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Chiapas is Global

an interview with Okanagan poet, educator and indigenous rights activist Jeannette Armstrong

The timing of the Zapatista uprising should have made it clear: by taking up arms against the Mexican government on the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) told the world that lives were at stake in the reorganization of the global economy. But despite the public statements by the Zapatistas, and the lines of solidarity that have been forged between the EZLN and other popular movements throughout the continent, the mainstream media in North America by and large continues to portray the uprising in Chiapas as a limited disturbance provoked by strictly localized issues.

In January 1994, the Continental Coordinating Commission of Indigenous Nations and Organizations (CONIC) organized an international delegation of indigenous peoples to visit the state of Chiapas and to report on the concerns of indigenous peoples participating in or witness to the uprising. One of the members of that delegation was Jeannette Armstrong, a poet and teacher from the Okanagan nation currently working with the En'owkin Centre in Penticton, British Columbia. The following conversation was recorded by telephone in March 1994.

Q: I wanted to begin by asking you about your first reaction to the news of the uprising in Mexico.

A: I guess my immediate reaction was anger, outrage and then grief. Understanding that these were Indian people -- and I had some idea of the conditions they were living under -- my reaction centered around wondering how the uprising was going to be handled by the Mexican government.

There seems to be almost polarized reactions to the uprising. The mainstream media , the Canadian government, and certainly the Mexican government have gone out of their way to down play the uprising. They have described it primarily in terms of incidents of human rights violations in the south of Mexico, of poverty and of peoples reaction to those conditions. At the same time groups and organizations which have been concerned over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), over the general conditions of economic restructuring in North America and over the issue of indigenous land rights have all emphasized the way that the Zapatistas are advancing a political and economic program in relation to a much broader range of problems, rather than to isolated incidents of poverty or violence. I think that was one of the most frustrating issues for me in terms of the reports that we were getting from our contacts, from indigenous people who were down there just days into the conflict, and the analysis they were providing in terms of the indigenous peoples' movement down there and the reasons they were taking the stand that they were taking. You know, the declarations that came out from the EZLN were very clear on the reasons that these actions had to be taken and these reasons were related very directly to the effects of NAFTA. And I think because of the vested interests in Canada and the US that message has been really seriously down played and red herring tactics have been used, particularly in terms of focusing primarily on human rights violations.

And I guess the way that I see it, this is the first action of this sort that goes beyond local concerns. It is the first resistance, the first violent resistance, to the global economy. It is a movement that is opposed to much more than just the national government of Mexico, so that the uprising is on behalf of a lot more people than just the indigenous people of Mexico or the underprivileged classes throughout the states of Mexico.

Q: Before calling you I was reading an article in the latest issue of Canadian Forum, an article by Joyce Nelson called "The Zapatistas vs. the Spin Doctors." It's about the way in which public relations firms, the mass media and the Mexican and Canadian governments have "handled" the Zapatista uprising. In this article she also talks about how a Canadian delegation to Chiapas led by Ovide Mercredi, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has called for the creation of a commission to oversee human rights under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Joyce Nelson points out that although obviously there has to be attention to human rights, that particular delegation to Chiapas has already accepted that we must live with NAFTA. In other words this delegation is pulling back from the much more radical demands made by the Zapatistas.

A: Yeah, and it doesn't even take into account the critical factors which gave rise to the uprising in the first place. These factors had to do with policies that were being implemented in marketing and in the export control of marketable products, as well as changes in the Mexican constitution which changed the status of the communally held land that is the fundamental basis of survival for the peasants and the indigenous people in that area.

Basically, if we're looking at the Chiapas uprising as a strictly localized problem then you can think of it in terms of human rights violations that the Mexican military and army is perpetrating. But if we're looking at what is at the bottom of it, we're looking at human rights violations that are being perpetrated through a systemic process which involves an international trade agreement in which the US and Canada are complicit. When you're dealing with a criminal government and you're complicit with that government through creating the kind of agreement that puts more oppression and repression on the people who are already impoverished and underprivileged, are you as criminal? Are you as involved in human rights violations? Those are the sorts of questions that people need to be asking of the [Canadian] government, of these two governments that are involved in that complicity.

Q: Now you were part of a delegation that went to Chiapas, but as you've described it to me, it was not a human rights observer delegation, it was an indigenous solidarity delegation. Can you tell me what your objectives were in going to Chiapas?

A: The delegation was organized by the Continental Coordinating Commission of Indigenous Nations and Organizations. It is an organization which encompasses indigenous peoples' organizations and nations from North America, Central America and South America. The participating organization in North America is the Indigenous Peoples Alliance. We were the principle organizers of the delegates that came from the US and Canada. Their position in taking a delegation [to Chiapas] was to meet with the indigenous peoples of the Chiapas region where the conflict was taking place, not only to observe the coming together of those organizations to establish the terms of peace that they were going to be negotiating in relation to demands of the EZLN, but they were also there to witness that process in terms of what the indigenous peoples were saying and what the underlying and background reasons might be, coming from an indigenous perspective. The feeling very much centered around the understanding that we have as indigenous people that many times mainstream press networks will not cover the indigenous perspective, but will cover only the mainstream perspective. We wanted to make sure that there were witnesses there who were listening and hearing and reporting back the indigenous concerns, the indigenous view, and their objectives in terms of the demands that were being put forward by the EZLN on behalf of all indigenous people and campesino organizations in the state of Chiapas and throughout Mexico. So the reason for being there was to listen to them, to hear them and to record as correctly as possible what they were saying.

Q: For you, having gone and heard indigenous people of Chiapas speak of their concerns, what was the most important aspect of the struggle that you came away with a better sense of understanding?

A: There were two things I came to really understand very clearly. It wasn't an overnight reactionary kind of action. It was part of a much longer term movement toward trying to instill some justice in terms of the really oppressive style of government that has been there for many years and the really oppressive style of colonialism that has been there for many years and the conditions that it has created in terms of factionalizing the indigenous population and the campesino population and of course the elite class, the landlord class. And I guess what I came to understand clearly was that this is probably the first time in the history of Mexico -- and this was expressed by a number of people at the meetings which I attended -- where a certain bridge had been created and there was now a commonality in terms of the campesino organizations and the indigenous organizations. It was the first time those two groups had actually come together to discuss a solidarity movement in terms of reforms that could meet both of their needs. I think it was the first time in history that that solidarity was achieved. And that's really a critical thing in terms of the present government.

Q: I want to pursue that point of alliances being formed among grassroots indigenous peoples movements and other popular sectors, not just in Mexico but around the world. You are connected now not only to the indigenous peoples' movement in Chiapas, but also to the indigenous peoples' movement in the Ecuadorian Amazon in the form of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza Province (OPIP) and also to the Tonantzin Land Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It seems characteristic of all of these organizations that they are working to form alliances with non-native women and men who might in some way share a basis for solidarity. I'm thinking, for example, of OPIP trying to reach out to the Ecuadorian oil workers to try to collaborate with them to try to resist oil exploitation on indigenous lands. This seems to be a very new development in international organizing by indigenous peoples.

A: I think it's a really necessary development and it has been precipitated by the indigenous peoples movement looking for those alliances, speaking out and creating those bridges. In some cases some of the extreme conditions affecting indigenous and non-indigenous people have resulted in those alliances just naturally coming about. But a lot of it has been precipitated by indigenous people in their effort to dialogue in that particular way.

Some of the movements which you mentioned are some of the ones which are taking a strong role in terms of the problems created by the exploitation of land and resources and the exploitation of people. Another good example is the coming together in Brazil of the indigenous people there and the rubber tappers which I witnessed and saw at the Global Forum in Brazil. It was a similar kind of situation in that they had shared the same territory and the rubber tappers had been in opposition to indigenous people in competition for the resources of the rainforest. But when the large corporations started making inroads into that same rainforest, it very quickly became clear -- and it galvanized the actions of the people -- that they needed to protect the land base if they were interested in continuing to live in it in a relatively healthy coexistence. So I saw that occur. There was a solidarity movement. They came into the meeting together and they spoke together. They recognized their differences, but they were clear that they stood in solidarity against the onslaught that was occurring in their territory.

Q: The mainstream media has responded to the Chiapas uprising by trying to denigrate or down play the extent to which the Zapatistas reflect an indigenous analysis that is international, that is sophisticated , that takes into account things like NAFTA and other global processes. Despite this media portrayal, it seems to me that one of things that necessarily is beginning to happen, is that indigenous people are beginning to be respected as people who can present an analysis in areas such as macroeconomics that have previously been reserved for non-native, so-called experts.

A: That was something which became very clear in Chiapas. Meeting with organizations, the analysis that had taken place, the amount of information that was out there in the community... A really good example is a women's textile cooperative that we visited in the mountains above San Cristobal. They were all very clear how NAFTA affected them directly in terms of their textiles and whether or not they were in control or participant to the changes in the economy. They were very much aware of the kinds of impacts that the global market economy has in terms of the export and marketing of their textiles and in terms of the benefits back to their growers and producers. They were very clear that the problem here was the profiteering motive in the NAFTA, that NAFTA would circumvent and obliterate that kind of manufacturing and that kind of localized economy which had been in place for thousands of years, and that they will be very directly affected by the flooding onto the market of cheap materials from other parts of the world.

Q: Just to wrap up, what do you think are the key lessons for the future in terms of international organizing for solidarity between indigenous peoples and various sectors of the non-native population?

A: Well, I think one of the very clear messages is that people on an everyday level who are involved in labour or business on a local level need to inform themselves and really need to understand some of the global frameworks that are going to be impacting on them in terms of their lives and their participation in the economy, and whether or not they're going to have any say in that economy. We're not being informed. There's this priest class of people who know what the GATT agreement is and who know what NAFTA is and nobody else seems to know.

But everybody needs to know, everybody needs to understand the compromises that are being asked and sell-offs that are occurring, especially in a country like Canada where the resource base lies on such a diverse geography. If you're looking across the board there need to be all kinds of frameworks put in place to protect agriculture, for instance, by marketing boards that are constructed specifically to maintain and sustain agriculture in this country. What happens if that kind of sustaining program can no longer be done because the free trade tribunal has said that unfair subsidies are being provided? That means those businesses go down the drain, multinational corporations pick up that land and pick up those businesses, and the people in Canada become subject to the same kinds of things that are happening in Chiapas, but on an even larger scale.

To me its very clear that it's up to the people who are going to be impacted by this to inform themselves, to understand as clearly as possible the effects in their own backyard, right in their own kitchen, and understand the actions that they can take, and understand the things that are necessary in terms of standing in solidarity with each other. We are talking about a war against the effects of corporate industry and the profiteering in a market and wage economy. Where do we draw the line? Who is more important? And where do people come in? Are investment corporations more important than the people on a local level who will directly feel the impact on the land that they live on, but which they have absolutely no control over? Those are the kind of questions that people need to be asking of those governments that are involved in and are complicit in this kind of agreement making.

Thunder Bay, March 1994

suggestions for further reading:

Armstrong, Jeannette. Breath Tracks. Vancouver: Williams-Wallace, 1991.

Arsenault, Kevin J. "Free Trade and Agriculture: NAFTA Threatens Loss of More Family Farms." Action Canada Dossier 38 (December 1992), pp. 22-23.

Churchill, Ward. Struggle for the Land: Indigenous Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide and Expropriation in Contemporary North America. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1993.

Cleaver, Harry. "The Zapatista Uprising." Studies in Political Economy, 44 (Summer 1994), pp. 141-157.

CONAIE. "Political Declaration." The Fourth Congress of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, December 15-18, 1993. Distributed via Internet by Agencia Latino Americano de Informacion, address below.

Continental Coordinating Commission of Indigenous Nations and Organizations (CONIC). Preliminary Report, International Solidarity Delegation Chiapas, Mexico January 22-26. (Contact TONATIERRA, Coordinating Office of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance, address below.)

Dawkins, Kristin and Jeremy Brecher. NAFTA, GATT, and the World Trade Organization: The New Rules for Corporate Conquest. (Open Magazine Pamphlet Series #24). New Jersey: Open Media, 1993.

Dunbar Ortiz, Roxanne. Indians of the Americas: Human Rights and Self-Determination. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984.

Fife, Connie. The Colour of Resistance: A Contemporary Anthology of Writing by Aboriginal Women. Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1993.

Forbes, Jack D. Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism and Terrorism. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1992.

Gedicks, Al. The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations. Montreal and New York: Black Rose Books, 1994.

Hecht, Susanna and Alexander Cockburn. The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon. London and New York: Verso, 1989.

Jaimes, M. Annette. "Re-Visioning Native America: An Indigenist View of Primitivism and Industrialism." Social Justice 19:2 (1992), pp. 5-34.

LaDuke, Winona. " Succeeding into Native North America," in W. Churchill, ed. Critical Issues in Native North America. (IWGIA Document #62). Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 1989. pp. 1-9.

Nelson, Joyce. "The Zapatistas versus the Spin-Doctors." Canadian Forum, 72:827 (March 1994), pp. 18-25.

Subcommandante Marcos, EZLN. "The Southwest in Two Winds." in Cleaver, Harry, et al, eds. Zapatistas! Documents of the New Mexican Revolution. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1994.

Varese, Stefano. "Think Locally, Act Globally." Report on the Americas 25:3 (December 1991), pp. 13-17.)


Action Canada Network. 251 Laurier Avenue West, Suite 804, Ottawa, Ontario, K1P 5J6.

Agencia Latino Americano de Informacion (ALAI). Casilla 17-12-877, Quito, Ecuador. E-MAIL: info@alai.ec.

En'owkin Centre. 257 Brunswick Street, Penticton, British Columbia, V2A 5P9.

TONATIERRA, Coordinating Office of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance (IPA). P.O. Box 24009, Phoenix, AZ 85074, USA.

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