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Visiting another Unitierra – in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Visiting another Unitierra – in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Posted by on Jan 16, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 2 comments

San Cristobal, CIDECI, generator, photo by Udi

Unitierra, as an autonomous learning movement and as an experiment of higher education, has helped to spark other Unitierras in the Americas – in Puebla (a city in Mexico), in San Cristobal de la Casas in Chiapas and most recently, in California, in the United States.  We decided to take the opportunity of arranging a short visit to CIDECI-Unitierra (Centro Indigena de Capacitacion Integral – roughly translated as ‘An Indigenous Centre for Integral Learning’) in San Cristobal de la Casas and learn more about what they were doing as connected and separate from the Unitierra in Oaxaca within which, we had just spent 12 inspiring days (see the previous 8 posts that are related to Unitierra-Oaxaca).

Buses from Oaxaca to Chiapas go only at night.  The journey lasts for an intense 11 hours of very windy roads.  Udi and I were both unable to do any reading or even much concentrating after only 30 minutes into the journey as all roads out of the valley of Oaxaca City become so immediately tortuous.

We had contacted Raymundo Sanchez Barraza, the primary organiser of CIDECI-Unitierra, in San Cristobal, Chiapas, with the help of Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca.  Raymundo had invited us to visit with him the morning we arrived.

Map of Chiapas and Guatemala, discovered in San Cristobal outside of a shop, photo by Kelly

The locale of San Cristobal de la Casas is in the centre of the state of Chiapas (a few hours west of Guatemala), nestled between green hills and mountains.  Its small size (less than half the population of Oaxaca) was a refreshing greeting, especially after the re-circulated air on the crowded bus and the nausea that had permeated most of the waking hours in response to the continuous bends in the road.  The air was chilly, a layer of fog covering many of the surrounding mountains.  We went immediately to a hostel I had booked online to drop our luggage and go to explore the city for a couple of hours before making our way to CIDECI-Unitierra.

The city of San Cristobal de la Casas is beautiful, colourful colonial-style buildings and centred around the main plaza, or Zocalo.  This was the Zocalo that the Zapatistas occupied on January 1st, 1994, when they let their presence be known to the world.  At 7.30am many people, particularly indigenous Tzotzil women wearing traditional goat-hair skirts, were carrying handmade items such as blankets, scarves and shirts and settling themselves in different corners of the square to sell their crafts.  We located a restaurant that was open and serving breakfast which overlooked the zocalo.

Buildings of San Cristobal, Chiapas, from a shop. The bottom postcard is of Comandante Ramona, a revered female Zapatista leader who died from kidney disease 6 years ago. Photo taken by Udi

Tzotzil women in the San Cristobal Zócalo, photo by Udi

After an hour or so we hailed a taxi and gave the address that we had been given to us by Raymundo.  The taxi wove its way through the city, past more outdoor markets, churches and streets lined with houses and shops about to open.  We left the boundaries of the city and turned into a newer section within which the road became increasingly bumpy and only somewhat paved.  At the edge of the housing, there was a steep hill on our right that was fenced in with rows of food being cultivated – maize, beans and squash (as part of a milpa) were immediately recognisable alongside other fruit trees and leaves of lettuce.  Another couple of minutes and we came to an opening gate that painted bright colours of red, yellow and green.  Udi spoke with a young boy who seemed to be helping through the gate and we were ushered through.  A colourful mural painted on the side of a building greeted us with a message – Resistancia y Autonomia CIDECI Unitierra (Resistance and Autonomy CIDECI Unitierra) – see photo at the top of the page.

In front of us were many buildings, all painted in bright colours and many with murals decorating their sides.  I was immediately quite curious and wanted to explore on my own, but decided it was more appropriate to wait until we met with Raymundo.

Mural at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

After asking several people where we could find Raymundo, we walked on a small trail past several buildings, a small pond with ducks wandering about and into a forested area of evergreen trees.  A house on the left had a round table outside with stools that looked like tree stumps.  The entire scene was decorated with brightly coloured paintings of flowers, shells, snails… on the walls, the table, stools, fencing… We timidly entered the house calling for Raymundo who emerged a few minutes later and asked us to wait outside.

Painted table and chairs, CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Whilst waiting, I tried to take in the scene around me.  The colours and designs, the gently swaying evergreen trees in the light breeze, were a feast for the senses and I had to hold myself back from immediately capturing it all on film.

Painted tables and chairs at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Raymundo called us in and we entered into another space filled with beauty – plants, objects, blankets, tables, books…  Udi and Raymundo talked in Spanish and I sat patiently trying to comprehend as much as I could.  There was little space for translation and I hoped that Udi could remember much of what was spoken about…

(Udi explained later…) Raymundo spoke about the trajectory of CIDECI, the influence of the local Bishop from Chiapas Samuel Ruiz and of liberation theology in the beginnings of a cultural and educational initiative with local communities back in the 1980s. He also narrated other influences in the development of CIDECI in its present form, Unitierra and Gustavo Esteva, ecologist and activist Vandana Shiva amongst many others (Ivan Illich, Immanuel Wallerstein, etc.). Later in our visit, as we were guided through the campus by a former student who now works there, we saw various rooms named after a number of these influences which have shaped the thinking and approach of CIDECI (see photos).

San Cristobal, CIDECI, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, dining room, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, Illich sign, photo by Kelly

In its current form CIDECI occupies an area of approximately 20 hectares of land sloping up from a developing neighborhood at the edge of the city of San Cristobal.

View from a high point of CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

With our guide we walked through a number of large and amazingly resourced rooms: mechanics, sewing, architecture or shoemaking workshops, printing or weaving workshops, a music building with rooms divided according to types of instruments, a beautiful library and seminar rooms build out of adobe and decorated with paintings and plants and murals, everywhere murals. We also saw a large seminar room that could accommodate several hundred people and a chapel were students attend a daily service.

Adobe wall outside seminar room and painted chairs, CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, sewing room, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, weaving room, photo by Kelly

We also visited the bakery, the farm where chickens and rabbits where raised kept and the milpa which made the whole learning community almost self-sufficient.  We noticed in particular a version of a bicycle used to grind corn as it is pedaled.

Rabbits at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Bicycle corn grinder, CIDECI-Unitiera, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

The students come from indigenous communities throughout Chiapas, many of these communities caracoles controlled by the Zapatistas and many with first languages other than Spanish. They come here to stay for a few months or several years before going back to their villages and taking the responsibility to teach or practice the learning they experience here and the skills they acquire. Many ex-students have taken the role of teachers on the various courses they offer which range from the various technical skills mentioned above (mechanics, weaving, shoe-making, electronics, carpentry, hairdressing) to courses around health and nutrition, to those around cultivating food (within a milpa) or raising animals. Alongside these subjects there are also regular weekly and monthly seminars which also bring together others from outside CIDECI.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, courtyard, photo by Kelly

We were invited by Raymundo to join one of these seminars on Saturday discussing the work of John Holloway, an Irish academic who left the academic scene in the UK and moved to Mexico where his work How to Change the World Without Taking Power has become influential amongst activists, here and elsewhere.

The seminar was attended by a diverse group of about 25 or so local academics, students, activists and NGO workers. The seminar meets regularly and many here already knew each other and were familiar with each others’ perspectives. The book for discussion was Holloway’s Agrietar el Capitalismo, el hacer contra el trabajo (Crack Capitalism, Reflections on a Revolution).  During the seminar, we sat in the Immanuel Wallerstein room around a large decorately carved (and painted) wooden table.  After a couple of hours, there was a break and everyone went outside to share coffee and baked goods (from the bakery on site) along with at least 30 or so students, many of which were indigenous women.  There were children also playing which made the atmosphere that much more relaxed and warm.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, library, photo by Kelly

Some days later when we visited Oventic, the Zapatista village some hours drive from San Cristobal, we were told by a friendly shop-owner that most of the young people from the area went to CIDECI-Unitierra after they graduated from the local Zapatista-run secondary school. Here, as in CIDECI, those who teach there are not paid professional teachers but are people from the communities who want to share their learning with others and, in the case of CIDECI, receive a small sum for travel and keep.

We wished that we had had more time to spend at CIDECI, getting to know the people learning, living and/or working there. We found the place a beautiful and creative space to in which to learn and live in a community that is, like Unitierra in Oaxaca, engaging deeply with issues of self-sufficiency, autonomy, ecology and sustainability.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, bishop mural, photo by Kelly

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The Autonomy of Poo…

The Autonomy of Poo…

Posted by on Jan 10, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

Cezar Añorve leads a ‘cacaravan’ workshop on dry toilets at Unitierra, still from footage by Udi

Conversations about autonomy centered on some surprising topics during our stay at Unitierra.  Talks about (and practices of) the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the production of food, we were, in many ways, expecting.  What we were not expecting was that there would be so much talk about shit.  And… there was a lot of talk about shit while we were at Unitierra, as related to autonomy.  As Gustavo explained during the interview we did with him, ‘we care about shit… as much as we care about food.’  For, you cannot talk about the autonomy of food without understanding the importance of the autonomy of poo (waste).  And with this mind, you can also not talk about the autonomy of food and poo without also talking about the autonomy of water.  They are all clearly related.  In fact, learning about autonomy forces me to learn more about how these connect together, rather than learning more about each ‘sector’ separately.

Waste from humans and other animals, as we all know, is described in all sorts of ways – humorous and informal, technical and scientific… Although I heard ‘shit’ as most often related to humans (whilst at Unitierra), I’ll instead use ‘poo’ for most of this post … I remember in Bangladesh when we were looking into the 100% Sanitation Act national policy, that engaging in the act of releasing waste (poo-ing) was always referred to as ‘when the nature calls’.  Regardless of word use, the topic is immensely important – it causes huge numbers of unnecessary illnesses and premature deaths (especially through contamination of waterways) to humans, animals and plants in every country in the world.  And, the quest for the top multi-national corporations (Suez, Veolia Environnment (both from France) Thames Water (out of the UK) to control and privatize all water commons for their own self-profit making interests is becoming increasingly problematic and volatile in many regions in the world.  We recently learned more about water privatization in the wonderful documentary, Fl0w: For the Love of Water (can be viewed in full here).

The topic of poo came up in all sorts of ways during our stay in Oaxaca – as a resource, as a contaminant, as potential sustenance (into composted fertilizer). There was talk about poo during the workshop within which we helped to construct a mud and (burro) poo stove with Unitierra in a community (primarily of indigenous migrants from across Mexico) outside of Oaxaca city. Stove-building workshops have been occurring through Unitierra very often over the past several years – in over 25 different communities in and around Oaxaca at the request of community members themselves. The women from Unitierra who were helping to run the workshop, were initially learners themselves, having asked previously to have a mud stove in their own family homes. Having a stove such as this helps to increase the self-sufficiency of families to rely less on gas for stoves inside of their own kitchens. The stoves are heated through wood or dried… shit – from burros, cows and/or horses. Unitierra does not pay for any of the materials. The families are expected to pay for the bricks, a pipe and supply enough mud/poo. They also need to fix a space big enough to build the stove.

When we arrived with Adriana and from Unitierra at a family’s house in a suburb of Oaxaca to learn about, and help build a mud stove, I found myself staring at a large pile of soft dirt. Yet, this was only 25% dirt. The other 75% was burro poo.

Preparation material – mud and burro poo – for building a stove, photo by Udi

I was a bit (unsurprisingly) resistant to put my hands into the mound of mostly-burro-poo. I guess I wasn’t entirely prepared to get my hands that dirty…

Bricks as the foundation for the stove, photo by Udi

The mixture however, smelled of fresh Earth and I soon found myself completely lost in using my hands to mold a thick layer of Earth/poo around bricks that would be used to fry tortillas, boil frijoles and heat up tamales.

Moulding the stove, photo by Udi

The layout of the stove is rather brilliant and locks in heat extremely well.  It took us a couple of hours of talking, laughing and molding to finish the stove.

Finished stove, outside of Oaxaca city, photo by Udi

Finished mud/poo stove, photo by Udi

Aside from the burro poo and mud stove, there was talk about poo when we learned how to construct a dry compostable toilet during a workshop from Cesar Añorve , a brilliant architect from Cuernavaca who has been working for the last 40 years to teach about and implement such vestibules in people’s homes, offices and public spaces.  Cesar started an organization, El Centro de Innovación en Tecnología Alternativa (The Center for Innovation in Alternative Technologies) through which he promotes knowledge and technical skills on dry toilets, amongst other innovations.  During the compostable toilet workshop at Unitierra, I was urged to critically consider how the State controls even my own digestive system because of our reliance on the State for the disposal of our own… poo.  To be autonomous from the State, I needed to consider how to disconnect my stomach from it.

There was talk about poo when we were urged to consider how we pollute our own water commons – by mindlessly flushing our poo into it – day after day after day after day… Should water be the receptacle of our own waste? Is not water sacred to all life on Earth? Why is it that we so carelessly pollute it? Over half of our water use is for the taking away of our own waste. We rely and depend on a sophisticated system of piping and sewage treatment systems, which are often not up to standard or even used at all, varying from country to country and place to place around the world. The logic of the ‘flow’ of public water systems makes little sense when we think about the entire system of it. ‘When the nature calls’, we poo into freshwater, a finite resource, flush it away into our waterways – the flush polluting these waterways directly or separating it into massive sewage treatment plants (which uses huge amount of energy, more water and chemicals which further poison the waterways). Cesar reckons that the water we flush down the toilet over the course of one year is what we drink in 40 years.

Cacaravan workshop with Cesar Añorve, Unitierra, Oaxaca, photo by Kelly

I must say that I had not thought much about what happens to my poo or anyone else’s poo for that matter, for …. well…. about three years. And that was when I first encountered (quite unexpectedly) the wisdom of the disposal of our poo in dry compostable toilets explained in a brilliant undergraduate dissertation by Jessica Smith at Wesleyan University in the USA.

At that time, I was finishing a comprehensive literature review (as a Working Paper publication) for a 2-year research project, Whose Public Action? at the University of Birmingham which had looked into the dynamics of relationships between civil society organizations (also called non-profit, non-governmental, etc.) and the State (national and district level) to provide ‘basic services’ such as sanitation, water, health and education. This research project was one of over 50 projects funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) on the overarching topic of Non-Governmental Public Action.  For this research project I had worked on, we had particular case studies in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  Aside from fascinating fieldwork I participated in (primarily in the sanitation cases in Bangladesh and India – I will write more about this project in future posts), I spent several months poring over hundreds of articles and books to produce a comprehensive literature review on the ways in which relationships (or ‘partnerships’ as the international development jargon prefers to call them) between civil society and government/State organizations are understood, theorized and described.  Aside from a couple of anthropologically-focused studies which got into some of the nuances and power games that are inherent in all relationships (let alone relationships between such different types of organizations), the literature was incredibly dry and, in my opinion, ridiculously simplistic – most-often reducing relationships to adjectives such as ‘competitive’ and ‘co-operative.’ To say I was bored and uninspired at that point is an understatement. That is, until I came across a dissertation entitled: “The Separation between Shit and State” Water Sovereignty and the New Commons in Cuernevaca, Mexico by Jessica Smith.

Much of the dissertation is a personal learning account of Jessica’s travels with the International Honors Program (IHP) which was a year-long learning experience to different cities and places around the world, as an option for undergraduate university students during their studies. Gustavo helped found and was deeply involved in the IHP for many years. Jessica wrote about her visit to Unitierra and the fortuitous coincidence of meeting Cesar Añorve – and learning about not only how to build a dry compostable toilet, but learning many intricacies about what is wrong with international development.  In particular, her research explores ‘the commons’ and ‘community’ – ‘not as tragedies or casualties of the modern era, but as something men and women the world over are working to regenerate’ (p. 4).

Through the promotion of the implementation of the dry compostable toilet, Jessica tells us that Cesar is providing the tools for water sovereignty. Similar to food sovereignty, water sovereignty is about being responsible of your own water management, through a local and community-based ‘commons’ autonomy that is centred around reciprocity. Sovereignty in all forms – water, waste and food – opposes the strong tendency in international development that seeks market-based solutions in larger non-local, global-economic systems. This is because in essence, although there are calls for ‘self’ and ‘community reliance’ development is much more about providing – resources, materials and knowledge, which inevitably brings about relationships of dependency, and ultimately the erosion of culture – ‘culture-cide’.

Back in Unitierra, when Gustavo was telling us about education and its capacity for destruction – for ‘culture-cide’, I was considering the need for autonomous forms of learning and how and where this can and does occur. I was not putting together these other areas – particularly water and waste. These new forms of learning, of re-learning, for me that continues to occur through this journey, comes in waves – often quite subtle. Much of these ‘learnings’ seem to be about connections and the realization of how often I separate knowledge into different categories automatically, intentionally or not.

Photo taken by Udi – dry compostable eco-toilet (using Cesar Añorve´s technology) on the way to the roof garden at Unitierra

When the conversation with Gustavo shifted to our plans during our stay there was a twinkle in his eyes when he mentioned a special workshop that was going to occur on Saturday with Cesar Añorve. I immediately knew who he was referring to and what the topic of the workshop would be about.  Cesar has been coming to Unitierra once or twice per year so I felt it was extremely serendipitous that during our stay I would meet the man and learn his knowledge that I found so unexpectedly captivating through Jessica’s dissertation!

Cesar’s commitment to promoting autonomy and environmental concerns through an activity most of us rarely think about, unless something goes wrong, is admirable. He has spent years on countless projects in different countries and with no concern for personal profit on dry toilets or on systems that reuse water. These range from the simple dry toilets we could all build in our own houses with very few materials to more complex systems in schools and whole buildings involving more elaborate water engineering. What was wonderful to see, and what was contagious about his work, was both the simplicity of the systems he had designed as well as his passion for taking forward his message of the importance of, as he put it, ‘not shitting on water’.

Sketch by Cesar Añorve, from slide presentation at Unitierra dry toilet workshop, photo by Udi

To this end he also toured various places, giving workshops to teach others how to build these structures – to realize that the technology is simple, straightforward and does not pollute people’s houses. All this is part of what he calls his cacaravan the nomadic journey of, as he himself puts it, a cacalogist.  His journeys take him near (across Mexico) and far (in China such as this photo shows).

Photo used in slide presentation, dry toilet workshop with Cesar Añorve, photo by Udi

Cesar uses his humorous play on words in his sketches as well, which helps to bring about a lightness to the seriousness in which he conveys his political messages alongside his technology (we will soon be publishing a separate post with more information on Cesar´s technology – although this is a direct link).

The significant connection with Gustavo and Unitierra is also that of autonomy and a long friendship which also stretches back to Ivan Illich. Towards the end of his life one of the last things Illich (a former priest and long-time student of theology) said to Cesar, which he movingly related in the workshop, was something to the extent that one knows God not through the mind or heart but through the stomach. This seems to have a resonating depth not only through the conversion of poo into pollution (or the reverse process back into compost which Cesar promotes) but also in terms of the centrality of food, of the milpa and maize that we have been learning so much about.

The connection Cesar had to the rivers and waterways and his desire to make them clean once again so that the following generations might be able to enjoy and swim and play in these as he did as a child was palpable and inspiring. What was also exciting to see in his work was how, over such a seemingly simple and misleadingly inconsequential activity, so much could be developed in terms of innovations of the toilet structures and addition of simple substances to speed up the transformation of poo into compost and new life.  I learned much about the links between food and water sovereingty that day – and the inseparable link with the management of our own waste.

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Reflections and learnings about Zapatismo…

Reflections and learnings about Zapatismo…

Posted by on Jan 1, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

Las Mujeres con la Dignidad Rebelde (Women with dignity rebel), purse for sale in Zapatista cooperative, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Udi

On the 21st of December (a couple of weeks after our departure), the start of the new Mayan era (Bakhtun), over 40,000 Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojobal, Chol, Mam and Zoques indigenous peoples – men, women and children, all of whom are representatives of a much larger Mayan community across Mexico and Central America – assembled and silently marched, without weapons and wearing black ski masks, into seven cities in Chiapas, the poorest state of Mexico.  These 40,000+ people are all Zapatistas – the white number stuck to each of their masks representing their particular Zapatista community.  It was the first public statement in over 18 months – the message, although silent, was loud and clear“Did you hear?  It is the sound of your world collapsing/ it is our world coming back…”

What are these different worlds that the Zapatistas are referring to?  How is their world coming back – and how is our world collapsing?  What place does Zapatismo have in the world today – how can we understand it, learn from it and apply it into our own lives?

Pig in scarf, imitating Zapatista balaclava, Unitierra seminar room, Oaxaca, Mexico, photo by Kelly

These were the exact questions being asked in the Zapatismo seminar we attended on our first day visiting Unitierra. This particular week’s seminar that had been advertised across Oaxaca, through email, Unitierra’s blog and through flyer, was focusing on the 19th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, critically engaging with the question of, What does Zapatismo mean today? 

The answer to this question emerged over two and a half hours of critical discussion, debate and emotional statements – different historical narratives – coming from more than 40 people in the main room at Unitierra – Oaxacans – Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Mestizos… Europeans, Americans – from the age of 18 to nearly 80.  I was lucky enough to have simultaneous translations provided for me by a friend.

At the beginning of the Unitierra seminar, Gustavo helped to provide a stronger background of the Zapatistas.  The three people (2 men and a woman) who initially went to the Lacandon jungle (in northeast Chiapas) as guerilla activists in 1983 to begin organizing an indigenous uprising were not indigenous themselves.  They had each been politically active during the 1960s and the 1970s and had endured varying degrees of violence (torture and incarceration) at the hands of the state.  Clearly these years of violence did not encourage them to discontinue their involvement.  Rather, it stirred an even deeper commitment.  Living in the Lacandon jungle – especially as a shift from living in an urban center, is no easy task.  For more than 10 years, these three people slowly mobilized – without any knowledge to the outside world – thousands of indigenous peoples from different Mayan communities, within Chiapas.

Poster – Congreso Nacional Indigena, photo taken by Kelly in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Gustavo told us that aside from learning about survival in the jungle, the biggest learning for these non-indigenous activists was about listening and communication.  When they initially came to discuss current problems – and histories of oppression – with local indigenous Mayan peoples in villages, they were not understood.  They were still talking forcefully through their ideals as guerilla activists.  They had to become more humble, bring their thinking ‘down to Earth’ – and instead, to listen.  This required a complete shift in learning – toward dialogue (that prioritizes listening) and forms of encounter and assembly.

These two notions – encounter and assembly – are still the two key principles for the Zapatistas.  The third is to create.  Encounter.  Assembly.  Create.   To encounter, is to engage with the other, through an ethic of opening up oneself even, or especially at the risk of losing yourself.  It is to listen (radically).  As they see it, encounters cannot be exhausted – listening should never stop.  Assemblies are created through collective decision-making bodies through a perception and practice of power that is atypical to what is normally practiced in politics (our current forms of democracy).  The Zapatistas are re-creating (and re-claiming) indigenous forms of leadership that have otherwise been lost over the past several hundred years.   These assemblies are not about taking power, rather they are about sharing it.  It is about learning how each one of us can exercise power in ways that does not support the current ‘Empire of Money’ – but rather learning how to create other worlds outside.  This is where create comes into the picture – creating autonomous forms of education, health, justice, government, food cultivation that is through shared decision-making.  It is currently through the formation of caracoles (slow moving snails) that governing occurs within Zapatista communities (see Udi’s post on art of rebellion – part 2).

Mural in Oventic, Chiapas (Libertad, Paz, Democracia), photo by Kelly

There is much to consider from what the Zapatistas are advocating.  One of their main challenges is for us to change our perceptions of power.  The Zapatistas tell us that we need to equip ourselves with ‘inverted periscopes’.  This means that instead of trying to understand what is going on ‘above’ in the ‘halls of power’ we should be looking way down below, on the ground, in the spaces that tend to be ignored.  Power is not only with those ‘up there’ – those ‘in power’ – power that is exercised over people.  Another way of understanding this is that there is power everywhere, we all can exercise power in multiple ways –through people and with people – also with the Earth, alongside non-human species.   It is entirely possible to exercise power without taking it.  We may not believe it is so, but this is exactly what the Zapatistas are trying to do.

The shift in learning – towards listening and toward ‘becoming common’ – that occurred between 1983 and 1994, helped to organize thousands of people – Tzotzils, Tzeltals, Tojolabals, Chols, Mams and Zoques – all united for the first time in insurrection as Zapatistas.  To become united they learned new ways of communication and more critical understandings of historical experiences.  They also learned how to arm themselves and how to stand up for themselves following over 500 years of oppression at the hands of (primarily) the Spanish, the Church, the Mexican government and now, multi-national corporations.  The learning continues… from letting go of arms (fire) that were used more strongly in the early days and instead building dialogue through encounters that prioritize communication (the word).

The decision by the Zapatistas, the EZLN, to surprise the world and occupy buildings across Chiapas on the 1st of January, 1994 was no accident.  It was a war that begun out of desperation (and it was through the use of arms that the primary source of controversy is centered).  The Zapatista emergence into public visibility was carefully calculated. It was the same day that NAFTA was signed.  The Zapatistas knew well that such a law would affect themselves – as indigenous peoples – more than anyone else (see my previous post on Maize and Milpa for more discussion on NAFTA).  Their initial demands of housing, land, work, health, education, food freedom, independence, justice, democracy and peace have essentially turned into demands for autonomy, for self-sufficiency through which they are able to provide these demands for themselves.  They continually have to struggle for the recognition of these demands.  There is a long history of struggle and reactions between the Zapatistas and the Mexican Army and government that continues today.

Sign for Oventic outside of village gates, Chiapas, photo taken by Kelly

My first encounter with the Zapatistas – virtually – was in Pakistan when I became acquainted with Assim Sajjad Akhtar who was then dividing his time between leading the Peoples Rights Movement (PRM) in their support for landless peasants in Pakistan, teaching (post)colonial history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and writing as a journalist for Pakistani media – The Nation, Dawn, etc.  (Aasim is now a professor at Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and continues to publish as a journalist and assist PRM).  In Pakistan, through Aasim’s knowledge, I learned about the Zapatista’s existence, what they were trying to do and how they were trying to do it (and how it related to what PRM was doing in Pakistan).  My learning was expanded further when I returned to London, participating in the European Social Forum (the regional World Social Forum event) in 2004, where there was an abundance of literature available about the Zapatistas and people speaking about them – people who had spent time with them in Chiapas and other parts of Mexico.  Although the work and struggle of the Zapatistas is located in Chiapas, they have been hugely successful in assembling international solidarity – inspiring imaginations, creating new visions and igniting controversy and debate through an intensity of dialogue that has emerged in various forms and in various places.

Between the WSF London and this trip to Mexico, I had been incorporating the Zapatistas into my teaching at the University of Bath – particularly in two units:  Researching Social Change and Education and International Development.  The insights about the Zapatista orientation and cosmovision as associated to social movements (what they are and can be) and the learning that goes on in them (expectedly and unexpectedly) are immensely engaging and controversial which adds more flavor to critical discussion and learning.

To help me incorporate the example of the Zapatista movement into my teaching, I used a particularly inspiring book that I had encountered in 2009, The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatistas (by Gloria Rumoz Martinez – 2008) at the Solidarity Economy conference in Hampshire, Massachusetts.  From the social research perspective, what I find most interesting about the book The Fire and the Word is the way that Gloria presents the ‘histories’ of the Zapatistas – as a series of narratives and images.  She prioritizes photography, sketches, diary entries, interviews and her own analyses.  These are all woven through the book equally – all modes of representation predominate.  I have always hoped that encountering such a diversity of representations helps to create further debates about the politics of representation – in research – and also what counts as research in the first place.  And, what stories are the ones that matter?  How can historical experience be represented?

My learning about the Zapatistas since 2004 has been in stops and starts, fragmented and intermittent.  The time we have just spent in Mexico enabled a tremendous surge of learning more about the Zapatistas through many events and encounters – the Unitierra Zapatismo seminar, reading more literature (from the shelves of Unitierra) and visiting Chiapas – watching historical documentaries about the Zapatistas (at the cultural centre such Cronica de una Rebelion and A Place Called Chiapas) and visiting Oventic, one of the Zapatista communities – or caracoles (which they are called – see Udi’s posting on Art of Rebellion 2).  There is more I could say (much of which engages with the controversies of the Zapatistas not explored in this post) and a substantial amount that has been written, documented and debated about the Zapatistas.  One particular insight I learned from the Zapatistas stands out for me.

This insight is the statement by the Zapatistas that there is currently a total war occurring – in every corner of the world.  The Zapatistas call this total war the ‘Fourth World War:  The Empire of Money” that is against all of humanity and the Earth (the idea of 4th as following from WWI, WWII and then the Cold War as WWIII).  This “Empire of Money” prioritizes extracting and pursuing profit at the expense of everything and anything blocking it.  In the Zapatista perspective, this is a war of no fronts – there is no nation against nation, group of nations against another group of nations… it is about imposing an ideology across the entire world – of profit and capital, into every corner of the world.  The enemy is everyone – any person or group can be, or is considered an enemy any time that the ‘Empire of Money’ is threatened (the recent media and state resistance to the ‘Occupy Movement’ comes to mind).  The Zapatistas explain that within this current war, states (government) are being reduced to puppets of privatization and the multi-national corporate world.  Armies are fighting to uphold the strength and spread of this empire – rather than protecting their own nations within their own boundaries.  Through globalized forms of exploitation and extortion of profit the ‘Empire of Money’ seeks to capture and control all territory (land) and labour to expand and construct new markets.  The ‘Empire of Money’ seeks to destroy any way of life that defies this orientation and organization – anything that allows individuals and communities to exist outside of capital must be destroyed or reduced to a quantifiable exchangeability – cultures, languages, histories, memories, ideas, dreams… The new world/s the Zapatistas are creating threaten the Empire of Money. It is through non-capitalistic (non-profit orientated or non-quantifiable) forms of self-sufficiency, autonomy, hospitality and comunalidad –  that is practiced, promoted and studied at Unitierra that this ‘Empire of Money’ is also directly challenged.

Map of military occupation in Chiapas, photo by Udi, taken in San Cristobal de la Casas

During the seminar at Unitierra, there were many fragments of discussion that directly engaged with the Zapatista insight of a Fourth World War.  For example, Gustavo commented toward the end of the seminar that ‘War is everywhere now’.  And engaging with the repeated questions of ‘What do we do – what should we do?’ Gustavo commented — ‘The Lacondon jungle is inside of us – we are already in it…’

Many of the young people in the Unitierra seminar room had spoken of their involvement in social and political change – profound frustration with the present challenges and a lack of coherent vision for the future.  I remember how several spoke of their lack of knowledge and understanding of political activities prior to the Zapatistas, how wonderful it was for people like Gustavo who were older and had such a rich history of experiences and knowledge.  Several also spoke of the importance of ‘searching for light’ — ‘looking for examples that inspire us to invoke the world through thinking of it, imagining it.  It is also about acting out of love, hospitality and friendship’.

Mural in Oventic, Chiapas – sharing maize cosmovision, photo by Kelly

I remember something very wise that Edgar (Edi) the young Zapotec learner at Uniterra we had met first earlier that day, said during the Zapatismo seminar.  He said that Zapatismo is about looking into the mirror at ourselves, seeing our own path, our own choices.  It is about looking at the responsibilities that we face and that we choose each and every day.

I left the seminar, my head and my heart full – yet also hungry for more of these encounters, these assemblies, to inspire my imagination to create….

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Learning Autonomy, Oaxaca

Learning Autonomy, Oaxaca

Posted by on Dec 21, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 1 comment

For this post and hopefully many others, we want to experiment with different forms and styles of writing – especially as inspired by friends such as Jonathan Wyatt and others who have been practicing more collective and collaborative forms of writing.  As this particular post begins to explore ways that we have been learning and thinking about autonomy, particularly as it is linked with a sense of connection (rather than individual independence), we thought to write this post as a form of dialogue.

Udi: One of the deepest learnings for me in Mexico has been around the concept and practice of autonomy. From the example of the Zapatistas and the 2006 teachers’ uprising in Oaxaca, to the day to day practices and experiments associated with Unitierra, from the critiques of industrialization, capitalism, colonialism and modernity found in the works of Gustavo Esteva, John Holloway and before them Ivan Illich and Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, autonomia appears as a running theme through the most exciting social, cultural, intellectual and political initiatives happening in the country. Many of us ask ourselves how we reproduce and perpetuate the systems and institutions that govern our lives or to which we feel dependent on. Through many of the practices and ideas we experienced and learned from in Mexico we had a sense of how such questions are being or can be answered in action. What is this idea and practice of autonomy for you Kelly and what did you learn about this in Mexico?

Kelly: From what I am beginning to understand more holistically, being autonomous is not just to feel free to do whatever we each want without any sense of responsibility to the impacts and effects on the rest of the world.  Rather, it is to begin by rooting ourselves to where we are – the place – and critically reflecting on all aspects of our lives and the relationships that we impact and depend on, the ways in which we affect others (human and otherwise) around us, as well as the relationships through which we might feel constrained by in some form or another.  It is to critically explore what we are dependent on and how these dependencies are realized in our everyday lives – from where (and how) our various dependencies are met.  These range from basic necessities of food, water, shelter and sanitation to where and what knowledge I am relying on and from what sources.  How am I bound to different institutions and how are they constraining my own creativity and sense of community and culture?  It is to consider and explore different ways we might perceive and act on our dependencies – for instance, how might I grow some of my own food or buy food that is produced locally and in accordance to seasonal patterns?  How might I harvest and capture water that comes naturally from the sky?  How is my waste polluting various sources and how might I and the community I live in do something so that we can be dependent on ourselves and each other and therefore enable a more reciprocal relationship with the land within which we live?  These are some of the types of enquiries (and many others) that Unitierra have and continue to explore.  With an emphasis on creativity and absorbing yourself in the type of learning that you feel passionate for, these different questions are explored through many inventive, inspiring and unexpected ways.  The really important question that Unitierra keeps coming back to is how autonomy or freedom of our ‘self’ is inseparable from community, including humans and non-humans.  How are you making sense of this Udi?

Unitierra, fruit tree grafting workshop, still from footage by Udi

Udi: There is a more habitual understanding we are used to where autonomy is often associated with individual freedom from constraint or freedom to pursue some course of action. I think the practice of autonomy we have been seeing and hearing about here in Mexico in these initiatives goes beyond this sense of individual or ‘self’ freedom because there is a clear awareness that autonomy happens in a community together with others, human and non-human living beings.  Two overlapping key terms and practices that come together with autonomy here are ‘comunalidad‘ and the commons. Comunalidad is the expression of an indigenous ‘cosmovision’, a way of seeing and being in the world, which Jaime Luna Martinez, a Zapotec activist and anthropologist, explained to us in an interview we did with him. Comunalidad involves developing a relationship with the territory or land you grow in, a relationship to the work you need to do in that place to sustain life, including your own, a relation to others so as to organize that work, and finally a celebration of that work and of life through the fiesta, through celebrations of community and life!

Jaime Luna Martinez, by pond in Guelatao during our interview, still from footage by Udi

In this sense autonomy revolves around the self-reliance and generation of all aspects that sustain the life of a community. So it is clearly not just about individual freedom but instead the creation of a commons that supports life. The commons here is an incompatible notion and practice to capitalism as it is something that cannot be bought or sold or owned by individuals, instead it is that which is cared for by a collective of people and the ties that bind people to the commons are not those of the market but rather often come from shared values or identities. Kelly, do you want to say something about these values or qualities related to autonomy and the commons which we learnt about in Oaxaca?

Kelly:  The notion of ‘we’ and ‘commons’ came up a lot with Gustavo, as well as this wonderful concept and practice of comunalidad.  The meanings of each of these are strongly related to each other as they each remove the central focus being on the individual, the self, or ‘me’.  I remember being told that in many indigenous languages in Oaxaca (and beyond) there is no word for ‘I’ or ‘me’.  Every time a person talks about a need or desire in these indigenous languages, it is articulated through a perspective of ‘we’.  This to me is profound.  I noticed after learning this how often I only refer to myself… ‘I this….’ and ‘I that….’.  When referring to myself, if I was to automatically refer simultaneously to ‘we’ and/or to a much broader commons, I would have to be immediately more thoughtful to the much wider world of which I am a part.  This perspective brings with it a completely different sense of responsibility and existence in the world.  It does not erase the sense of self – in speaking for, or representing others, rather it is a constant reminder that there is no ‘I’ without ‘we’.  Any part of ‘me’ is a part of a much greater ‘we’ – nurturing commons is about thinking and doing through this ‘we’ perspective.  The notion of ‘commons’ in environmentalist sort of discourse is typically related to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which is about the over-use and exploitation of resources (until they are depleted) specifically because of this inability to think and do through a ‘we’ and ‘commons’ perspective.  As you mention, living in accordance to a ‘we’ or ‘commons’ perspective is pretty much in complete opposition to beliefs and values inherent within our deeply capitalistic society.

Cezar Añorve leads a ‘cacaravan’ workshop on dry toilets at Unitierra, still from footage by Udi

At Uniterra, autonomy as part of ‘commons’ is all-encompassing.  There is an ethic of ‘we’ and a hospitable way of being that permeates the way that everyone interacts with each other.  To begin with, anyone can enter the building that houses Unitierra in Oaxaca city, anyone can attend a workshop or seminar, engage in conversation, developing ideas with others.  There is no superiority of one person over anyone else – regardless of age, gender, ethnic background, educational background.  At Unitierra, we are all just human beings exploring what it is to be in the world in ways that critically engage with currently struggles of all kinds.  This way of interacting, or learning together is really rare from my experience.  Although this ethic was influenced quite significantly from Gustavo, it comes before this, from Gustavo’s relationship with Ivan Illich, and the many thinkers and activists that came together  (with Ivan) to explore these different perspectives and ways of being in the world starting in the 1970s in Mexico until Ivan’s death in 2002.

Ivan Illich is a major source of inspiration at Unitierra. This is not just because of Gustavo’s close friendship with Ivan that he developed over the many years that Ivan lived on and off in Mexico, but it is because of the way that Ivan engaged and built hospitably relationships and ultimately deep friendships.  Ivan Illich was a person of many identities – a philosopher, radical social critic, former Roman Catholic priest  – but to many who knew him, he was just a beautiful, hospitable and humble soul.  Ivan’s text, Deschooling Society, is probably his most famous publication – as well as his most mis-understood.  The book is not against education per se, but rather the institutionalization of learning as a form of cultural colonization.  There are many critical and creative insights and threads woven through the book, Deschooling Society, but two are particularly worth mentioning.  The strongest thread is for me to do with institutions – what they are, where they are, how they come to be, how they constrain us, solidifying us into positions that are impose upon us that are often abstracted from what we really want to be in our lives with ourselves, our families and the Earth.  All the while, Illich argues, we are made to believe that we need to learn from others, to rely on accepting knowledge as it is passed down from others and then to others, primarily from teachers in schools – and often in pursuit of obtaining a certificate or diploma to verify that our knowledge, or what knowledge we have successfully consumed is sufficient. Illich and others have called this process of following the achievement of diplomas as ‘the diploma disease’ upon which the system of education not only rests, but legitimizes itself through.  This is exactly what Unitierra counters through its openness, hospitality and attention to practice – its focus on self and community-driven learning that is theoretical as much as it is practical.

Photo taken by Kelly – bicycle water pump

Udi: In my limited understanding, Illich’s originality was to give a contribution to Marx’s critiques of capitalism which focused on labour and production, by addressing not only industry but also services. Illich saw service industries, especially around education and health, as also being part of an alienating and bureaucratic logic of industrializing modernity, something contemporary university workers seem to be increasingly aware of and vocal about. Illich’s work and living example explores ways of ‘escaping’ this logic and instead creating more autonomous spaces of learning or service that are based instead on principles of hospitality, generosity and friendship. In this way his views and practice, his cosmovision you could say, tapped into a deep aspect of human experience and qualities, those of friendship, hospitality and generosity, as orienting values, through which to create new spaces to be and learn together and potentially to organise communities. This is in the opposite direction to much economic and social science thinking around ‘human nature’ as comprised of selfish and profit-maximising individuals, very much in line with the ‘I’ – ‘we’ continuum you describe above. It is interesting to note, as Gustavo mentioned in our conversations, that Illich learnt a great deal from the indigenous communities in Mexico whilst he was here and that his work does show the influence of practices such as that of communalidad.

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