The Inexorable Appropriation of Land by the Indigenous

[translated by irlandesa]


The Indians of Chiapas are not disappearing, there are not just a few of them, and they are not, obviously, a relative minority in a state.  As can be seen in the accompanying table*, the Indian population has been increasing, despite the various policies to which it has been subjected.  They survived the conquest, they survived and grew despite the ravages of the nineteenth century liberal program, and they have survived indigenismo.  They survived destruction, segregation and integration.  Their survival is reflected not only in the growing numbers of their population, but also in the most important bond of their existence:  the land.


Despite the belief that Indian is synonymous with backwardness – and that land in the hands of campesino Indians is synonymous with underdevelopment, both of them a burden for “development” – the Indians of Chiapas have a history of several centuries of recovering their population and the land.


An Indian campesino defined the great paradox of Chiapas:  “We live in huts in the midst of our wealth, of our land, and we are opposed to any other program…even development…which separates us from it.”


When the first wave of the Spanish conquest arrived in Chiapas, there was, according to various calculations, a population of 220,000 inhabitants distributed throughout the territory.  The majority of them occupied the areas of the upper mountains, the central depression and the coast.  The conquest and colonization led to the disappearance of the Indian peoples from the central depression and the coast, but it left those peoples in the upper mountains and the north practically intact.


In the middle of the 17th century, the Maya and Zoque of Chiapas began a slow but steady recovery of their population and their territory.  Following the disappearance of the peoples from the central depression and the coast, new mestizo settlements were founded.  These had a growth rate that was, in many instances, higher than that of the Indian population, but they were concentrated in the deserted areas of the central valleys and the coast. 


At the end of the Colonial Period, and throughout the entire 19th century, Indians as well as mestizos were dislocated from the greatest part of chiapaneco lands, owing to the new modernizing and economic integration policies.  Along the Coast and the Central Valleys, some villages which were inhabited by Indians, but condemned as being wasteland or uninhabitable, became incorporated into properties which would, on occasion, come to encompass incredible expanses of land.


The liberals of that era were the first to promote development and world integration through their system of making the land productive:  the finca.  More than an economic system, it was a way of life that laid the foundations of social relationships, in which the finquero families controlled economic and political power, a system which prevailed until the present time.  Names like Velasco, Castellanos, Larráinzar, Grajales, Corzo and Domínguez lend them their Porfirian dimension.  The “chiapaneco family” was formed, holder of the great properties and of political power: governors and finqueros merged in the finca and hacienda system.


The dislocation and expropriation of land during the 19th century in Chiapas created a society which, on the one side, proposed a modernizing plan which saw land as a means of production for the international market based on coffee and other agricultural products.  On the other side were its workers: mozos, baldíos and day workers.  In many areas of the state, the large finca-based system did not disappear until the 1990s.


Population and Indian Land Figures in Chiapas


Agrarian distribution brought with it the modification of this system.  Today, more than 4 million of the 7 and a half million hectares are under a social ownership system, whether ejidal or community, and almost 3 million are under a so-called private property system.  At the beginning of the 20th century, prior to the first agrarian distribution and recognizing the communal property of some Indian peoples, 87% of the land was in the hands of finqueros, landlords and foreign companies.  The agrarian distribution of the twenties and that of Cardenismo began to invert the pyramid of land ownership in Chiapas.


Currently, 56% is under social ownership, although there is a very important part of private property in the hands of Indian owners.  They have, as groups, bought fincas and ranches from the owners, to such a degree that there are municipalities and regions where there are no longer any properties in the hands of mestizo ranchers and finqueros.


The Other Figures


Chiapas is still rural.  Seventy percent of its residents live in the countryside or engage in activities related to it.  There are few places which can be considered as urban:  one city which is the state capital with more than 250,000 residents; another with more than 150,000; three or four locales in the 100,000 arena and some 20 with more than 10,000.  The other thousands of locales, up to 19,000, are rural, in a state where there are almost no uninhabited places.  According to the last census, and ignoring the errors and omissions it could contain, there are 19,700 localities in the state of Chiapas, of which 8500, half, have fewer than 10 residents.  4900 of the almost 20,000 localities have more than 100 inhabitants, or 25%.  These figures give us some idea of the great dispersion of the population throughout the state’s 75,000 square kilometers.  The Indian’s presence within this geography is more than marked, and it is the product of different processes of land appropriation.  The Indian population, according to the latest censuses, represents about 30% of total inhabitants, but they are present throughout 70% of the geography.  This is in contrast to the mestizo population, which represents 70% of the population and which is concentrated in the cities and rural regions of the coast and the central depression.  In the last census, there were 8000 with fewer than 10 residents where there were no Indians present, mostly located in those two areas.  Indian localities, however, are found throughout the entire state, and some areas are completely Indian.  Other than the few non-Indian spots in this geography, all the rest is Indian land.


In the mountains of Los Altos, the Selva and the North, and even in the Border area, and despite government attempts to “Mexicanize” the border with Guatemala, the Indian has a presence which has becoming more evident, even if it is true that the population has been increasing and has, therefore, been exerting greater pressure on the land.  There are almost 3000 new localities in this new millennium, in respect to the previous census.  These localities are Indian throughout the entire state: in the Central Valleys, in the municipalities of Socoltenango, Acala, Villa Las Rosas, La Concordia, Villa Corzo and Jiquipilas, among others; in the Northern region in Catazajá and Reforma and, obviously, in the region of Chimalapas and the Ocote.  It is even true on the coast, in the municipality of Pijijiapan and Acapetahua, where the agrarian accords, invasions and land purchases by groups of Indians from owners who have sold their ranches in the face of the ruin of what is today’s agricultural sector in Chiapas and in Mexico – in almost all the municipalities where there is an Indian presence – mestizos have sold the lands, or they were invaded, which had been in their possession since the 19th century.


Municipalities which had fincas and ranches until the eighties, and which were the scene of violent incidents between 1980 and 2000, are now the property of Indians:  Pantelhó, Bochil, Simojovel, Huituipán, Jitotol, Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacán, Ixtapa, El Bosque, Sitalá, mestizos’ fincas in Chilón, Yajalón and Sabanilla.  In those municipalities which make up a homogeneous region – and in the face of “the threat of the zapatistas” – ranchers have sold their properties to the government, then to be handed over to Indians, or they have sold them directly to other Indians in Ocosingo, Altamirano, Teopisca, Las Margaritas, La Trinitaria, Comitán and Palenque.


One of the profound changes which is beginning to come to light is that of the appropriation, which would be better called re-appropriation, of the territory.


Recent social movements, headed by the zapatista movement, have had a very important impact by giving impetus to this method of visualizing territorial recovery.  Other studies have gone into depth concerning the various ways in which territorial re-appropriation has taken place, and how these groups of Indians have made their way of life and customs compatible within a new territory.


The Chamula have maintained strong bonds of belonging with their original village, and they have held religious and political positions despite their not inhabiting Chamula lands.  Others have maintained only their clothing and religious customs, the veneration of the saints of their native villages, the fiestas, and a few have practically lost their attachment to their village of origin, although this could be only superficial, since there are always memories, returning to visit relatives and village fiestas.  One cannot speak of a total break, of total absorption of the way of life of the place they are inhabiting.


It is important to recognize that existing within them is the consciousness that the chiapaneco territory belongs to them.  That it is Indian in origin, and that recovering it is a fundamental part of their future.  Although it could be visualized as a conflict, they have not created, or suffered, problems in the primarily mestizo areas where they have arrived.  On the contrary, there are campesino organizations which have not only accepted them, but which have valued them, and they have found that there is a common attachment to the land which is not easily understood by urbanites.


A campesino who is a native of La Concordia, Amadeo González Ruiz, stated;  “For us, the land does not have a price, because the lives of our grandparents and our parents are within it.  Many gave their lives to obtain it.  They fought with the owners, with the army, and even with campesinos who were against being free.  We do not want to be mozos again, we do not want to be employees.  We want to continue to be free, although poor.”


Miguel Díaz Santis, an Indian who has been living in this same village for five years, and who considers it a triumph to have obtained a tiny piece of land he can plant himself – despite having to work with the owner and supplement his income – said:  “I am from San Andrés.  I came here in 1990, because there was no land there, and they looked for me to work here on the maize harvest.  At first we just came here seasonally, but later I joined together with applicants for land here in La Concordia, who were also working on the harvest, and they gave us these little pieces of land.  I stayed with my family, they treat us well.  They are the same as us, poor.  Land is very important for us.  My dead are there, in San Andrés, my church is there and I’d like to be there, but it’s not possible, there is no land, but we go to the fiesta and the church.  The land is ours, the indigenous, but it’s also the campesinos who live here.  That is why we don’t want to take it away from them.  We can all be here.”


The land and their vision of it is an issue of discussion, not just among the various campesino organizations, but also among intellectuals, academics, officials, and among those who make development plans.  Many people say that the struggle for land is not a problem, that it is political talk.  However, the more one knows about the lives of Indians and campesinos, the more clear it becomes that its possession is, in fact, the basic issue of the chiapaneco problem.  The explanation for this is the very different world vision that exists.


Some consider the land to be a means of production, and, if it is not productive or if it cannot be made to produce, it does not have any value.  It must be given to those who can make it productive.


But for the Indians and campesinos, the land is the same as liberty, as equality.  Possessing it or recovering it is recovering life, it is having a past and a future.  That is why they spurn offers to buy land, or “well paid” jobs, or migration north as options.  That is why chiapaneco Indians and campesinos have been the last ones to go, and only when they are driven by desperation.  That is why they have preferred to confront the government at the risk of losing their lives, because, as many say, “it is better to die than to leave our land.”  In Chiapas, the struggle for land and territory has been constant, by times silent, and many other times violent, but it has also been effective and little understood.


Tables and maps may be seen at

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