Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Chiapanecan Women Struggle for Equality and Dignity

While in Chiapas I became deeply aware of the notions of respect and dignity. The indigenous concept of "making one's soul arrive," meaning to learn the value of hard work, of being humble and respectful, while complementing one's spouse, and serving the community, resonated with me. (Eber, 10, 12). Ideally, this focus on respect would also lead to harmonious relationships that emphasize equality between the sexes. However, complex socio-political, legal, and economic dynamics have created a reality that is far from ideal.

In this reality, women in Chiapas suffer high rates of maternal death, and experience domestic violence at extremely high levels. The ongoing political violence adds to their suffering, as highlighted by the massacre in Acteal, Chenalho, on December 22, 1997, by members of the "Red Mask" paramilitary force. Of the 45 slain people, 18 were women, 5 of whom were pregnant, and 15 were children.

Indigenous women in Chiapas are incorporating gender into their analyses of oppression, and demanding that not only the state, but also their communities give them the right to preserve their identity, and their distinct cultural heritage, while simultaneously changing those aspects of the culture or traditions that oppresses or excludes them. (Eber, 16). This courageous stand for respect and self-determination has propelled women's leadership in Chiapas, and has the ability to transform communities, as evidenced in particular by women's participation and leadership within the Zapatista movement.

While visiting women-led cooperatives, meeting with experts, and by observing the positions women in communities that we visited, I was struck by what Paul Farmer refers to as "hopeful resistance in the face of struggles of biblical proportions." The women in Chiapas realize that they must work in a unified manner with the men in their communities against the economic and political forces that continue to subjugate, and pillage from them. Yet, before they get to this point, they must first demand respect and equality within their homes, and communities. Without this level of self-determination, they cannot fully participate in shaping the collective destinies of their communities.

It was exciting to observe this process, and all that has been achieved thus far, despite the historical context of multiple oppressions. Indigenous communities in Mexico and elsewhere, have a rich history of resistance, fuelled by their convictions, strong traditions, and culture, and as Christine Eber points out, because of the emphasis placed on "complementarity," in Chiapaneco cultures, women and men traditionally have fairly equal status.

Gender equality is a key component of sustainable development because the concepts of freedom, justice, and equitable power sharing are important not only for social development but for political and economic development as well. Collectivist, people-centered societies like the ones in Chiapas, with existing democratic ideas of power sharing, respect and dignity, have the ability to transform themselves.


Amartya Sen, "Development as Freedom." Random House, 1999

Christine Eber, Indigenous Women's Power and Autonomy in San Pedro, Chenalho, Chiapas (1980-1998), Sage Publications, 1999


Posted by Neha Gill

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


While visiting the Zapatista Caracol of Roberto Barrios in March 2004, DePaul University students learned something very important. As we were waiting for the security guards and the Junta de Buen Gobierno to receive us, we noticed how our letters of presentations were all well organized in a folder. While a few students were intimidated by their ski masks and initial diffidence, they were also very surprised of the friendly and honorific reception we receive at the end of our meeting. As masked man and women representatives of the Junta were expressing the growing poverty levels in their communities and the reasons of their Zapatista resistance, they asked us “not to leave them alone.” From their simple and clear words, students realized of their own international social responsibility in sharing what they have heard and observed in Chiapas. They realized that their best way to “help” the poor of Chiapas was to commit to a socially responsible personal and professional life as global citizens back in Chicago. They discovered something similar to what five century before Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, the notorious defender of the “indios” and the first Bishop of Chiapas, realized: that to defend the rights of indigenous people in the New World, his main work was back in his motherland Spain (Casas & Varela, 1999). Fray Bartolomé stayed in Chiapas only about six months; our students only about ten days, but we all realize how political and economic decisions in the United States affect the life of indigenous people in Chiapas.

International service learning for adult and professional students must go beyond “doing something for the poor” and realize the social responsibility for investing knowledge for the common good. Realizing international social injustices, one of the learning goals of the SPS Chiapas Program, should orient participants to become conscious that reducing poverty can be achieved only through a comprehensive strategy for achieving financial sustainability, increasing organizational capacity and social development and promoting-monitoring good governance (Lustig and Deutsch, 1998). The Vincentian values of our higher education institutions invites us to focus on a fourth dimension in poverty reduction: the faith-based view that we a moral responsibility to end poverty, promote justice and respect human dignity. The example of Saint Vincent de Paul, who, in-spite his dedicated support to foreign missions, invested almost all his life in Paris and France, reminds us of the importance of “thinking globally and act locally.” And even more, the rapid and intense interconnections of our flattening word suggest that international and professional service learning programs should invite participants think and act glocally. Chicago is the hub for numerous NGOs working in solidarity with Chiapas. The successfulness of a program is measured also by alumni engagement in organizations and issues related to the socio-economic, political and identity struggle represented by Chiapas indigenous organizations in resistance. The SPS Chiapas Program alumni have created organizations such as ChiapanECHO and solidarity initiatives like the Another World is Possible Conference that express their learning on the importance of building relations of reciprocity and raising consciousness of global interdependency.

Often professionals join the School of Public Service with the primary objective of obtaining a Master degree and advancing their career. They often do not think that a program would actually make them change entirely their perspectives on the meaning of learning (Cross, 1981). The Chiapas experience makes them rethink the opportunities and responsibilities that come with their education, expertise and leadership as professionals. They rediscover the importance of applying theory and analyzing reality of socially complex context and organizations for the goal of making this world a better place (Usher, Bryant & Johnston, 1997). The personal and professional leadership examples like Marina Patricia Jimenez and several other indigenous, Mexican and international leaders, makes them realize that a life entirely dedicated to the cause of the poor is not only an alternative lifestyle, it can also become their professional career as well.


The Chiapas exposure challenges students to not make assumptions about the current system while at the same time inviting them to think anew. Rather than only exposing students to alternative ideologies such as those expressed by the utopian realities of Zapatista autonomous community and NGOs clearly motivated by their Zapatista agenda, the preparation readings, program orientations, visit of organizations and activities during the immersion week in Chiapas are carefully designed to demonstrate the complexity of problems but also the variety of possible solutions. Since March 2004, the first year of the SPS Chiapas Program, alumni and coordinators have recognized eight elements that make this program a “best practice” in professional and adult service learning.

1. Chiapas Coordinators: A local coordinator, in dialogue with the instructor, does the coordination and adaptation of the program itinerary, selected organizations and other adjustments. Through this, the “service” emphasis of the program and its relevance for the current context of the Chiapas process is guaranteed. The coordinator, Marina Patricia, does more than “coordinating”. She is actually an invaluable presence for her expertise and personal commitment to the work with indigenous people. Her leadership and knowledge blend with the role of the director and instructor of the program, Marco Tavanti, who has been conducting collaborative research projects and leading delegations to Chiapas since 1997.
2. Global Learning: Chiapas is a unique place for the study of globalization from above (free trade agreements and development programs such as NAFTA, FTAA, CAFTA, PPP) and globalization from below (Zapatista movement, Mexican and international NGOs, indigenous civil society). In addition, as the southernmost state of Mexico bordering Guatemala, Chiapas also provides an excellent context for understanding border issues, cultural diversity and indigenous rights. As the poorest state in Mexico, Chiapas appeals to DePaul University to continue developing a transformative educational presence in this state. Every year, about four students decide to go back to Chiapas to work as volunteers and interns in local NGOs. Other initiatives organized by the students include inviting a delegation of indigenous women and leaders in the United States for speaking tours and presentations in academic conferences.

3. International Service Learning: Due to the professional engagement of the instructor and coordinator, the SPS Chiapas program is all but “cross-cultural tourism.” Students get to know organization and encounter situations that they would not be able without the trust and connections of the instructor and coordinator. They acknowledge the privilege of participating in such a unique experience and they reflect and act on their social and professional responsibility to make a difference and to return some of what they received. Instead of “doing something for them,” students are required to invest their energies in what is more useful to the process of Chiapas: listening, observing, learning and then action once they go back into the United States.

4. Facing Poverty and Suffering: Although every participant comes to the program with their own unique background and sensitivity to people in poverty, the Chiapas program challenge students to actually see, meet and, even for a short time, experience poverty first-hand. In the 2006 program students spend a night in precarious conditions of two internal displacement camps in the Highlands region. In addition, hearing the testimony of survivors of the December 22, 1997 Acteal massacre deeply impacts our students. The emotional intensity of these testimonies did not preclude students from recognizing the courage of indigenous people belonging to the Civil Society Las Abejas.

5. Beyond Borders: Latino and Chicano students in particular, recognize how the struggle for the recognition and rights of indigenous communities in Chiapas is not so different from the struggle of Latino immigrants in the United States. The program helps participants go beyond Cancun and stereotypes of Mexicans; rather, it helps them recognize the ethnic diversity and indigenous dignity of Mexicans and Central America. In addition, immigration is viewed not only as a pull factor to the American dream, but as a push factor for economic instability, lack of opportunities, violence and discrimination, particularly visible in the Southern border of Mexico.

6. Ngo Visits And Panels: The program offers students the opportunity to visit several NGOs in their work places. It also promotes dialogue among NGOs, who were, until recently, more focused and isolated in their own projects. It also fosters professional dialogue between Chiapas NGO leaders and our NGO/Nonprofit professional students. Through these panels, the SPS Chiapas Program encourages Chiapas-based NGO representatives to listen to each other experiences, sharing best practices and foster more inter-organizational collaborations. What distinguishes this program from other Chiapas delegations is that Chiapas NGO professionals get to engage in a dialogue with our students, professional managers in nonprofit organizations in the United States and other countries.

7. Organizational Missions: The Program benefits from the support of the Vincentian mission of DePaul University. Because of its Vincentian and Catholic dimensions, the University is support the program in its academic quality and self-sustainability. It encourages the relation with the San Cristobal de Las Casas Diocese and with other religious based organizations working in line with the evangelical and Vincentian option of the poor. In addition to the historically affirmed presence of Jesuits and Dominicans in Chiapas, the connection with the Vincentian family is represented by the work of the Daughters of Charity with their San Carlos Hospital in Ocosingo, in the Lacandon Forest of Chiapas. Their service to the indigenous poor, also members or sympathizers of the EZLN made them a target in the counterinsurgency operations following the 1994 uprising.

8. Institutional Relations: The program has established good collaborations with academic institutions. This generated the organization of an annual conference that includes the participation of university scholars and administrators that would be otherwise insolated and in competition. During the 2007 conference on development at the Universidad de la Tierra, about 200 participants received a certificate from DePaul University. The partnerships and collaborative relations are purposely maintained with very diverse institutions that reflects diverse political perspectives. The ultimate objective in promoting institutional relations is to highlight the values of participating institutions while promoting programs and initiatives empowering local, indigenous and impoverished communities of Chiapas.

9. Holistic Education: Contrary to other programs in Chiapas, our academic program offers students the opportunity to taste the complexity of Chiapas. Rather than looking at one side, the program attempts to offer an education to the complex interception between sectors, political positions and organizational constituencies across conflicting sides. This best practice could not be possible without the active collaboration of students in their preparatory readings.
10. Unique Experience: Even though the experience of previous participants is incorporated into the program, each year the trips to Chiapas have unique features and experiences. In addition to the improvements made in logistics and the learning experiences, each program is purposely designed to have something different that can make alumni of the program foster collaborative group dynamics based on the sharing of unique experiences as opposed to seniority. Yearly experiences, organizations, and itinerary require more work from the part of the coordinators, but it has the advantage of keeping up with the constantly changing organizational landscapes of Chiapas.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Why is Fair Trade Important?

By Rose M. Boras

I recently discovered that most soccer balls are made in India or Pakistan with child labor. Even when adults are involved in production, they are rarely paid a decent living wage. Fair Trade Sports was created in Seattle, Washington to reconcile this complex issue. The non-profit ensures that all of their sports balls are made by adults paid under Fair Trade certified wages and healthy working conditions.

Now you are probably wondering what sports balls have to do with Chiapas. And I would say everything. Most consumers are unaware of where and how the goods they purchase are created - from soccer balls to coffee. Everyday millions of Americans get their morning caffeine fix at home from Folger’s or on their way to work at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. While Fair Trade awareness among coffee consumers doubled from 12% in 2004 to 27% in 2007, these numbers are still too small(Taylor). Also, they only refer to awareness, not a conscious decision to purchase Fair Trade coffee all the time.

So then, why is Fair Trade important? Isn’t capitalism working? In his opus,Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (2004) refers to the invisible hand that naturally guides a society through self-interest. In other words, if I have something to sell and you have the means to buy it, we should reach an equitable agreement. Therefore, if green coffee is being sold on the stock exchange at a dollar a pound,coffee farmers are able to pay for their production costs and earn a small income. How is it then that millions of farmers worldwide receive less than fifty cents a pound for their coffee beans after the middlemen take their cut? This seems to be in no one’s self interest.

According to Amartya Sen (1999), the reason this poverty continues to exist is because “there are unequal advantages in converting income into capabilities.” In other words, prevailing market prices for the goods produced in developing countries are too low for farmers to reap a living wage reflecting their dignity. Hence, the reason, organizations such as Fair Trade Labeling (FLO), Transfair and coffee co-coperatives such as Maya Vinic and Union Majomut are so vital to the economic lifeblood of coffee farmers. These organizations take on the responsibility of buying coffee at super competitive prices in order to alleviate poverty.

My trip to Chiapas was full of excitement because of my own coffee background. I was thrilled at the prospect of visiting coffee co-operatives and learning how they were practicing sustainability and surviving the global market. We first visited Maya Vinic where we learned about the coffee production process,basically turning green beans into the coffee beans we love to drink. At UnionMajomut, we were given an insiders’ perspective into running a co-operative. Union Majomut believes their most important struggle is for land and coffee production. They feel it is their duty to empower the indigenous coffee farmers by helping them grow quality beans and providing micro credit. They also keep profits out of the hands of middlemen or coyotes.

Interestingly enough, both Maya Vinic and Union Majomut complained about the cost of maintaining a Fair Trade label. FLO comes out yearly for 2 or 3 days to certify the co-operatives. The cost to both is $35,000 Mexican dollars or 2,300 Euro annually. However Fair Trade is still the best answer to balancing the volatile global coffee market. It is also less confusing to consumers. Many coffee retailers, large (Starbucks) and small (Intelligentsia) have converted to direct trade. Thereby, eliminating Fair Trade as the middleman and claiming they would rather the $3,000 branding fee go toward the coffee farmers. However, stressed out consumers do not have the time or inclination to review every single coffee retailer to see whether they are paying a fair wage to farmers. Since, most corporate contracts are proprietary, consumers have to take the word of coffee retailers. Fair Trade, by its very nature is not only fair, but transparent. And that is why Fair Trade is important to consumers and coffee farmers.


Fair Trade Sports. http://fairtradesports.com/

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books.

Smith, Adam. 2004. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

Taylor, David A. 2007. “Certified Coffee: Does the Premium Pay Off?” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 115, No.9: 456-459.

Transfair USA. http://transfairusa.org

Union Majomut. http://www.majomut.org/