AP Masked Zapatista 1997
AP Photo/Gregory Bull
A Zapatista rebel shouts slogans during a march through San Cristobal de las Casas on September 8, 1997, beginning a journey that would take many to Mexico City that week. Masked, but without guns, the Zapatistas were marching on the country’s capital to demand support for Indian rights and their struggle in the troubled state of Chiapas.

Lessons From the Andrés Accords

Duane Champagne

It is often unusual for Indigenous Peoples to have the opportunity express their views and visions about their needs and futures. There remains considerable ignorance and misunderstanding about what Indigenous Peoples want and are striving for. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is one place to look. The UNDRIP document is the product of over 30 years of negotiation. Many Non-Government Organizations and indigenous persons and nations contributed to the discussions. And perhaps above all else what emerged from those discussions is the voice and needs of Indigenous Peoples.

UNDRIP is very good—despite the diplomatic language—at identifying the key issues that indigenous people believe they need addressed to secure their futures and social cultural and political well being. To a large extent, UNDRIP leaves the solutions to indigenous rights in the hands of national governments and judicial systems. UNDRIP asks Indigenous Peoples to work within the political and judicial processes of nation states. This is one possible solution if nation states are willing at some level to accept Indigenous Peoples rights to culture, political and land autonomy.

A rare case where Indigenous Peoples in contemporary times have had the opportunity to express their views was in the San Andrés Accords worked out with the Mexican government in 1996. Here the activism of the Zapatistas, at least briefly, gave Indigenous Peoples leverage to express their needs and views. The position of the Zapatistas was also circulated among many of the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico, who were favorable to the agreements made in the San Andrés Accords.

The Accords requested that the Mexican state recognize the diversity of the Indigenous Peoples. The Indigenous Peoples were not a homogeneous ethnic or minority group, but rather spoke many languages and had many distinct cultures and histories. The Indigenous Peoples wanted protection for the natural resources located on their lands. They wanted the right to prohibit resource extraction from externally managed companies, especially when the Indigenous Peoples gained little or no benefit. In terms of indigenous and Mexican state government relations, indigenous people wanted greater participation in the decision-making and distribution of government funding.

The Indigenous Peoples were not rejecting participation in the Mexican state, but saw the national government as a resource for local governments and development. However, the Indigenous Peoples wanted greater voice in the distribution of public funding, so publicly funded projects were informed by their own cultures and local issues. Indigenous Peoples wanted greater political influence, more attention to establishing common cultural ground, and recognition of indigenous local and traditional governments, and more control over future social and economic development plans.

The Mexican state should be a partner in indigenous economic and political futures, and recognize and respect indigenous ways of managing land, justice, and government. Local indigenous control and influence over courts and police were very critical for development of more democratic relations, and toward incorporation of indigenous views of justice and order. Indigenous Peoples did not want to separate from the Mexican nation and state, but rather asked for assurances that Indigenous Peoples and voices would have access to, participate in, and have effect within Mexican political processes.

Since 1996, however, the Mexican state has not honored the San Andrés Accords. The position of the government was that the government granted rights, and that the indigenous people do not have inherent rights to territory, self-government, and their cultures were uncivilized. Additional troops, paramilitary actions, and legislation put increased power in the hands of the majority groups within Mexican state governments. The Mexican government immediately rejected the views and aspirations of the San Andrés Accord. The Indigenous Peoples of Mexico were and are left with little hope of realizing their visions of cooperative and progressive cultural, political, and economic alliances with the Mexican nation state.

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