Marginalised in Mexico

Published: Tuesday 15 February 1994

"WE WILL be back. The revolution will continue." Such was the graffiti left by the Zapatista National Liberation Army as they withdrew from San Cristobal de las Casas in the face of the Mexican army. The abortive uprising in Chiapas province indicates clearly that the poor and powerless even now dream about forcefully improving their lot.

The speed with which the revolt was subdued was matched only by the explanations that followed. The rebels' opposition to the North American Free Trade Treaty (NAFTA) led some analysts to suggest they were drawn to desperation by visions of tonnes of cheap US maize and other foodgrains flowing into Mexico. Stung US officials in turn indicated the outbreak was influenced by rebels in Guatemala.

But none of the rebel banners talked of secession. And, though the consequences of NAFTA are feared by sections of those involved in agriculture, industry and services, the militants and their supporters were mainly landless or small farmers who produced barely enough for themselves.

These circumstances prompted Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas, who in the manner of Graham Greene's fictional whisky priest of the 1930s is identified with the espousal of struggles for political and economic justice, to argue the revolt "can be understood without looking for external causes". For Ruiz, the explanation lies in the increasingly miserable cultural, social and economic life of the nearly 900,000 Mayan Indians, descendants of the once flourishing civilisation, who are the indigenous people of Chiapas.

Modern economic development has visited Chiapas but not benefited the Mayans. Most of them work for abysmal wages in ranching, logging and mining enterprises, which have brought deforestation and dispossessed several indigenous people of their land. Though the Mayans form 70 per cent of Chiapas' population, they own only 8 per cent of its arable land. The only public notice issued by the Zapatistas during their brief control of San Cristobal said, "For the government, it doesn't matter that we possess nothing, absolutely nothing, not a home, not work, not education." Such deprivation has led to acute apprehension among the Mayans about their very existence.

Predictably, they have come to attach a very high value to their traditional practices. A small plot of land has come to "symbolise the very right to live". And, cultivation of traditional varieties of maize and other cereals has become an almost sacred activity. In the free trade regime, it is unlikely that marginal agriculture can withstand the onslaught of the agriculture of the plains.

The Mayans' predicament is shared by other indigenous peoples. What the agriculture of the prairies may do to the Chiapas, Punjab's is already doing to Ladakh and Mizoram. Admittedly, few nations, including India, are sensitive to the aspirations of indigenous people. Given that there are millions of exploited indigenous people all over, Chiapas has only hinted that the world may yet see other uprisings.

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