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Zapatistas in Zirahuén: “They fight united and fight well, for their land, for their forests, and for their lake, too”

Michoacán Peasant Farmers Are Determined to Defend Their Lands, Coveted by Multinational Corporations for a Tourism Mega-Project


By Bertha Rodríguez Santos
The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign in Michoacán

April 4, 2006

ZIRAHUÉN, MICHOACÁN, MÉXICO: To shouts of “Zapata lives, the struggle continues!” and “Cárdenas, understand, our land is not for sale!” about 500 indigenous peasant farmers from the “Caracol in Rebellion of Lake Zirahuén” received Zapatista Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos with a march. They later expressed to him their determination to continue the struggle to defend their communal lands in the face of an ambitious tourism mega-project.


Lake Zirahuen is threatened by a mega-project to bring casinos and five-star hotels to this indigenous Purépecha community.
Photo: D.R. 2006 Amber Howard
The project is being pushed by local PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) boss Guillermo Arreola Estrada, who hopes, according to the farmers, to build a resort complex with casinos, five-star hotels, restaurants and various recreational centers, including a golf course, on top of some 3,020 acres of communal lands located on the shores of Lake Zirahuén. Docks for yachts and pleasure cruises are also planned for the lake.

Around 9:00 at night the men, women, children and elderly people who had been waiting for hours for the arrival of Delegate Zero — Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in its Spanish initials) — headed toward one of the main streets to welcome him.

The people of Zirahuén looked happy, and although the people here do not have the same tradition of nighttime “paseo” street marches as in Oaxaca, the march to receive the Zapatista spokesman suddenly became a festival led by the music of 12 local bands.

“From the coast to the mountains, people are fighting for their land!” was another one of the slogans that could be heard among the rushing demonstrators who frequently collided with representatives from the communications media that followed the delegate of the Zapatista Other Campaign.

The indigenous Purépechas’ battle-tested defense of natural resources stands out in this community’s history, explained veteran defender of the peasant farmers Marcos Paz as he welcomed Delegate Zero.


Marcos is greeted by Marcos Paz and other residents of Zirahuen, Michoacán on Monday night.
Photo: D.R. 2006 Yael Gerson Ugalde
The memory of the late Efren Capiz, another defender of the campesinos, is everywhere. It was evoked at the beginning of the welcome ceremony when a farmer told how in October 2003, on the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Efren Capiz-led Emiliano Zapata Union of Communal Farmers (UCEZ), the town of Zirahuén was declared an autonomous territory, or Zapatista caracol, and would from then on be governed under the EZLN principle of “commanding by obeying.”

This, said Marcos Paz, was a response to the government repression at the federal, state and municipal level that the peasant farmers (known as comuneros, or communal farmers, because they protect and work the land collectively) had suffered for decades.

Since 1988, the farmers’ struggle has focused on defending Lake Zirahuén, which covers an area of nearly eight square miles. Paz, the former president of the communal land administration, told those present that, to the area’s residents, this lake represents “more than just a gold jewel that looks pretty to investors.”

On that date peasant farmers from 14 villages organized into the Front for the Defense of the Lake Zirahuén Basin.

As he took the floor, Marcos Paz accused Guillermo Arreola Estrada of lending his name to the interests of French, Japanese, Spanish, Swiss and U.S. companies that plan to set up a tourist complex on land that has been protected by the communities.

In fact, two docks already exist on the lake for tourists: one is managed by the community, the other by Guillermo Arreola.

Marcos Paz argues that the community’s opposition to this tourism mega-project comes because its people do not want the lake to “turn into a septic tank, like what happened to Lake Pátzcuaro.”

He said he felt it would be unfair for these investors to end up in possession of the natural wealth that the Indian peoples have ancestrally cared for. He mentioned that the community reforested the area with 970 pines and other local trees.

At the same time, he denounced the clandestine deforestation that the logging companies carry out with the authorities’ complicity. He said, for example, that the representatives of the Public Ministry extort money from illegal loggers in return for allowing them to continue to operate. On the other hand, if someone from the community cuts down a tree and a complaint is filed with the Federal Solicitor for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), the community has 24 hours to pay a fine.

Many people are afraid to report illegal logging, he said. Later, Paz spoke of the climate of repression the community has suffered through because of the government. He said that even if the farmers file complaints, nothing ever comes of them because behind the accused criminals are “the rich and the foreigners.”

The old farmer called the current Mexican government a sell-out administration: “Vicente Fox says that the agrarian recession is over, but it is a lie. There are farming communities that do have the basic documentation but don’t actually possess an inch of earth, because the political bosses control it all.”

In sum, the peasant farmers realize that they live on lands greatly coveted by the big transnational corporations, but at the same time they know that they must not sell these lands despite governmental pressure through programs like PROCEDE and PROCECOM, programs implemented after the constitutional reforms that repealed Article 27, allowing for the privatization of communal lands.

This, says Marcos Paz, is how latifundismo (the concentration of land into huge properties owned by a small number of powerful families) as it existed before the Mexican Revolution is coming back. He commented that the above-mentioned government programs have already destroyed many farming communities that accepted them; nevertheless, this has not happened in Zirahuén.

“We don’t want to be servants for the rich,” warns Paz, adding, “We don’t need the government to pity us.” The community owns great natural riches that should be exploited without damaging nature, with ecotourism projects operated by the communities themselves.

When his turn came to speak, Delegate Zero referred to the old legend of a Mayan warrior who used a conch shell to call his people together and face battles with other peoples. (The spanish word for “conch” or “snail” — caracol — is also used as a name for Zapatista base communities.) That same conch shell was used to call up the resistance to the Europeans who invaded the continent, but “there was no response to that caracol call.”

But now, the call of Zirahuén’s caracol in its fight to defend its lands “has reached all the way to the mountains of the Mexican southeast.” That caracol — which was a warning, “not just of danger but of a spirit of rebellion and a decision to defend it” — was heard by the Zapatistas, who consider the Zirahuén caracol as “part of us, and any attack on this caracol” is an attack on the Zapatistas.

He said that the problems the Other Campaign delegation has seen in the state of Michoacán “are a sample of what is going to happen up there after July 2.” He was referring to the five electoral choices for the next president, “which are really the same man.” What is at stake, he said, is merely “who is going to lead the War of Conquest” against Mexico “from below.” It will be the same thing, whether the PRI or the PAN (National Action Party) wins.”

He also indicated: “here we have seen the true nature of the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) and those who have said they support the EZLN.”

The delegation promoting the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, said Marcos, has found numerous problems in Michoacán — such as massive emigration to the United States and land conflicts — that have been inflamed by the state government and others.

In the end, the Other Campaign found a “hacienda” in Michoacán. When the caravan accompanying Delegate Zero’s tour entered the state it was received by “white guards that Governor Lázaro Cárdenas Batal has to hide his connection to drug trafficking and big foreign interests.”

This was an allusion to the incident on Saturday night. At 10:30 pm, when members of Radio Pacheco, the Francisco Villa Independent Popular Front, the Mexican Party of Communists, students of the Casa Efrén Capiz and members of the local Other Campaign coordinating committee were attacked by police that first introduced themselves wearing uniforms of the Buena Vista Municipal Police.

Eduardo from Radio Pacheco, who was one of those assaulted, says that six miles past the town of Buena Vista the caravan participants realized that three vehicles’ tires had punctured tires.

Some of the passengers got out to look for some way to repair the tires. Suddenly, those who had stayed behind were surprised by fifteen armed men dressed in Buena Vista municipal police uniforms and traveling in three cars. They threw the caravanistas to the ground and held them at gunpoint, cocking their weapons, telling them they would search them after having received a report of a robbery.

Responding to questions from the supposed police officers, the young men and women informed them that they were part of the Other Campaign caravan. The police left the area but minutes later returned, wearing state police uniforms.

After explaining that the caracol of Zirahuén is not alone in its struggle, as “we have compañeros and compañeras across the country” and “the strength that we thought we carried alone” has the support of all struggles they have been bringing together throughout the tour, Marcos concluded: “We expect nothing from the government. The only thing we want is for it to go away, and if it doesn’t go away, we are going to bring it down. The only thing we want is for the rich to leave, and if they don’t leave, we’ll make them leave.”

“The time for resistance, for defense, has ended. It is time to attack, to go at them because this is the only option we have to survive as indigenous people,” he said.

Pointing toward a Mexican flag that an adherent was waving in the doorway of the community school where the event was held, Marcos said it is necessary to build an other Mexico, where the flag “once again flies with dignity, without deception, without mockery.”

After clarifying that the Other Campaign’s intention is not to ask the Mexican people to look up above, but rather down “at yourselves,” at their struggles in order to unite their efforts with others around the country led by peasant farmers, indigenous people, workers, children, young people, women and other groups that suffer under the capitalist system.

“We came to ask them,” he added, “to see us, to listen to us, to give us their word. We came to ask them to join us to defend on foot what we will loose if we remain on our knees. The time has come to wake up; the time has come to rise up,” he concluded.

Those present reacted with great applause, repeating slogans such as “Zapata lives, the struggle continues!” (as the unforgettable Efrén Capiz used to shout) as well as “the comuneros of Zirahuén fight united and fight well, for their land, for their forests, and for their lake, too.

Sixty-seven years after the land distribution by Michoacan native General and President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, starting in 1939, thousands of poor peasant farmers and their descendants reaffirmed their determination to defend their lands as they celebrated with traditional dances and music.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America