Zapatista Development: Local Empowerment and the Curse of Top-Down Economics in Chiapas, Mexico

By Khokhar, Tanya | Kennedy School Review, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Zapatista Development: Local Empowerment and the Curse of Top-Down Economics in Chiapas, Mexico


Khokhar, Tanya, Kennedy School Review


Guaquitepec is a small village in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico and by most estimates the poorest in the country. It is a humid, tropical area perhaps best known for the large-scale rebellion staged two decades ago by a leftist revolutionary group called Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN), or as they are more popularly known: the Zapatistas. The famous Zapatista revolution dramatically impacted

Mexican culture and politics, and in villages like Guaquitepec, its influence is still widely felt, and its legacy on the state of Chiapas has yet to be determined. (1)

The Zapatistas initially attracted a wave of local and international attention for their cause; as a result, Chiapas received an influx of development aid following the 1994 rebellion. The state currently has the second-highest number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and development organizations in the country. Yet even with all the aid, little has changed in fifteen years. While the Zapatistas secured a degree of autonomy from the Mexican government, very little progress has been made and the underlying sources of conflict remain unaddressed.

Today, the Zapatistas--representing a broad political culture of workers, teachers, students, and farmers and having a wider support base than the initial mid-1990s political-military apparatus--continue to move away from government programs, maintaining their independence from the state. Some argue that this self-imposed isolation has limited the political influence of Chiapas and hampered economic progress. Others highlight the alternative political and social structures that emerged, arguing that the Zapatistas actually missed a significant opportunity to truly reform the state for the better.

Visiting a village like Guaquitepec, one notes that the community embraces an alternative model of development, centered on sustainable economic and social practices. The community has developed its own unique market structures and agro-ecological systems. Students in Guaquitepec's community-based schools are trained in traditional, family-given agricultural practices; classes are taught in Tzeltal, their mother tongue; and indigenous cultural norms are practiced extensively. High school graduates are placed in jobs within the community rather than migrating to cities, which preserves a sense of kinship and counteracts "brain drain." Guaquitepec represents a practical success story of the unique Zapatista ideology of self-reliance; other villages across Chiapas present a less rosy picture, as will be discussed. While Chiapas has undergone massive political, economic, and social transformations since the Zapatista revolt, the impact is perceived as limited in indigenous minds.

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As Mexico moves forward, the future of Chiapas and the role of the Zapatista political paradigm remain uncertain. On 1 December 2012, newly elected president Enrique Pena Nieto took up his new mandate. He is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the same party that ran the country for nearly seventy years, under whom the Zapatistas revolted in 1994. What Nieto's rise to power might mean for the Zapatista ideals of self-autonomy and independence from the state is impossible to predict; this article explores the unique nature of development and community building in Chiapas at this crucial and uncertain moment in its history.

"Para Todos Todo": The Zapatistas in Context

The EZLN emerged as an anti-globalization, anti-neoliberal social movement in Chiapas in the early 1990s, seeking indigenous rights over land and other local resources. Land reform was a key demand, since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) eliminated the guarantee of land reparations to indigenous groups, which had been mandated by the 1917 Mexican Constitution. (2)

The Zapatistas believed that NAFTA would increase the gap between the rich and poor. …

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