It’s midsummer and the dawn and dusk in Oventic is accompanied by a cold mist which totally covers the caracol of the Altos zone. The home of tzotszil zapatistas. It is a rebel region of poverty and extreme marginalisation and the zapatista territory which is most visited by people from all over the world. In the first year of automonous self government, 4,458 visitors came here from all parts of the world. It’s not a coincidence that this caracol has had the largest number of visitors. It is the nearest to San Cristobal de las Casas and from there you can reach Oventic in an hour along a tarmac road. It’s not only the fact that it is so close that attracts civil society. It is also because of the mystique of this zone, a special indigenous presence, a rebelliousness visible in every tzotzil face.
This caracol has the largest number of buildings and is possibly the largest of the five caracoles. On every visit to Oventic new buildings appear beside the long road which goes through the caracol, (co-operatives, the offices of the autonomous municipality and of the junta of good government, the health clinic, the auditorium and dormitories). The road ends up at the basketball pitch and at the zapatista primary/secondary school which bears the name of SERAZLN - The autonomous education system of the zapatista national liberation.
|Josue and Ofelia are graduates of SERAZLN and are currently members of its general co-ordinating body. They explain that education is one of the demands of the EZLN and since 1994 the zapatistas have looked for a way of organising education in their communities. In the beginning, they contacted teachers who worked in the state schools and invited them to participate in a zapatista kind of education. More than 100 state school teachers came to this meeting, but it was difficult to work with them, not because the teachers did not want to work with us, but because they were used to being paid.
Because of this the zapatistas invited young people in the zone to come on 12 December 1998 to Oventic. They were students who were still not accustomed to earning a wage. Nineteen young people came on that day. They were convinced of the need for education and they received training over the following two years before enlisting in the secondary school. At last in September 2000 classes for the primary/secondary school were started. These classes were supported by people from civil society.
Planning for the courses was carried out collectively. There were endless meetings where people from all over the zone discussed the needs of the communities and planned for the courses and study programmes. In the secondary school there are classes in language, communication, maths, social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, tzotzil and production. In humanities, Josue explains, “we study the philosophy of zapatismo, reflect on our struggle and so the main aim is that young people finish their studies with a different vision for their lives . . . that is that they do not live for themselves alone but that they work for the collective good of the community and that they understand more about our struggle and who has ruled over and exploited us.
The education co-ordinators explain that after three years of study,”We can see that there is a greater understanding of the reality of our lives, that there is a growth in awareness and that students leave with a different mindset. It is not that they come here to be convinced about our struggle, what happens is that here they gain the tools to be able to recognise their rights and to stand up for themselves. Without any doubt education motivates our struggle and strengthens the autonomy of our people. The Church tells us that we are poor because it is God’s will. State education tells us that there are poor people and rich people and that poverty is our lot. But that is not so and education helps us to understand this”.
Josue and Ofelia realise that in spite of all their efforts there are not enough resources to educate all the people but their dream is “that everybody has a chance of studying, both indigenous and non indigenous people, zapatistas and non zapatistas. We all have a right to be educated”.
In Los Altos zone, when students finish their secondary education they are asked as part of their graduation what they can do to help their community. They choose to help in areas such as agroecology, primary education, supporting the offices of commerce, working in pharmacies etc. All are obliged to share with their community what they have learned. Two lots of students have now graduated. Out of the first lot of 21 pupils only three were female and only five females were in the second lot of 19 pupils. This is very little but Ofelia, a co-ordinator with SERAZLN says,”it is a small advance in communities where previously women have not had the right to be educated. There are communities where it is still the belief that women only exist to get married and raise children . . . that they cannot study or work outside the home. But little by little women are waking up and realizing that they have a right to take part in other experiences.”
And it is precisely through education that tzotzil women are beginning to see other opportunities. Ofelia explains,”We see that women have rights and we see the need to change some customs. So education makes men and women realize the importance of women’s work. This isn’t easy because people have to change how they think, but we are beginning to ... autonomous education is the basis of the consciousness of our communities and arising from that we can change the situation of the indigenous woman, who is capable of doing any kind of work, not only being a mother and making handicrafts”.
This is the only one of the five zones which run secondary education (the other four have primary only). Josue says,” firstly we had to prepare promotors or teachers for the primaries. Now some of those who have graduated from secondary school give classes in the newly created primary schools. Thoughout this time the autonomous municipalities which make up Los Altos zone: San Andrew Sacamch’en de Los Pobres, San Juan de la Libertad, San Pedro Polho, Santa Catarina, Magdalenda de La Paz and San Juan Apostol Cancuc, organised primary education independent of each other with different projects. In the last year since the advent of the juntas of good government they have organised one education system for the whole zone. Now more than 100 education promotors give classes in as many communities.
This zone faces a different problem as regards education from the other zones. In Los Altos many state schoolteachers abandoned their schools and those schools were then run by the autonomous authorities. Many other schools have been built in the meantime and more are due to be built.
The secondary school was built by means of the US Schools for Chiapas project. It is a project with many challenges and is not without its problems, eg in order for pupils to board at school we need to feed the pupils and there aren’t enough resources, neither are there resources for all the school books and equipment needed. To lessen these problems the secondary school also runs courses in tzotzil for foreigners and the income from this is used to provide food for the students who also pay five pesos a month and a kilo of beans each fortnight towards their upkeep.
A new system of autonomous education is not without its difficulties but is is also a source of satisfaction and joy. “We are very happy because the graduates from secondary school are now giving classes in our primary schools, because the zapatista education system starts from below, because it is for all our communities and because the situation is not as bad as it was before”.
Autonomous education has to be for everyone, not only for indigenous people and not only for zapatistas. And not only for children. We also have an adult education system in this zone.” Josue and Ofelia explain that the aim is to change circumstances. Our communities have an obligation to struggle for change because we cannot wait for others to come and take charge of us and in this way education is the most powerful weapon our people possess.
There are more than 100 people seen every day at the Guadalupana clinic in Oventic. Anastasio, an old zapatista tzotzil, is the general health co-ordinator at the clinic which was one of the first set up with only eight health promotors by the EZLN on 28 February 1992 before the armed uprising. Anastasio has only two years of primary schooling and says that it is now over 12 years since the community asked him if he would undertake work in healthcare. He agreed to help the community and the struggle and is now the co-ordinator of one of the most ambitious zapatista health projects.
Nothing remains any more of the small clinic which looked after the insurgentes wounded during the war. But in the same place there is now a hospital clinic with an operating theatre, a dental room, a laboratory for clinical analysis, an eye clinic, a gynaecology clinic, a herbal laboratory, a pharmacy and hospital rooms. In this clinic and in two other health training centres in Magdalena and in Polho, more than 200 health promotors have studied and now work with the communities. Like other zapatista promotors none of them are paid although the community helps them by giving them food and supporting them when they go on courses. The promotors study anatomy, physiology, symptoms, diagnosis and treatments and above all preventative medicine, personal and collective hygiene and vaccination.
The nearby state hospitals Anastasio says, “do not take in those who are seriously ill, they would rather that they die somewhere else. We do take take them in this clinic whether they are zapatista or not and it is only if we cannot help them that we would take them elsewhere; that is why we need an ambulance”.
The clinic relies on the support of doctors and students who help with surgery and with teaching the promotors. “But when no one comes from outside we have to get on with it ourselves and so we study any medical books we can get,” says Lucio a health promotor who left his community, his family and his land to work full time in the clinic for the last eight years. He says, “Before we had nothing and many people died, most of them from illnesses which could be treated if caught in time. Many children died and because of this we began to organise our own healthcare because we could expect nothing from the state. Now there is a clinic in all eight of the municipalities in Los Altos as well as more than 300 community health houses which offer basic medicines. (Edinchiapas note : In fact our twinned autonomous municipality “16 de Febrero” in Los Altos are still working towards building their own clinic)
The consultations are free for all who support the EZLN and others are only asked for a small contribution.
Anastasio explains that they are only able to perform minor surgery because they lack the equipment for major operations. This clinic with all its challenges is still one of the best organised and equipped in zapatista territory, and because of this they also treat zapatistas from other regions, from the jungle and the north of the state. The organisation of autonomous health has been resisted by state health projects to the extent that when a zapatista clinic starts up a state clinic is set up soon after nearby. Anastasio says, “they do this to put pressure on us hoping that people will go to them, but our people don’t go because they are treated badly in state clinics; they are not treated with respect and they are not given medicine and while they build these new government clinics, then they are always closed. Our clinics on the other hand operate 24 hours a day and everyone is treated the same”.
TB, respiratory problems, rheumatism, skin infections, malaria and typhoid are some of the illnesses of poverty we suffer and women also suffer miscarriages brought on by malnutrition and lack of prenatal care. Lucio says though, “Not so many people die as before, we have saved many lives, we take seriously ill people into hospital, we promote vaccination, we prepare our health promotors and in this way we move forward.”
Coffee, Honey, handicrafts: Commerce in Resistance
The zapatista communities in Los Altos have set up two coffee co-operatives - Mut Vitz (Hill of the Bird in Tzotzil) and Ya’chil Xojobal Chu’lcha’n (New Light of the Sky).
Mut Vitz was set up in 1997 with 694 members from the seven municipalities in the zone. Their coffee is certified as organic and is legalised for export from the port of Veracruz to Germany, the US, France, Spain, Switzerland and Italy. Unfortunately they have been unable to expand into the Mexican market other than into the state of Puebla. They don’t have equipment to grind and toast the coffee so the beans are transported whole. The New Light of the Sky co-operative has around 900 members of whom 600 are refugees at Polho. They have just begun to export coffee and are working to open up markets.
The women also work collectively. Famous throughout the world for sewing and handicrafts, the tzotzil zapatista women who before the war offered their goods for sale in the racist streets of San Cristobal de Las Casas have now organised into co-operatives where they make and sell their products. The co-operatives Xulum Chon and Women for Dignity sell their textiles for fair prices earning income which is an important part of their family’s economy.
Polho: Seven years from home, isolated by violence.
More than 9,000 refugees who fled paramilitary violence live in Polho. They survive without land to cultivate and food and medicine is always scarce. The Red Cross has now left this zone, they say there is no longer a war and there is a lot of work to be done in Iraq. Here the displacement has created new forms of resistance and autonomy. Education and health is organised and co-operatives and other means of survival are created. In the last 12 months the autonomous authorities in this zone gave 2 and a half million pesos to feed the refugees in Polho, a not insubstantial sum of money but still not enough to feed the thousands who for the last seven years have been dreaming of returning home. According to the junta of good government, it is not easy to organise autonomy and even less so in conditions like in Polho.
The junta of good government say that after a year it is clear that they are able to govern, to work, to see and recognize problems. They have learned not to fall for the provocations of the state and political parties. Their experience has shown that those who first raise their fists, then lose politically. “We are holding on to the idea of resisting through peaceful means, although we know how to defend ourselves.”
Over the last year the junta says, “What we have learnt most is to negotiate, to co-ordinate the work of the junta with the municipalities. We know we can’t do it alone without the support of civil society nationally and internationally. We work from Monday to Sunday 24 hours a day and still we can’t catch up with everything but we are learning. Obeying and fulfilling our commitments. It is not easy. Nothing is easy.
We did not conduct a campaign nor propaganda to become a junta of good government. The people chose us as honest people and now we are committed. We do not have a fixed period of office in the junta, if the people say that we are no longer doing the job properly, then they will get rid of us and and replace us with others.
We dream that one day our rights will be recognised, that there will be a total change not only for indigenous people but for all the poor people of the world. This is not over yet. Here other people will be born, nor will they ask permission to follow their own path. That is what we dream.”