The Zapatista Solidarity Groups in Scotland are twinned with Zapatista Autonomous Municipality ’16 de Febrero’. There are 40 or so villages in the municipality, which covers a sizeable area in the Highlands of Chiapas, southern Mexico.
The people of ’16 de Febrero’ are descended from the indigenous Maya, now consisting of several different groups. The majority of people in the municipality are Tzotzil, and there are also Tzeltal and Chol peoples. All continue to speak their native indigenous languages as their first tongue, and in ’16 de Febrero’ the majority speak little or no Spanish, though more people are now learning the language.
Scene from the special annual fiesta in ’16 de Febrero’, held on ’16 de Febrero’ 2007
’16 de Febrero’ is one of over 30 zapatista autonomous municipalities which are spread over eastern Chiapas. Each consists of dozens of villages who have declared themselves “communities in resistance”, aiming to develop their own autonomy in all fields of social life.
The zapatistas operate their own decision-making structures, completely independent of all government and state structures. Their slogan is “Here the people rule, and the government obeys.”
At a village level there are open meetings where everyone can attend and have their say. Each municipality has an autonomous council, chosen by the local people – the film shows a meeting of the ’16 de Febrero’ council. At a wider level, the autonomous municipalities come together to form five different zones, each consisting of around half a dozen municipalities. Each zone has a Committee of Good Government (Junta de Buen Gobierno), which meets at the Caracol for that zone. The members of the Junta rotate, to spread decision-making power and prevent the formation of a political elite.
“Everything for everyone, nothing for us”
’16 de Febrero’ is part of the Highlands zone (Los Altos). Its caracol, or resource centre, is Oventik. At Oventik there are a variety of resources and buildings, including the autonomous secondary school and the central health clinic for the Highlands, Clinica La Guadalupana. There are also co-op shops and a boot-making workshop. The sign with the zapatista slogan “Everything for everyone, nothing for us” stands by the entrance to Oventik.
This is not to say that the zapatista communities have overcome all problems of inequality. The egalitarian theory of “governing by obeying” does not always operate in practice, and while women’s situation has improved greatly, as the zapatistas themselves acknowledge there is still significant gender inequality in participation in autonomous councils and other positions of responsibility.
The hopeful thing is that in a few short years huge strides have been made from the dark days of domination by the landowner and local political boss, and the virtual enslavement of women, and hopefully progress will continue.
“They made us work for them, we the indigenous people had no rights to rest, to speak, to carry out our own work. We always had to work for the landowner, the finquero, like slaves. This situation changed because of the struggle, we organized in the ejidos (the communal land holdings), we agreed to struggle against the landowners. We took over the land, we supported each other…. we ended this slavery when we expelled the landowner.” Zapatista villager, autonomous municipality ’16 de Febrero’
Along with their system of grass-roots democracy, the zapatistas are developing their own education, health and justice systems. The construction of ’16 de Febrero’s own health clinic, built with the support of funds from the zapatista solidarity groups in Scotland, is a major step forward for the local people. So far in ’16 de Febrero’ there are four autonomous primary schools, run by and for the community. There is more info on education and health in ’16 de Febrero’ in other sections of this site.
Women’s situation has improved greatly since the 1994 zapatista uprising. The zapatista women succeeded in having the movement pass Revolutionary Women’s Laws, winning women basic rights such as freedom to choose whether and who to marry, the right to participate in public life and hold public positions, and clearly stating that violence against women was a serious crime.
Fundamental to zapatista life is the common ownership and control of the land. Following the 1994 uprising indigenous people occupied and took over many big estates, reclaiming the land which had been stolen from them by the big landowners and ranchers, the “finqueros”. In the zapatista communities much of the land is worked in family plots, other land is worked communally. No-one can buy or sell the land, it belongs to the community.
The zapatistas mainly live by subsistence agriculture, with coffee being grown for sale as well as for consumption. Maize and beans are basic crops – maize is central to their indigenous culture.
The zapatistas encourage the formation of collectives and co-operatives. In ’16 de Febrero’ there is a Women’s Co-operative of Handicrafts Producers and a Co-operative of Amber Producers.
The very existence of ’16 de Febrero’, and its 30 sister zapatista autonomous municipalities, gives hope to all the world that it is possible to create a different kind of world, one where resources are shared and used to meet human needs.
Where is ’16 de Febrero’?
First, you need to find Chiapas! It’s the most southerly state in Mexico, bordering Guatemala. Chiapas is bigger than Wales, and has a population of around three and a half million, around one and a half million of whom are indigenous.
Look for San Cristobal de Las Casas, a sizeable tourist and commercial centre in Chiapas. ’16 de Febrero’ is in the Highlands of Chiapas, about two and a half hours by road north of San Cristobal. The largest town in the area is Simojovel (not a zapatista community of course – the zapatistas are organised overwhelmingly in the small rural villages).
Solidarity with ’16 de Febrero’
The Scottish zapatista groups have been providing solidarity with the ’16 de Febrero’ community for over 5 years. In this time we have raised funds that enabled them to build a health clinic, provided health and educational materials and found UK outlets for their merchandise. Our solidarity with them is also very important in letting them know that they are not alone in their struggle for liberty and justice.
To learn more about how we provide solidarity to ’16 de Febrero’ and how you can get involved see our ‘Solidarity’ page.