The journey’s only just begun: The ejido Tila
It’s been five months since the ejido Tila (area of common land) gave their local government the boot and declared ejidal autonomy. Five months of self-determination, of organised community restructuring, of thinking about how to create a government where the people are in charge, of making collective decisions about the direction the community is going in. Nearly half a year on the path to autonomy. “Autonomy is a lifelong process. The fight never ends. And the journey’s only just begun”, said a compañero ejidatario (common land shareholder).
Three compañeros ejidatarios tell us about the progress they have made, the accomplishments and the obstacles. When the community realised they couldn’t keep waiting for the local government coup and the police and paramilitary forces that would accompany it, the idea for a new kind of self-governance and territorial take-over began to take shape. The assembly’s first decision was to name security commissioners and coordinate surveillance of the entrances into the town. It’s a surveillance rota in which women and young people also participate; every citizen takes their turn at some point. The community is looking out for itself: “On the 16th of January there was a dance and we commissioned 50 people to act as security, in the end there were 150 of us. People were surprised that the dance was so safe. Before, when the local government was here, anything from mobile phones to children would be stolen, and people were scared. But this time, nothing happened.”
Another decision taken by the assembly, suggested in a proposal put forward by the compañeras, was to close the cantinas and stop the consumption of drugs in the community. “Before, when the [municipal] police were here, they were the ones who sold [drugs] and after a year here they’d already have their brand new car.” Today, if the security commission of the ejido finds anyone taking drugs, they ask them where and who they bought them from, in order to get to the person responsible.
Like so many other decisions taking by the assembly, this way of resolving internal problems comes from one of the community’s fundamental beliefs: that they must educate young people to defend their territory, to be alert and to be focused. For now, state schools and their curricula are respected; the community understands that community training and territorial defence can be learned collectively: on guard duty, doing community work, around the kitchen table. Young people also have an obligation to participate in community work. The ch’ol language and organised defence of the land can be learned and shared outside the school walls, in daily community life.
To administer justice, the assembly designated an ejidal judge (judge of the common lands). Punishment consists not of fines and prison sentences but of community work. Instead of an irrefutable and corrupt legal system, decisions are made according to customs and experience, case by case. “If a man hits his wife, he’ll be sent to work as a cleaner or carry wood; others are sent to clean drains. If somebody steals, he has to repay what he took. The punishment is given according to the crime. For example, drunks are shut away for a night, but in the morning their personal possessions are returned to them. Respect underlies everything. Not like when the local government was here, who would take away their things and even charge them a fine.”
The assembly also created designated cleaning and water committees. Apart from taking care of administrating rubbish collection and looking after the drains and pipes, these committees are responsible for keeping an eye on how rubbish is being dealt with: making sure people don’t produce too much waste and that they don’t leave it outside. Self-governance also means looking after the streets, being aware that space is shared and must be looked after by everyone.
The different commissions and committees alternate, the men and women of the ejido describe themselves as ‘multi-use’. Sometimes someone is a policeman and then he collects rubbish, or sometimes it’s his turn to go and collect wood for cooking. Each family in the community contributed fifty or a hundred pesos towards the purchase of a three-ton truck, for use by the collective workforce.
And the building where the town hall used to be? The assembly gave permission for all the street-sellers who had stalls around the main square to set themselves up in it. “The local government actually wanted to expropriate the ejido casino to turn it into a shopping mall, and, well, we decided that the town hall would become a place where people could sell their products.”
There was an example of the new collective organising last March. Every year, hundreds of people make a pilgrimage to the alter of the Black Christ (Cristo Negro) in Tila. This year, members of the Partido Verde ran a smear campaign about the state of the town. “They said there were fights, that there was no water, no electricity, that it was dirty.” Yet everyone duly came, from Tabasco and all over the northern part of Chiapas. The visitors were surprised to see a Tila that was so safe and so clean; a Tila, furthermore, were there was no police intimidation or corruption, as in previous years. “We wanted to give people a good impression of Tila, so they know that life is better for us in autonomy.” Tila showed the visitors that without the government, life is better.
The gradual building of ejidal autonomy has been achieved, furthermore, in the midst of a constant climate of threats and harassment: on the 8th of February last year, the state government of Chiapas gave orders for the arrest of twenty ejidatarios on the charge of riots and breach of the peace. The assembly decided to increase vigilance across the ejido to make sure, at all cost, that no compañero was taken prisoner. This involved implementing a radio communications system between the different look-out points and installing speakers in different parts of the town to keep the whole community informed.
“Loud speakers are our greatest weapon, not the weapons the paramilitaries have”, says one ejidatario. “And, well, they also say we have sticks with nails in. That’s true too. But that’s just to put punctures in the wheels of any cars used to try to abduct a compañero.” They’ve also dug trenches at the entrances into the town so that military and federal vehicles can’t get out – their tyres withstand nails without puncturing. The guards are on watch all night and people know that we have to be on constant alert, because our enemies don’t sleep either. “As the saying goes, you’ve got to be more of a tiger than the tiger (hay que ser más tigre que el tigre)”, says another ejidatario.
Thus the assembly is vigilant. As one compañero ejidatario says, “the storm is coming”. The paramilitarisation of the area has increased because of a uranium mining project which, rumour has it, is already in construction. The seam is 25km from the town, in the ejido of Tumbalá, inside the official limits of the municipality of Tila. This mine does not appear on maps available to the public because uranium mines come under the remit of ‘National Security’. The mine is in the so-called highlands of Tila, which seriously worries the ejidatarios: it’s highly probable that the land and water will be contaminated, threatening their health and their way of life. Faced with this prospect, the assembly have started talking about what to do and how to respond to it. The compañeros recognise that they’re at the start of a long journey: health, education and an increased involvement of women are some of the key areas to work on. Even so, the ejidatario men and women know that the path to autonomy is long and must be taken step by step. That the struggle never ends.
Translated by Ruby Zajac for the UK Zapatista Translation Service