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The uprising in Chiapas, Mexico: The impact of structural adjustment and forestry reform

L.J. Castaños

Leon Jorge Castaños is a former deputy minister and chief of the Forestry Sector of Mexico's Ministry of Agriculture. Currently, he is an independent consultant working on the organization and development of peasant and community forestry.

On 1 January 1994, just as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, Canada and the United States was coming into effect and as Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari - the instigator of sweeping economic change was entering the final year of his six-year term of office, a rebellion broke out in the southern State of Chiapas. The uprising involved the poor and indigenous peasant population in a farming and forest area running from the highlands of Chiapas to the Lacandona Rain Forest. This article examines some of the reasons for the Chiapas incident, particularly in terms of the changes in federal policy regarding agriculture.

The Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve

Structural adjustment

Up until 1982, the federal government had been the main driving force for development in Mexico, with a strongly protected and domestic-oriented economy. By 1982, however, this model was in crisis because of growing external debt, inflation and unemployment.

The federal government changed tack between 1982 and 1988, with a new focus on trade liberalization, privatization and a reduction of the role of the state. The 1988-1994 administration strove to promote this new economic model which was based on private enterprise (numerous banks and public companies were sold), foreign capital investment and entry into the international market, particularly through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Government responsibilities, structures and investment were cut sharply and many forms of support were abolished.

Agricultural profitability declined and farmers - whether on irrigated or rain-fed land - began to suffer. Agricultural policy worked against domestic production of cereals and other crops such as coffee, cocoa, banana and sugar cane, for which prices fell sharply from 1989. In 1993, to mitigate the drop in agricultural floor prices, the government introduced a special programme which provided subsidies for each cropped hectare, particularly for land under maize.

The new economic model has been controversial and the weak link in the national modernization process has always been the rural sector, comprising 23 million rural dwellers (28.7 percent of the national total) six to ten million of whom are indigenous people.

Changes in landownership

Towards the beginning of the century, the national hero, Emiliano Zapata, and the indigenous population fought for Article 27 of the Constitution of 1917, which defended the communal ownership of indigenous land. The peace that then reigned in Mexico between the indigenous population and other rural dwellers was rooted in this article. Ejido (communal village farm holdings), community and indigenous land and forests were inalienable, indivisible and unseizable.

Article 27 was amended in 1992 and a new agrarian law introduced which virtually turned land into a market commodity. This reform provided for individual ownership and the unrestricted sale of ejido land. It allowed trade associations to own up to 27 times the maximum area permitted under individual private ownership. It facilitated land consolidation and the presence of private foreign capital. In short, it upset the traditional alliance between the state and peasant farmers.

Impact of structural adjustment on the forestry sector

The new economic policy also affected the forestry sector. As a result of the reduction in state involvement, three decentralized federal forestry agencies and one provincial agency were dissolved and the number of government technical staff in forest areas was reduced. The responsibility for parks and protected areas was transferred from the Undersecretariat of Agriculture and Forestry to the Secretariat of State for Urban Development and Ecology (now the Secretariat of State for Social Development), thus dividing responsibilities for production and protection [Ed. note: see Unasylva, 45(178): 31-37].

Forest industries were also seriously affected. There is no detailed policy to guide forest industry through the rapid liberalization process and encourage modernization. The official view is that associations combining private capital and technology with community forest land should be able to compete and that industrial plantations will produce timber and relieve pressure on the natural forest. However, no such association had been formed as of April 1994 nor had any industrial plantations been established. Forest industry profitability has been seriously eroded by economic liberalization and the recession. Producers and forest owners, in particular, are disoriented because, being unused to competition, they are finding it difficult to adjust to the new situation. Timber production, which had reached 10 million m3 in 1985, plummeted to 6 million m3 in 1993 the same as 25 years before but with 25 million more people.

The wood pulp sector is in crisis and four of the country's eight pulp plants have had to close down as they cannot compete in terms of price, particularly at a time of global oversupply. The output of wood pulp has shrunk by about 40 percent.

On the sawntimber side, the market stabilized with the control and reduction of inflation but the recession of 1992-94 has reduced the demand for timber which, in turn, has affected sales and income and increased stocks of low-quality wood. Several well-known private groups have in fact closed down and sold out. Imports of sawnwood from the United States have increased, with a strong negative impact on prices of lower-quality domestic timber (accounting for at least 50 percent of Mexican production), which is more expensive and has a rougher finish. Premium timber, on the other hand, has held firm and maintains both domestic and export potential.

A cleared area in the Lacandona Rain Forest

Impact on forestry in the peasant sector

Forestry policy

Between 1970 and the mid- 1980s, forestry practices in Chiapas centred on unsustainable commercial and traditional logging by private and state groups, with very little regard for the peasants, even though they were, at least in name, the forest owners. Logging concessions were granted to large concerns through a government monopoly and only a small portion of the returns were channelled back to the peasants and their associations or ejidos. In the early 1980s, however, the ejidos began to be more directly involved in forest management and use, classifying their land as permanent forest estate and developing management plans that gave them direct control over sustainable resource use and, in some cases, significantly larger economic returns. In 1986, legislation was modified, effectively loosening the state monopoly over concessions and opening the sector up to greater competitiveness. The federal government provided limited funds to peasant forestry organizations and their production and reforestation projects. The focus was more on nurseries, plantations and agroforestry than on the administrative, technical and financial development of communal forest management.

In 1989, however, a new federal forestry policy introduced logging restrictions on 95 percent of the territory; the cancellation of virtually all industrial support; the classification of damage to the public ecological heritage as a penal offence; judicial and repressive forest policing to prevent all forms of tree cutting including fuelwood and other rural uses, even pruning.

The ban on commercial logging and even fuelwood collection covered 45000 ha of pine and 90000 ha of high-value tropical timber in the Chiapas area. Thus, the local forest-owning communities, including the municipalities in the rebel area, were deprived of income, employment and fuelwood. In 1992 and 1993, there were a number of clashes between the authorities and the indigenous communities in the Chiapas highlands and other areas because of the fuelwood ban.

Social trust in forestry policy, particularly as it related to harvesting, sank to an all time low. The federal government was becoming more ecology-oriented, rightly stressing the need to reduce deforestation and increase reforestation efforts. However, in practice, this led to the establishment of new, strictly protected ecological reserves for the preservation of biological diversity rather than to attempts to harmonize conservation efforts and the sustainable use of renewable natural resources. It also led to logging bans and punitive action rather than support to sustainable harvesting and incentives for the implementation of sound forest management plans. Consequently, it was felt that the federal government relegated today's rural and productive needs to the back seat and that it failed to balance the ecological, economic and social functions of the forest.

The Lacandona Rain Forest

The natural resources, historical heritage and strategic position of the 1.3 million ha Lacandona Rain Forest make it one of the most important areas of tropical Mexico. It has archaeological sites in the north; efforts are being made to conserve forest resources and stem land distribution (the Lacandón community and the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve areas); land settlement and agricultural expansion are allowed in the Marques de Comillas and Las Cañadas areas; and it is important for national security because of its border with Guatemala.



Chiapas, which covers 75634 km2 (3.8 percent of the national territory), is characterized by an annual population growth of 4.5 percent - double the national rate' an economically active population concentrated in the rural sector (59 percent) and 30 percent illiteracy. One-third of the population belongs to an ethnic group speaking an indigenous language, and almost 60 percent of the population subsists on or below the minimum wage (US$ 1100 per sear), only 26 percent of the national average.


The most important resource is land: agriculture is the heart of the region's culture and economy. Chiapas used to account for over half the country's coffee exports, and cattle and maize production are also important. The state has at least 2 million ha of woodland and rain forest.


The ejidos and communities own two-thirds of the land - the other third is under private ownership - in the four main districts of Altamirano, Las Margaritas, Independencia and Ocosingo. However, half the population is landless. The concept of community is inherent in indigenous thinking and values. Land may be worked I individually but the importance of the forest to the community as a whole is a recognized value. There is self-government, with all community members offering their services without remuneration to maintain social and political organization and cohesion. Decisions are taken collectively by consensus in the ejido assemblies.

The peasant economy is based on satisfying basic needs and harvesting natural resources. Coffee and cattle provide cash, while maize is grown for on-farm consumption.


The rural economy in Chiapas has been badly hit in the last five years by the fall in the values of coffee, cocoa, bananas, sugar cane and livestock which accompanied the opening up of the market, globalization and the elimination of government purchasing. The total ban on timber harvesting and fuelwood removals has now been in force for years, further aggravating the situation in this state.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, land distribution through settlement was encouraged in the Lacandona Rain Forest, as was extensive ranching. Both settlement and ranching spurred deforestation and pushed back the agricultural frontier. Fuelwood collection was permitted during this period. As early as 1977, however, some 331000 ha of the Lacondona Rain Forest were designated as the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, thereby becoming one of the first strictly protected reserves in the country.

In 1986, responding to increasing pressure to take a more ecological approach to natural resource management, the government set up the Intersecretarial Commission for the Protection of the Lacandona Rain Forest. In March 1987, a cooperation agreement was reached between the federal and state governments and the communities of Marques de Comillas and Las Cafiadas (heavily involved in the January 1994 uprising) for the conservation and development of the Lacandona Rain Forest.

The Commission's first findings indicated that the depletion of tropical forest could be halted through appropriate land management, that peasant participation was vital for conservation and that the relevant sectors and institutions did respond to offers of cooperation and coresponsibility. However, when the six-year presidential term ended in 1988, so did the Commission as well as the agreement and cooperation with the local communities.

The interruption of the programme to conserve and develop the Lacandona Rain Forest sustainably placed 26 communities of the region of Las Cañadas, adjacent to the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, in a position of land and forest ownership insecurity because it blocked the presidential resolution that had guaranteed them full ownership.

The Chiapas uprising

An indigenous peasant movement had emerged in the Chiapas highlands in the early 1970s to fight for land and to gain access to and influence the political and economic authorities. Its strategy gradually divided towards the end of the decade, with one group favoring a pragmatic line willing to negotiate and the other advocating a hard line more in favor of armed conflict.

A group of indigenous people in Las Cañadas

The increasing impact of the coffee, livestock and timber crises on the rural economy continued to be met with a lack of official understanding or action; this increased support for armed conflict. The Emiliano Zapata National Association of Peasant and Indigenous Peoples (ANCIEZ) gained popularity and formed the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). Although not all the indigenous population adhered to the ANCIEZ - EZLN because of differences of opinion (in fact, the proposal to act failed to carry a majority vote for three years), with the amendment to Article 27 of the Constitution weakening communal ownership of indigenous land, the cause gained momentum end, finally, on 1 January 1994 the EZLN rose up in arms and took control of five regional administrative centres.

Following a brief military confrontation, Mexican society indicated its rejection of violence, and dialogue was initiated between the EZLN and the federal government in late January. The rebels' demands were answered in early March, opening the way for "compromise and dignified peace in Chiapas". This was welcomed by all as evidence of a shared commitment to a peaceful solution.

Agreement in principle was reached on elections and the formation of a transitional government, while a more concrete agreement was reached on 32 other issues, including: at the state level, the promulgation of a general law on indigenous community rights; amendments to Articles 4 and 27 of the Constitution (however, without envisaging a review of the reform of Article 27); a new electoral law with reforms to municipal statutes and constitutional law (the establishment of new districts in Ocosingo and Las Margaritas); repeal of the penal code articles referring to environmental damage; and the promulgation of a law on land equity.

On the economic and social level, a number of programmes were agreed on, including government compensation for abrupt changes in international agricultural commodity prices and an evaluation of the impact of NAFTA. There was also a general provision for the protection of natural resources in the region, but no specific mention of forestry, and another provision for the establishment of a National Commission for Peace with Justice and Dignity to monitor compliance with the agreement.

Possible impact of peasant demands on the region's forestry sector

As a result of other political events which shook the country in May 1994, the agreement has still not been signed by the parties. The EZLN has resumed consultations with its bases to review the government's response to its demands. The Federal Government Commissioner is determined to negotiate and a number of legislative proposals for Chiapas are under examination.

The forestry sector does not feature directly as a priority area in the demands and agreements, but once the more important EZLN demands relating to self government, land tenure and social welfare and the more controversial demands on electoral policy have been satisfied, attention will have to be paid to both timber production and agroforestry.

The chronic constraints on production and productivity in the rebel area are roads, funding, technology, technical assistance and training. Possible solutions include: organic coffee, intensive livestock production, water for irrigation and electrical power and, in the forestry sector, assistance in forest management planning, agroforestry, timber harvesting, small-scale forest-based industries and ecotourism.

Realizing this potential calls for a new approach that balances the need to meet today's requirements while ensuring sustainability for the resources in the future. It al so calls for technical assistance based on a participatory approach. Where forest harvesting potential exists, technicians must give attention to forest management planning, the economic viability of harvesting, complemented by agrosilvipastoral approaches based on enriching grassland and appropriate agroforestry practices. There must be cooperation with the producers themselves and, above all, support for the peasant groups, thereby enabling them to become the true agents of sustainable, long-term change. Institutional arrangements and authorities whose life span, vision and management are only short- or medium-term cannot provide an environment for self-help, sustainable initiatives by indigenous communities that respect their own needs and aspirations.

A sawmill run by the Chilil cooperative, near San Cristobal de las Casas, before the Chiapas uprising

There is a new generation of public forestry, ecology and rural development officials in Chiapas who, together with the representatives of other sectors, could engage in dialogue and evaluate recent events, considering the constructive and successful experiences of forest-owning ejidos such as those of Quintana Roo [Ed. note. see Unasylva, 43(171): 11-20], the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Campeche, and the reserves in Oaxaca, Guerrero and Durango. Working together, they could shape a new forestry policy for Chiapas that would harmonize the economic, social and ecological functions of the forest and accommodate the particular local characteristics of each part of the region.

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