Zapatista women meeting in 1996. (Julian Stallabrass / CC BY 2.0)
The battle for humanity and against neoliberalism was and is ours,
And also that of many others from below.
Against death––We demand life.
One of the biggest threats to food security the world currently faces is neoliberalism. It’s logic, which has become status quo over the past 70 years and valorizes global ‘free market’ capitalism, is made manifest through economic policies that facilitate privatization, deregulation, and cuts to social spending, as well as a discourse that promotes competition, individualism, and self-commodification. Despite rarely being criticized, or even mentioned, by state officials and mainstream media, neoliberal programs and practices continue to give rise to unprecedented levels of poverty, hunger, and suffering. The consequences of neoliberalism are so acutely visceral that the Zapatistas called the 21st century’s most highly lauded free-trade policy, NAFTA, a ‘death certificate’ for Indigenous people.1 This is because economic liberalization meant that imported commodities (e.g., subsidized corn from the U.S.) would flood Mexican markets, devalue the products of peasant farmers, and lead to widespread food insecurity. As a response, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), primarily Indigenous peasants themselves, led an armed insurrection in Chiapas, Mexico on January 1, 1994—the day NAFTA went into effect.
The Zapatistas, primarily Indigenous Ch’ol, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolobal, Mam, and Zoque rebels, were rising up against 500 years of colonial oppression. For this piece, I draw from my experiences learning from them, not ‘researching’ them. Importantly, I neither speak for the Zapatistas nor do my words do them justice. In a sense, then, this piece is nothing other than a modest ‘suggestion’ that the Zapatistas may offer us some ideas about solutions to the problems of the food systems we find ourselves in.
The emergence of the EZLN dates back to November 17, 1983, when a small group of politicized university militants arrived in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas to form a guerrilla army. Their efforts, which were being supported by an intricate network of solidarity organizations with links to Marxist revolutionaries and Catholic liberation theologists in the region, were subsequently transformed by the Indigenous communities they encountered upon arriving. The success of the Zapatista uprising was thus the culmination of nearly 10 years of covert organizing that unfolded under the guidance of Indigenous people within the jungles and highlands of southeastern Mexico. And during the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 1994, thousands of masked insurgents from the EZLN stepped out of the darkness to say ‘¡Ya Basta! ‘ (Enough!) to the repression and misery that colonialism and capitalism had thrust upon them.
The stunning manner in which the Zapatistas presented themselves to the Mexican government, as well as the world, saw them descend upon several towns, cities, prisons, and wealthy landowners. During the revolt, EZLN guerillas liberated political prisoners, stormed military barracks, occupied government offices, set fire to trumped-up files that unfairly criminalized Indigenous people, and announced Zapatista ‘Women’s Revolutionary Law.’ In the rural countryside, Zapatista soldiers also reclaimed dispossessed land by kicking affluent property-owning bosses off plantation-likeencomiendas that had been historically expropriated from impoverished Indigenous farmers. The skirmishes and exchange of bullets between the EZLN and federal army lasted a total of only 12 days, after which a ceasefire was negotiated.
Since that time, and despite an ongoing counter-insurgency being spearheaded by the Mexican government, the Zapatista’s ‘solution’ to the problem of neoliberalism, including the food insecurity and poverty it exacerbates, has been resistance. And for the Zapatistas, resistance is comprised of revitalizing their Indigenous (predominantly Maya) worldviews, recuperating stolen land, emancipating themselves from dependency upon multinational industrial agribusiness, and peacefully living in open defiance of global capitalism. This ‘solution’ has subsequently enabled them to build an autonomous, locally focused food system, which is a direct product of their efforts in participatory democracy, gender equity, and food sovereignty.
Food sovereignty (an intensely debated concept) loosely described means that people are able to exercise autonomy over their food systems while concurrently ensuring that the production/distribution of food is carried out in socially just, culturally safe, and ecologically sustainable ways. For the Zapatistas, food sovereignty involves agro-ecological farming, place-based teaching and learning, developing local cooperatives, and engaging in collective work.
These practices, which are simultaneously informed by their Indigenous customs, struggles for gender justice, and systems of nonhierarchical governance and education, have thereby radically transformed social relations within their communities. And it is these aspects of the Zapatista Insurgency that illustrate how collective (anti-capitalist) resistance offers novel alternatives to the world’s corporate food regime.
Autonomous Education and Decolonization
Here you can buy or sell anything—except Indigenous dignity.
The relationship and obligation the Zapatistas have to the land is rooted in their Indigenous perspectives and traditions. And because exercising autonomy over their land, work, education, and food is crucial to the Zapatistas, their methods of teaching and learning are situated in the environmental systems and cultural practices of where they, and their histories, are living. This is evident in the grassroots focus they maintain in their approach to education, as well as how they consider their immediate ecological settings a ‘classroom.’2
Local knowledge of land and growing food is so central among their autonomous municipalities that each Zapatista school often sees promotores de educación (‘education promoters’) and promotores de agro-ecología (‘agro-ecology promoters’) coming from the same community as their students. Zapatista education is therefore emplaced within the geographies where people live. This holistic ‘place-based’ focus results in both children and adults viewing themselves as active participants in, and essential parts of, local food systems.
In order to understand food security, Zapatista students are frequently taught hands-on agro-ecological techniques outside the classroom. This means they learn how to apply sustainable farming techniques while participating in the planting/harvesting of organic crops. This area of experiential and localized education stresses the importance of working the land in order to attain the skills needed to achieve food sovereignty for future generations. It also provides an overview of how transgenic modifications and privatizations of seeds/plants/life are deemed to be overt threats to, and blatant attacks upon, their culture.
This perspective is held because the Zapatistas are ‘People of the Corn,’ a reality passed down from their Maya origin stories.3 And given that their autonomous education is anchored in defending, protecting, and preserving their Indigenous histories, languages, and ancestral territories, the Zapatistas effectively practice decolonization—the re-establishment and repatriation of Indigenous land, life, and realities—in every aspect of their teaching and learning.
In practical terms, the Zapatistas are decolonizing their food system through applied/experiential learning, communal subsistence farming, collectivizing harvests, refusing chemicals, and equitably distributing labor. This approach thereby provides communities the ability to eschew the profit-motives promoted by capitalist conceptions of ‘productivity,’ in favor of foregrounding their local Indigenous notions of knowledge and nature.4
Through their refusal to participate in the commodification and privatization of learning and land, the Zapatistas have created an integrated system of education and food security that functions as a solidarity economy. This means their efforts in both food and knowledge production/distribution are guided by an ethical imperative that takes into consideration the health and well-being of individuals, communities, and ecologies alike.
Given what the Zapatistas have created in rural Chiapas, one is left to wonder how local food systems might look if Indigenous peoples’ perspectives and (anti-capitalist) placed-based education were implemented into our own communities.
Women‘s Struggle and Gender Equity
Cuando Una Mujer Avanza, No Hay Hombre Que Retrocede
(‘When a Woman Advances, No Man is Left Behind’)
Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, produce roughly 70 percent of its food, and are responsible for over 80 percent of its domestic (socially reproductive) labor. Despite this, they earn only about 10 percent of the world’s income, control less than 10 percent of all its land, own less than one percent of the means of production, and comprise nearly two-thirds of all its part-time and temporary worker positions.5 In disaggregate, the vast majority of these statistics apply to women who are rural, working class/poor, racialized/Indigenous, not ‘formally educated,’ and living in the Global South.6 It thus appears that capitalist exploitation has both a pattern and preferred target. Interestingly, all of these descriptors directly apply to Zapatista women, yet, it seems someone has forgotten to tell them…because they do not seem to care.
One of the most groundbreaking aspects of the Zapatista insurgency has been the strides it has made in destabilizing patriarchy. This social transformation has largely been born out of the indefatigable work ethic and iron will of the Zapatista women. Given their recognition that any struggle against colonialism and capitalism necessitates a struggle against patriarchy, Zapatista women implemented what is known as ‘Women’s Revolutionary Law’ within their communities. The conviction they maintain regarding equality was poignantly captured in a communiqué written by Subcomandante Marcos (now Galeano) released shortly after the 1994 rebellion, which states: “The first EZLN uprising occurred in March of 1993 and was led by the Zapatista women. There were no casualties—and they won.”7
Broadly speaking, Women’s Revolutionary Law solidifies the recognition of women’s rights to self-determination, dignity, and having their voices heard. More specifically, the laws mandate that women be equitably represented in the guerrilla army (i.e., the EZLN), the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (‘Councils of Good Government’), efforts in land recuperation (agro-ecological projects/work outside of the home), and the development of food/artisan/craft cooperatives.8 These laws have restructured everyday life throughout Zapatista territory, as it is now not uncommon to see women involved in the public sphere (work outside the home), in addition to seeing men participate in socially reproductive labor (i.e., ‘women’s work’).
Women’s Revolutionary Law has also merged with the way in which the land and local environment is viewed and tended to. As a result of up-ending rigid patriarchal notions of what type of work women ‘should do’ and ‘could not do,’ as well as undermining regressive ideas that men are less capable of performing emotional labor, household chores, and nurturing children, Zapatista communities now have women exercising more influence over decisions being made surrounding food security and agro-ecological projects.9
In recently attesting to the gender equity the Zapatistas are advancing towards, Peter Rosset, a food justice activist and rural agro-ecological specialist, commented on the impact of Women’s Revolutionary Law by stating:
Yesterday a Zapatista agro-ecology promoter was in my office and he was talking about how the young Indigenous women in Zapatista territory are different from before…
…he said they no longer look at the floor when you talk to them—they look you directly in the eye.10
In light of the emphasis the Zapatistas place on justice via both recognizing women’s struggle, as well as men’s responsibility to perform socially reproductive/emotional labor, one cannot help but further wonder what agricultural production would look like if gender equity was promoted within the global food system.
When viewed in its geopolitical context, the Zapatista insurgency has opened up space for a wide range of alternative ways of re-organizing societies, economies, and food systems. Consequently, what the Zapatistas prove through their resistance (i.e., efforts in autonomous education, decolonization, and gender equity) is that a recognition of Indigenous people’s right to self-determination, in conjunction with anti-capitalist collective work and movements toward food sovereignty, can indeed provide viable alternatives to the world’s neoliberal food regime as well as revolutionize the struggle for food security.
I offer my gratitude to the Zapatistas for accepting me into their school as well as the Mexico Solidarity Network for enabling it. I also thank Schools for Chiapas and the Dorset Chiapas Solidarity for sharing photos, as well as The University of the West Indies Campus Research and Publication Committee (Trinidad and Tobago) for their support.
- Marcos, S & de Leon, JP. Our Word is Our Weapon (Seven Stories Press, New York, 2002).
- Anonymous Zapatista. Personal communication, Fall 2013.
- Ross, J. ¡Zapatistas!: Making Another World Possible: Chronicles of Resistance, 2000–2006 (Nation Books, New York, 2006).
- Lorenzano, L. Zapatismo: recomposition of labour, radical democracy and revolutionary project in Zapatista! Reinventing Revolution in Mexico (eds Holloway, J & Pelaez, E), Ch. 7, 126-128 (Pluto Press, London, 1998).
- Robbins, RH. Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn & Bacon, Boston, 2007).
- Benería, L, Berik, G & Floro, M. Gender, Development and Globalization: Economics as if All People Mattered (Routledge, Abingdon, 2015).
- Marcos, S. The First Uprising: March 1993. La Jornada (January 30, 1994).
- Klein, H. Compañeras: Zapatista Women‘s Stories (Seven Stories Press, New York, 2015).
- Marcos, S. Zapatista Women’s Revolutionary Law as it is lived today. Open Democracy [online] (July 2014).https://www.opendemocracy.net/sylvia-marcos/zapatista-women%E2%80%99s-re….
10. Rosset, P. Zapatista Uprising 20 Years Later. Democracy Now! [online] (January 2014).http://www.democracynow.org/2014/1/3/zapatista_uprising_20_years_later_how.