Zapatista resistance to energy looting and destruction

“The indigenous person sees the land as his mother.
The capitalist, as one who has no idem”.

Don Durito of La Lacandona.

La Extemporánea, the new delegation of 177 Zapatistas is coming to Europe to continue the Journey for Life that the delegation known as Squadron 421 began in June in Galicia. Yesterday we talked about the link between the Zapatista movement and the resistance to the energy model and global crises such as the climate one. In Chiapas, the Zapatista people have resisted a multitude of destructive projects, from mining, to tourism, hydroelectric dams in the highlands and the construction of the so-called “road of cultures” that will connect with one of the most contested projects currently in the south of Mexico, the Mayan Train. But at the beginning they also managed to stop oil exploitation, which they have maintained until now.

Oil activity in Chiapas dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. In the northwest of Chiapas is the Reforma supergiant field, one of the 33 largest crude oil deposits in the world, and there are other fields in the Lancandona jungle in the Ocosingo region with 3.7 billion barrels, also close to what is considered a mega-field (5 million). But when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) publicly emerged in 1994, the national company Pemex abandoned the Lacandona. 1400 oil workers from PEMEX, US Western Oil and French Geophysics abandoned the area and the exploitation, according to John Ross. This way,  Zapatistas also managed to preserve the Lacandona jungle in which they live.

Prior to the Zapatista public appearance, a study by the Institute of Culture of the state of Chiapas that focused on the activity of PEMEX from 1977 to 1984 concluded that the oil company “damages the ecology more than all the peasants and loggers put together, as it pollutes the water and air and has encouraged the settlement of families next to the extraction fields”. This study denounced that the Lacandona rainforest was then suffering a greater rate of destruction than the Brazilian Amazon.

PEMEX is a national company that in recent years has undergone privatisation of part of its assets. Despite this, it is not exempt from environmental impacts, and since its activities are concentrated in Mexico, almost all of them take place there. According to an analysis by the US Climate Accountability Institute (CAI), Pemex is among the 20 companies that pollute the planet the most, ranking in 9th position. One of its worst accidents occurred in 2019 when an oil pipeline exploded in Tlahuelipan, Hidalgo, killing 137 people.

In 2008, PEMEX tried to re-enter the Lancandona. But the local communities reaffirmed their refusal to allow them to do so. Their experience, as shared in 2008 by a municipal agent of the ejido Laguna El Carmen Pataté, Pedro Mendoza, is the same as that of other native communities on which this type of exploitation has been imposed: environmental impacts, disappearance of the forest and even displacement of the settlements that coincide with the wells.  Moreover, they are imposed without consultation, without respecting their rights and with arrogance.

The attempt was denied by the state itself days later. Paradoxically, in 2017 PEMEX announced an annual contribution of 25 million pesos to allegedly conserve the Lacandona jungle. However, it’s clear who are its real protectors.

The Zapatista Revolutionary Agrarian Law states in its 13th point that “virgin jungle areas and forests will be preserved and reforestation campaigns will be carried out in the main areas” and in the 14th that “springs, rivers, lagoons and seas are the collective property of the Mexican people and will be cared for by preventing contamination and punishing their misuse”.

But when dealing with the Zapatista revolt and oil in Chiapas we must go deeper, for as George A. Collier (Collier, G., Roots of the Chiapas rebellion, 1994) pointed out just after the revolt took place, the revolt has a close link to this resource. Mexico, because of its proximity to the US and its resources, was one of the first oil-producing states. After the OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) crisis in 1972, Mexico, which concentrated its economy on oil and exports, went into international debt to expand oil production. By going into debt, it further reduced its agricultural activity. Meanwhile, southeastern Mexico became Mexico’s energy centre, producing 50% of the country’s energy from oil (mostly from Tabasco) and hydroelectricity from Chiapas. But the loans only increased the debt, and in 1982 the international financial institutions demanded a debt amounting to 96 billion dollars and imposed structural adjustments (austerity programmes) on Mexico, such as privatisations, service cuts, tax increases, etc., which affected the economy even more, and even more the agriculture sector. In this situation, under clearly unfavourable conditions, the Mexican government joined the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the USA and Canada in 1994. This was the trigger for the public appearance of the Zapatistas.

Undoubtedly one of the most important projects that the Zapatista communities faced was the hydroelectric complex on the Usumacinta River, within the Puebla-Panama Plan (PPP), which planned 5 dams just in that river. Finally, in 2020, President López-Obrador confirmed that the Boca del Cerro dam would not be built. However, he announced the reactivation of Chicoaysén II, another dam project affecting the Zoque people.

The Zoque people are another indigenous people also from Chiapas, who, although outside the Zapatista zone of influence, are politically very close to them. In addition to the aforementioned hydroelectric project, they have also resisted mining, geothermal and fosil extraction projects. They managed to stop plans to develop fracking projects in their territory.

Within mining, there are 99 mining concessions to exploit tantalite on the coast of Chiapas in the Soconusco region. Tantalite (an element found in coltan) is an essential mineral in the manufacture of advanced electronic components. components.

The Zapatista movement takes part at national level in the National Indigenous Congress (CNI). That’s why, as part of the 177 Zapatistas who make up La Extemporánea, the delegation to Europe, there are activists from the Front of Pueblos in Defense of Land and Water Morelos (FPDTA) from Puebla-Tlaxcala and from the Assembly of Indigenous Pueblos del Isthmus in Defense of Land and Territory (APIIDTT) from Oaxaca. The FPDTA is resisting the gas energy project, the Proyecto Integral Morelos (PIM), which consists of two thermoelectric power plants, a 160-kilometre gas pipeline and complementary infrastructure. This project is being promoted by Spanish companies. APIIDTT is facing, above all, wind projects, 15 parks that have been stripped of their communal lands, led by European energy companies, mainly Spanish. APIIDTT has recently gained a victory against a French company. 

Below is a text from 2019 that clarifies the Zapatista position and proposals on energy issues: “The Zapatista light will overcome the darkness. Autonomous responses from the Mexican Southeast to the generation of electricity” (Ediciones la Social):


The Zapatista light will overcome darkness.

Autonomous responses to electricity generation from the Mexican southeast.

Ediciones la Social

“Panic took hold of me, but I overcame it because with the fact that we Zapatistas are very brave, it wouldn’t look good for me to panic. So, don’t go around saying that I was afraid of the dark, we children are afraid of the dark, that’s why we Zapatistas are fighting for all children to have light”.

SCI Marcos, 18 March 2001.

In the first days of 2019, Mexico experienced a shortage of gasoline that affected several cities in the country. As in other cases, such as the mega water cut in 2018, this situation provided a space for reflection that revealed to us the tremendous dependence that the state has generated towards “civil society”. Many voices, including myself, pointed out the importance of the bicycle, for example, as a sustainable, ecological alternative, independent of fossil fuels, of the distribution, refining and storage networks, that is, of the state and of capital, which is responsible for their sale at petrol stations. Despite this, it was emphasised that not only the average person required fuel for everyday transport, but even more importantly for the transport of food and the generation of electricity.

It is a little known fact that more than half of the electricity production in Mexico is done in thermoelectric power plants, i.e. by burning various fossil fuels, natural gas, coal and oil derivatives, to heat water and turn turbines with the steam from it. Another important percentage is generated by hydroelectric plants, in which the state of Chiapas is one of the largest producers of electricity, even importing it to Guatemala.

Despite this, it is paradoxical that 8.4%, probably more, of households in Chiapas do not have electricity (1). It is even more alarming that having electricity does not guarantee an efficient service. This is why many towns and communities throughout the state, but mainly on the coast, have organised themselves to confront the high electricity rates that the Federal Electricity Commission intends to charge thousands of pesos to families who, if anything, will have two light bulbs in their homes. This situation of injustice is aggravated when it is pointed out that businessmen get discounts on their electricity bills or can even get rid of the entire electricity bill (2).

But I have not come here to analyse how energy is generated in Mexico and how it exacerbates inequality. My intention here is to outline examples of how we must, quite urgently, begin to build energy autonomy, given that it does not seem that the shortages of gasoline, electricity, water, etc., are going to diminish, and on the contrary, everything indicates that they will become more frequent, longer and more destructive.

It is no coincidence that it is also in Chiapas, one of the poorest states in the country, that we find the best examples of how communities and peoples, from below, have self-organised to meet their needs, including, of course, electricity. The paradigm of this autonomy is, of course, the Zapatista movement. In the following lines I will try to answer the question: How do the Zapatistas obtain their electricity?

The first thing to point out is that Zapatismo, in its 25 years of public existence, has made an effort to seek various paths towards autonomy, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but always, albeit slowly, advancing. And the second thing is that this path is just that, a path, a very long path that is walked through resistance and rebellion. The Zapatistas, by declaring themselves autonomous, cannot ask the CFE to provide electricity to their communities; everything has to be built by them.

But then, how do the Zapatistas obtain their electricity?

First of all, we have to clarify that an important part of the Zapatista support bases do not have any electricity (3), and it is not because they want to live like that, but because, as I have already mentioned, an important part of the inhabitants of Chiapas, Zapatista or not, simply do not have electricity, because the priority is to bring electricity to the big industries and businessmen.

For us who live in the city, it is very easy for us to get up every day and turn on the light by simply flipping the switch. It is easy because we grew up in places where the electricity infrastructure has been in place for years, decades, already. It is easy because we grew up in places where the electricity infrastructure has been in place for several years, decades. It is easy for us to ignore the fact that this infrastructure, poles, wiring, transformers, is very expensive and it is not a priority for the CFE to bring electricity to the most remote villages.

This access to electricity is one of the demands presented by the EZLN at the dialogue table of the Days for Peace and Reconciliation in Chiapas in March 1994 (4). Given that Zapatismo is a movement that builds its autonomy by itself, several Zapatista towns and communities with access to the CFE network have opted to take energy directly from this wiring. In reality, this is not a practice exclusive to Zapatismo; many towns and neighbourhoods throughout the country, faced with the injustices of high charges or poor service, directly take the electricity that belongs to the people and that the bad government gives away to the capitalists (or that it charges for, but then returns in the form of “fiscal stimuli”, for example).

Although this solves the problem of electricity for several communities, it has some disadvantages that the Zapatistas themselves have pointed out. The first is that although they are exercising their right to electricity directly, they still use the federal infrastructure, and in several cases the bad government has cut off the energy to the Zapatista villages as an act of repression and harassment, and on other occasions they have been threatened to force them to pay their electricity bill, to which they have responded that “Our comrades in the support bases of the EZLN declare that they will not pay for electricity because it is in our territory Rebeldía”(5).

Another possibility is to acquire diesel or gasoline electricity generators. The EZLN has been using these generators since the time of the clandestinity(6). Today, for example, CIDECI-Unitierra has plants that supply power to the entire school. Although this is a viable option, it also has its disadvantages. The first is that if you want the plant you have to buy it yourself, nobody is going to give it to you, and a plant that can light a whole village can cost hundreds of thousands of pesos. The other is that they run on fuel, which also has to be paid for and transported over long distances, as many gas stations are located far away from the towns and communities. In addition, it is important to consider that the economy of the villages is rarely based on money, and that it is often necessary to sell an animal or a crop to buy petrol(7), which can end up generating dependence on these fuels.

In addition, the machine can break down and needs people who know how to fix it, for which mechanics who can carry out these tasks must be available. In order to try to stop using petrol, and with their knowledge of electricity generators, the Zapatistas asked themselves if it was possible to turn the machine in some other way, with a sugar cane mill for example. In this way, using Zapatista techniques, they tried to invent an autonomous way of generating light, but the movement was very slow and the results were not adequate(8). This is not the first time that Zapatista communities have tried to generate electricity completely autonomously. The most notable case is that of the caracol turbine in La Realidad.

The project to install a micro-hydroelectric plant began in 1996(9). However, after many difficulties, it was not until 2001 that the work of moving and installing the turbine could begin. It was through the collaboration of workers in solidarity with the Mexican Electricians’ Union, together with Italians from the ¡Ya Basta! movement and Zapatista support bases that La Realidad was able to electrify itself in an autonomous and ecological way(10). Some of these episodes, such as the transfer and installation of the turbine, can be seen in the Zapatista film “Corazón del Tiempo” (11). The turbine was in operation for several years, and as the journalist Hermann Bellinghausen commented at the end of 2004:

“Some nights, a few nights, the turbine breaks down or is shut down to clean it and prevent it from breaking down. On other nights, a few more, the Federal Electricity Commission suspends the electricity supply along the border jungle and the Las Margaritas canyon because of inefficient service, or a generalised failure to pay the high rates of the state-owned company that borders on civil resistance by PRI, PT and PRD supporters, in addition to the Zapatistas who are already opposed to it. On such occasions, La Realidad is the only town lit up for hundreds of kilometres around.”

Unfortunately, after about 2005, the turbine project could no longer continue, but it remains as an important antecedent of how collaboration and mutual support between civil society and organised Zapatista communities worked in the construction of autonomy, although it seems that this was not the only time that these micro power plants were used in the region(12).

Did the EZLN’s construction of energy autonomy end here? No. Although petrol and diesel plants are still being used, the use of solar cells has also been implemented, as seen in this aerial shot during the 25th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising(13). Electricity is needed not only to light homes, but also to power autonomous schools, Zapatista clinics and media centres. As we have seen, the road, which involves enormous human effort, technical know-how and infrastructure construction, is long and winding, and yet the Zapatista Army of National Liberation has not given up looking for solutions to its problems. And in spite of all these attempts, with better or worse results, the EZLN has always been in favour of one day being the people themselves, that is, the workers, the owners of the power plants and not the bad governments and the capitalists, because the infrastructure already exists and is being privatised and given away to the capitalists.

So how do the Zapatistas get their electricity? Here two possible answers can be given, the first is in a practical way by pointing out that they do it through a combination of gasoline plants, solar panels, direct wire connections and sometimes with micro-hydroelectric plants. The other answer is that they obtain it from their resistance and rebellion, always seeking autonomy, with a lot of effort and community organisation.

The Zapatista example should make us ask ourselves how we are going to resolve, without asking the state for anything, our electricity consumption. Our “civilisation” is highly dependent on fossil fuels such as oil, which is a non-renewable resource. Sooner or later it will come to an end, this is an inevitable fact. Whether working people take back the electricity infrastructure that is being privatised today or whether we build an autonomous one, it must be ecological and sustainable. Perhaps the micro-hydro model could be an alternative to the large dams that flood and dispossess millions of people around the world. Solar cells are a possibility, but in regions of the country such as Chiapas there is very little sunshine, and it is very difficult to run high consumption electrical appliances such as freezers, used in hospitals to preserve vaccines(14). Small wind turbines made from scrap metal have been successfully tested in rural communities in Africa(15).

What is certain is that there is no single answer to this problem, and yet I firmly believe that the Zapatistas are already showing us the answer: first in building communities of knowledge, developing and experimenting with appropriate technologies, and then in the construction and maintenance, always community-based, of the necessary infrastructure, be it small wind turbines, microturbines(16), solar cells or a combination of these. Furthermore, all of humanity’s knowledge should be liberated so that it is not the capitalists who decide when a technology becomes obsolete or when it cannot be shared because it is copyrighted. Involving ourselves in these processes will lead us to deeply question how we generate scientific and technical knowledge and how we currently use energy, because if we ourselves generate and manage it, we will be able to distribute it more efficiently and without wasting it. For example, in the city many of us rent houses and landlords build many rooms in order to rent to more people, which causes dark houses and even if we have two light bulbs they have to be on all day, wasting more light. In the future of a society without oil, with more and more frequent power cuts and food shortages, only those who start looking for these community and ecological answers now will be able to impose themselves on a future that looks bleak. The struggle against darkness has one of its greatest victories in the Zapatista light.


The tale of the dented toy car.

– Once upon a time there was a wind-up toy car that no longer had any rope. That is to say, it did, but nobody would wind it up. And nobody would wind it up because it was an old toy car, all dented up, missing a wheel and, when it worked, it just went round and round.

The kids didn’t pay much attention to it because they were into Transformers and Pokémon and Knights of the Zodiac and other things.

So the dented little car with the rope had no one to wind it up. And then in the big city, the electricity went out because the boss privatised the electricity industry and the rich people took the electricity to other countries and the transformers and pokémon and zodiac knights just wouldn’t work. And then the dented toy car said “I have a wind-up but I have no one to wind me up” and a child heard it and wound it up and the toy car started to go round and round and the child said “And now? Not like that, said the toy car, turn me upside down. So the little boy did it and asked, “What now? Well, put a rubber band with that motor over there and so did the child and the toy car said now wind me up and you will see that light will be generated and yes, so did the child and there was light again. And this was repeated in all the houses where they had a dented wind-up car and where they didn’t, well, there was still no light. And in the end the little car said: that’s what you have to do, you have to turn things upside down so that the world will have light again. So-so.

Moral of the story: better not to let the electricity industry be privatised, because what if not everyone has a dented wind-up car?

From the Isidro Fabela community.

Don Durito from Lacandona. (batteries included)

Mexico, March 2001.

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