The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) locked Mexico into serving as a market for US agribusiness by creating conditions in which Mexican farmers cannot compete with large US corn producers. As Mexico's chief creditor and trading partner, the US demanded an end to Mexican farm subsidies. Meanwhile, US corn growers continued to receive about $10 billion in government subsidies, an amount 10 times higher than Mexico's entire agriculture budget.
Since NAFTA took effect, Mexico's agricultural sector has lost 1.3 million jobs while US corn exports to Mexico have tripled, flooding the Mexican market and causing domestic corn prices to drop by more than 70 percent. As a result, most of the 15 million Mexicans who depend on corn for their livelihoods have gone from being poor but getting by to watching their children go hungry.
For communities in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state, NAFTA was just the latest in a long line of assault on their rights and resources. To qualify for entry into NAFTA, the Mexican government passed a land privatization law in 1992. Land which was once held communally was put up for sale, rendering many families destitute. Men were forced to migrate in search of work while women stayed to work what little land was left and generate other sources of income to maintain their families.
Though Chiapas' inhabitants are poor, the state itself is rich in natural resources, including oil, water, natural gas, and biodiversity. Free trade agreements facilitate privatization of these resources, providing profit opportunities for US and multinational companies with little benefit to the people of Chiapas.
Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas
Almost one-third of Chiapas' population is Indigenous. These Peoples represent a rich diversity of cultures, languages, and traditions. Historically, they share the experience of centuries of racism and government neglect. Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas are denied access to health care, education, and critical utilities such as electricity, sanitation, and potable water.
Approximately 80 percent of Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas suffer from malnutrition and mortality rates from infectious diseases are more than three times the national average. At least 60 percent of the population lacks access to safe drinking water. Literacy and school attendance rates are well below the national average: eighty percent of Indigenous women do not read or write.
Indigenous Resistance to Neo-liberalism
Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas have resisted the loss of their homes and lands, the attack on their traditions and resources, and the worsening poverty and insecurity generated by neo-liberal economic policies. In fact, on the day that NAFTA went into effect (January 1, 1994), the Zapatista movement rose up to demand democratic reform as a basis for economic and racial justice. The uprising brought international attention to the plight of Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas, and gave renewed momentum to an already-existing network of community-based Indigenous organizations.
Resistance in Chiapas takes many forms. Indigenous communities are reclaiming lands, participating in mass demonstrations, and demanding their human rights through lobbying on the national and international level. The Zapatistas have established autonomous communities, providing their own public services, including schools and health clinics. Civil society groups have organized popular education workshops and established economic cooperatives, offering a local alternative to the dominant economic model. In many diverse and interconnected ways, the people of Chiapas are demanding-and creating-change.
Indigenous women have played a central role in Chiapas' many resistance movements, interweaving the struggle of Indigenous Peoples with women's struggles for rights and dignity within their communities. Indigenous women activists have forced the issue of women's human rights to the forefront of civil society discussions. They have demanded public recognition of the extra burden that women carry in economic and military struggles, as they work to provide for and protect their families with little or no resources. And they have demanded that the economic and political alternatives being proposed in Chiapas take into account the needs and proposals of women.
Militarization and Violence
The Mexican government, backed by the United States, has responded to the resistance of Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas with a campaign of violence and intimidation, including support for brutal paramilitary forces. For the women of Chiapas, military violence and a lack of essential services constitute severe threats to their health and well-being, with particular implications for mental and reproductive health. Indigenous women and their families who have been displaced from their lands by the army, paramilitary groups and multinational corporations, are forced to live far from their homes in make-shift villages surrounded by armed troops. In these communities, there is one doctor per 25,000 people, one-third of all adult deaths are caused by curable infectious diseases, and access to contraception and family planning programs is severely limited. Where the army or paramilitaries operate, women and girls have been raped and forced into prostitution and sexual slavery.
US Military Aid to Mexico
US military aid to Mexico is directly linked to US economic interests, with disastrous consequences for Indigenous and peasant communities. In 1994, some of the loudest calls to crush the Zapatista rebellion came from US corporations like Chase Manhattan Bank, which had invested billions in Mexico under NAFTA. In response, the US stepped up training and funding for Mexico's army, which fueled massacres and the forced displacement of peasant farmers. After September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration turned to oil-rich countries like Mexico in an attempt to become less dependant on oil from the Middle East. The US doubled military aid to Mexico, in large part to protect the designs of US oil companies in Chiapas, where some of Latin America's largest oil reserves are thought to lie. As military aid increased, Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas witnessed a sharp rise in the number of soldiers in their communities and in human rights violations committed by Mexican troops. An increased military presence in Chiapas sees no signs of abating; free trade agreements will accelerate militarization of the region as the Mexican government moves to protect its investment in hydro-electric dams and other industrialization projects at the expense of Indigenous Peoples' rights.