The beginning of 2021 brought us out of seemingly the longest year ever and welcomed the 27th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising. On Jan. 1, 1994, Zapatista rebels took control of San Cristóbal de las Casas, along with other communities in the Mexican state of Chiapas to stand for social and Indigenous rights.
More than two decades later, the sentiment of the Zapatistas is still very much alive, especially concerning food sovereignty. Activists currently fighting for a more just, equitable, respectful food system can learn from the motivations and actions that brought this movement to the world stage.
A historical day in Mexico, 1994
The 20th century’s most significant Indigenous rebellion coincided with another event that also took place on Jan. 1, 1994. It was the day Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
NAFTA devalued the Zapatista's rich and abundant land by replacing their traditionally grown corn — known as one of their "gifts" to the world — with subsidized and genetically-modified corn from the U.S.
This became the new reality for the Indigenous peasants in Chiapas’ jungles and mountains. Large agribusiness firms benefitted while this issue threatened Indigenous livelihoods, and consequently, food insecurity became rampant.
The Indigenous Mexicans were treated like rocks in the landscape that could be moved at the whim of global influences. Regarded as less-than-human, they were seldom invited to the negotiating table, if at all.
With these conditions, the Zapatista National Liberation Army or Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion National (EZLN), founded in 1983, became a prominent force both in Mexico and globally.
With the consensus that death by bullet was preferred to seeing their future generations suffer, EZLN became one of the first popular movements to urgently critique global capitalism.
The Fight for Food Sovereignty
Even as an isolated group of “rag-tag rebels,” some equipped with no more than bare feet and wooden guns, the Zapatistas amassed a global audience. They quickly became heroes of the left and inspiration for Indigenous communities around the world.
Although it’s been nearly three decades since the New Year’s Day uprising, the Zapatistas certainly haven’t disappeared from modern revolutions. The movement reinforces the fact that neoliberalism was a threat to the Zapatista’s food security and still remains a challenge to global food security.
In a world where mainstream media and government officials turn a blind eye to the harms of a ‘free market,’ the Zapatista uprising reminds us to criticize practices that give rise to suffering, hunger, and unprecedented levels of poverty.
While NAFTA has been replaced by the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), many large scale mega development projects remain a "continuous exercise of wrongdoing," and the impacts of capitalism continue to be felt by the world's Indigenous communities.
Core principles of the movement
Resistance to neoliberalism continues to serve as the Zapatista’s ‘solution’ to capitalism and the corporate food regime — an idea that hinges upon the preservation of native foods.
For the Zapatista’s, subsistence agriculture and agrobiodiversity are political. They prioritize localized food systems, gender equity, and participatory democracy. Food sovereignty continues to be positioned at the center of the revolution, incorporating collective work, agroecological farming practices, and place-based learning.
The Zapatista’s deep and respectful connection with their land means that it also serves as a classroom. It feeds their local knowledge and positions the Zapatistas as both “active participants in, and essential parts of, local food systems.”
Instead of profit and productivity, they value knowledge, collective action, seed saving, and organic practices. Solidarity plays a role both in food sharing and the destabilization of the patriarchy.
Even though the links between capitalism, colonialism, and the patriarchy are well-defined, the women-led Zapatistas have shown us that we can break these ties. Through open dialogues with civil society, peaceful mobilizations, and structures centered around autonomy, the Zapatistas provides a model for social justice advocates that is perhaps more valuable now than ever before.
Where are they now?
The modern Zapatista movement involves continued organizing, sharing food, community giving, and teaching the youth. They have their own form of currency, education, government, and healthcare equipped with Zapatista-trained doctors.
Instead of exploitative capitalist governance, they are self-reliant and community-led. The Zapatistas are responsible for grassroots action that supports long-term conservation and food sovereignty.
One of their slogans says it all: “Sembramos las semillas de la revolución — we sow the seeds of the revolution,” and they’re doing so quite literally.
How can you apply the Zapatista's legacy to your own organization? Discuss with fellow activists on WeAct and get involved with organizations fighting for a more just food system.
Cover image source: Dal_air