munõ Ramirez, La Jornada

Zapatista Caracol 5
Roberto Barrios, Northern Zone, Chiapas, Mexico

The next section of “Chiapas: The Resistance” is a report from the Mexican daily La Jornada on the zapatista movement in the northern zone of Chiapas. (translated by Edinchiapas from Indymedia Chiapas, September 2004)

In the middle of the caracol two gangs of nine howler monkeys fight over their territory. This spectacle attracts the members of the junta of good government “New Seed which is going to produce”, the peace campers from Argentina, Barcelona and France, the team of indigenous people charged with the autonomous communication project and a group of north americans who are building the zapatista secondary schools.

In the middle of the still lush jungle and very near the beautiful waterfalls coveted by investors both national and foreign, the howler monkeys go down to the water, in these territories devastated by the most bloody paramilitary group in the whole of zapatista territory: the group Paz y Justicia (“Peace and Justice”).

The caracol, situated approximately one hour from Palenque is in permanent construction. The internet office is almost ready, from here they will send and receive emails to and from the whole world; and the office of the junta of good government has just been completed. It is made from cement and bloc and decorated with huge colourful zapatista murals.

The caracol “Which speaks for all”, in the northern zone of the state of Chiapas, has six autonomous municipalities and three other municipalities are about to be set up. Nature is abundant in this region, “and so we need to defend it, “declares Pedro, a member of the junta who has just explained that the people’s autonomy begins with the care of the earth.

So that they can look after natural resources, the zapatistas have just completed a plan to improve the soil. The plan consists of, amongst other things, the gradual elimination of the burning of the “acahuales” (regenerating ex-forest areas used for growing crops), the use of organic fertilizer and ceasing the use of insecticides, with the aim of increasing the land’s fertility. “All this is not easy, it takes a lot of work, because the state gives the priistas chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides and so the earth continues to be mistreated. We know however that we can sow the land (organically) without reducing the quality of the land,” the autonomous authorities explain.

Since campaigning for environmental improvements began, more and more zapatistas use organic insecticides. They say, “It is not about eliminating infestations, but about putting them to flight”. To do this they use arnica which is used both as an insecticide and a fertilizer; they make organic compost and of course, they reject the use of genetically modified seeds.

The children never get zero

The management of agroecology is not new in these villages nor is the system of autonomous education which began five years ago, “when we began to think about the need for education to be in the hands of the people, there were already comrades doing this in La Realidad and so we also decided to do this”.

And so began the courses for education promotors in the autonomous programme Seed of the Sun. It’s been five years since this was started and there are now four generations of promotors. The seed has grown and now the communities of Huitiupan, Sabanilla and Tila are taking part in these programmes.

Wtih autonomous education, explains another member of the junta, “An alternative to the state system is open to zapatista families. Many people criticise us, they say we are not doing the work well, but the fact is that we now have 352 education promotors giving classes in 159 schools of resistance, of which 37 are totally new schools. In these schools we have educated around 4,000 zapatista boys and girls. In state schools classes are only given in spanish. The zapatistas claim that in state schools, “Our children are taught to stop being indigenous, while in our schools we encourage our identity.” So in the northern zone classes are given in spanish, zoque, tzeltal and chol, “and we also talk about our struggle and the children are able to develop their own ideas”.

Here they explain, “Those who don’t know anything are not given zero marks, rather the group does not move forward until everybody is equal, no-one is told off”. At the same time at the end of the courses the indigenous promotors organise a series of activities which they present to their parents, who value their children’s learning without them needing to receive a certificate.

The educational process in this region is becoming more and more independent. The first and second generation of promotors were trained with the help of civil society, but the third and fourth generation were trained by the first two lots of graduates without external input. In this area they are more and more dispensing with the need for ‘outside’ support, although they still still on occasion need to ask outside help to develop teaching materials. On the other hand food for promotors who are undergoing training is provided for by their villages and is not dependent on a project.

At this moment in time there are two training centres for promotors, one in Roberto Barrios and the other in Ak’abal Na. The subjects taught in the primaries are: maths, languages, history and life and our environment, and we relate all subjects to the zapatista demands.

The history we teach our children is not from official texts, but it is the history of our people and our struggle. The promotors and children have prepared the histories of all of their communities and by means of a time line these are continued in the schools of resistance. “The children consult the old people in their villages and together with them they assemble their own teaching materials”, says one of the promotors.

The challenge of education is now to relate it to all our projects. In this way the schools also give classes in health and agroecology. In the autonomous municipality of Roberto Barrios, for example, the children learn to care for the earth when they sow the land, and they also learn about issues of hygiene and how to prevent illnesses. At the same time the education promotors organise trips for the children to the mountains and to rivers where they are directly involved in the care for the environment.

The autonomous authorities declare proudly that a secondary education project is already being worked on (the building situated behind the junta office is now ready). Here they will take the same subjects as at primary school adding one subject on culture. In reality it is not really a secondary school, but as its long name indicates a Cultural Centre of Autonomous Zapatista Technical Education.

The idea is that this centre will adapt to the indigenous reality, “it is not about studying to stop being indigenous, but to be indigenous with more ideas”. What follows they say, “Will be to one day fulfill the dream of having our own zapatista university. Before, all this that we now have created, it was a dream and look, we already have achieved it”.

The six autonomous municipalities in this zone are: El Trabajo, Ak’abal Na, Benito Juarez, Francisco Villa, La Paz and Vicente Guerrero and there are another three regions which operate as autonomous municipalities although they have not yet been formally declared municipalities. In addition there are a series of communities which have still to organise autonomous councils. In the whole of the zone they report an annual income of one million 600,000 pesos and expenditure of approximately one million. This is very little, taking into account the size of the territory and what its needs are, but it is not insignificant considering that everything is progressed by collective means.

The support of La Garriga a small, prosperous area in Barcelona has been very important to this region. La Garriga has been twinned with El Trabajo municipality for some years and is now working together with the autonomous authorities in other municipalities in the zone on education, health and agroecological projects.

Health … Much is needed

One of the areas of work which is most lagging behind in these villages is health. They recognise that, “We are organising a health service in all the municipalities and regions because health is an urgent need in the communities in resistance. Everything we organise in these villages has the aim of having our own system of community and autonomous health”.

For one year since the inauguration of the caracoles and the junta of good government, “the state health centres have increased their hostility towards our supporters. They ask them a lot of questions and do not provide good care. Because of this our people are afraid to go to the state clinics.” say the junta, who together with the villages are working on a plan to prevent illnesses.

The work of a small group of women physiotherapists from Catalunya stands out in the northern zone. Working in a small air conditioned room they give therapeutic massage which will help some illnesses without the need for medication. The cultural exchange which happens during these massages is amazing. Indigenous men and women from the villages are not accustomed to touch for therapeutic purposes far less accustomed to taking off their clothes. These young, enthusiastic professionals go from village to village offering massage and training so that when they leave others can carry on their work.

Up to some months ago, the health work in the villages seemed to be very unequal. Each municipality was working on its needs separately and there were some which did not have anything, neither health clinics nor promotors. Today there is already a clinic in each of the six declared municipalities and training courses for promotors in all of the communities. They are working on courses in herbalism and western ‘conventional’ medicine just like in the other four caracoles.

The autonomous clinics, as in the majority of community centres, do not have doctors or nurses. They are run by village health promotors who have also just finished vaccination and preventative medicine campaigns. The muncipality El Trabajo is the only one which has a doctor in its clinic in Roberto Barrios. This is a student doctor.

Parasitic and respiratory illnesses, skin infections and fever are some of the illnesses now treated by a total of 35 promotors in El Trabajo and 41 in Benito Juarez. Meanwhile in Fransisco Villa they are working on a herbal project and in the others they are carrying out an analysis of the sanitary situation. Meanwhile they are working on campaigns to clean latrines, keeping animals outside the home, personal and community hygiene. “All of this takes work, but the compas are doing it”, the health responsable says.

Autonomous Videomakers

Moy, a young zapatista is part of an autonomous media system which includes, in addition to a regional radio station, making videos which tell about their history, record their fiestas and traditions and the violation of human rights. A product of this work is the video the War of Fear: the video talks about the violence of Paz Y Justicia (Peace and Justice), the paramilitary group responsible for murders and other crimes in the northern zone.

Rosaura is the newsreader in the only municipal radio station run by the bases of support (Radio Insurgente is run by insurgents and not by people from the villages). It is a local station called Radio Resistance which transmits on short wave. They are now working on where to locate the radio transmitter so as to increase the transmission.

Children’s stories, health campaigns, interviews with the women’s co-operatives and local news is what can be heard from the radio station run by a group of young men and women from the villages.

Women in the Northern Zone

In front of the main entrance to the caracol is the peace camp where dozens of men and women of all nationalities accompany the continually beseiged community of Roberto Barrios. At one side of the camp there is a muticoloured building where a group of women dressed in many colours sew both blouses and hopes for the future.

The first co-operative was born as an indirect product of the paramilitary threat. It was the case that for quite long periods the men had to stop their work to guard the caracol (then called Aguascalientes) and because of this the income of families began to fall. Women then organised themselves and started a project which has allowed them, up to the present day, to “pull their families forward”.

Over the years the work of the co-operatives has grown substantially and now there are different collective projects run by women, such as the one rearing pigs and chickens; the bakery, food shops, handicraft co-operatives, confectionery and horticulture. The municipality of Benito Juarez is where the collectives have been promoted the most, with 33 women responsible for their organisation.

The work to be done is never-ending. The junta of good government realise that they need much more to even out the work between men and women; that in the area of health they are far from their aims; that not all the villages use agroecology, that in spite of 54 trained education promoters the secondary school still does not function, that the paramilitaries Paz y Justicia continue to operate, that the State Electricity Commission cuts off their electricity; that there are no resources … “We need a lot and at times it seems more so than in the beginning, but we are are happy as long as we have a life. Nothing is the same as it was before” concludes Pedro, Soledad, Leonael, Conception, Walter, Sofia, Rodolfo and Enrique, the junta of good government.

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