By Bárbara Zamora
Translated by Jane Brundage
Between 1995 and 1996, in San Andrés Sakamch’en, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) conducted one of the most democratic exercises in memory of our country’s recent history. Their goal was to construct the proposals that would later be the content of the San Andrés Accords on indigenous rights and culture. Agreements were signed on February 16, 1996, between the EZLN and the federal government—this with the commitment to send the agreements to Congress to convert them into constitutional reforms and additions, thus elevating them to the status of supreme law.
Despite having signed the agreements, the federal government refused to comply with them, consequently eluding the legal obligation that it assumed with the EZLN and in the presence of the entire society. Senators and deputies from all the political parties represented in the COCOPA (Commission for Agreement and Pacification) also betrayed their word and breached the commitment they had taken on.
The content of the agreements included creation of a legal framework for establishing a new relationship between indigenous peoples and the State based on recognition of their right to self-determination and of their legal, political, social, economic and cultural rights. The new constitutional orders had to include recognition of the autonomy of indigenous communities and peoples, based on their cultural, social, political and economic characteristics, specific and differentiated.
With regard to land, the San Andrés Accords established the access to natural resources on their lands, understood to be the total environment that indigenous peoples use and occupy, except those whose domain belongs to the nation.
Finally, when the constitutional reform initiative arrived at the Congress, the senators and deputies eliminated a large part of the proposal. In particular, they eliminated what related to the lands and territories, leaving a formulation that does not recognize any rights over the land and natural resources, because these rights are subordinated to secondary laws and rights of third-parties. (As agreed between the parties, Dialogue Agenda, Issue 3, was planned to address the problem of land and Article 27.)
Very little remained in the Constitution: obviously, this is not attributable to the EZLN, but to the Executive and Legislative branches that betrayed the agreements.
The EZLN delegation insisted on pointing out the lack of resolution to the severe national agrarian problem and the need to annul Salinas’s Reform of Constitution, Article 27. These actions were required in order to return to the spirit of Emiliano Zapata, summarized in two basic demands—”The land belongs to him who works it” and “Land and Liberty“—both reflected in the document the EZLN called “Point and Follow”.
MV Note: Ejidos were the government’s response to the strident demands for land reform made by campesinos who had fought under Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). To satisfy those demands, the government expropriated lands from large landholders and awarded them to indigenous communities, called ejidos; members are ejidatarios.
In the run-up to NAFTA, Salinas [1988-1994] drove many reforms, including the 1992 amendment to Article 27 which allowed ejidos to be converted to private property and sold. The goal was to create a market in real estate and allow for the creation of larger, more productive agricultural enterprises.
Most of Mexico’s natural resources (minerals, forests, jungles, water, etc.), however, are held in collective ownership either in post-Revolution ejidos or in indigenous communities, whose lands were granted back to them by the Spanish king after the conquest. Disputes over land and natural resources are thus ongoing.
Twenty years after the San Andrés Accords, we can nonetheless say that the Zapatista struggle continues having impact, making important political and legal progress for the indigenous communities and peoples, and that their demands remain valid and current.
In the legal arena, what remains of the agreements in constitutional Article 2 has served us litigants in the courts to defend indigenous communities in land conflicts and in recognition of their rights, such that their cultural customs and specificities might be taken into account, which means that it gives legal validity to traditional oral issues of the communities, rather than demanding a documentary and [civil] registry endorsement that are not part of their tradition.
The Supreme Court of the Nation published a protocol of conduct for judges hearing cases involving indigenous people, either individually or collectively. They are guidelines for judges and magistrates to follow in legal proceedings and when issuing rulings in cases in which indigenous individuals or their communities and pueblos are party, although they don’t always follow them in practice.
It can be said that legal advances in the field of indigenous rights and culture have been possible thanks to the EZLN’s struggle. Even if for them this progress has no great importance, since the Zapatista communities in Chiapas have been exercising their autonomy at a much broader level with aspects including the political, economic, cultural, health, land, education, justice and forms of government. Generally speaking, the Zapatistas are practicing another, alternate, way of seeing the world.