Oaxacan farmer in his corn field
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Special to MSNBC

People in Chiapas, Oaxaca’s eastern neighbor, are blessed with richer farmland and more bountiful natural resources. Ironically, though, Oaxaca’s poor soil seems to be a blessing in disguise.

Chiapas has by now won fame as the site of the Zapatista uprising of Maya Indians that began in 1994 continues to shake Mexico. Although Oaxaca is as poor as Chiapas by most measures, and has even more indigenous citizens, the poor soil in Oaxaca is still farmed by small farmers, and communal indigenous patterns of landholding remain strong. Oaxaca failed to attract large-scale agriculture. In Chiapas, the competition between the small indigenous farmer and the export-minded landowner is at the foundation of the Zapatista rising.

Much of the land in Chiapas was long ago concentrated into large latifundios or estates, where landless campesinos come to work for low wages. Rich timber, oil, and hydro-electric resources have attracted national and foreign firms since the last century.

In terms of U.S. history, parts of Oaxaca recall the Oklahoma of the Dust Bowl, a land of hard-scrabble dirt farmers living on the edge. Chiapas is more reminiscent of Mississipi in the 1950s, a plantation economy confronted with the Zapatista uprising, an armed version of the civil-rights movement.

Traditions preserved
In Oaxaca, legal reforms by the state government have given indigenous villages rights of self-government according to their traditions. This helps preserve social cohesion in small communities and raises the overall standard of living. Indian cultures are still strong: in the area around Talea, for example, many people speak Zapotec as their first language.

By contrast, a key sticking point in Chiapas negotiations between Zapatista rebels and the government has been the right to local autonomy for indigenous communities.

The Oaxacan village of Talea, like some 412 other municipalities out of 570 in the state, is governed by non-partisan, rotating elected officials and uses the traditional tequio for public works. The tequio, a Zapotec tribal custom predating the Spanish conquest, requires all able-bodied adults to commit weekend time to the community, working together to maintain roads or repair schools. Each week, the village loudspeaker announces the jobs that need to be done that weekend. Even those who have emigrated are morally obligated to send back support for the community.

Both Oaxaca and Chiapas are governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials PRI, which has run Mexico as a virtual one-party state for almost 70 years. Compared to Chiapas, though, the state government of Oaxaca has been more conciliatory. According to a university professor speaking on condition of anonymity, Oaxacan officials have operated less by direct repression than by coopting their opponents, usually paying people off rather than breaking their heads.

But amid fears that the Chiapas conflict could spill over to Oaxaca and neighboring states, incidents of outright repression in Oaxaca have come to public attention. Recently, hundreds of residents of the Loxicha area marched in the capital city and staged a sit-in in front of the state government to demand the release of 76 citizens who had been arrested. The protesters said they had only been peacefully asserting their rights, and were arrested illegally.

In some isolated areas of Oaxaca, a small guerrilla group, the Popular Revolutionary Army, reportedly operates. While it has been involved in shootouts with the army and police, it has not attracted the nation-wide attention that the Zapatistas have.

Leopoldo DeGyves, an opposition state legislator, warned: “In Oaxaca just as in Chiapas, there’s a major witch-hunt going on. In both states, we have intolerant governments that are taking a hard line.” The candidate of DeGyves’ Party of the Democratic Revolution is in a neck-and-neck race for governor with the PRI candidate.

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