Indigenous Struggle for Land and Liberty in Chiapas

Jay Moore pieinsky at
Fri Dec 20 16:08:54 MST 2002

Eviction threats rock Chiapas once again

Claudia Boyd-Barrett, - 12/20/2002

Fear and unrest in the nation's southernmost state show little sign of
easing anytime soon.

Human rights and indigenous organizations from the conflict-ridden state of
Chiapas are currently up in arms over what they believe to be imminent
government plans to forcibly evict indigenous families from their
settlements in the Montes Azules biosphere, the nation's most important
nature reserve.

According to rights group reports, soldiers have been stationed in the area,
apparently waiting government orders to eject nine Indian communities from
protected land they have illegally occupied, many in the last 10 years.

"Soldiers are occupying key locations, going on patrols and making
surveillance flights over the communities in question," Patricia Gomex,
spokeswoman for the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center, was
quoted as saying by Spanish press agency EFE.

"Conducting police and military action will once again put at risk the peace
of the region and the country, unleashing consequences that no one can
predict," another activist warned in a press statement signed by several
rights groups and sent out Wednesday.

Meanwhile, government officials denied rumors of a military operation to
evict settlers.

According to Reforma daily, one community of some 30 families agreed on
Thursday to leave the area peacefully after direct negotiations with the
head of the federal Environmental Prosecutor's Office, Jose Ignacio

Campillo said the departure of all remaining illegal squatters will be
negotiated next year.

"These people have deforested part of the zone and are gravely violating the
law," Jaime Alejo Castillo, a spokeman for the Environment Secretariat
(Semarnat) told "They could be subject to penal action.
... We can't allow any more settlements (in the reserve)."

The government and mainstream environmental organizations blame the Indians
in Montes Azules for destroying the sanctuary through their common use of
slash and burn agruculture. But indigenous and human rights groups urge
authorities to consider the factors pushing so many people to settle there.

"The government seems to be forgetting why (the settlers) are there," a
spokesperson for the San Francisco-based human right's organization, Global
Exchange, said in an interview. "They are brought to the area by outside
pressures such as a need for land or because they have been displaced by

A history of conflict

Chiapas' overwhelmingly poor indigenous population has been living on the
fringes of society for nearly 500 years.

>From the Spanish conquest to the present day, the state's Indians have
suffered economic and political marginalization, losing most of their
ancient lands to their conquerors and powerful private interests. Land
scarcity and high unemployment have been exacerbated by a lingering crisis
in the nation's farming sector and declining global farm prices, forcing
many small farmers to sell whatever land they have left.

When an army of indigenous rebels took over towns in Chiapas on Jan. 1,
1994, gleening international attention, sympathizers hoped for some change
in the down-trodden status of the region's Indians.

Although the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) has continued to
resist government intervention and campaign for indigenous rights from its
autonomous bases, an upsurge in military and paramilitary activity in
response to the movement has led to the displacement of thousands of Indians
from their homes.

Many of these internal refugees have sought protection in the jungles of
Montes Azules, where two "Zapatista" strongholds are located.

Conflicting interests?

While government authorities assure the planned relocations correspond
strictly with environmental concerns, indigenous groups and activists say
they are not so sure.

"We are not against the need to preserve the important natural resources of
this region but (we are aware) of powerful national and international
economic interests hidden behind scientific concerns, to exploit these
resources," said NGOs in the Wednesday press release.

Montes Azules is rich in natural resources such as timber, water and
petroleum and has sparked the interest of pharmaceutical researchers with
its vast array of plant and animal species. But while in the 1960s timber
and petroleum were the main attraction for investors, today biodiversity and
hydroelectric power are the zone's principal eye- catchers.

Two biological research stations in the reserve, run by the environmental
group Conservation International and biotech company Grupo Pulsar, bear
witness to growing outside interest in the genetic riches yet to be
discovered in this unique tropical environment.

The government also revealed plans earlier this year to build a series of
hydroelectric dams along the region's powerful Usumacinta river.
Environmentalists say the project could cause immense destruction of exactly
the same forests the government says it is fighting to protect.

"In reality we don't see any interest from the government in protecting the
natural resources," said the Coordination of Autonomous Organizations of the
State of Chiapas (COAECH) in a communiqué. "This is clearly reflected by the
extraction of natural resources and the bio-prospecting activities going on
in the region."

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