A trip to Zapatista country (11/02)

Each hairpin turn on the winding mountain road to the Lacandon jungle in Chiapas revealed peaceful panoramic views of pine-covered forests and incredible vistas of cascading sheer drops to the canyons below. Our small Global Exchange delegation was on its way to an overnight stay with the Las Abejas nonviolent sympathizers of the Zapatistas.

Earlier in the week, we had met with experts who spoke about the region’s unique biodiversity, comparable to none save the Amazon. We also heard about an impending neo-liberal plan on the drawing boards of the Fox government and transnational corporations. The plan — Puebla Panama Project (PPP) — would be a major enterprise stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec that could trigger a volcanic eruption of armed protest. Although it has so far slipped by the media without making a ripple, the communities we visited in April were clearly aware of its potential harsh impact upon their culture.

Like a giant spider web, PPP is woven with many threads, all connected, all meeting in the hub with one single focus — profits for transnational investors. The profits will come from Chiapas’ energy riches, pirated patents capturing the essence of its unique biodiverse plant life, and exploitation of cheap labor for relocated maquiladoras. As indigenous people are driven from their lands, the project will also destroy of communal land ownership.

Government involvement is obvious. On two occasions, military forces surrounded the autonomous communities where we spent the night. In Oventic, under tight security, we were cautioned against taking photos and had little opportunity to speak with anyone outside of our formal meetings. When we met with women who had started an art and craft co-op, they all wore masks.

The reception in the Las Abejas community was more relaxed, but the message was the same. This time, we met at the base of the village in a hollowed out amphitheater. We had been invited to join the villagers in early evening services, beginning with the ceremonial chanting of priests. That solemn ritual, heightened by the fluttering flames of the candles in the breeze, compensated for our discomfort as we knelt on the rock-strewn terrain.

Praying with the villagers, we echoed their hopes for peace.

After the ceremony, we listened to words translated from Tzotzil to Spanish and English. They conveyed a disturbing message. Reflecting the voice of their people, indigenous leaders spoke passionately, but with an undertone of anxiety, about the fate of their way of life. In 1997, the community fled from a brutal para-military attack that killed their animals, ruined their harvest, and destroyed their homes. A year ago, the community was able to leave the refugee camp. With international aid, they carved out a new home, inaccessible by car, at the end of a rutted path that leads down the mountainside. But now they fear low intensity warfare will again drive them out as PPP takes their lands, exploits the biodiversity of this petroleum rich region, and rips their ancient communal culture to shreds.

Transnational companies dream of privatizing nature’s treasures. Once again, a powerful consortium from the North seeks to impose its agenda upon "have nots" in the South. In a poignant poem, Comandante Esther begins with the following questions: "Who has ownership of the earth? How can it be sold?

How can it be bought?" The answers lie in the wisdom of the communal life of the indigenous people.

Ruth Hunter is freelance writer and peace activist. PPP: Up Close and Personal In collaboration with Mexican, Central American and North American groups, the US-Canada PPP Coalition has produced a 48-page, illustrated booklet detailing corporate globalization’s latest scheme. Covering a range of social and ecological issues, it is designed for grassroots education and outreach on the dangers of corporate globalization and the growing resistance to the PPP. Both English and Spanish versions are available. To place an order, contact Lauren Sullivan at acerca@sover.net or (802) 863-0571). For a draft of the text via e-mail, write yael@idex.org.