Editor’s Note: This series of reports on the five Zapatista autonomous centers, or caracoles , by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez was first published in Spanish as a special section of the Mexican national newspaper La Jornada, Sept. 19, 2004, following a series of on-site reports by the author. On the 15th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, the Americas Program is pleased to present readers with the only full authorized translation to English, by Americas Program director Laura Carlsen. There are many lessons to be learned from the nitty-gritty experiences of grassroots democracy and development from the ground up that are going on in these communities. As they face increasing hostilities from government armed forces and paramilitary groups, we will continue to cover their efforts in a follow-up series looking specifically at this latest stage of resistance.

In the center of the Caracol, two gangs of nine howler monkeys fight over territory. This spectacle attracts the attention of the members of the Good Government Board (GGB), “Nueva semilla que va a producir” (“A New Seed that will Grow”). Also out to watch the show are peace campers from Argentina, Barcelona, and France; the team of indigenous people charged with the autonomous communications project; and a group from the United States that is building the Zapatista secondary school.

In the middle of the lush jungle and close to the beautiful waterfalls coveted by national and foreign investors, the howler monkeys come down for water to these lands that have been terrorized by the most bloody paramilitary group in all of Zapatista territory, ironically named “Paz y Justicia” (“Peace and Justice”).

The Caracol, located about an hour from the archeological site of Palenque, is under permanent construction. The Internet office is almost done. When it’s ready, inhabitants will be able to send and receive emails to and from the whole world. The office of the Good Government Board has just been completed, too. It is made of cement blocks and decorated with huge colorful Zapatista murals.

The Caracol, “Que habla para todos” (“Speak for us all”), in the northern zone of the state of Chiapas has six autonomous townships, and three other townships are soon to be established. Nature is abundant in this region, “and so we need to defend it,” declares Pedro, a Board member who has just explained that the people’s autonomy begins with taking care of the earth.

To care for their natural resources, the Zapatistas are carrying out a plan to improve the soil. The plan consists of gradually ending the practice of field burning, using organic fertilizer, and eliminating the use of insecticides to increase the land’s fertility. “All this is not easy; it takes a lot of work because the government gives the PRI members chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides, and so the earth continues to be mistreated even though the compas have realized that you can sow without lowering the quality of the land,” autonomous authorities explain.

Since the environmental programs began, more and more Zapatistas use biological insecticides. They say, “It is not about eliminating pests, but scaring them away.” They also use arnica, which serves as both an insecticide and a fertilizer, make organic compost, and reject the use of genetically modified seeds.

The Children Never Get Zeros

Agro-ecology is not new in these villages, nor is the system of autonomous education, which began five years ago, “when we began to think about the need for education to be in the hands of the people. There were already compañerosdoing this in La Realidad, and so we decided to do it too.”

And so began the courses for education promoters in the autonomous program “Semillita del sol” (“Seed of the Sun”), which five years later has produced four generations of promoters. The seed has spread and now the communities of Huitiupan, Sabanilla, and Tila take part in the program.

Under autonomous education, explains another Board member, “Zapatista families have an alternative to the government system. Many people criticize us; they say we are not doing the work well, but the fact is that we now have 352 education promoters giving classes in 159 schools of resistance, of which 37 are totally new. In these schools we have educated around 4,000 Zapatista boys and girls.”

The government schools only give classes in Spanish. The Zapatistas claim that in government schools, “Our children are taught to stop being indigenous, while in our schools we encourage our identity.” In the northern zone, classes are given in Spanish, Zoque, Tzeltal, and Chol, “and we also talk about our struggle and the children are able to develop their own ideas.”

They go on to explain: “Those who don’t know anything are not given a grade of zero. Instead, the group doesn’t move forward until everybody is equal; no-one flunks.” At the end of the courses, the indigenous promoters organize a series of activities that are presented to the parents, who value their children’s learning without giving grades.

The educational process in this region is becoming more and more independent. The first and second generations of promoters were trained with the help of civil society, but the third and fourth generations were trained by graduates without external input. In this way, the project gradually becomes independent of “outside” support, although they still on occasion need to ask for outside help to develop teaching materials. Food for promoters who are undergoing training is provided for by their villages and is not dependent on a project.

Now there are two training centers for promoters, one in Roberto Barrios and the other in Ak’abal Na. They teach math, languages, history, “life, and our environment,” and all the subjects are related back to the Zapatista demands.
The history that is taught to the children is not from official texts—it’s the history of the people and their struggle. The promoters and children have prepared the histories of all of their communities, and these carry on in the schools of resistance by means of a timeline. “The children consult the old people in their villages, and together they create their own teaching materials,” says one of the promoters.

The current challenge to the education system is to link the autonomous projects. To do this, schools are starting classes in health and agro-ecology. In the autonomous municipality of Roberto Barrios, for example, the children learn to care for the earth when they sow the land, and they also learn about issues of hygiene and how to prevent illnesses. The education promoters organize trips for the children to the mountains and rivers, where they are directly involved in preserving the environment.

The autonomous authorities proudly declare that a secondary education project is already underway (the building situated behind the Board’s office is now ready). Here they will take the same subjects as in primary school, with the addition of culture. It’s really not a secondary school but—as its long name indicates—a Cultural Center of Autonomous Zapatista Technical Education. The idea, according to the organizers, is that the center adapt to indigenous reality, since “it’s not about studying to cease being indigenous people, but to be indigenous people with more ideas,” states one promoter. What comes next “will be to one day fulfill the dream of having our own Zapatista university. Before, all this that we now have created was a dream and look, we already have achieved it.”

The six autonomous municipalities in this zone are: El Trabajo, Ak’abal Na, Benito Juarez, Francisco Villa, La Paz, and Vicente Guerrero, and there are another three regions that operate as autonomous townships although they have not yet been formally declared. In addition, there are some communities that have yet to organize autonomous councils. In the entire zone they report an annual income of 1,600,000 pesos and an expenditure of approximately one million. This is very little, taking into account the size of the territory and what its needs are, but it is not insignificant considering that everything is done collectively.

The support of La Garriga, a small, prosperous area in Barcelona, has been very important to this region. La Garriga was declared a sister city to the township of El Trabajo municipality many years ago and is now working with the autonomous authorities in other townships in the zone on education, health, and agro-ecological projects.

Still Work to be Done in Healthcare

One of the areas of work that has lagged behind in these villages is healthcare. The Board members recognize that. “We are organizing health services in all the townships and regions because health is an urgent need in the communities in resistance. Everything we organize in these villages has the aim of having our own system of community and autonomous health.”

When the Caracoles and the Good Government Board were first inaugurated, “The government health centers increased hostility toward our supporters. They ask them a lot of questions and don’t provide them with good care. Because of this our people were afraid to go to the official clinics,” say Board members. The GGB is working with the villages on a plan to prevent illnesses.

The work of a small group of women physiotherapists from Catalonia stands out in the northern zone. Working in a small, air-conditioned room, they give therapeutic massages that help cure some illnesses without the need for medication. The cultural exchange that happens during these massages is amazing. Indigenous men and women from the villages are not accustomed to touch for therapeutic purposes and far less to taking off their clothes. These young, enthusiastic professionals go from village to village offering massage and training so that when they leave, others can carry on their work.

Up to some months ago, the health work in the villages was spotty. Each township worked on its own priorities separately, and there were some that had neither health clinics nor promoters. Today there is already a clinic in each of the six declared municipalities and training courses for promoters in all of the communities. They are working on courses in herbalism and Western “conventional” medicine, just like in the other four Caracoles.

The autonomous clinics do not have doctors or nurses. They are run by village health promoters who also run the vaccination and preventative medicine campaigns. The El Trabajo township is the only one that has a doctor in its clinic in Roberto Barrios and it’s a student doctor.

Parasitic and respiratory illnesses, skin infections, and fever are some of the illnesses now treated by a total of 35 promoters in El Trabajo and 41 in Benito Juárez. Meanwhile, in Francisco Villa they are working on an herbal project, and in the others they are carrying out an analysis of the sanitary situation and working on campaigns to clean latrines, keep animals outside the home, and improve personal and community hygiene. “All of this takes work, but the compas are doing it,” the health coordinator says.

Autonomous Videomakers

Moy, a young Zapatista, forms part of an autonomous media system that includes a regional radio station and a video project that tells their history, records their fiestas and traditions, and documents human rights violations. A product of this work is “The War of Fear,” a video about Paz y Justicia, the paramilitary group responsible for murders and other crimes in the northern zone.

Rosaura is the newscaster at the only municipal radio station run by the base communities themselves (Radio Insurgente is run by insurgents and not by people from the villages). It is a local station called Radio Resistente that transmits on short wave. They are now working on where to locate the radio transmitter so as to increase the transmission. They broadcast children’s stories, health campaigns, interviews with the women’s cooperatives, and local news.

Women in the Northern Zone

In front of the main entrance to the Caracol is the peace camp where dozens of men and women of all nationalities accompany the besieged community of Roberto Barrios. At one side of the camp there is a multicolored building where a group of women dressed in many colors sew both blouses and hopes for the future.

The first cooperative was born as an indirect product of the paramilitary threat. For long periods of time, the men had to stop their work to guard the Caracol (then called Aguascalientes). Family income began to fall as a result. Women organized and started a project that has allowed them to keep their families afloat.

Over the years, the work of the cooperatives has grown substantially, and now there are many collective projects run by women, such as the bakery, food shops, handicraft cooperatives, confectionery, horticulture, and raising pigs and chickens. The township of Benito Juárez is where the collectives have been promoted the most, with 33 women responsible for their organization.

The work to be done is never-ending. The Good Government Board realizes that they need to do much more to even out the work between men and women; that in the area of health they are far from their aims; that not all the villages apply agro-ecology methods; that in spite of 54 trained education promoters, the secondary school still does not function; that the paramilitary group Paz y Justicia continues to operate; that the Federal Electricity Commission cuts off their electricity; that there are no resources … “We need a lot, and at times it seems more so than in the beginning, but we are happy as long as we have life. Nothing is the same as it was before,” conclude Pedro, Soledad, Leonel, Conception, Walter, Sofia, Rodolfo, and Enrique, all members of the Good Government Board.

For More Information from the Americas Program:

Series of articles on indigenous autonomy in the Zapatista communities of Chiapas, by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez.

Caracol #1: La Realidad, http://www.americas.org/archives/1609

Caracol #2: Oventic, http://www.americas.org/archives/1610

Caracol#3: La Garrucha, http://www.americas.org/archives/1597

Caracol #4:  Morelia, http://www.americas.org/archives/1604

Caracol #5: Roberto Barrios,   http://www.americas.org/archives/1593