Sunday, April 25, 2010

Chiapas: Complicado y Frustrado

When asked the question of what I learned about sustainable development during my stay in Chiapas, it led me to become completely confused and angered. So many responses come to mind, the concept itself is complicated, and typecasts images of bottom of the pyramid poverty. Below are some rants and ravings on my stay in Chiapas.

Sustainable Development, as described by the United Nation’s Brundtland Report is "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs[1]." This description creates more frustration than clarity because it is so vague. If I were to tell someone that they should live by what they need, so that their grandchildren will be able to live by their needs, I would get a few blank stares and calls to clarify. As Castro also finds, scholars cannot agree on the perfect definition.[2]

Now back to Chiapas, I feel that sustainable development was/is there in the concept of culture and identity. The Zapatista Rebellions of1994, brought international attention, and with it came international tourism. Tourists come from all over the world to see the Modern Mayas, the ancient Mayan ruins, consume the best coffee in the world, and see how the indigenous communities live. This led to many foreigners staying and bringing their version of community into San Cristobal. In one block, you can have Lebanese falafels, Argentine steak, or if you miss American fast food, then have a Whopper from Burger King. But the gentrification has created tension. There is graffiti that states “Putos Hippies” and “Los terroristas son los turistas.” San Cristobal becomes two very different cities; one that is still colonial and you can get great coffee, while looking at local art, and one where the Tzotzil people hold mid-night market to sell their produce.

Upon arrival to S
an Cristobal de Las Casas, you see bright colors and gorgeous patterns abound, from the Tzotzil women selling their shawls, scarves, and Zapatista woolen dolls. Of course, you feel obliged to buy, and the products that they are selling just draw you in. I personally bought three shawls, a Zapatista doll, a woolen monkey, and the warmest purple pullover. The introduction of the Maya culture via textiles brings income to these women, but it also creates a new obstacle. While selling the shawls, income is being brought to the indigenous textile; it also creates a frozen state on development. What I mean to say is that in my time in Chiapas, there are only so many varieties in patterned scarves that a community can sell. The shawls bring income, they preserve culture, and they bring development, for example the women in Kinal Ansetik are taught how to weave and how to become independent, but these shawls do not bring further development. They are just a starting point for development.

Sustainable development in Chiapas has multiple obstacles: gentrification, tourism, and the largest obstacle, the Molotov Chiapaneco. The Molotov Chiapaneco consists of poverty, corrupt government, and narco-trafficking mafias, this cocktail is the hardest obstacle for development in Chiapas. It is one of the reasons that I am frustrated because there is so little that I can do to stop narco-trafficking, there is nothing I can do to stop corrupt government, just look at what happened in Arizona, but I can help in someway alleviate poverty. This leads me to more frustration because I do not know how I can help to do so. Therefore my final thought, is that I want to help, I just need assistance to find my calling to do so, I want to start hosing down the damage caused by the Molotov Chiapaneco.

[1] Castro, Carlos J. “Sustainable Development: Mainstream and Critical Perspectives.” Organization & Environment. Jun 2004 p. 195-225

[2] Ibid.

Please feel free to comment, i would love an open discussion.

A World in Which Many Worlds Fit

A familiar slogan used by the Zapatisa communites and their supporters is “Un mundo en que quepan muchos mundos” (A world in which many worlds fit). The slogan adorns the top of a brightly colored poster with images of people hand in hand, accepting and celebrating their diversity. Aside from the call for universal peace and harmony, I believe this slogan also serves as the foundation for a Zapatista (and overall indigenous) critique of the western development perspective and where it’s leading us. As Gustavo Castro Soto, the representative from a Mexican civil society organization called Otros Mundos Chiapas, told us “if every country on earth reached the lifestyle and consumption level of the US it would take 6 planets worth of resources to meet the need.” In other words, the development of the west (US, western Europe, Japan etc.) has created a world in which not even one earth can fit! This is the antithesis of sustainable. If the world continues to hold the paradigm of development as aspiring to be at the level of the west where will this lead us.

As pointed out in John Bamba’s article Indigenous Peoples: Development with Culture and Identity, true sustainable development embraces the indigenous perspective of a relationship with the earth over the western perspective. The manipulation and domination of nature present in the western monoculture production, commercialization and privatization practices run counter to traditional indigenous views, which see the earth as an extension of humanity. While in Chiapas we learned that the Mayan cross was originally the symbol for a sacred tree, rooted in the ground of “Mother Earth,” representing humanity’s familial relationship with her. From this perspective, land, air and sea are not “assets” to be exploited, but family to be cared for and deeply respected.

One of the many lessons I learned through the Chiapas experience is the importance of understanding the differences of development perspectives and how to communicate them to others. If we in the west wish to show solidarity with the oppressed of the world, such as the indigenous peoples of Chiapas, we must start to integrate new ideas in our economic theories and shift our policies of domination towards cooperation. Sustainability has become a big buzzword for international developers, but how do we implement these practices? Not by idealizing indigenous cultures, there are oppressive systems at work there too (just ask members of
Ki’nal Ansetik)
, but taking the spiritual/emotional wisdom of how to relate to the earth as an extension of humanity should help inform sustainable development efforts.

A reoccurring theme from discussion sessions in Chiapas is framing sustainable development as a human rights issue. No environmental, economic or political situation is sustainable if human beings’ basic rights to exist and subsist off of their own land are violated. Organized resistance to unjust economic systems
can slowly help restore the integrity of the land and dignity of the people in some areas, but our job, as beneficiaries of economic dominance, is to help change the system from within. A human rights approach may prove useful for starting a dialogue on how sustainability is interwoven with systemic change.

I purchased a few copies of this poster along with many other Zapatista items at their community store in Oventik. Yes, even in the Zapatista communities my capitalist consumer habits were taken advantage of, but this time is was to support the struggle against injustice, so it’s ok right?

Ki’nal Ansetik is one of the most impressive organizations we visited in Chiapas. Most of their work revolves around empowering indigenous women. One of their main strategies is allowing young women to live in community at their center while they finish their high school or college educations with the goal of going back to their communities.

For example the neo-liberal policies of NAFTA which benefit the already dominant economic powers at the expense of the “underdeveloped.”

By Dan Pasquini

Saturday, April 24, 2010

From Colorful to Black and White

The first impression received when arriving in a new place is the airport. Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, has a white, beautiful and modern airport. The second impression is the people. Talking and observing the Chipanecos you can find, right the way, the amazing culture they have, warm and cordial, make you feel in home. I took a cab to San Cristobal de las Casas, located one hour to the south of Tuxtla Gutierrez, and the view from the ride is gorgeous. Mountains, waterfalls and a beautiful valley with a blue river is the welcoming crew. San Cristobal de las Casas is a beautiful town with colonial architecture that is becoming more touristic in the past years. The natural resources, the diversity of the people, culture and food make this town an excellent vacation destination. However, this beautiful scene changed from colorful to black and white once I started looking through the eyes of the Chiapenecos.

Chiapas needs to be seen by its own reality of oppression that came from years of isolation and poverty. The southern most state in Mexico, about one quarter of its population are of Mayan descendant. Chiapas a poor state with rich natural resources, in other words a rich land with poor people. The population has grown enormously, from one million in 1940 to two million in 1980 to four million in 2005. Ironically it has one of the highest gross birthrates at 22%,but also takes the first place in child mortality at 25%. The economy is based in agriculture and minerals. They produce 13% of country's maize, 54% of its hydroelectric, power, 5% of the nation's timber, 4% of its beans, 13% of its gas, and 4% of its oil, Despite its richness of natural resources, Chiapas is an economically underdeveloped state. Highest rate of unemployment, below average literacy, and a high infant mortality rate. Only 11 percent of adults earn what the government calls moderate income of at least $3,450 per year (versus 24 percent nationally); less than 50 percent of households have running water (versus 67% nationally); and only 14 percent have (versus 45% nationally). It seems that Chiapas has become, over the years, the trash yard of Mexico. Amazingly, the region is making it’s own attempt at overcoming the corruption of the government and its own oppression. Starting, in 1994, the same year that NAFTA was signed, an uprising led by the Zapatista movement reminded the world that indigenous people are still struggling for their rights-even 500 years after the Spain conquest. Today, the struggle for indigenous autonomy and to create peaceful communities free from poverty and oppression continues.

The indigenous communities have create different sustainable projects, with the help of the international community, that is aiding in the development of economic, social and cultural autonomy. The international community is playing a huge role in training and maintaining these communities. There is still a lot to accomplish, for example in education, health issues, poverty, land rights.But the one most disturbing is the violence that this people are exposed to, just because they are human beings that want to fight for the right to live a descent life in the land that belongs to them. It was very shocking to see how many of them have been victims of violence and massacres.

Even worse, the paramilitary groups who supported by the government and who are the authors of these crimes, were recently released from jail and set free of charges. Although, the people from this small part of the world, keep struggling for their rights, the beauty of their transparent hearts brings a hope that one day “Father God and Mother God” will do justice in this land that once were forgotten but now is in the interests of many for the natural resources.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Past and the Future of Chiapas

When you arrive in San Cristobal de Las Casas you are immediately greeted by a picturesque colonial town full of architectural beauty, commerce, and history. You are also immediately greeted by an obvious disparity of wealth. There is great wealth visible in Chiapas, as well as great poverty. The colonial facades of San Cristobal speak of both the past and the future of the region. The grandiose architecture in San Cristobal reminds you of the colonial significance of the city. It also reminds you of how that importance was achieved thanks to the blood and sweet of a population that still remains. Mexico is a country that embraces their colonial past by conserving what the Mestizo majority considers appropriate traditions, and denying those that are considered other. Having Mexican parents, I know too well that most Mexicans tend to think of indigenous peoples as a part of the past; relics that must be remembered as such rather than a population that has contributed significantly to modern Mexico. This attitude has lead to a dangerous indifference and denial of Indigenous peoples in Mexico.

The awareness of how environmental, economic, gender, religion, and political issues affect everyday life in Chiapas is essential to addressing the root causes of the economic poverty my colleagues and I witnessed a few weeks ago in Chiapas. Aid alone will not alleviate problems in Chiapas. The problem is not just the economic poverty that is visible to all those who visit Chiapas. Instead, poverty is a terrible symptom of greater issues. There are rights and freedoms that are being denied to the indigenous Chiapanecos in the name of development. Education is denied, land is denied, cultural freedom is denied, and even the right to worship is denied. Denial of these rights is at the center of economic poverty and the rebellion that occurred in Chiapas January 1st 1994.

Still, all is not lost in Chiapas. I saw many signs of hope and optimism for the future. In fact, these are the most memorable images of Chiapas in mind. Organizations and communities are creating new models of development based on different metrics of success. Amartya Sen reminds us that income deficiency is often connected to a deficiency of capabilities. In fact, it is only when people have substantive freedoms that they are on a path toward true development. This is a point I found particularly significant while in Chiapas because it was repeated by all organizations in one way or another. The organizations and communities we met, especially the EZLN community, mentioned rights and dignity as necessary elements for development.

Organizations like the women’s cooperative K’inal Anzetik are working toward the empowerment of women by creating new job and educational opportunities for them. Melel Xojoban is another organization planting the seeds of progress and empowerment for the future. Melel Xojoban is a human rights organization that focuses on indigenous children’s rights and participation. Both organizations are providing the tools and support for the indigenous people of Chiapas to define their own futures. Knowledge is something that no government, multinational corporation, or paramilitary can take from a person.

For more information:

Melel Xojobal

K'inal Antzetik

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York, 2000. 14

The Struggle: A Personal Reflection of the Chiapas Experience

I have learned one key concept from Amartya Sen when he recently spoke at the Ritz in Chicago, he said, “we need someone to force us to think about issues.” What a simple concept to consider, yet so true and straight to the point. How often do we get consumed within our own lives and forget about others?

When I think of Sen’s comment, it takes me back to Chiapas. I think of sustainable development and our own purpose within the concept. What did we gain from this trip? The influence of our own society is taking its toll on the traditional culture, or even just changing it to cater to the new “revised” culture. The overwhelming influence of Coca-Cola in Chamula (as well as the State in general) represents more than just “pop” culture (no pun intended); it represents an international phenomenon so deeply woven into the indigenous culture that it has become a way of life most of us can not compare to. The use of Cola-Cola (and the bottles themselves) for everyday drinking, for weddings, for religious ceremonies, for medicinal purposes, and to venerate the dead, has led to a society that has become dependent on it but now is it finally seeing the adverse health affects of not drinking water (

Did it take a few thousand empty bottles carefully placed on graves for me to “think about the issues?” It creates a sadness inside my heart. How can this feeling be changed?

My experience in Chiapas is one that I struggle with. While learning a lot about sustainable development in many different ways, I had positive experiences throughout the trip, but I struggled, and continue to struggle internally with my perspective on what is going on there. I don’t know how to make it right, and maybe I never will. Maybe another trip is necessary to help solve the confusion I feel after spending time in communities that make little progress in their struggle, visiting cooperatives where women learn to carry on traditions of the past while integrating the future into their weave of life, listening to the stories of a tamale seller at 630Am in the town square, and seeing children, who walk from hours away, go to school to learn without a single book to look at.

As outsiders, how can we help be a part of the change? Can we help them sustain their indigenous culture and integrated lifestyles by supporting those students that are not supported by their own government? A government that supports internationalism to the extreme, yet within these communities is unwilling to help their own future (children) be educated. Instead they knowingly (or not) contribute to the failure of their own future generations.

Can we support a library in these communities that will encourage them to be educated in the basic knowledge that will help them to lead superior lives, supporting their fight for the right to have a voice. Voices that understand the history of their own past, present, and future so that they will either have a voice in their future, or will be left behind to suffer as they continue to be denied their human right to a better life. Can we make a difference without being one of those “international” groups just wanting to help the poor voiceless people?

Now that we are back, we need to rethink what we’ve learned, and decide what we really want to get out of the trip. I want to say that we did something that makes a difference in the life of at least one person in Chiapas. Amartya Sen says it best, “ We, women and men must take responsibility for doing things or not doing them. It makes a difference, and we have to take note of that difference. This elementary acknowledgement, through simple enough in principle, can be exacting in its implications, both for social analysis and for practical reason and action” (Sen 1999, 190).

Who or what does it take for you to think and become active about the issues we are learning about? A teacher, volunteering, seeing homeless people sleep on the sidewalk, or a trip a few thousand miles away to see a disadvantaged community? For me, it was empty Coca-cola bottles on a grave. It was seeing “the future” wrapped in a shawl on a woman’s back, it was seeing hundreds of children lined up, sweating in the sun as some gringos exchange curious glances with them. Which would you rather do, use our degrees and get to work, or forget about it now and go back to our everyday lives of being “better off.” Choose wisely, because: 1. Children are the future, and 2. Someone might be listening to you as you talk about the issues.

By Elizabeth Hall

Self-Determined Development and Fair Trade in Chiapas

Zinacatan: The Land of Bats

When we arrived in Zinacatan, we were met by several Tzotzil women whose small informal business it is to invite tourists to their homes for lunch. We split up in groups of five, and when we arrived at our host’s home, there were huipiles and skirts and other back-strap loom weavings displayed for sale. We sat by the wood fire in their kitchen and ate tortillas with crumbled cheese and egg, and spicy ground roasted pumpkin seed.

We asked the women about their work as weavers and the wages they received. After a cursory calculation, we concluded that they were making approximately $0.15/hour for their labor. This included the material costs of thread, which we were told have doubled in the past two years making their earnings even less. Having worked in the fair trade business with weavers in Guatemala, and from the quantity and diversity of their work, I would venture to say that some of the weavings were also purchased from other women in the community. If that is the case, it would mean even lower wages for the women they purchase from. We asked about the competition in town our host explained with frustration that one family in the community had more or less cornered the tourist market. When large tour busses arrive, tour guides receive a commission for bringing tourists to this family’s home.

The urgency and competition of textile sales is not unique to Zinacatan. I sometimes wonder in this age of mass-produced textile production, with designs mimicking the work of weavers and textile artisans around the world, how their work can be valued fairly for the art and tradition that they represent. I also question if the concept of fair trade is on the radar of many of these women, especially since fair trade is still a predominately northern concept of U.S., Canadian, and European buyers and the relatively small number of “southern producer groups” partnering with them. Many Maya women weave because they can work from home and it is a skill they have mastered and a way for them to earn additional income to contribute to the family economy but what other options exist for the future?

Jolom Mayaenik: Fair Trade Weaving Cooperative:

When we visited Kinal Azentik we learned about the fair trade women’s weaving cooperative Jolom Mayaenik. Their high quality and unique weavings are produced primarily for export and the prices were clearly more than you would find in the market or in Zinacatan. In fact, in doing another rough calculation we determined that the women were making approximately $1/hour. During our lunch, I sat next to Kinal Azentik’s Program Director, Ricardo Iglesias and asked him more about the weaving cooperative. I was impressed by the focus on collective ownership, self-determined development, relationship building, emphasis on political awareness, workshops focusing on themes of indigenous and women’s rights and perspectives, and business capacity building workshops. Jolom Mayaetik incorporates a holistic vision of personal and collective development founded on an indigenous and gender perspective. This struck me as an organization poised for sustainable success because of their focus on continuously challenging their individual and collective potential, their unique and competitive product mix, their network with well established fair trade buyers, and their self-determined leadership model. It is easy, however, to romanticize about an organization like Jolom and in our readings we are reminded that, “the economic profitability of cooperative work has been minimal. The crafts do not make the women who produce them rich, but they do give them the possibility of a certain sense of economic independence, for example, of being able to contribute something to their household.”[1] Aside from being able to earn their own income the non-financial benefits of being a member of Jolom are many. The emphasis on capacity building and leadership training can only lead to more freedom and opportunities within the fair trade marketplace, or in other business ventures, and is promising in building better futures for themselves and their families. Jolom has a “Training Center for Indigenous Women, a physical, social, political, and cultural space where they can reproduce what they have learned, and train themselves in new areas, as well as make new openings for the younger generations that are experiencing important changes in their communities.”[2]

With all of the positive aspects of Jolom, I personally still question how economically sustainable initiatives are that depends primarily on foreign purchases in order to exist. What alternative locally-based economic development opportunities exist for these women?

However, more than the financial benefit, they are finding new spaces where their voices can be heard. I think that Amartya Sen puts it nicely in his book Development as Freedom: “Development has to be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy. Expanding the freedoms that we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with – and influencing – the world in which we live.”[3]

Castro Apreza, Yolanda. Women of Chiapas. J’pas Joloviletik-Jolom Mayaetik, K’inal Antzetik, An Organizational Experience of Indigenous and Mestiza Women. 216

[2] Castro Apreza, Yolanda. Women of Chiapas. J’pas Joloviletik-Jolom Mayaetik, K’inal Antzetik, An Organizational Experience of Indigenous and Mestiza Women. 214

[3] Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York, 2000. 14

Indigenous Women’s Identity in the Marketplace

Within the first day of my stay in San Cristobal de las Casas I was drawn to the number of indigenous women selling items from common trinkets to unique weavings along the streets or in the square or marketplace. They seemed to be on every street we ventured down. As soon as they would see us, they would gather up their items and come, with open arms to offer their products for sale. At first, this seemed slightly annoying, but throughout the week, their persistence made me take particular notice of them. What surprised me most was how every woman seemed to be selling the exact same items. I wondered to myself why individuals did not diversify or specialize to create a unique market niche within a highly touristic town?
As we continued to study various indigenous groups in the area, especially the role of women, I realized the answer to my question had far less to do with the individual than with the community. Visiting various women’s cooperatives, we could see how important weaving is to shaping identity for indigenous women. It is a skill that strengthens family bonds as mothers teach their daughters and is a skill that revolves around the home. Weaving is a part of daily activities and household chores for women formally involved in cooperatives like Jolom Mayaetik and Kinal Antsetic. As Greenfield, Maynard and Childs also documented in their article about indigenous culture and learning, weaving is connected to identity in that which tribe a woman belongs to also influences what she weaves as different groups have different traditional patterns and colors. What they make is completely wrapped up in who they are. Therefore, it is only natural that they all sell similar products as it is so ingrained within their communal identity.

In addition to the same products in the market and along the streets, I was also struck at how many women were selling items. However, there presence is evidence of their social progress after the 1994 Zapatista uprising. According to Collier and Quaratiello, and as explained on our walking tour, the culture is more tolerant to an increased indigenous presence since the uprising. This is most likely due to the indigenous community taking a stand and the international interest and subsequent tourism that followed. There was also a financial incentive for the rest of Chiapan society to tolerate the growing indigenous presence from the new interest in Chiapas. So while it seems like there is significant competition among indigenous women to sell their products, their increased attendance in the market and along the streets is a sign of development. There is still discrimination, but this shows how their community activism is taking steps toward social justice, which is a significant step for sustainable development.
Even though at first glance indigenous women selling in the market may seem like a poor thought-out economic strategy, it really goes deeper than just a means to making a living. It is a strong reminder that different cultural nuances and practices have layers and reasons to why they exist. A woman’s identity in her products and the political undertones to the number of vendors are only two components to the indigenous market vendors in San Cristobal, and the indigenous women’s role is just one aspect of Chiapan culture that we were able to glimpse during the trip.

Sources and Further Reading

Collier, George A., and Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello. 1999. Chiapas and Mexico. Pp. 15-36 (Chap. 1) in Basta!: Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas. Oakland, CA: Food First Books.

Greenfield, Patricia, Ashley E. Maynard, and Carla P. Childs. 2000. History, Culture, Learning, and Development. Cross-Cultural Research 34 (4): 351-374.

Jolom Mayaetik website

Kinal Antsetic website

By Jamelyn Lederhouse

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bioprospecting & Indigenous Identity in Chiapas

Concepts of identity are difficult to convey to an outsider. Words are often not enough. Sometimes it takes an image to communicate the complexities of the self or the group. It was a painted mural that changed my understanding of the identity of the indigenous Mayan communities of Chiapas. Prior to visiting the region, I had read that many of the communities were dependent upon corn for their survival. It did not occur to me how much meaning a crop could hold for a community until I visited Caracol de Oventic, an autonomous Zapatista community in the cloud-covered mountains of Chiapas. There I saw many murals in which the Zapatistas were represented by their most important crop –corn . In image after image, powerful messages were being communicated about this self-sustaining, resistant community.

This idea was at first startling to me. The idea that a plant could represent a person or people was very foreign to me. But as I thought further about this concept, I realized how rational it was to associate your identity with your primary source of energy. The murals of Caracol de Oventic revealed that for the Zapatistas, corn had many complex meanings. Their art revealed ideas of solidarity, self-reliance, power, and the importance of anonymity.

The more I embraced this concept of identity, the better I understood the emotional backlash to bioprospecting in Chiapas. In 1999, eleven indigenous community organizations, known as Consejo Estatal de Parteras y M dicos Ind genas Tradicionales de Chiapas (Council of Indigenous Traditional Midwives and Healers of Chiapas), came together to oppose a $2.5 million dollar bioprospecting program initiated by the University of Georgia. The scope of the program was to collect and analyze thousands of medicinal plants from Mayan communities over a period of five years. The primary purpose of the bioprospecting was to isolate compounds from medicinal plants that could be developed for private use by pharmaceutical companies. The method for identifying which of the 6,000 plus plants growing in the region had medicinal purpose, and for which ailments, was entirely dependent on the existing body of Mayan knowledge and the communities’ healers willingness to share it.

The University of Georgia attempted to develop a comprehensive botanical survey of the Central Chiapas Highland in an effort to identify which plants had the greatest potential for generating profit for the university’s commercial partner, Molecular Nature, Ltd., based in the United Kingdom. In response to this project, many local organizations began leveraging the claim that their knowledge and resources were being stolen. The Council called into question the ethical standards of the researchers, who had not received prior consent from local communities before they began collecting hundreds of samples from the mountainside. They also attacked the project’s organizers for trying to skirt the issue of obtaining consent from the indigenous Mayan communities by developing a non-profit organization called PROMAYA (Protection of Mayan Intellectual Property Rights) to advance their political agenda. University of Georgia and Molecular Nature, Inc. essentially created their own civil society organization, PROMAYA, for the sole purpose of obtaining bioprospecting rights from this supposedly indigenous, Mayan organization. After two years of a heavy resistance and intense lobbying of the Mexican and US governments to recognize indigenous communities rights to their own knowledge and resources, the Council was successful. The University of Georgia project was terminated in 2001.

Bioprospecting projects often seek to gain prior consent from communities by offering limited benefits-sharing programs for any plant or organization that produces profit. In the case of Chiapas, the benefits-sharing contracts offered were so miniscule that they only averaged 0.3 to 0.5% of the total profit. Moreover, once a pharmaceutical company isolates a chemical compound from a plant specimen they are able to patent the compound under US Patent Laws. Ironically, only private, for-profit entities are able to able to seek patents for compounds. An indigenous tribe or community, according to patent law, has no legal right to its own local resources.

Understanding the indigenous communities’ connection to the plants that sustain them has caused me to become highly critical of bioprospecting. One of the strongest challenges that the Council made against bioprospecting in Chiapas was that organisms cannot and should not be taken from communities, where they are freely shared, for the purpose of limiting access to only those who are willing and able to pay. Seen from their perspective, I am able to recognize how brutal and alien American culture must seem to communities for whom hunger and disease are a very real aspect of daily life.

As I look at the murals from Caracol de Oventic, I cannot help but think that the smiling faces in the corn share a secret that we in the global north are unwilling to acknowledge. We may come from highly developed nations, but we are no less dependent on the earth and one another for our own survival. Our identities are entwined through the world we inhabit and the resources it provides.

References and Further Reading

“Biopiracy, Bioprospecting, and Resistance: Four Cases in Mexico” by Andres Barreda

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan Random House, New York 2001

Etc Group websites:

Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) website

Chiapas and a Struggle for Recognition

Chiapas is a place where one gets the opportunity to further analyze words such as justice, liberty, equality, and dignity. Outsiders like me are also given the chance to explore the different meanings development and underdevelopment. These terms have no meaning if one does not place man at the center of our complex society. In the case of Chiapas, Indigenous Peoples are at the center of a world that has marginalized, oppressed, and exploited their place and relationship with the Earth. How to progress? How to create an environment that respects people of all nations?

Development is a kaleidoscope with many shapes, colors, and dimensions. At the social level, groups that are able to create peaceful relationships internally and externally are said to be progressing. Also, developed are those that have the capability to safeguard their independent position and live harmoniously. Populations are considered to be economically progressive when its members are able to effectively interact with the environment. Development ideas like these have prevailed since the Spanish first set foot in Mexico. For colonizers advancement included an increase in production. If the production of a particular society was not up to par with the dominant standard, there would be a change in the quality or character of its people. In Chiapas Indigenous Peoples were and still are targeted. Religious beliefs and political ideologies included. The presence of capitalism in a place like Chiapas has created tensions amongst its people, increased poverty, and deteriorated its environment.

Production and wealth are measurement tools of underdevelopment. The poor countries of the global South are considered to be “backwards” because of their unfortunate economic positions. However, one may ask who is really underdeveloped? Those that work hard to make a living on a day to day basis and fight for their dignity, or those that exploit, oppress, and massacre? The material wealth of a nation in having things such as social services, schools, hospitals, etc. have nothing to do with the level of “development” of a given community. Take into consideration the political structure of some indigenous groups in Chiapas, for example, Las Abejas. The members of this group have been able to organize themselves in a way that perhaps people in more economically stable countries would not be able to do so, and they have less resources. Furthermore, the Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas are living in a paradox of underdevelopment where, for instance, their own material production is landing in the hands of foreigners and they are not attaining the profits they deserve.

Developed or underdeveloped, Zapatismo in Chiapas emerged. Indigenous Peoples are ready to be heard. Article 39 of the Mexican constitution says that any public power derives from the people and is instituted for their benefit, and that at any time the people have the inalienable right to alter or to modify their form of government. The Mexican government failed its people and even signed the NAFTA, which only benefits about ten percent of the Mexican population and forgets about the “others.” Therefore, the EZLN with the use their words and not necessarily weapons want to put a halt to the genocide that has killed Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, and Chontal people in places like Acteal. Members of the EZLN want to work their land, feed their people, and put an end to curable diseases in their villages. The EZLN teaches us that one of the most important steps towards a more sustainable future is the recognition of those that are not necessarily like us. From the EZLN we also learn that we must have the ability to decolonize our minds, move away from our set political and social conditions, and have the ability to understand the system that oppresses us and eventually work for its removal from power. It will be perhaps then that we will be able to achieve justice, liberty, equality, and dignity.


(subcomandante.), Marcos, Simon J. Ortiz, Elena Poniatowska, and David Romo.

Questions & swords. Cinco Puntos Press, 2001.

Farmer, Paul. Pathologies of power. University of California Press, 2004.

Rodney, Walter. How Europe underdeveloped Africa. Howard University Press, 1982.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing methodologies. Zed Books, 1999.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On Syncreticism, Inculturation and Cultural Sustainability: A Reflection from a visit to Chiapas, Mexico

“How far does the Catholic Church in Chiapas allows inculturation of Mayan indigenous?” I asked this question to Fr. Pedro Arriaga, a Jesuit priest who spent years with Tzotzil Mayan indigenous communities. However, his answers did not suffice my critical mind and my curiosity. Thus, I write this reflection to dig deeper to the issue. This article deals on questions on syncreticism, inculturation and cultural sustainability and to try objectively in finding some answers (or more questions?) to these issues.

Observation: Seeing with eyes of an outsider
It is undeniable that every foreigner visiting certain indigenous communities brings his/her own cultural and personal background in his/her observations. I am not excuse to it. Although I lived and worked for a number of years with indigenous communities in Taiwan, trying to understand and help inculturate some of their indigenous culture to present Christian beliefs, I still look at myself as an outsider to a community I learned to embrace and understand. Doing inculturation is a complex process for it calls for a “creative and dynamic relationship between Christian message and indigenous culture”. Inculturation puts emphasis on creativity and dynamism of relationship. The question is: How far? The things I saw in the church of Chamula made me asked that question.

The Case of Chamula: Syncretism or Inculturation?
The church in Chamula is run and manage independently by the indigenous community. According to a story, on the height of liberation theology in Chiapas, the indigenous community of Chamula expelled the parish priest who wanted to implement some revolutionary changes in the parish. Since then, the Catholic Church was prohibited from doing sacramental services, which only recently have gained access to do a monthly Sacrament of the Eucharist inside the church.

Indigenous people who seek physical or spiritual healing for themselves or for others frequently visit the church. Mayan priests are there ready to do rituals using herbs, chickens, candles, wooden sticks, soft drinks (Coca-cola or Pepsi) and chants. Smoke from burning candles fill the church; while cacophonies from mayan priests’ prayers surround the church’s solemn atmosphere. Catholic symbols are everywhere – crosses, images of saints, rosary beads and the likes. The church building is an everyday witness of how indigenous beliefs are intertwined with the beliefs brought by Catholicism.

The rituals in the church of Chamula are the epitome of syncretic practices and beliefs of Mayans and Catholicism but not inculturated forms. It is just a case of indigenous people combining traditional practices and beliefs with Catholicism. Theirs has not yet reached the stage of cleansing beliefs and practices that are incompatible for both indigenous Mayans and Catholicism. When that stage occurs, then inculturation begins to happen.

Inculturation: Syncretism of goodness and beauty of both cultures
Inculturation must pass certain criteria to be authentic. There are a number of schemas use in evaluating the authenticity of inculturation, but most of them consist of basic elements namely, the Christian message, the cultural situations, and the pastoral agents.

Is the element being inculturated faithful to the Christian message? Does it shows universal goodness? Are the people themselves with the help of church leaders and scholars doing the process of inculturation? If these three elements are present, then authentic inculturation may happen. This process of authenticating inculturation may sound easy in this article, but it is a complicated matter that needs thorough understanding.

For us who are not so familiar with inculturation, let us just simply say that inculturation is done collaboratively by the indigenous community and church leaders in syncretizing the goodness and beauty of both indigenous culture and Catholicism.

Inculturation: A way for cultural sustainability
In the light of sustainable development, does inculturation helps in cultural sustainability? Inculturation is not changing of culture over another; it is rather preserving and developing the good elements of culture and adds Christian meaning to them. Some elements of both indigenous and Catholicism may lose in the process, but these elements may not be essential to both parties. An authentic inculturated element of indigenous culture shows values and goodness of its culture with deeper and relevant meaning because of integration of Christian meaning.

Inculturation is not an imposition of Christian practices and beliefs to certain culture, rather giving Christian message to already established values. The people themselves with the help of church leaders will discern which elements are to be inculturated. This kind of process is in consonance with the process on cultural sustainability that calls for decision from below.

For more readings on Inculturation and Syncretism kindly click:

Schineller, Peter, S.J. Inculturation and the Issue of Syncretism: What is the Real Issue? [accessed April 1, 2010]
Shorter, Aylward. Inculturation of African Traditional Religious Values in Christianity – How Far? [accessed March 31, 2010]