Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: The Case of Chiapas, Mexico

Project on Environment, Population and Security, June 1995
by Thomas Homer-Dixon

This paper identifies the different forms of environmental scarcities that affect the people of Chiapas, Mexico. In recent years, these scarcities have become acute. Increased demand for cropland arising from high human fertility and an influx of migrants occurred within the context of a long-standing inequitable distribution of land resources. The contribution of cropland degradation to environmental scarcity was localized to the Central Highlands. Environmental scarcities did not cause civil strife by themselves; in interaction with other factors, however, they multiplied the grievances of the campesino and indigena communities. At the same time, economic liberalization reduced the governing regime’s capacity in Chiapas and provided greater opportunities for violent challenges by opposition groups.

In the hushed morning after San Cristobal’s New Year’s celebration in 1994, hundreds of masked rebels moved through the empty streets, cutting phone lines, immobilizing the local security apparatus, and establishing an alternative political order. This revolutionary Zapatista government lasted only four days in San Cristobal and other urban centers of the Central Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. However, in the next two years, the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN), or Zapatista National Liberation Army, would bring the plight of Chiapan peasants to the attention of Mexicans, foreign investors, and the international community, challenging anew the legitimacy of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). Commentators have attributed a range of revolutionary objectives to the Zapatistas, often obscuring the insurgents’ principal goal: relief from escalating environmental scarcities that have impoverished their communities.

There are three common explanations for the conflict in Chiapas. First, orthodox political-economic explanations emphasize broad – and often external – forces driving the conflict. These include the PRI’s neglect of peasants as a client group, the difficulties of economic restructuring, the inadequacies of Mexican electoral reform, the fear of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the class basis of land concentration, resurgent Mayan identity, and generalized poverty. Although these explanations sketch the national and international context in which the crisis evolved, they obscure the role of ecological and demographic forces.

Second, environmental explanations suggest that the rebellion is somehow connected to deforestation, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss. However, these explanations fail to specify the links between degradation and the Zapatista rebellion. The Zapatistas are not fighting for conservation issues as they are commonly understood by Northern environmentalists, even though the Lacandon Rain Forest is one of the last large tropical rainforests in North America and is the focus of many Mexican and international conservation efforts. As a group, these environmental explanations of the conflict are often ideologically biased, describing the main actors, for example, as evil landowners and innocent peasants.

The third group of explanations falls between these two perspectives. A growing and insightful body of literature emphasizes the maldistribution of natural resources – especially land – as the central grievance of the EZLN and its sympathizers. This literature argues that the development model used by the Mexican government has generally failed. The government’s focus should be on microeconomic and micropolitical issues, such as market access, peasant agriculture, local corruption, and the control of PRI political bosses. The virtue of these studies is that they analyze both the structural inequities of land distribution and the history of impediments to real reform.

We show below that the insurgency was a product of three simultaneous factors: rising grievances among peasants caused largely by worsening environmental scarcity, a weakening of the Mexican corporatist state by rapid economic liberalization, and efforts by churches and activist peasant groups to change peasants’ understanding of their predicament.

An accurate understanding of the roots of the Chiapas conflict is important for U.S. and Canadian policy makers. The conflict helped trigger an economic crisis by reminding the world that Mexico is a developing country that has yet to solve many underlying economic and social problems. Moreover, the EZLN inspired campesinos, indigenous people, labor, and the urban poor of central and northern Mexico to express discontent with the PRI regime by engaging in violent protest and grassroots democratic campaigns. Mexican authorities have been forced to devote substantial resources to keep similar insurgencies from flaring up elsewhere.

Overview of the Chiapas Case

Geography. The southernmost state in Mexico, Chiapas shares a 962-kilometer international border with Guatemala and internal borders with the states of Tabasco, Veracruz, and Oaxaca. Chiapas has an area of 7.6 million hectares administered by 112 municipios, which are administrative areas centered on principal towns. Chiapas can be roughly divided into three regional bands running from northwest to southeast across the state: the Soconusco Coast along the Pacific Ocean, the Central Highlands, and the Eastern Lowlands (see Figure 1). The Soconusco Coast is dominated by great plantations of cash crops for export and some light industry served by modernizing port facilities. The Central Highlands rise 900 meters from the coast to the fertile lands of the Grijalva River and its tributaries. The Highlands encompass two major urban centers, Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital, and San Cristobal, a former seat of colonial power and now a popular tourist destination. Also in the Central Highlands is the municipio of Reforma, with abundant oil and natural gas reserves. The Eastern Lowlands include the Lacandon Rain Forest, which is bounded by the Usumacinta River and Guatemala to the east, the vast deforested area of the Marques de Comillas in the south, and the increasingly populous area of the Canadas at the foot of the Highlands. It is in this frontier region between the Highlands and the Eastern Lowlands that people have been most severely affected by environmental scarcities, and it is from here that the EZLN draws its support.

Figure 1, map of Geography and Political Economy of Chiapas, Mexico.

The southern states of Mexico are rich in oil, natural gas, forests, and farmland. In most southern states, and particularly in Chiapas, these resources are extracted by the national government for the use of Mexico’s central and northern states. Chiapas produces 5 percent of the nation’s oil, 12 percent of its natural gas, 46 percent of its coffee, and 48 percent of its hydroelectric power, yet only a tiny portion of the wealth generated from these resources is returned to the state for development programs – leaving it one of the poorest in Mexico.

Demography. Since 1970, the population of Chiapas has grown 3.6 percent annually, though the rate for the indigena population – speakers of the Mayan family of languages – has been 4.6 percent.6According to official Mexican statistics, the total indigena population in Chiapas is currently over 700,000. A full demographic assessment, however, must also include 60,000 indigena refugees who fled Guatemala between 1980 and 1985 and the annual fluctuation of another 60,000 to 120,000 Guatemalan migrant laborers.7 Most of the Chiapan and Guatemalan indigenas live in the Eastern Lowlands, a socially and economically marginalized region with inadequate educational and health infrastructure (see Appendixes 1 and 2 in print version of paper). Adding migration from Mexican states to the north, the population growth in the Canadas and other frontier communities has been between 8 and 12 percent annually for the last two decades (see Figure 2, available in print version).8

Class Relations. In the story of the Zapatista uprising, six groups are important. As mentioned above, the indigenas are the native peoples of this region. One-third of indigenas are unilingual speakers of an indigenous language, and 70 percent live in towns of 1,000 people or less. Spanish is at best their second language, and indigena cultures and languages cut across state and municipio boundaries. The state and municipio governments try, but often fail, to contain and manage these groups. The largest groups are the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Chol. The vast majority of the EZLN members are indigena coffee growers. The insurgents do not represent all of the people of the Eastern Lowlands; they represent the most marginal of those who have colonized the Lacandon in the past forty years.

The campesinos usually speak Spanish as their first language. As with the indigenas, they are generally subsistence farmers who produce their own food on their own small plots, on commonly owned plots, or on illegally occupied land. Their monetary income is derived from several sources, including raising cattle for large ranches in the region, producing small tradable items, working in tourist industries, engaging in seasonal labor in developing areas of the state, and growing cash crops that are sold to local marketing boards or directly exported.

The latifundistas are a relatively small class of landowners that has long controlled vast territories in the state. In the Eastern Lowlands, most of this land is devoted to capital-intensive cash crops for export: mainly coffee, cocoa, and citrus fruits. Distinct from but similar to the latifundistas are the rancheros, a relatively new group that has taken control of huge tracts of land with the encouragement of state subsidies. They are largely responsible for converting forestland into pastures for grazing, particularly around Palenque at the northern edge of the Lacandon. In Chiapas, both groups have withstood federal attempts at political reform and land redistribution and have retained control of state politics. Working for the PRI, affiliated parties, and the latifundistas are the caciques, political bosses who mobilize communities to support the PRI, exact tithes for traditional festivals, and benefit economically by containing opposition to the ruling regime.

Finally, a group of intellectuals and church and opposition leaders has helped organize indigenas and campesinos and encouraged them to express dissatisfaction with the unfulfilled political promises of the caciques and the oppression of the latifundistas. Many of this group fled political persecution in other parts of Mexico, and some sought refuge in the Chiapan Central Highlands after the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City.

According to the National Statistics and Geographical Information Institute (INEGI), in 1992, 44 percent of Mexico’s 84 million people lived in poverty, with 16 percent in extreme poverty. Fifty-six percent of the extreme poor are engaged in agriculture in rural areas.9 Class distinctions in Chiapas are acutely evident in statistics on the distribution of education, infrastructure, fuel supplies, wages, and economic activities (see Appendixes 1 and 2 in print version of paper, or link to selected statistics).

Four Main Forms of Landholding in Chiapas

Ejidos Land vested in peasant communities by agrarian reform, portions of which are often worked by individual campesinos. Until a constitutional change in 1992, the land could not be sold, rented, or used as collateral.
Official bioreserves and national parks Areas set aside for the conservation of local ecology, often superimposed upon already existing land titles.
Private landholdings Throughout Mexico, privately owned estates not exceeding five thousand hectares, except in Chiapas, where state legislators extended the limit up to eight thousand hectares. In Chiapas, illegal renting or ‘name lending’ (assigning neighboring land titles to family member) increases the actual size of many estates beyond the legal limit.
Comunidades agrarias Primarily land reclaimed by indigena communities from private owners who had seized their land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Race Relations. Distinctions of race in Chiapas are even more sharply defined than those of class. Statistics show that subordinate racial groups systematically receive less public investment in infrastructure, education, and health than the state or national average. Indigena populations are rigidly confined to a limited number of occupations, mainly in agriculture; most indigena workers earn the minimum wage or less. Poverty statistics reveal striking economic marginalization: in municipios where the indigena population is less than 10 percent, 18 percent of the people are at or below the poverty line; for municipios where the indigena population is between 10 and 40 percent, 46 percent of the people are poor; and for those where more than 70 percent of the population are indigena, over 80 percent are poor.10 These figures suggest that racism has consistently affected the design and implementation of public policy in Chiapas. Policy elites have rarely consulted indigena communities during the planning of welfare programs.

The combined effect of class and racial barriers faced by indigenas and campesinos drives them to rely increasingly on wage opportunities within the rapidly expanding market economy. The market generates an incentive structure that redirects this labor into the production of cash crops or into local industry to supplement subsistence agriculture. As a result, smallholders become bound to the prices and economic fluctuations of distant markets. In addition, the labor demands of oil exploration and production in the north, of industrial and hydroelectric projects on the coast and in the Central Highlands, and of latifundios on the coast provide many with seasonal cash income.11 Some workers use this income to buy consumer goods or fertilizers and herbicides for their farms. Elites – especially plantation owners and industrialists – have often profited from this increasing supply of cheap, competitive, and largely unorganized labor. Labor competition is accentuated by migrations from other states and Guatemala.

Environmental Scarcities in Chiapas

There are three types of environmental scarcity: Demand-induced scarcity is caused by population growth or increased per capita resource consumption; supply-induced scarcity is caused by degradation and depletion of environmental resources; and structural scarcity, the type most often stressed by political analysts, is caused by an unbalanced distribution of resources that severely affects less powerful groups in the society.12

Demand-Induced Scarcity: A Growing Population on a Limited Land Base

From 1970 to 1990, the population of Chiapas doubled, from 1,570,000 to 3,200,000, with an average annual growth rate of 3.6 percent. During this period, the growth rate for indigena populations was a percentage point higher, with the total almost tripling, from 288,000 to 716,000. Although these indigenas are spread throughout the state, many are concentrated in the Eastern Lowlands, especially the Lacandon. There, migrations of poor farmers from other parts of the state and of indigenas from Guatemala have combined with natural population growth to boost the total from 12,000 in 1960 to over 300,000 today.13

The 1983 eruption of the Chicon volcano in the northern Central Highlands displaced thousands of people into the Eastern Lowlands. Over the next few years, as many as 300,000 Guatemalans moved across the border during the civil conflicts in that country. Additionally, before several huge hydroelectric projects flooded high-quality farmland in the Grijalva basin, the government forcibly relocated tens of thousands of smallholders into the Eastern Lowlands.14 These people now live in one of the most marginal parts of the state, often without potable water, electricity, or infrastructure.15 In the 1960s and 1970s, the movement of seasonal labor to other parts of Chiapas relieved the increased population pressures on small farms, but with economic downturns in the mid-1980s, this option was no longer as easily available.

Although anecdotal evidence suggests that the Eastern Lowlands and the Central Highlands suffer the highest demand-induced scarcities of cropland, good data are available only for the state as a whole, as shown in Figure 3. This graph demonstrates that land availability per capita increased for much of this century as new lands, especially forestlands, were opened to cultivation. Around 1975, the curve turned sharply downward. There are significant regional differences, however, among the Soconusco Coast, the Central Highlands, and the Eastern Lowlands. Great plantations of coffee and maize have existed in the coastal region since before the Revolution, and labor demands of the coastal latifundios have helped absorb population growth and migration. In contrast, the Central Highlands have seen ever-higher population densities on marginal farmland.16

Figure 3, graph of Decline in Cultivated Land per Capita in Chiapas

Sources: Thomas Benjamin, A Rich Land a Poor People (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1989), 225, fig. 4, and 231, fig 5; Instituto Nacional de Estadistica, Geografia e Informatica, Anuario Estadistica del Estado De Chiapas, Editcion 1991 and Edicion 1994 (Mexico, D. F.: Instituto Nacaional de Estadistica, Geographia e Informatica, 1991 and 1994); Instituto Nacional de Estadistica, Geografia e Informatica, VII Censo Ejidal (Mexico, D. F.: Instituto Nacaional de Estadistica, Geographia e Informatica, 1994); Coordinacion General de Estadistica, Geografia E Informatica, Chiapas Basico 1987 (Coordinacion General de Estadistica, Geografia E Informatica; 1987); and George Collier, Personal Communication, 25 May 1995.

Particularly in and around San Cristobal, the growing population has consumed much of the forest and occupied most of the potentially arable land, greatly changing the local landscape. Even the expansion of municipio boundaries by some ten-thousand hectares every twenty years has not offset the demand for cropland reflected in the dramatic rise in the percentages of worked and pastoral land and the decrease in the percentage of forested area (see Table 1).17

Table 1: Population Size, Density and Land Use in San Cristóbal and Periphery, 1950-1990

Supply-Induced Scarcity: Deforestation and Soil Erosion

Supply-induced scarcity arises from degradation or depletion that shrinks the pool of resources. In Chiapas, the critical environmental resources are forests and cropland. Land degradation often begins with forest removal, continues with unsustainable agricultural practices, and ends with overgrazing by cattle, sheep, and goats.

Deforestation. When the Spanish found the Lacandon Rain Forest along the Usumacinta River and its tributaries, they called it the Desierto de los Lacandones – a “desolate” forested area of about 1.5 million hectares. Five hundred years of use have reduced the virgin forest by two-thirds, to about 500,000 hectares. Much of this deforestation has taken place in the last twenty-five years. The largest unfragmented tract of forest – and the largest remaining tract of tropical rain forest in Mexico – is in the Montes Azules Bioreserve. The reserve is also the most diverse ecosystem in Mexico and contains the only Mexican habitats for many endangered mammals.18

Over the years, the Lacandon Rain Forest supplied wood for local harvesting and international export and topsoil for monocultural production and cattle grazing. Each of these natural services is now seriously taxed. While the average annual rate of deforestation for tropical forests since the 1950s in Mexico has been 2.44 percent, some parts of the Eastern Lowlands have been deforested at 4 percent per year, and Palenque in the northeast has lost a total of 76,000 hectares at 12.4 percent per year (Figure 4).19 Moreover, the Lacandon Rain Forest has been increasingly fragmented by squatters’ settlements and rancheros, boosting the amount of pastureland within the forest by 200 percent between 1980 and 1988.20 According to the most comprehensive study of forest loss, between 1974 and 1986 the Lacandon Rain Forest was reduced by 7.7 percent a year. In all, 42 percent of the newly exposed area was converted to pasturelands, 42 percent was overtaken by secondary forests, 6.7 percent was lost to severe soil erosion, and only 3.7 percent was ever used for agriculture.21 The fragmentation of forests by road construction, hydroelectric and oil projects, logging, and slash-and-burn or pastureland agriculture has also disrupted the overall integrity of the forest ecosystem. In general, as forests are lost, grassland spreads, as indicated in Figure 5.

2017-06-21T18:26:04+00:00 June 1st, 1995|Academic, Case Studies, Project on EPS|