“Autonomy is a lifelong process. The struggle never ends. And it’s only recently that we have begun walking towards it.”
Five months have passed since ejido Tila expelled the municipal government and declared autonomy: five months of self-determination, organizational and community restructuring, of contemplating ways to establish a government where the people command, of making collective decisions regarding the direction of the community. Nearly half a year of beginning to walk in autonomy. “Autonomy is a lifelong process. The struggle never ends. And it’s only recently that we have begun walking towards it,” says an ejidatario* comrade.
Three ejidatario comrades tell us how the process has moved forward, what its accomplishments and obstacles have been. When the community realized that it could not keep waiting for the beating from the local government and the police and paramilitaries that it supports, the residents began formulating a new way of governing themselves and taking charge of their territory. The first decision taken by the assembly was naming security commissioners and placing guards at the entrances of the town. Women and young people also participate as guards. The police rotate, all residents are asked to guard at some point. It is the community that takes care of itself: “On January 16, there was a dance and we named 50 people to protect it but in the end we were 150 people. People were surprised that the dance was so safe. Previously, when the municipality was in charge, children and mobile phones used to be stolen and people were scared. Now, though, nothing happened.”
Born out of a proposal put forward by the female comrades, another decision of the assembly was to shut down the bars and to end the use of drugs in the community. “Before, when the [municipal] police were here, they were the ones selling [drugs] and a year after being here, they had a new car.” Currently, if the security commission finds someone using drugs, they ask him where and from whom he bought it in order to find those responsible.
Like many other decisions taken by the assembly, this form of resolving internal problems is part of a key principle in the community: that the youth must be educated to defend their territory and remain focused and vigilant. Until now, the public schools and their curriculums have been respected; the community understands that communal organizing and defense of the territory are learned collectively: in guarding, in the communal work, in the conversations at home. The youth, too, are responsible for participating in the communal work. Both the Ch’ol language as well as the organized defense of the land are learned and shared outside the walls of the school, in everyday community life.
To administer justice, the assembly selected an ejidal judge and people are not punished with fines and prison terms, but rather community work. Instead of an unassailable and corrupt legal system, decisions are made in accordance with traditions and customs, case by case. “If someone beats his wife, he might be ordered to clean or carry stones; others might be ordered to clean the drainage; if someone steals anything, he will have to replace it. The punishment depends on the offense. For instance: those who are drunk are confined for a night and they end up getting back all of their possessions. Always with respect. Not like the municipality that used to take all their belongings and even charge them a fine.”
The assembly also appoints cleaning and water committees. In addition to managing and taking care of the garbage, the pipes and the sewage, these committees are responsible for raising awareness regarding the garbage: that there is no need to create so much and to leave it outside. Self-governance also involves taking care of the streets, knowing that they are spaces that have to be shared and looked after collectively.
The different committees and commissions alternate and the ejidatarios and ejidatarias are “multi-functional,” as they themselves put it. Sometimes one is a policeman and later is in charge of the garbage, or sometimes they have to bring firewood for cooking. To facilitate the collective work, the community donated 50 or 60 pesos per family to buy a three-ton truck.
As for the building where the old municipal government was located? The assembly agreed to put the vendors who used to have stands around the central square there. “The municipality wanted to expropriate the ejidal social club and turn it into a mall, so we decided for the municipal building to be the place where people can sell their goods.”
A demonstration of the new collective organizing occurred in March. Hundreds of pilgrims come every year to visit the altar of the Black Christ of Tila. This year, political operatives from the Green Party pushed a smear campaign about the condition of the town. “They said that there was conflict, that there was no water, no electricity and that the town was dirty.” The faithful, however, arrived from Tabasco and from the entire northern area of Chiapas. The visitors were shocked to see a Tila so safe and so clean; as well, a Tila without the police intimidation and corruption of previous years. “We want to convey a positive image of Tila, so that they know that we are better off with autonomy.” Tila showed the visitors that it is better off without a government.
What’s more, the patient construction of ejidal autonomy has been achieved amidst a climate of constant threats and harassments: On February 8, the state government of Chiapas issued twenty arrest warrants against ejidatarios for charges of rioting and attacks against the public peace. The assembly decided to bolster its security throughout the whole ejido to prevent the arrest of any comrade at all cost. Hence, they put together a system of radios between the different security points and installed speakers in different places across town to keep everyone informed.
“Our best weapon is the speaker, not the weapons the paramilitaries have,” said an ejidatario. “And, well, they also told us to bring a stick with a nail. That too. But it’s only to puncture the tire of cars that try to take one of our comrades.” Ditches have also been dug at the entrances of the town so that the military and federal vehicles – whose tires are not affected by nails – can’t get away. The guards remain vigilant all night and the people know that they have to continuously stay alert, because the enemies never sleep. “As the saying goes, you have to be more “tiger than the tiger,” says another ejidatario.
The assembly did indeed remain alert. As an ejidatario puts it, “the storm is looming.” The paramilitarization of the area has increased following a uranium mining project which is already under construction, according to some claims. The vein is located in the ejido of Tumbalá, within the municipal boundaries of Tila, 25 kilometers away from the town. The mine does not appear on the map of concessions available to the public because uranium mines are classified under the category of “National Security.” The mine is located in the so-called high zone of Tila, a cause of great concern for the community: it is very likely that the water and the jungle have already been polluted, threatening their way of life and their health. Faced with this, the assembly has begun to consider what to do and how to respond.
The comrades realize that there is still a long way to go: education, health and a greater involvement of women are some of the issues to work on. Even so, the ejidatarios and ejidatarias know the path of autonomy is long and has to be taken one step at a time. That the struggle never ends.
*ejidatario: a communal land holder