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Food Sovereignty as Purpose and Strategy: the Role of Agriculture in the Zapatista Approach to Indigenous Autonomy and Governance from Below


When the Zapatistas, more formally the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional(EZLN), first declared their uprising in January of 1994, the militant group of Indigenous peoples and leftist intellectuals in Chiapas were responding directly to the signing of NAFTA by the United States, Mexico, and Canada (Marcos et al, 2008). The deal directly pertained to the land and livelihoods of peasant farmers in the region as it attempted to reshape the agricultural industry, particularly that of corn, along privatized, neoliberal lines opposed to the traditional, communitarian subsistence methods of peasant farmers and their milpa system that had existed for millennia (Marcos et al, 2008). The Zapatistas chose the start of their uprising to align with NAFTA’s implementation as they believed the agricultural reforms of the deal would be a “summary execution” for indigenous peoples in the region (Marcos et al, 2008, p. 34). Emerging primarily in response to these changes, the Zapatistas declared new rules and visions for land in Chiapas that would assert Indigenous values and practices over the state’s mission of increasing industrialized agriculture. Attempting to reassert the value of common property and cooperative production, the Zapatista uprising centered food sovereignty as both purpose and strategy. The role of agriculture in the Zapatista movement shows how the movement was not just a response to economic and social conditions of the time, but a move towards an alternative vision of Indigenous futures in Mexico centered around a traditional yet revolutionary commitment to self-reliance and environmental and cultural sovereignty based on land reform. In this paper, I argue that Zapatista agriculture and associated food sovereignty are an essential piece of the Zapatista attempt at governing from below in two key ways: these practices embody EZLN ideals by asserting Indigenous values over the logic of the state and neoliberal economics, while also providing the food that fuels the past, present, and future of the resistance itself.

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