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Land, economic reforms fuel unrest in Chiapas, anthropologist says
STANFORD -- The maps of Chiapas, Mexico, in Stanford University Professor George Collier's office did not predict the New Year's Day armed rebellion by peasants there, but they give plenty of clues to what spawned it.
Collier, an anthropologist who has been studying cultural change in the Mexican state of Chiapas since the late 1960s, says he was surprised by the well-organized rebellion by people who live on the eastern end of Chiapas, next to Guatemala. However, he said, the recent maps of political activity prepared by one of his graduate students clearly show that the rebels come from the portion of the state most dissatisfied with the ruling Mexican party of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
The reasons behind the rebels' challenge of the national Mexican government, Collier said, are linked to the region's history, as well as to broad economic changes unleashed in Mexico since the 1973 oil crisis.
Collier last visited Chiapas last summer and conducts ongoing research on agrarian change and policy there. He spoke Monday night by telephone with a long-standing friend in San Cristobal de las Casas, a city of 90,000 in the central highlands region of the state that was briefly held by the rebels on New Year's Day.
The town hall was destroyed, Collier said, and 179 prisoners were released from a newly built jail not many miles away. U.S. news reports indicate fighting between government troops and the rebels was still taking place Jan. 4 at a military base just outside that colonial city.
"My friend said the only news they have there is filtered through the government in Mexico City, but he knew that lots of helicopters and planes were still flying around," Collier said.
Other reports that have reached Collier from Chiapas include copies of the rebel group's manifesto, a "declaration of war" on the national government, and an offer to mediate by the three Catholic bishops of the Chiapas state. These were obtained by Maria Teresa Sierra, a professor of sociology from Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social in Mexico City who is a visiting scholar at Stanford's Center for Latin American Studies.
The Spanish language documents "are in rhetoric written by somebody with a much more educated and nationally oriented concept and understandings of Mexican history," he said, rather than by a typical peasant or someone with an indigenous orientation to the history of the region.
The rebels reportedly came into central highland towns from the eastern region of the state, originally a rain forest sparsely inhabited by Mayan groups, a few mahogany loggers and chicle gum tappers who shipped their goods overseas, Collier said. Originally part of Guatemala, this portion of Chiapas was generally isolated from the national politics of Mexico long after it officially became part of the Mexican nation.
Radical change began in the 1960s and 1970s when the region was opened up to colonization by poverty-stricken settlers from all over Mexico, sometimes at their own initiative and often under government land reform policies that gave land collectively to settlements, Collier said.
"When difficulties arose in neighboring Guatemala, the Mexican government actively promoted colonization of this region [by Mexicans], because they were afraid Guatemalans might move in if it wasn't more populated."
Chiapas in general is extremely poor, but peasant farmers in the longer-settled central highlands have more access to wage-earning jobs than do the eastern peasants, Collier said. After the oil crisis created an economic boom in Mexico, "many highlands peasants abandoned corn farming entirely and went off into the developing economy to work for wages, constructing houses or dams, or into petty commerce as vendors," he said.
The bust that followed Mexico's 1982 debt crisis sent many of these people back home. Some, however, had acquired the resources to invest in intensive farming with chemicals, he said.
"The have-nots had to give up their land to the haves and work for wages on the land," he said, creating differentiated classes in the region surrounding cities like San Cristobal de las Casas.
"Some have been squeezed out the bottom," Collier said. "San Cristobal is ringed by refugee compounds of people who were kicked out on the pretext of being Protestants or for political reasons."
Waves of land reform by the Mexican government since the 1917 revolution have built a political base for the national government among peasants but simultaneously have created intense local conflict, Collier said.
"The same land often has been given over time to several different people," he said, so that demands for land reform and conflicts over land are ongoing. This has created legitimacy for agrarian activism that sometimes includes violent land takeovers, he said.
But the New Year's Day rebellion is different from "ongoing local conflict," he said, "because it questions the legitimacy of the national government. The neo-liberal economic structural changes that have been going on for some time in Mexico have called into question the nature of the Mexican state's commitment to peasants."
The rebels were smart to draw attention to their cause by staging it to coincide with the implementation date of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Collier said, but the agreement itself is symbolic of a larger economic restructuring in Mexico.
"The government has tightened budgets, removed subsidies for fertilizers, largely dismantled the agricultural credit system and abolished agrarian reform," he said.
The processes involved, he said, have led to class differentiation in the central highland region, "but at least the people there have access to some wage-earning jobs. There is far less of a safety valve in the eastern region. Roadways and other lines of communication into the region are poorly developed or non-existent.
"Furthermore, the eastern region out of which the rebels have arisen has never experienced much direct state control, making the possibility of an uprising by dissidents more understandable."
Collier's studies of agrarian policy and change have been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network.
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