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Brainstorming in the Lacandon

Zapatista Intergalatica Lands on Earth

by JOHN ROSS

Ejido Morelia, Chiapas

In the annals of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), the 1996 "Intergalactica "was a high water mark of international solidarity. Formally dubbed a "Forum In Defense of Humanity and Against Neo-liberalism", the conclave drew 6,000 activists from five continents to the wilds of Chiapas’s Lacandon jungle to brainstorm on the growing menace of the corporate globalization of the Planet Earth (the World Trade Organization had just been formulated the previous year). The event is often considered to have been the seedbed for historic demonstrations against the WTO in Seattle 1999 from which the anti-globalization movement blossomed.

The gathering in a jungle clearing on a Zapatista ejido with the haunting name of La Realidad ("The Reality") 11 years ago was nicknamed the "Intergalactica" because in his convocation the rebels’ spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos invited all sentient life forms from other planets in the galaxy to participate in the event. "We don’t know if they actually came to the first Intergalactica" Zapatista Lieutenant Colonel Moises mused recently, "at least they never identified themselves."

After more than a decade of anti-globalization struggles and World Social Forums, the Intergalactica has literally returned to earth. The scaled-down version of the event pitched as an "Encounter of the Peoples of the World with the Peoples of the Zapatista Communities" to defend indigenous territories throughout the Americas staged July 20-28 at three rebel "caracoles" or public political/cultural centers in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas, zeroed in on the land and those who work and live upon it.

Whereas Intergalactica I attracted such literary luminaries as Eduardo Galeano and European intellectuals Yvon Lebot, Danielle Mitterand, and Alain Touraine (Nobelist Jose Saraamgo and Susan Sontag would soon follow), the 2007 edition brought together representatives of poor farmers from 13 mostly-southern countries to swap experiences with Zapatista base communities in the highlands, the canyons, and the jungle of Chiapas, and develop mechanisms for mutual self-defense against the ravages of neo-liberalism.

The privatization of communal lands, the destruction of native crops, and the forced migration of millions of poor farmers constitutes a declaration of "the fourth world war again humanity", Marcos charged in welcoming 3000 activists and Zapatista bases to the caracol "Resistance and Rebellion Before The World" at Oventik in Los Altos of Chiapas.

Much as at last New Year when the EZLN celebrated its 13th year on public display, the interchanges at Oventik, on the Ejido Morelia (the Caracol "Whirlwind of Our Word") and La Realidad ("The Mother of the Sea of Our Dreams") featured presentations by civil Zapatismo (as opposed to the rebels’ political-military structure) as local health and education promoters laid out the nuts and bolts of building autonomous communities. Other lay Zapatista leaders delineated the rebels’ justice system and how land is distributed and cultivated in the autonomous zones.

In response, farmers invited under the aegius of Via Campesina, an international grouping of millions of poor farmers with affiliates in over 70 nations, spoke to the struggle for land and justice in their own countries. Among the participants: Yudhmir Singh of India’s Bartya Kissan Union who described Ghandian civil disobedience by poor farmers to resist neo-liberal agrarian policies foisted on those who work the land, and representatives of the Thai Assembly of the Poor who farm the jungle along the Cambodian border.

First world farmers were represented by George Naylor, outgoing director of the U.S. Family Farm Association, who told the Zapatistas of the resistance of small corn farmers in Iowa to the dissemination of genetically modified seed. Dong Uk Min of the Korean farmers union, invoked the memory of the campesino Lee Kwang Hai who committed suicide at the 2003 World Trade Organization assembly in Cancun.

From further south, Soraya Soriana, a leader of Brazil’s militant Movimento Sem Terras (MST) and speakers from Venezuela’s Wayuu nation cautioned encounter-goers against the "neo-imperialist" policies of such left-wing leaders as Lula and Hugo Chavez. The Zapatistas share a similar distrust of Latin America’s social democratic left.

The colloquy between farmers in defense of indigenous lands unfolded against an appropriate backdrop of spiring "milpas" (cornfields) and the deep green of surrounding hills at the height of Mexico’s bountiful rainy season – uniformed militia men and women in their green and black uniforms seemed almost to organically blend into the abundant vegetation.

The encampments in the caracoles thrummed with conviviality. Nightly cultural presentations brought the campers together under the stars. Nuns chatted with ski-masked rebels and rangy Nordic punksters danced in the mud with pint-sized Mayan companeras while horses grazed placidly in nearby pastures. In contrast to the 1996 Intergalactica when Mexican immigration authorities sought to prevent foreign activists from attending the encounter under threat of deportation, access to the Zapatista zone was unrestricted.

In a world where five live shooting wars dominate front pages with daily doses of death and destruction, and in a country where an infuriated underclass’s demands for justice are met by brutal government repression, the Zapatista caracoles for once seem to be pockets of peace.

It wasn’t always that way.

During the first days of the rebellion in January 1994, the Mexican military invaded the Ejido Morelia. They forced the men to lie flat on the basketball court, kicking and torturing them for hours under the jungle sun. Three of the community’s leaders were taken away and never seen alive again. Their bones were found by hunters months later. No one has ever been prosecuted for the murders.

In classic Zapatista fashion, these gristly events were depicted on a mural painted on the schoolhouse wall here while 13 years later, inside the school, Zapatista women told of how they organize their autonomy.

It has been eight years since the last armed confrontation between the Mexican government and the EZLN but the peace that seems to thrive in the Zapatista autonomous zone, is an uneasy one. Skirmishes over land taken in the 1994 rebellion between Zapatistas and other Mayan Indian campesinos (the rebels characterize them as "paramilitaries") are endemic and thousands of troops continue to occupy sprawling bases at strategic points in the EZLN geography.

A just-issued study by the San Cristobal-based Center for Political Analysis and Socio-Economic Investigation (CAPISE), "The Face of War", indicates that the nature of the occupation has changed in recent years with elite brigades now stationed in the conflict zone reporting directly to Mexico City rather than regional commands. As Mexico joins the U.S.-directed War on Terror, the border region with Guatemala where many key Zapatista autonomous municipalities are located, attract enhanced attention from security forces.

Despite the "Santa Paz" (Sainted Peace) the "Mal Gobierno" (Bad Government) claims to reign in Chiapas, the EZLN remains an armed organization. Certainly, of its two weapons – "El Fuego" (The Fire) and "La Palabra" (The Word) – the latter now predominates. But the fire is not forgotten. "We will never give up our arms or remove our pasamontanas (ski masks) until our demands for justice are satisfied" Comandante David pledged to a packed auditorium to close the Oventik segment of Intergalactica II as the rain fell in sheets outside from the bountiful southern sky.

Note: Intergalactica II was only one of several upcoming international events to be programmed by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and The Other Campaign in 2007. Indigenous peoples from throughout the Americas will gather next October at Vicam Sonora in the heart of Yaqui Indian Territory, and an all-woman’s international gathering is being planned for next December in Chiapas.

JOHN ROSS is in Mexico City, plotting a new novella. If you have further information contact johnross@igc.org