Once a guerrilla army, and today a long standing social movement in Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatistas may be the last place one may look for examples of development. A predominantly indigenous movement, the Zapatistas choose community autonomy over state support. This means Zapatistas refuse any funds from the Mexican state, an odd concept for some when trying to envision groups of people seeking to improve their material conditions. So what is it about this curious case that makes the Zapatistas relevant to development? The concept of autonomy, and thus self determination, are unique to Zapatista communities and provide an example of development which diverges, and in some was exists externally, from contemporary practices informed by neoliberal ideology.
But first a little background. The Zapatistas flew onto the world scene when seizing the city San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas on January 1, 1994 – the same day NAFTA passed. Twelve days of fighting ensued between the Mexican military and the Zapatistas, until the guerrillas chose to enter into dialogue with the government. Arms haven’t been taken up since. January first was chosen as a symbolic day to say “ya basta” (enough!) to the economic policies passed by “bad governments” on behalf of corporations and the ruling elite. For years, 500 to be exact, the indigenous people who make up the Zapatista movement have been struggling against colonial governments and policies which degrade indigenous life. Zapatismo, and the struggle against globalization, is just a new form of this long struggle. (El Kilombo Intergalático 2007).
The concept of Zapatista autonomy is founded upon two basic principles: resistance and self determination. First, resistance to global capitalism is central to Zapatista organizing, as is the creation of a world which exists externally from neoliberal globalization. As stated in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, resistance is necessary to stop a system which “destroys what exists in [countries conquered by neoliberalism], it destroys their culture, their language, thier economic system, their political system, and it also destroys the ways in which those who live in that country relate to each other. So everything that makes a country a country is left destroyed” (EZLN 2005). Secondly, the concept of self determination emphasizes democracy and the right to determines one’s future. The latter is a right often stripped from indigenous groups in a colonized world. Both concepts of self determination and autonomy reject any aid or participation from the Mexican state. This is the view that, “the politics of the politicians is a sphere that functions through the simulation of public opinion… to administer the interests of transnational capital,” and thus, the state itself cannot divorce itself from the interests of business (El Kilombo Intergalático 2007, 7). Therefore, the Zapatistas can in no way align themselves with the “bad government”. It must also be noted that historically, the Mexican state has used aid projects in the Chiapas to buy off segments of poor and indigenous populations for political motivates, while leaving other sections destitute and without access to services (Harvey 2005).
But what does autonomy mean in a material sense, beyond the ideology? And how is it related to development?
Autonomous villages exist throughout the state of Chiapas, all of which have their own form of governance, laws, and right to the land. Each autonomous community organizes itself through a form of direct direct democracy, where all of the Zapatista villagers participate and serve on the governing council, Junta de Buen Gobierno (Good Governance Council). Decision making power then extends to a council of all autonomous villages which also has rotating representation. Decision are often made through discussion which flow from autonomous communities to the regional council and back down until consensus is reached. It is through the democratic structures that communities can set development goals which exclude business interests and are instead on behalf of the whole community.
The projects enacted by autonomous communities include the creation of hospitals, health promoter training programs, cooperative agricultural and goods production, potable water systems, autonomous elementary and middle schools, community-run transportation, and non-extractive banking practices (Forbis 2014). Autonomy allows community members to choose how each of these programs is implemented and decision making power is exercised over the composition of each program. For example, hospitals practice both Western medicine, as well as “traditional healing and herbal medicine.” The curriculum in Zapatista schools is designed by the community to promote collective living, women’s rights, and indigenous history. And the judicial policies enacted by Zapatista communities emphasize restorative justice and the health of the community, in lieu of punitive “justice”. All of these programs are meant to proportionately benefit each autonomous community, a goal which can only be achieved through direct democratic control by all community members (Forbis 2014).
Although the Zapatista case is unique, autonomous community practices point towards alternatives to development implemented by foreign, undemocratic NGOs, or top down economic policies forced upon state by the International Finance Institutions. It seems difficult to imagine Zapatista style autonomy popping up around the world, but that is not to say it does not currently exist, or cannot exist in the future. International solidarity plays a central part in Zapatista success. The countless numbers of organizations internationally donating funds and time to support the Zapatistas helps enable the continuation of the autonomous project. If solidarity is extended to other communities globally which fight for autonomy and democracy, we may be able to see other projects similar to the Zapatistas. Additionally, development agencies can also learn from the Zapatista’s democratic practices. Reforming NGO and development agency structure to emphasize direct democracy and community autonomy enables greater project success via wider community participation, while also emphasizing the right of developing countries and communities to choose their own development path. Democratic, self-determined development enables a world of many worlds to exist, not just the world of global neoliberal capitalism.
El Kilombo Intergalático. 2007. “Zapatismo: A Brief Manual on How to Change the World.” In Beyond Resistance: Everything. Durham: PaperBoat, 1-16.
Forbis, Melissa interviewed by Johanna Brenner. 2014. “The Zapatistas at 20: Building Autonomous Community.” Against the Current, March 23. https://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/4135.
Harvey, Neil. 2005. The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press.
Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). 2005. “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.” In Beyond Resistance: Everything. 2007. Durham: PaperBoat, 62-86.