The Zapatista Coffee Community
Date Published: 28-01-2022
Towards the end of 2021, Essential Trading were privileged to play host to six members of the Zapatista movement - from whom our Cafe Rebelde coffee originates - accompanied by a translator from KipTik*.
Such is their secrecy, it was not possible to take photographs of their faces uncovered for fear of punishment in Mexico. The people of the Chiapas region have been oppressed by the Mexican authorities over many years. The Zapatista delegation came in order to share a part of their struggles (“lucha”). They also came to listen to and study our situation here in the UK, to take back what they had learnt to their own villages and communities.
The Zapatistas are emblematic of hundreds of such communities, and thousands of male and female comrades from the Mayan cultural heritage. The different areas are all negatively affected by government actions, but they have support from groups all over Mexico. Mayans speak over 42 languages but keep it to a more modest six variants in the Chiapas!
The Zapatista group have been representing their people since 1983, having become painfully tired of the discrimination against them. Some level of autonomy was the priority, after suffering under the abuses of big land owners for so long, as well as the policies of the Mexican state. They tried to peacefully negotiate with the Mexican Government over indigenous land struggles, but the Government didn't keep their promises. The injustices continued and on 1st January 1994, after 10 years of preparation and training in five separate jungle communities, the people had had enough and declared war on the Mexican Government; they felt they had no choice left other than to fight. They occupied Government buildings but were in danger of being wiped out as the Government responded. Many non-combatants fled to the mountains but thankfully a ceasefire was called. The Government were shocked when 1 million people demonstrated in Mexico City in favour of the Zapatistas' demand for them to receive what was promised but never delivered: land, food, jobs, housing, health, education and democracy. This remains the country’s biggest demonstration to this day.
The people strove for basic human needs and some dignity. They got to work in their own communities and made their plea public, determined to build autonomy. In the face of numerous challenges and government intransigence, they’re managing to make it work, although there continue to be many obstacles and painful sacrifices as many dedicate their lives to reach the solution. One such obstacle is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), implemented in 1994 to encourage trade between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. NAFTA reduced or eliminated tariffs on imports and exports between the three participating countries, creating a huge free-trade zone. This neo-liberal power grab was and is utterly rejected by the Zapistas. But inevitably they continue to experience a lot of problems from government-funded paramilitary groups.
Within their declared autonomous region, and despite external pressures, they are able to govern in their own way. They all work collectively on matters regarding family, health, education and land (by area or by municipality), all without the help or guidance of the Government and with the consent and agreement of their community. The role of women is particularly significant. Nobody is above anyone else and all adopt the mantra of Democracy, Justice and Freedom.
“Here the village rules and the Government obey”.
The Zapatistas have responded positively to endless challenges, and make everything they need for themselves. Workers volunteer in their local councils without extra pay and none of their system initiatives are financed by Government or private businesses. They finance themselves by their own work and it’s a shared obligation to rotate the responsibility to others.
“What we do is what we get. We don’t come here to simply walk around! We come to share and listen to keep improving our community”.
This is an example of a co-operative, communal venture that works, as well as proof that a hierarchical structure isn’t a requirement. The visitors have enjoyed sharing stories of their struggles and accomplishments in the face of adversity on their tour around the UK, and hope that the determination they showcase might make a difference to anyone here who is careworn.
* Kiptik are a UK-based solidarity group who have been working on a series of projects in the autonomous communities of Chiapas in South East Mexico since May 2000. The aim of KIPTIK is to support the Zapatista struggle directly through the construction of drinking water systems, ecological stoves, health and mural projects. They think that hands-on solidarity work is a way of joining struggles and cultures worldwide in order to find common ground and shared solutions to the problems we are all facing.
The work of KIPTIK has grown according to the needs identified by the communities themselves. The aim is to work with people at a community level rather than with large, remote institutions to try and help them meet their own needs.
They want to keep projects small and human-scale and to promote self-sufficiency by leaving skills and materials in the hands of the people in the communities. Wherever possible, appropriate technology solutions are used; simple, low-cost, efficient and easy to maintain.
All funds raised go directly towards project costs. No KIPTIK members are paid and their work is entirely voluntary.
KIPTIK operates through a central working group, where decisions regarding the work are made collectively. This group is open to those who have been involved in supporting KIPTIK and its work, and is accountable to all those who have donated money to the projects or supported KIPTIK in any way.