Interview, PM Press Blog

Zapatista Institutions of Autonomy and their Reflections Around the World

What follows is the presentation of Dylan Eldredge Fitzwater*, author of “Autonomy Is in Our Hearts” (PM Press, 2019), as well as his responses to questions by the audience, during the event “Zapatista Institutions of Autonomy and their Reflections Around the World that was organized by the Greek thematic co-ordinational committee “Autonomy, Self-Institution & Social Ecology” (in which we as Aftoleksi participate along with other collectives and individuals from all over Greece), part of the pan-European network of initiatives that facilitates the Zapatista trip around the continent.

First, a little bit about myself. My primary engagement with the Zapatistas has been through the language school and the caracole number two of Oventik. I am also part of a solidarity committee in the US that helps to organize students to go to that language school and supports them in other ways. The language school of Oventik is a very incredible project that is one of the ways that the Zapatistas create ties with outsiders there through a particular way of organizing.

So, my particular window into engaging with the Zapatistas and all the other things I have done in Chiapas has been through the Tsotsil language. And the concepts they use in that language to describe their work, I think, are very useful for understanding the way they organize themselves.

So, what I am going to talk about today are two Tsotsil words for work and how that relates to how the autonomous government is structured and runs in practice. And to be clear, this indigenous language is only one of seven languages spoken within the Zapatista territory. So, this is just one particular window into how they do things.

In Tsotsil there are two different words for work. There is Kanal and A’mtel that have very different meanings. The former means work that is done for individual gain, for money and for a boss. The latter, on the other hand, means work that is done collectively, for the collective benefit of the community. These two words have a particular history. And they are, kind of, the way in which the Tsotsil-speaking communities are talking about and understanding their struggle against capitalism in the present.

The word Kanal grows out of the experience both of colonial dispossession of land and the labor exploitation that went along with it. In the highlands, where Tsotsil is primarily spoken, there is very little land to which the people have access. As a result of this, before the uprising they couldn’t grow enough food to sustain themselves and were dependent on work on large plantations or migration to cities. So, Kanal refers not only to capitalist forms of work, but also to that dependency, which forces the communities to participate in these forms of work and exploitations.

After 1994 that situation obviously changed, because these large landed estates were reclaimed by the indigenous communities. In many ways, the development of the struggle since then has been the development of collective forms of labor (or A’mtel) in those reclaimed lands. And A’mtel also has a contextual, expansive definition. It is also the word for good government in Tsotsil. It refers to what the good government councils do and what people do in assemblies. So, it is both the activity of doing the collective work and the activity of making the decisions together that allow that work to function. I think this is important because it emphasizes that when the Zapatistas talk about good government, they are not talking of separate authority telling people what to do. They are talking about the work of coordinating collective labor among themselves.

This relates directly to the structure of the autonomous government. There are three levels to it – the community, the municipality, and the caracole. These are levels of coordination rather than of authority. A caracole can’t tell a community how to do things. Each community has complete control over what’s going on in it – for example, over a collective store or the work in their collective corn fields. Things of that nature.

What happens in those other levels – the municipality and the caracole – is the coordination of projects that require multiple communities coming together. For example, the schools and the autonomous education system, hospitals, electrical lines, etc. All of these things are done through a very lengthy process of coming into agreement through assemblies. Any project that is decided upon in a municipal assembly or a caracole has to be taken back to the communities and reapproved by the assembly in each community. So, this is what A’mtel looks like in practice – a constant moving backwards and forwards to ensure that everyone who participates in something is agreeing on how things are done.

I want to highlight two things about the importance of this. First is its importance for the woman’s struggle. Historically, due to colonialism and patriarchy, women were denied title to land in Chiapas, even within indigenous communities. This made women economically dependent on men and their families and creates unequal power dynamics and hierarchy. And one way that women are struggling against this is through the creation of women’s A’mtel (or women’s cooperatives) that allowed them to have their own forms of economic survival and independence from men. This is important both for women emancipation within the movement but also it is the motor force that drives the creation A’mtel. So many of the new forms of A’mtel have been created through women’s struggle.

The second thing I want to highlight is how A’mtel is a form of resistance in itself against the government’s counter-insurgency strategy. Essential part of this strategy has been to create dependency in the communities through poverty alleviation programs. And part of what it means to be a Zapatista is to refuse all forms of government aid. This is the case because that government aid is the latest manifestation of Kanal, the latest form of dependency that is being imposed on the communities. A’mtel is a form of resistance to this: it prevents the divisions that are being made through government aid within the communities and it allows them to survive independently from any outside aid from the government.

I hope this gives some kind of window into how they organize and how they are talking about what that organization is. Finally, I would like to emphasize that it’s this system of collective work and the organization on multiple levels that allows them to do things like travelling across the ocean to Europe. They rely very little on money but their own force of organization and these collective work projects they are able to get enough funds and do these amazing initiatives we are seeing.

Question: From what is known, those Zapatistas who serve in executive bodies are not paid. What would you say in comparison with Ancient Athens where they were paid, which was a measure in favor of the poor, who were to lose a day of work if they were to participate in political deliberation?

Dylan Fitzwater: This was a very conscious political decision to not pay authorities. In the very beginning they were paid and it caused problems, both in the sense that it creates temptation for corruption and it creates distrust because of the idea that people might be doing it for the money. Once again, these are communities with very little money, so even a little bit is a big difference. So, now the agreement is that authorities are supported usually through food, and in their absence members of their communities will work their fields and take care of their animals.

Q: Is there private property within their communities? Is the land given by communities to families for production; or is there a kind of communal ownership of some sort?

DF: It depends. It’s up to each community to decide how it wants to do these things. There is a lot of diversity within Zapatista territory: some communities are all Zapatista while other are split; some are very small while other are very large. And all this creates different issues. I’ve been in communities, very small and all Zapatista, where everything is collective and communal. I’ve also been in larger settlements, more like towns, where people have their individual plots and then there are larger collective fields or other projects. The question is what works and the answers to it come from constant assemblies, changes and questionings. I would say that, in general, the goal is towards collectivity whenever possible. It has to work and it has to be practical.

Q: Were there local big landowners before the Zapatista uprising, and if yes, was their land expropriated?

DF: I think of a direct quote from someone who told me what happened to the big landowners and it is that “they went running”. But there are still issues: for example, in some areas there weren’t large estates to be reclaimed and there was more of a migrant labor force, so there is still land scarcity in such areas. These are all things they are working on. 500 years of unequal land distribution and labor exploitation takes time to undo.

Q: Is there a constant frequency of their assemblies and how numerous is the participation in them?

DF: That also depends. Each caracole, each municipality does things differently according to the agreements they have reached.

Q: How do they avoid the creation of informal hierarchies?

DF: That certainly is a problem, especially with patriarchy. For example, if a woman is dependent on her husband for all of her money or income, and he controls all of that, she can’t pay her transportation cost to go to a meeting. Or even on a deeper emotional level there are forms of dependency, abuse and control, even within families and communities. This is a constant struggle, but often the emphasis is on creating forms of women’s A’mtel so that women have their own resources, which they control completely, and their own spaces where they support each other. They are not perfect, things have to be worked through and it varies from community to community how exactly that struggle is going.

Q: How does the justice system work in the Zapatista communities?

DF: The good government councils – the level of the caracole – are responsible for dealing with high crimes (rape, murder, land disputes and major theft). They work as a mediating body between two parties. The goal is to reach some form of agreement between them that will repair the harm that was done. So, in a case of a murder, that could be an agreed upon amount of money that the perpetrator has to pay to the victim’s family. Or, better than money is that the perpetrator has to go and work on the land of the victim’s family for a certain number of years. It’s always preferable to not involve money, but sometimes it is not possible.

Q: How are people encouraged to follow the decisions taken by the good government councils?

DF: First, one of the principles of the good government councils is convince, don’t defeat. The goal is to arrive at something that is agreeable to both parties. What motivates perpetrators to follow the agreements is their very social environment: the hospitals of the Zapatistas, the schools of the Zapatistas, their neighbors who are also Zapatistas. There will be a huge social cost if he refuses to submit. There are, of course, people who don’t listen, like the paramilitaries who are paid by the government to attack their neighbors within the communities. But for anyone who is still involved in the collective life of the community there is a real motivation to participate in the justice process in good faith.

Q: Can you tell us what is the Zapatistas education system, and how it differs from the one provided by the State?

DF: There are two levels: every community has an autonomous primary school and then there are also secondary schools in the caracoles. The people who teach in these schools are called education promoters. This is also another form of A’mtel, and just like the good government council, they are also not payed in any way. Instead they are supported through food, or sometimes, like in the secondary school in Oventik, they have their own field, where they grow their own food, and the students help them with the work there. And as for how is that countering the State education system – prior to the uprising government schools in the region were either functionally non-existent or extremely abusive places. If the teacher would show up, 9 out of 10 times he would be drunk. Also, the goal of State education in the indigenous areas of Mexico historically has been to replace their language and culture with a national Spanish-speaking one. That is obviously not the goal of the Zapatista education system. Although they also teach Spanish, it is conceptualized entirely differently. Children go to Zapatista schools because they are better schools or, sometimes, the only schools.

Q: How the Zapatistas are managing the energy issue? Are they connected to the national electricity grid, or do they have their own autonomous solution?

DF: The Zapatistas do not pay for electricity, as it is one of the principles of their struggle. This is part of their decision to give nothing and take nothing from the government and also because a huge percentage of the electricity generated in Mexico comes from dams in Chiapas. This has been practically made possible through a long history of solidarity by the Electrical Workers Union in Mexico. Historically, they are one of the more radical and independent unions in the country. It’s a long history I don’t know a lot about the particulars of. In addition to that, they also build their own electrical lines themselves. Many communities prior to the uprising had no electricity, probably the majority of the communities I guess.

Q: Do you know what is the situation with animal rights among the Zapatistas?

DF: They raise, kill and eat animals. But there is a very meaningful distinction between how they raise their animals and industrial food production. In Tsotsil, for example, you can call a chicken in two ways. Alak is chicken, and you can call it either batsi alak or kashlan alak. Batsi alak Is literally a indigenous chicken, which lives a life of just running around the mountain, not confined. Kashlan alak, on the other hand, literally means Castilian chicken, or colonizers’ chicken, and it refers to industrially raised chicken for capitalism. As for whether there are Zapatista vegans, it is entirely possible, I just haven’t personally met any of them.

Q: What is the reaction of the Mexican State to the Zapatistas?

DF: From the very beginning the Mexican State and political establishment have done everything in their power to destroy the Zapatistas. The fact that they are still here is a testimony of their own strength as tacticians, as well as the strength of solidarity in Mexico and the rest of the world in supporting them. The Mexican State bases a lot of its legitimacy around images from the 1910s Mexican Revolution, especially Emiliano Zapata. It is by no chance that Selinas, the president who was in power when the 1994 uprising took place, announced NAFTA in front of a portrait of Zapata. So the Zapatistas’ reclamation of that image and of the history of that struggle has tremendous resonance throughout the popular consciousness of Mexico as a nation. That, combined with their uprising in that moment of global hopelessness in the 90s, led to a lot of support in Mexican and global networks of support. In terms of “on-the-ground”, every day, what keeps them going is their own organization and their own forms of collective work. Chiapas is by far the most militarized state in Mexico and there are just constant forms of low-level military harassment such as convoys going through communities every day, helicopters buzzing over houses, check-points, violence against women, etc. It involves all that violence that surrounds military bases.

And on top of that, the government has this strategy of creating and arming paramilitary groups within Zapatista communities, in order to harass them from within. All this is done in combination with creating dependencies through government aid, as well as with legal strategies of giving to certain groups titles to lands reclaimed by the Zapatistas in the 1994 uprising. Basically, the government does whatever it can to sow division and conflict within the indigenous communities and the primary form of resistance to that is the Zapatistas’ forms of collective work that serve the whole community – Zapatista and non-Zapatista alike.

There is an important point I forgot to mention: you don’t have to be a member of the Zapatista organization to go to a Zapatista hospital or a good government council for a land dispute or some other problem they have to resolve. Those are open to everyone, which is incredibly strong form of self-defense as the Zapatista form of government will always be more honest, more transparent and more caring for those communities than the official government will.

Q: There is one last question that has to do with the current pandemic and how it has influenced the Zapatista communities?

DF: “I don’t really know” is the short answer due to the pandemic. But they are a group of people that is already used in wearing mask in public, that is very self-sufficient in its communities and don’t have many reasons to go to the megacities, and has its own well-organized autonomous health system. So, I imagine that if there was around a world an indigenous community that was well prepared to deal with Covid-19, they most certainly are one of them. I don’t know how they are doing assemblies in the conditions of a pandemic. That will be a good question to ask them when they come visit you, because I don’t have idea how they made it work! Thank you!

*Dylan Eldredge Fitzwater is the author of Autonomy is in Our Hears: Zapatista Autonomous Government through the Lens of the Tsotsil Language (PM Press, 2019). He has encountered the Zapatistas as a human rights observer, a participant in several international gatherings, and as a student at the Zapatista language school in Oventik. Fitzwater is also distributing Zapatista coffee through the MonkeyBear Coop.