By Jayme Winell
A group of Mexican campesinos, rural farmers, peacefully seized 200 hectares of a sugar cane plantation where many of their grandparents had worked since the mid 1900s in San Isidrio de los Laureles on December 20. Sugar cane work is brutally hard and dismally paid and the community surrounding the plantation has struggled with poverty for generations. The ranch named “El Refugio,” or “The Refuge” is located amidst very dry country toward the Pacific coast in Chiapas Mexico. The land includes a natural spring which from which clean, pure water gushes forth that is believed to be sacred and will bless children. The water is known as the “Blessed River.”
Just a few years ago the owners of the ranch relaxed in their two pools filled with water from the Blessed River while the campesinos of San Isidro worked their sugar cane fields. After the land was seized, the children and grandchildren of those campesinos could finally swim in the cool, clean waters, playing and running with enthusiasm and energy. This new generation, their parents believe, will have access to a more dignified life with land to call their own.
Despite living on the very fertile land that produced such profits for the owners, members of the San Isidrio community were unable to meet their families’ basic needs. In an average eight hour day, they would earn 60-80 pesos, or about 5 US dollars. Over the course of the last five years they began talking about how to change their situation, or as they like to say, how to take out the roots of the problem. They identified having access to land as being a major goal.
In 1994 there were widespread land recuperation projects successfully completed by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional, EZLN). The EZLN used a strategy of training in secret, making surprise attacks on key land holdings and then quickly setting aside weapons to focus on founding self-governing systems, economic cooperatives, health clinics and schools. The watershed moment of 1994 certainly reached the minds and hearts of San Isidrio campesinos but physically was far away. It would take another twenty-one years for them to take similar action.
They joined the organization Semilla Digna/Dignified Seed, became adherents of the EZLN Sixth Declaration from the Lancondon Jungle and aligned themselves with the National Congress of Indigenous Peoples (CNI). As an organization they believe that land belongs to those who work it and that the defense of Mother Earth is of utmost importance. They have taken part in workshops ranging from organic agriculture, to human rights, to participatory theater about illegal police detention.
The land and community building project in San Isidrio at “The Refuge” is still a work in progress. They fear police repression and vigilante violence on the part of the owners but so far have been able to guard the ranch twenty-four hours a day.
In Their Own Words: From The Radio Zapatista Project:
How do you feel being in control of land that your grandparents worked on?
“Happy, content that our children will live more dignified.”
When and how did you decide to take over this land?
“Around 2010 we had a reawakening of consciousness and we said that since we’re from here then we should also defend the territory. It’s very integral there: there is water, trees, it is sacred land and so…we decided to recuperate the land. It’s not right that we have always been here but someone from outside comes in and buys what belongs to us.”
What is your view of politicians?
“Before, we let politicians deceive us. they said ‘if you vote, lots of things will change.’ But …all they did was promise and promise and promise but they never deliver. So last year we decided to not vote… Sometimes the politicians bring programs but they don’t get at the problem from the roots.”
There is grafitti about taking care of the Earth. How do you view yourselves taking care of the Earth?
“We have started a cooperative on some land, it is not much, about a half hectare, but we don’t use any petrochemicals. We use some fertilizer but it is organic and insecticide, well repellent, that is also natural.”
Is there something else you’d like to tell us people in other places?
“Well, that you are never alone. We are always organizing. And now may people get inspired to fight for their lands, for yourself, for your families, for our children. Fight together and organize together because alone we won’t achieve anything. But if we articulate that another world is possible, it depends on how many of us are ready to do lots of things…together.”
To hear the full interview with community members of San Isidrio de los Laureles, go to Radio Zapatista: http://radiozapatista.org/?p=16211