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In Mexico, a quest for autonomy: Indigenous groups seek greater say in local affairs

By Laurie Goering, The Chicago Tribune,
15 June 2001

YALALAG, Mexico -- High in the Juarez Mountains of southern Mexico, life finally is changing for the better for the Zapoteca people who have grown corn and squash on the mountain slopes for a thousand years.

A pipe run from a high mountain stream now brings clean water to the town's tile-roofed adobe homes. The rebuilt City Hall, painted a brilliant green, features the town's first dental clinic and library. Receiver towers bring television and phone service to Yalalag. Dogs are vaccinated against rabies and many people recycle trash.

We've worked a lot here over the years to build this, said Nereo Tizo, who works at a bank of public phone booths along the town's main street, traversed by pack-laden burros. Before there were no services here, no progress.

But as the Zapotecas of Yalalag are finding out, winning real progress for Mexico's more than 11 million indigenous citizens is a precarious process.

In April, Congress approved long-sought constitutional reforms designed to give Mexico's 62 indigenous groups new constitutional rights and an official measure of autonomy to run their affairs. The reforms, pushed through as a precondition to peace with the Zaptista rebels of Chiapas, were based on the San Andres peace accords reached with the rebels in 1996.

But what emerged from Congress was a watered-down Indigenous Rights and Culture Law that even President Vicente Fox--who proposed the bill--no longer supports.

The new law gives indigenous groups a measure of political autonomy but, citing the need for one nation, undivided, insists that federal and state laws take precedence. The law, among other things, denies indigenous groups the right to control and profit from natural resources on their collectively held land, saying only that they should get preferential use.

I think the law is a significant advance and catches the spirit of the San Andres accords, says Luis Alvarez, the Fox government's envoy to the peace process in Chiapas. He admits, though, that as in all human initiatives, maybe it could be improved.

Unhappy with legislation

The altered law, pushed through by congressional conservatives, has been a big relief to businessmen and non-Indian landowners in indigenous areas. But Mexico's indigenous leaders--including the Zapatistas--have uniformly rejected the legislation, which must be approved by a majority of Mexico's 32 states to take effect.

This law doesn't correspond to the San Andres accords or to what Fox said he would do, charged Genaro Bautista, a spokesman for the National Indigenous Institute. It's a joke, a show of racism. Now things are worse than they were before.

Still, the reforms look likely to pass. While the state legislatures of Oaxaca and Zacatecas last week voted to reject the changes, eight states have voted in favor of them.

In many ways, the battle over the new law comes down to a choice between two very different views of democracy.

For Mexico's mestizo majority, which has tried without success for centuries to assimilate the nation's Indians, indigenous autonomy represents a threat to Mexican unity and a rollback of human rights, particularly for women, who in some indigenous groups are not allowed to vote or hold leadership roles.

For Mexico's indigenous inhabitants, however, democracy has less to do with secret votes and individual rights than with community consensus and focus on the good of the whole.

In many communities, such as Yalalag, public officials are elected by a show of voters' hands, and candidates can aspire to top jobs only after having first shown themselves capable in lower-ranking posts.

Under the Zapoteca justice system, a man who attacks another does not go to jail, but instead is sentenced to pay the victim's medical bills and a fine.

Society benefits and the criminal isn't destroyed, says Joel Aquino, a top indigenous leader in Yalalag.

Mexico's indigenous communities are among its poorest. Many people survive on $1 a day, working at subsistence farming or as artisans in pottery, embroidery or wood carving. Emigration--largely to the United States to find work--is enormous. In Yalalag alone, more than 1,000 former members of the community have left for jobs in Los Angeles and Chicago. About 80 percent of young men leave the community, locals say.

There's not much work here except in the fields, Aquino says. This is a region completely abandoned by the state.

History of resistance

That doesn't mean Yalalag, for decades a focal point of the indigenous-rights movement in Oaxaca, hasn't fought back.

In 1981, indigenous leaders in the town ousted the corrupt caciques, or chiefs, who they charge had ties to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and who for years had stolen what little state and federal money made its way to Yalalag.

Over the next 18 years, the new community leaders, following traditional indigenous custom, organized the townspeople into volunteer work parties to lay water pipe and renovate the old City Hall. Pooling their federal and state funds with other nearby indigenous communities, they invested in a grader and other equipment to keep the dirt road to Oaxaca passable.

The changes are all part of our culture and community organization, said Aquino. We have to revalue our old systems, become more self-sufficient.

But even Oaxaca's indigenous-rights law, which technically allows the state's 521 indigenous towns to operate under traditional rules of practices and customs, has not proved strong enough to protect Yalalag.

In 1998, seeing its political fortunes waning in Mexico, the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, moved to seize control of strategic towns in Oaxaca, one of its traditional strongholds.

In Yalalag, PRI supporters declared the community leadership corrupt caciques and called immediate new elections. Less than 15 percent of the townspeople voted in the surprise assembly, but the election went against the leadership.

While Felipe Matias, the new municipal secretary, denies the PRI had anything to do with the takeover, he says a political coup was necessary because in Yalalag the people were too ignorant to put the caciques out.

Divided city

Since then, Yalalag has been divided into two uneven sections.

On the new leadership's side of town, the dental clinic is closed. New streetlights are going in but local television and radio transmission has been shut off.

On the other side of town, new meeting rooms are under construction, telephones installed and leaders hope to set up a new broadcast station.

A year ago, the ousted community leaders and their supporters staged a peaceful march on City Hall. The march ended when the political opposition showed up, shooting broke out and the police were called in from Oaxaca. In February, Aquino and other leaders filed a lawsuit against the new administration for violating Oaxaca's indigenous-rights laws, a last-ditch effort to win new open elections in Yalalag.

Aquino says his town's situation is just one reason that a strong new national indigenous-rights law is needed, something that would give us more space to defend ourselves.

He promises a long battle. Fighting for autonomy here is nothing new, he said. It's been going on for centuries.