Roots of Rebellion
Roots of Rebellion

Mar¡a Elena Mart¡nez provides geographical and historical
background to the Chiapas revolt by the poorest of the poor.

     The following is an edited version of a presentation
made by the author in a panel on the Chiapas uprising held
at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco on January 13,
     I would like to give some geographical/historical
background to the conflict in Chiapas to shed some light on
some of the apparent contradictions in the news. Let's start
by looking at the different areas of Chiapas where the
conflict is taking place and where the guerrilleros
     The state of Chiapas has a very varied geography. The
southwestern part, on the coast, is lowlands with extremely
fertile soil. The central area is a high altitude plateau
known as the Altos de Chiapas, or the Chiapas Highlands.
This zone is very rocky, with steep slopes and very thin
topsoil. It's not very fertile land and is difficult to
     To the east lies the Lacandon rainforest or jungle. The
soil here is fine for maintaining a rainforest but useless
for agriculture, although the indigenous native Lacandon
people successfully carried out a traditional form of
cultivation based on manipulating the species composition of
the forest.
     Before the Spanish conquest, when all of Chiapas was
theirs, the different Mayan groups had their centers of
agricultural production in the fertile lowlands. After the
conquest, over the next 300 to 500 years, the indigenous
peoples were gradually pushed back toward the worst soils in
the highlands. By the 1950s these highland areas were so
densely populated that many Mayans had no land to plant
their crops. A slow process of migration began toward the
only place where there was still unused land: the Lacandon
rainforest. The population density there was very low, with
only the Lacandons practicing their traditional cultivation,
and thus it was attractive for colonization.
     As a result of this migration from the highlands, the
majority of people in the Lacandon area today are not from
there, but rather are from highland ethnic groups, mostly
Tzotzils, Tzeltals, and Mams. Other colonists of this area
were poor peasants from Oaxaca, Guerrerro, Michoac n, and
other parts of Mexico who were also in search of land.
Because the rainforest soils lose their fertility after one
or two years of annual cropping, these people rapidly became
the poorest of the poor in Mexico.
     Today the indigenous people of Chiapas live either on
the poor soils of the highlands or on the even worse soils
of the rainforest. The pacific lowland area with fertile
soil is now used for commercial export agriculture --
cotton, sugarcane, cattle-ranching, some coffee. Meanwhile
the indigenous people depend primarily on corn production.
     While the people who had migrated to the rainforest
became steadily poorer, a crucial development for the
highlands took place. The end of the 1970s saw the Mexican
oil boom to the north. There was also a related boom in
construction in the central area where the three largest
hydroelectric plants in Mexico were constructed. The people
of the highlands now had access to wage-labor employment for
a few years, in oil and construction. They were also able to
obtain extra earnings by seasonal labor in Pacific
     So the peasants in the highlands occasionally had
access to sources of income other than agriculture, but the
peasants in the Lacandon area saw their situation grow worse
and worse. Because of their isolation, they had no source of
wage income; you can really say they were the poorest of the
     When the Mexican dept crisis put an end to the boom
economy, people returned to the highlands, but their
communities were transformed. The result of wage labor being
available for a few years was a process of social
differentiation. Some people had made a lot more money than
others; they returned to the highlands from the oil fields
or other boom areas and began buying up the land and
investing in transportation; they became relatively rich
within the highland indigenous communities. Other people
became or remained poor, losing their land to the newly
wealthy. So although the indigenous people all appear to be
poor to an outsider, they are in fact sharply differentiated
or polarized into rich and poor within each of the highland
     The newly wealthy people in the highland communities,
those who had gotten rich when they went to the oil boom
regions or into construction, became what are now known as
the caciques -- village strongmen -- of these communities.
They dominate in every way; they control agriculture and
transport and they have aligned themselves with the dominant
party in Mexico, the PRI. Thus they control the political
structure and choose the town councils as well as municipal
     During the '80s and early '90s the poor people in the
rainforest settlements and the newly destitute in the
highlands became even poorer. This is because of structural
changes in the Mexican economy -- "structural adjustment"
and "free trade" -- leading to a worsening level of living
standards throughout the country. They may soon get even
poorer because the reform of Article 27 of the Mexican
Constitution means the end of agrarian reform and thus no
hope of the landless obtaining land.
     Given that those in the Lacandon area are the poorest
of the poor, we can understand how so many of the EZLN, the
Zapatistas, would come from this zone. If we look at the
places where the uprising took place, demonstrating the
tremendous degree of organization among the Zapatistas, we
can see that those areas are all on the edge of the Lacandon
     San Crist¢bal de las Casas, the old colonial capital of
Chiapas, is the only place not on that fringe -- but it is
an important target because of tourism and because it's the
economic and administrative center of the highlands. Also,
just outside San Crist¢bal is the recently built Rancho
Nuevo military base, which was one of the main objectives of
Zapatista attacks.
     New forms of organization had developed in the Lacandon
settlement area, as the uprising indicates. The fact that
the area has long been very isolated, with no government
services and almost without a government presence, allowed
for this to happen. Also, the mixture of indigenous people
together with landless mestizos from other parts of Mexico
may have encouraged new forms of organization. This may
explain why the declarations of the Zapatistas do not speak
about specific ethnic demands even though the authors are
mostly indigenous people. The declarations are directed
toward the poor peasant masses of the entire country.
     The social differentiation in the highlands explains
the differences in attitudes toward the EZLN. When the
Zapatistas brought the war from the rainforest to the
highlands, the caciques -- the new power structure aligned
with the PRI -- would be expected to be very much against
them, while the poor of the area are likely to have sympathy
or enthusiasm. That is why we find varying responses in news
reports, which refer both to townspeople welcoming the
guerrillas and to townspeople rejecting them. We should also
remember that some supporters may be unwilling to express
their feelings publicly because cacique control makes them
feel that they are not free to speak.
     In conclusion, understanding that the EZLN comes from
an isolated area inhabited by the poorest of the poor,
allows an understanding of why they rebelled. Once you know
that their communities consisted of poor Mayans living
together with poor mestizos from the rest of Mexico, you can
see why their rhetoric is nationalist rather than ethnic.
And finally, understanding the economic polarization inside
the highland indigenous communities provides an explanation
for their variable responses to the arrival of the
Zapatistas from the rainforest.