Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
On New Year’s Day, 1994, a masked man climbed onto the balcony of the colonial-era municipal building in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico. Below the balcony, a muddled concoction of concerned tourists, inquisitive journalists and armed indigenous farmers listened closely as the rebellion’s leader read the Zapatista National Liberation Army’s (EZLN) declaration of war on the Mexican government.
This moment was the culmination of 10 years of organising in the rural mountains and inhospitable jungles of Chiapas State. Having been exploited by decades of mining, logging and the privatisation of traditionally communal land, the indigenous peoples of Chiapas slowly organised themselves into a rag-tag army. Led by the rebel-philosopher ‘Subcommander Marcos’, the EZLN occupied 7 towns and cities in Chiapas State on 1st January 1994. The date was symbolic. It was the day the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. A trade deal labelled a “death sentence” to indigenous people.
Although the uprising only lasted a few weeks before peace talks began, the movement is recognised as the first serious challenge to the post-Cold War neoliberal consensus. 27 years on, having achieved partial autonomy from the Mexican State, the Zapatista community offers inspiration for climate and social justice movements who hope to enact meaningful change.
For decades, the privatisation of land in Chiapas enacted violence upon the rural Indigenous community. They were faced with “no land, no work, no health care, no food nor education”, and existed on the fringes of land that had previously belonged to them. NAFTA further prioritised the rights of large North American agrarian businesses over the daily suffering of Indigenous peoples. Therefore, the EZLN felt they had no choice but to seize and occupy property that historically, but not legally, belonged to them.
The EZLN were aware that a non-peaceful uprising came with severe risks, including unjustifiable violence. The pitched battles of January 1994 led to hundreds of deaths and causalities. According to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the Mexican State was guilty of serious human rights violations. Killing and violence, on both sides, is impossible to justify. However, the EZLN’s seizure of government offices, police stations and occupation of thousands of acres of private land, was a justifiable resistance tactic.
After 2 years of negotiations, the San Andreas Accords of 1996 provided recognition of indigenous territories nationwide, autonomy for self-governing indigenous communities and reversal of the constitutional changes threatening communal lands. Although the peace agreement was produced by a complex web of internal and external political forces, the Zapatista community could build and manage their own hospitals, schools and communal farmland precisely because they had seized land owned by the Mexican State and International Corporations.
The Zapatista uprising has inspired social movements around the world. From the anti-globalisation protests of the early 2000’s to the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, both regarded the peaceful blockade, seizure and occupation of property as a key protest tactic. More recently, the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests led to the tearing down of state monuments to slavery, from the graffiti-ridden Jefferson Davis in Richmond to the pulling down of Edward Colston in Bristol. Furthermore, Andreas Malm, a Geographer at Lund University, argues that to combat the ecological terrorism enacted by states and corporations, peaceful protest is not enough. Malm advocates the sabotage of physical nodes of carbon production such as pipelines and coal mines. However, his more inventive and practical act of sabotage is the deflation of tyres belonging to gas-guzzling SUV’s in urban areas.
Nevertheless, the destruction of property, however oppressive and exploitative is illegal and potentially dangerous. One only needs to look to this year’s violent storming of the US Capitol to see the obvious problems attached to a movement occupying government property in the name of “justice”, and how quickly people can lose their lives. In the UK, the government has responded forcefully to XR and BLM protests by introducing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The bill is designed to stop people occupying public spaces, intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance and imposes sentences of up to 10 years for people who damage memorials. However, by focusing its energies on suffocating peaceful protest, at the expense of addressing the issues raised by protestors, the government has already provoked more, not less, radical forms of protest.
The EZLN’s planned, targeted and direct seizure of land – land considered a hub or symbol of oppression – is a strategy that has slowly gained momentum in the last decade. A radical and often dangerous strategy – yes. But for the people of Chiapas, this approach has done more for them than their government ever did. Are we reaching the point where peaceful protest not only achieves nothing but is beginning to be outlawed? Let’s hope not.