Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chiapas Diaries: Day 5, Part 4 - From the Highlands to the Jungle

This is the twelfth diary in a series about my recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to meet with and learn about the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgent movement made up of several ethnic groups, and their food and agriculture. On our fifth day, we left the highlands near San Cristobal de las Casas and drove down, down, down to Palenque.

(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)

As we said our goodbyes, Peter and Susan picked up a large donation of corn - some to give away in the U.S., and some to send to a village in Kenya that wanted to plant it. Apparently, many farmers have lost their own traditional seeds because they gave hybrid seeds a try. Now, many wanted to ditch the hybrid seeds, and they were eager to give the corn from Chiapas a try. Chiapas is home to an incredible wealth of genetic diversity for corn. (I do wonder how the rainfall patterns, season length, etc, of the Chiapan highlands compare to that of Kenya, but hopefully that's been accounted for when planning this donation.)

White and yellow corn for the U.S.

4 kilos of corn, headed to Kenya!

Some time after noon, we finally left Nuevo San Gregorio. We packed the car... and then watched it drive off without us, following on foot. We left a different way than we came, on a road that was built by the indigenous people, back when they were slaves (i.e. not very long ago). Still, it was a rough enough road that the car couldn't handle the weight of seven passengers along with all of our luggage. I took a few pictures before we left and as we walked. It's amazing how plants that looked - to me - like weeds are actually food or medicine! Also fascinating were the many colors of flowers, and the many colors of butterflies!

The muddy tires, after the drive in

Road the indigenous people built when they were slaves, carrying each stone from the nearby river.

A 300 year old church

A side view of the church. This week's mass has been, uh, canceled.

Chia, a plant that is very high in omega-3s

A leguminous tree that grows beans used as animal feed.

The drive to Palenque was not long in distance, but it was long in the amount of time it took. This was in large part due to the few hundred topes (speed bumps) along the way. In a way, it reminded me of driving through Vermont, which has only country roads that go right through communities, instead of the usual highways one would expect. The Mexican government, eager to increase tourism between San Cristobal and Palenque, has been trying for some time to put in a highway between the two cities, an effort that has met with so much local opposition (much of it from the Zapatistas) that the government has all but given up.

One of the cities we drove through was Ocosingo. Out of the five cities the Zapatistas tried to take over on January 1, 1994, Ocosingo was their only defeat. Prior to the revolution, the Mexican government found that the Zapatistas had a scale model of Ocosingo, which clued them in that Ocosingo might be the target of an attack. Perhaps that's why they were more ready for the insurgency there, compared to the other cities. However, there are other reasons for the Zapatista defeat in Ocosingo. First, their commander (Sub-Comandante Pedro) was killed early in the battle. Second, the Mexican army used indigenous civilians as more or less a shield, and, unwilling to kill the civilians, the Zapatistas were surrounded and more or less picked off by the army over the course of a few days.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant surrounded by many types of fruit trees and a small flock of geese. In Ocosingo, we saw many pesticide advertisements, just as we had in San Cristobal.

A goose having a cow.

Ad for Gyphosate (Roundup)

As we drove, the plants around us changed. At a certain point, there were no more pine trees. We were truly headed for the jungle. Or the former jungle. Unfortunately, much of the rainforests of Chiapas have been destroyed, some for development, but mostly (it seemed to me) for cattle pasture. Peter pointed out areas where the Zapatistas had taken over land in the 1994 revolution. On Zapatista land, the cattle pastures were turned into fertile organic milpas (cornfields) and planted with fruit trees. (Zapatista agriculture is not 100% organic, I don't think, since crop yield is a matter of life and death to subsistence farming families, and if you've already adopted commercial fertilizers in the past, it's hard to get off of them. Switching from chemical to organic production will reduce crop yields for a few years, and even though they eventually recover, a poor family might not be able to handle the reduced yields for a few years.)

Corn growing in the jungle

The only other notable detail about the night came when we arrived in Palenque. Apparently, the city was once a violent place, with the police fighting the narcos. Then the narcos won. They bought off the city, and now it's all quite safe... even though it's full of money laundering operations and such. We went out to buy hammocks and then split up as some people went to internet cafes and others went to grab food or go back to the hotel. Before bed, we each took showers. It had been several days since anyone had had one, and I'm sure we all stunk.

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