My diary from Chiapas
By Keegan Smith at Apr 27, 2009
I woke up at 5:30 (gods time) to catch a taxi to Pantelho to go and see Manuel's land. When I got there he wasn't there because he was working the driver for the mesa directiva. Once he had finished his official duties we went to see his family in Pantelho. From there we headed off 5 minutes down the hill to his land.
The land, a parcel of 8 hectares was purchased for 12 families following their displacement, with funds received through a donation from associates of the local clergy.
The land has been divided into 12 parcels. Manuel has decided to use his to the maximum with coffee as his main cash crop as well as bananas, chilote's, sugar cane, corn, macadamia trees, citrus and stone fruits. He has also embraced sustainable technologies on his land such as, a house made from adobe which has since been rendered to increase durability, a dry toilet and a wood efficient stove. He also has chickens. The reason why I made the appointment with him was to see what his land looked like and to localize where he was planning to put the rabbits he is proposing to put on his land. He wants concrete floor, wire fences and wooden walls. I will consult with Juan Velasco about whether this amount of investment in materials is required or if it was simply what those at CIDESI put together.
Manuel seems like a very capable man who is close to developing a complete vision for his land. He is interested in anything which will add value to his land and his family's assets. Everything he has done so far has been in the last 2 years!
We had coffee and Manuel tried to get the cash on the table for his project but I stalled him saying that all projects have to go through the mesa otherwise they will weaken the organization rather than strengthen it. That was how we left it.
Next on the agenda was the traditional 22nd celebration which is a religious ceremony which takes place on the 22nd of every month in honor of the victims of the massacre on the 22nd of December 1997. We arrived late so all that was left was a prayer, some bopping to traditional music made by harps, violins and guitars then a trip to burial site which is under the auditorium, another prayer and then lunch which usually has meat but given the current financial situation was cabbage and potato broth.
There were a few foreign visitors for the ceremony most of whom as it turned out were visiting on official business related to their human rights organizations or university studies.
When lunch was over a meeting began between Fray Bartolemu de Las Casas, a local human rights organisation that has been working with Las Abejas since the time of the massacre, and Las Abejas of Acteal. The meeting was to discuss the proposal for a protest in Mexico's capital, a 13 hour bus ride from here in the south. The detail of who would go, why, what it would cost, what they would need to be prepared to say and any other questions that came along were all debated in the traditional style of people of the region. Calmly and with dignity they move from one concern to the next once consensus is reached. The meeting went for about 4 or 5 hours.
Today wasn't the day to reach an agreement about the proposed workshop for the month of May with Juan Velasco relating to improving the quality of their traditional corn seeds and using organic fertilizer to improve the quality of their produce.
Today was the closest I've ever been to working for my own food consumption. I wasn't very close because there is a fair chance that I will never eat anything that lives on the land that I cleared today for planting but still it was a step forward. I sweated and strained as I toiled over about 20 square meters of land.
For everyone here it was a strange phenomenon. A white man scratching the land with a hoe. The attention might have been because of my lack of skill in the task at hand or maybe because I'd taken my shirt off to encourage evaporation of the sweat I was producing. Whatever the reason it was a similar reaction to when I carried some wood for Ricardo and Mariano. I think they just haven't seen a white man sweat.
I hope that it will start to break the class barrier that required them to get me a seat every time they see me standing. Maybe that's just because I'm too tall and the sun glares in their eyes when they want to talk to me but I suspect its deeper than that. I was able to work away with a local indigenous mother of 6 who's husband is in the neighboring village because of his drinking problem. Which as usual resulted in a request for cash. Fortunately even though her request wasn't met with an open wallet she continued to offer advice an axe, her sons labour and a bowl of the local drink of choice which is made from dissolved corn doe.
I was pretty happy with the end result even though I managed to kill an avocado tree in the process. There is a bit of a buzz about what the tiny parcel of land land will be used for. I think the best use would be as a rabbit hut and a green house for vegetables and plant cultivation together with organic fertilizer production.
This would be it's most intensive use. With the most to offer locals in terms of a demonstrative site. An introduction to permaculture technologies.
Most of the mesa directiva were heading off one way or another which left me with next to nothing to do in Acteal so I headed into enemy territory. Nuevo Yveljo. Nuevo Yveljo is the community where most of the leaders of the faction of Las Abejas which decided to take on the support of the government in exchange for leaving behind call for justice over the massacre in 1997 and to stop being a resistance organization that seeks autonomy. Since the political division unfolded in 2008 there have been many lies dispersed about what is really going on on the other side of the fence. Most communities where Las Abeja families live which were loyal to the cause of Acteal up until 2008 are now loyal to Nuevo Yveljo mostly s a result of the political skill with of it's leaders who have also had government backing for their movement.
These leaders have received cars and cash for their work in attempting to bring the entire Abeja Organization under the banner of the government. The few who stayed strong and refused to sign a document prepared by the government which would have led to the inference that Las Abejas of Acteal were armed participants in a violent clash based on religious differences. This group remain in rebellion speaking out against the lies of government as it attempts to erase the massacre and its own determining role in events. The group of Acteal are also a thorn in the side of those co-opted by the government who operate an organization similarly named "Las Abejas" out of Nuevo Yveljo.
So I went to Nuevo Yveljo to visit families that I met prior to the division. One of these families is loyal to the new authorities because they live in Nuevo Yveljo and are receiving financial benefits while the other has relocated to live in Nuevo Yveljo because of his financial ambitions which fit much more closely with the leaders of this government backed faction than those of Acteal. He has been twice displaced by conflict in the region and works hard to try to get his family ahead.
The first family I visited consists of a woman who split from her husband a long time ago, something uncommon indigenous culture in the region. She has 4 children, her eldest is married with children and he rarely visits home. The other three children are girls of 24, 22 and 13. The 13 year old is married and expecting while the other 2 daughters haven't yet married which is uncommon for girls of their age. It's custom for females to marry between the age of 15-25 and men 18-25. I met them through a Mexican friend who has known them for a few years. I stayed there for most of the day carrying would and having the kind of broken conversation which has to overcome people speaking in their second language as well as a massive cultural gap. I stopped for lunch. Beans, tortillas and rice with some chillies I bought from the shop and then went back to work for another hour and a bit.
The wood itself is not that heavy and being someone who has always enjoyed sports and in recent years weight training I consider myself to be in as good a shape as anyone to be carting wood. The difficulty for me is in the method. Because it's common for people to carry wood or other cargo for kilometers and the land is mountainous with various treacherous paths things like wheelbarrows aren't feasible. The apparatus here is a rope which forms a kind of backpack out of the load which is anchored to the body around the forehead rather than in the traditional way for a backpack. Children here begin to become accustomed to using this apparatus known as a "mecapal" from an early age and are carrying adult sized loads by the time they reach double figures. My advantage in muscle mass and general fitness is negated by my lack of experience with this device which I battled all day to secure my load with. Once I had the load on my head the next task is to stand up and then walk up the 45 degree rugged slope 50m to where the wood rested to continue to dry.
Before I left I said that I could come again to help, thinking that I had done a decent job and knowing that the 2 women of the house didn't want the job I thought it would be positively received. Instead she asked for money to pay a neighbor to do it. I know that she is used to getting money from our visits but being asked for money almost everyday has started to wear a little thin. I left satisfied with the effort I had put in doubting that I would return before the eldest daughter returns from her stint working in Mexico City.
My second family visit didn't work out because the father of the house was still out working. In his house he and his eldest daughter are the only ones that speak Spanish so conversations with his wife and young children are always very limited. Mostly it's my lack of ability to understand Tzotzil because they generally understand my Spanish but reply in Tzotzil because they are unaccustomed to speaking in Spanish. I said a quick hello and left it for another day. I headed back to Acteal on the same path I had walked to arrive. About 6-8 km most of which is uphill on the way home, there are collective cars which you can ride in the back of standing up which cost about 5c to 10c per Km but I prefer to walk.
I went to visit the guy who has been most involved with communications projects for Las Abejas. We spoke about how to best use media to communicate inside and outside the organisation. I went early to the meeting because I was also asked by the mesa directiva to ask him if he would inform the community about why the trip to Mexico had been cancelled. The trip to Mexico was to protest against the release 12 prisoners and the manipulation of the events surrounding the massacre in 1997 (detailed in the press release I translated). It has been cancelled because of the outbreak of "pig flu."
As I headed back along the dirt track to the road to get a collectivo headed for San Cristobal it started to rain. Luckily I ran into some guys I met on my last trip to the region who work for the government in conflict resolution and they gave me a lift back which not only saved me a few bucks but it stopped me getting soaked! As a consequence of the free ride I had to hear some evangelical ramblings about the coming of one leader to rule all and about how the world is perfect. Still it wasn't a bad trade.