Posted by Chris Treter
As you sip your morning cup of coffee, there are many throughout the world that are living a daily struggle of survival. However cliché as it may sound, it is true. Many of the world’s coffee farmers have no formal support network except for their family and neighbors. They pick bean by bean from the tree and travel miles away to the nearest market, selling to the highest bidder. Called a coyote, the individual then sells to a larger coyote – he who has a warehouse. The big coyote sells to a processor – one who can process the coffee for exportation. They then sell it to an exporter who sells it to an importer who sells it to a roaster. Those beans are roasted up and then find their way to your cup at your local gas station or diner. Since so many players get a piece of the coffee dollar, very little ends up in the hands of the farmer. The bit they do earn then goes to purchase staple products for the family – shoes, clothes, maybe a flashlight to light their way in a village without electricity.
Such is the life for the community of Bolon Ajaw where many in the community hike hours to tend to their coffee fields. Theirs’ is a remarkable story of perseverance in the face of persecution. On the 12 of March, 2003, 47 Zapatista families established the community of Bolon Ajaw on the banks of Rio Azul in Northern Chiapas, Mexico. The establishment of the community was part of the EZLN’s, Revolutionary Agrarian Law which states that,
“The poor campesinos’ movement in Mexico demands the return of the land to those who work it and, in the tradition of Emiliano Zapata and in opposition to the reforms to Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, the EZLN again takes up the just struggle of rural Mexico for land and freedom.”
Through this Zapatista Law, thousands of acres of land have been redistributed to the landless and poorest of the campesinos in Southern Mexico. Having righted a bit of the mal distribution of tierra, most of the landowners have been compensated for their land. The Revolutionary Agrarian Law is a direct response to the elimination of Article 27 by Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gotari. At the demand of the U.S. government, Salinas eliminated the provision in the early 90’s in preparation for NAFTA. Article 27 stated that ejidos (communally held land) cannot be privatized and sold. By allowing for the privatization of communally held land, the elimination of Article 27 has paved the way for the sale of valuable land and its resources to the highest bidder – often times transnational corporation looking to take the resource and turn a profit.
This was a kick in the teeth to the poor campesino and indigenous communities throughout the country. The ejido system was a hard fought
victory resulting from the 1910 revolution when revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata fought and died for the poor of Mexico. For this reason, among others, thousands of Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol, and Tolajobal Mayan people rose up against the Mexican Government on Jan. 1st, 1994, the day NAFTA was implemented throughout North America. Evoking the memory of Emiliano Zapata, they called themselves the Zapatistas and ushered in an international movement against neoliberalism and in defense of humanity.
Along with the implementation of NAFTA, the Mexican government has further worked to deteriorate the ejido system by forming programs and supporting organizations which work to dismantle the very threads of communal living. PROCEDE (Program for Certification of Rights toEjido Lands) has three objectives: a) surveying and certifying parcels of land, b) certifying rights to common use lands, and c) titling urban plots for individuals. According to many analysts and thousands of indigenous communities, the program which offers incentives to gain private ownership to communally held land is a form of neoliberal economic policy that leads to migration, deterioration of community and pulls the indigenous population away from the natural resources of which they have protected and held sacred for centuries.
In order to ensure compliance with PROCEDE, paramilitary groups masked as “indigenous organizations” have reemerged. Bolon Ajaw is one of many Zapatista communities aggressively attacked by The Organization for the Defense of Indigenous Rights (OPDDIC), a right wing organization considered by many Human Rights Organizations and indigenous communities as a paramilitary organization. In the past two years they have become an increasing force throughout the Selva Lacandona and the Northern Zone of Chiapas. Under the pretext of “disputing lands” recovered under the Revolutionary Agrarian Law, the group aims to force indigenous communities off of recovered collectively owned lands and try to gain private ownership.
Occupation and Conservation
The Revolutionary Agrarian Law not only calls for the occupation of land but also aims to conserve it. “Zones of virgin jungle and forest will be preserved. There will be reforestation campaigns in the principal zones.” Bolon Ajaw is a prime example of the Zapatista attempts to conserve and cherish the abundance of natural resource.
The community is prime real estate. Nestled between a steep hillside and the banks of the Rio Azul, it is home to three of the most beautiful waterfalls in the state. Members of Ejido Agua Azul, a nearby tourist destination have joined OPPDIC and demand that the habitants of Bolon Ajaw pack up their bags and move elsewhere. “There are major plans for tourism in these parts,” Juan, a resident and Zapatista supporter in Bolon Ajaw who asks that his identity be kept secret tells us. “We want to work the land and be left peacefully alone.”
A hike to the waterfalls with the children of the community quickly confirms how valuable this land is. The journey is filled with sights, smells, and tastes beyond one’s North American experience. Cacao trees, a part of the culinary heritage of the Mayan people, fill the shaded canopy of diverse native trees. Deep, dark soil softens each step as the smell of clean fresh water fills your nostrils as water splashes high into the air from the white water of the river below. Appetites are satisfied as our young host, Maria, a thirteen year old Zapatista girl dressed in a traditional bright colored huipil hands us fresh corn and beans straight out of the field we hike through.
Even as an eventual confrontation with the paramilitary and government loom. Daily life in the community continues unabated. Morning finds the women waking early to get the fire going in their dirt floored kitchen while they quickly prepare masa to make tortillas. After an older man blows into a conch shell to signal the beginning of the collective work day, men arrive to a pile of wood near the church. By days ends it will transform into a school. Meanwhile children play with our group in the river, enjoying the fast moving cool water on a hot sun drenched day.
On numerous occasions the members of Ejido Agua Azul have entered the community and shot their rifles, threatened and violently attacked members of Bolon Ajaw. Typical fashion includes entering the community and shooting into the air while verbally threatening the villagers. More egregious acts very recently include:
11th of September, 2007 – 50 members of OPPDIC entered Bolon Ajaw and brutally beat 3 members of the community
24th of November, 2007 – 80 members of OPPDIC entered Bolon Ajaw and brutally beat a sick man until he lost conciousness. They then went on to harass and beat an 8 year old child, pulling his fingers until he screamed.
2nd of January 2008 – After hearing shots in the milpa, villagers found a shirt strung from two trees with machete tears through it. A clear indication of what may happen if the community doesn’t pack their bags.
Four days after we left Bolon Ajaw and a day after a deadline to leave the community or face eviction, the paramilitary and state police again entered on February 21st, 2008. They shot guns and beat two women with their pistols. This time though, the community gathered on the outskirts of the village. With sticks in hand, they demanded the police retreat. An armed “reporter” was with the police and was detained and dearmed by the Zapatistas. In a February 24th La Jornada article, journalist Herman Bellinghausen reported that the “reporter” in question was actually an agent from the National Security Investigation Center (CISEN), Mexico’s top intelligence agency.
When asked why OPDDIC continues to harass them, residents of Bolon Ajaw told Gloria Munoz of La Jornada, “ So that we have fear. That is why they harass us. They say that they are going to kidnap us, they are going to cut our necks and cut us up into little pieces….We want to resolve the problem peacefully. We are not looking for a confrontation. We only want to work the land and be left alone. We are not going to leave,. They’ve already done all this and here we still are. And here we will die.”
Elsewhere, the Zapatistas, NGOs, international supporters and Human Rights Organizations are gearing up for a long struggle. February 15th saw people in nearly a dozen countries manifest their support for the Zapatista communities under threat. The Center of Political Analysis and Social and Economic Investigations (CAPISE) and Peace and Justice Service in Latin America (SERPAJ) are launching a legal case against the members of the Tzeltal Indigenous Ecotourism of the Agua Azul Waterfalls. On December 30th, CAPISE and SERPAJ organized an Observational Land and Territory Brigade (BOTT) to Bolon Ajaw. When leaving, they were briefly detained and threatened by members of OPPDIC from Ejido Agua Azul. Luckily they caught some of it on video tape. Today, NGO’s throughout Mexico are encouraging tourists to boycott the water falls of Agua Azul, sending a clear message to Ejido Agua Azul that the world cares what happens along the banks of their river.