Water, Women’s Cooperatives, and the Zapatista Legacy of Chiapas

BY REBECCA PETERS

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As part of my work with Fundación Cántaro Azul, a Mexico based non-profit that works to improve community health through access to clean water, I am striving to better understand the cultural and social history of Chiapas.

mexico non profitOn Monday, the Safe Water team had the opportunity to meet with Rosie, a woman who works with Save the Children Fund, a group that provides support and relief services through education, health care, and emergency aid during conflict or disaster. To give some context for her current work, she explained that she worked with the Red Cross during some of the most violent Zapatista conflict here in Chiapas. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN for short) has been explicitly “at war” with the Mexican state since 1994, and the revolutionary leftist group is comprised mostly of indigenous peoples in rural areas. The EZLN was born upon the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trilateral trade bloc between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Historically marginalized groups excluded from formal economic development in Mexico believed that signing NAFTA was not just an undemocratic decision, but served to more deeply entrench the country in capitalist trade policies that degrade indigenous practices and agrarian way of life.

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The conflicts between the state and EZLN exploded over the next several years, leading to many refugees fleeing from the loci of the first revolution. Rosie described her work in a rural health clinic during the 2000-2004 period of the conflict, when malnutrition was claiming the lives of hundreds of children a week. She explained that the Zapatista groups refused to receive the traditional food aid packages from the government, and had a strong distrust of medical professionals who could not speak Tsotsil or Tsetsal, some of the indigenous languages here.

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This legacy lives on in many rural communities, and the spirit of the EZLN can be felt in many remote autonomous Zapatista areas that operate independently of the Mexican state. During the rest of the week, the Safe Water team visited three different women’s cooperatives in such rural areas, each focused on different aspects of artisan crafts, community building, and maternal health. Our first visit was to a community called Monte de los Olivos, a former Zapatista stronghold. There, a women’s group called El Gato con los Pies de Trapo is known for its intricate belt designs and embroidered shoes, which are available on Etsy.  While we were primarily there to learn about the water-related health issues that the community is facing, I couldn’t help but connect the community’s water problems with the larger economic issues facing rural communities.  This particular group was able to earn enough income to begin piping water, available only 4 hours a week from a small pump that brings water over a distant mountain spring, closer to homes. However, many children still suffer from water related illnesses like Trachoma, the leading cause of infectious blindness in the world.

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