The Mayans and the Global Economy
The Mayas and The Global Market

Salvador Peniche describes a fight for cultural identity and
physical survival.

     I'm resolved to struggle against everything and
everybody. --Emiliano Zapata, Revolutionary Proclamation of
War in 1911

     What is happening now in the Mayan lands (the historic
Maya territory includes Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and
southern Mexico, with an estimated indigenous population of
six million people) is the latest battle in the Maya
peoples' long resistance war for survival. In Western
history, the Mayas have had no place other than as a
curiosity in a museum. Nevertheless, their role in the
consolidation of modern capitalism has been great. To
understand the present situation -- the socio-economic
evolution of the "National States" that have been built on
land of the Maya and their link to the world market -- a
different perspective on Maya history is indispensable.
     The Mayas have always demonstrated a great capacity for
survival. Theirs is a resistance based on intense pride and
adherence to their beliefs. They never surrendered to the
Spaniard conquistadors or other aggressors. (This applies
equally to the British in Belize, landlords in Yucat n and
Criollo armies in recent history.) They have always found
ways to survive -- if not freely on their lands, at least in
the mountains or valleys of the region. In response to this
vocation of freedom they have been treated with
discrimination, genocide and exploitation. Their "crime" has
been to oppose the type of life that the system had planned
for them -- to function as a slave labor force in coffee,
corn, or henequen plantations. (Henequen is the cactus used
to supply the fibers for a range of products. It was a major
industry in southern Mexico until the turn of the century.)


     In the 1990s the situation has changed. We now live
under what the leaders of the new transnational world refer
to as the "Global Economy." The international order of the
21st century is profoundly different from that of the past,
as are the roles that its component parts are expected to
play. If the Maya resisted integration into the market
system before, they have every reason to intensify their
opposition now. For the Maya and other indigenous peoples
know that in an era of production based on high technology
and massive agribusiness, the global economy threatens them
with extinction.
     The global economy threatens the Maya and any other
community rooted in a collective, social model of land
exploitation with an irreversible separation from their
lands. The Maya have survived for hundreds of years thanks
to their profound understanding of the relation between
people and their environment. Their cultural identity and
their physical survival is rooted in the integrated
relationship they have built between the land and community.
The arrival of the global market, with its emphasis on
maximizing agricultural production no matter what the social
cost, means a death sentence for them.
     The defenders of free trade promise a future in which
the standard of living of campesinos in general and of
indigenous peoples in particular will rise. For them, the
past 10 years of the neoliberal agenda with its accompanying
massive social dislocation does not constitute evidence that
their policies have failed. Instead, neoliberals affirm with
a religious-like conviction that these socio-economic
consequences of modernization are a necessary sacrifice to a
better future based on integration with the world market.
     NAFTA is an important step towards the consolidation of
a region integrated according to corporate priorities. It is
also clear there is no turning point after which the free
market will "bring back" the socio-economic benefits for the
common citizen. The market just does not work that way. The
agreement will deepen and perpetuate the destructive
processes that communities, including those of the Maya,
have suffered.
     The implementation of the free trade agenda allows
capital to flow freely into Mexico's agricultural sector,
which affects the Maya most. Until 1993, this was impossible
in Mexican agriculture. Emiliano Zapata was personally
responsible for this fact. His struggle promoted the basic
principle of land possession in the country based on
traditions of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, that the
state should own all the land of the nation and give access
to it to field workers to work. This principle, promoted by
the armed forces Zapata led, was the basis of the famous
Article 27 in Mexico's National Constitution. The resulting
communal lands, the ejidos, were designed to counteract the
anti-social effects of the market. The state ensured that
the people benefited from the country's agricultural economy
by supporting this system.
     This situation prevailed until 1993, when the Salinas
government effectively repealed Article 27. With this
change, it is now possible for Mexico's fieldworkers to own
their lands and compete "freely" for their survival.
President Salinas has realized the Zapatista slogan "land
for the fieldworkers" by perverting its fundamental meaning.
The new law places the campesinos on an equal footing with
domestic and transnational agribusiness. Thanks to dogmatic
adherence to classic economic thought, a basic premise --
that equal treatment among unequals is unjust -- has been


     For the past 50 years, government "economic
development" policies have used the surplus generated by
Mexico's agricultural sector to promote the country's
industrialization. The transfer of resources from the
agricultural sector to the industrial sector has been
continuous and massive. In this process, the state abandoned
the ejido system, creating a capitalist elite and leaving
millions of Mexicans out of the national project.
     This process resulted in the technical and economic
inefficiency that have characterized Mexico's traditional
agriculture system, the breakdown of production and the
impoverishment of the country's campesinos. Over time, two
types of production resulted: a relatively small, highly
productive and profitable type of export production of
vegetables closely linked to the North American market; and
a mass of small, inefficient campesino holdings which
provided the food supply for the country's internal market.
It is obvious which of these two sectors will survive in the
global economy and which is promoting the recent changes.
The gradual opening of the economy, which began January 1
and will be carried out over a period of 15 years, means a
slow death for the campesino sector.
     We have already seen the effects. There has been the
loss in the country's food supply with the shift in
agricultural production from grains and cattle raising to
export-oriented production of flowers, tropical fruits,
vegetables and fodder. This is where there are opportunities
to compete -- against other Latin American countries! What
will be the effect of the transformation of the land tenure
system? In the study on the likely impact of NAFTA on
Mexican agriculture, Probables efectos del Tratado de Libre
Comercio en el campo mexicano, Dr. J. L. Calva estimated
that at least 15 million people would be expelled from their
lands as a result of the opening of the agricultural market.
That is the death sentence that the Zapatistas referred to.
     In the Chiapas uprising, the Maya have taken the option
that they have always been forced to take throughout their
history: to fight for their right to survive, to reject a
life of misery, hunger and fear, and to insist on the right
to develop their own community life. They have no other real
options. What do they have to lose?