Barmeyer, Niels. Developing Zapatista Autonomy: Conflict and NGO Involvement in Rebel Chiapas.

Author:Striffler, Steve
Position:Book review

Barmeyer, Niels. Developing Zapatista Autonomy: Conflict and NGO Involvement in Rebel Chiapas. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2009. 282 pages. Paper, $29.95.

Developing Zapatista Autonomy by German anthropologist Niels Barmeyer is one of the best books on the Zapatistas to date. It is a remarkably even-handed and insightful look at the Zapatista movement's struggle to become independent of the Mexican state, a struggle that has at once been heroic and incomplete, inspiring and divisive, marginal and momentous, global and local. What Barmeyer ultimately explores is a contradiction, and an attempt to resolve that contradiction, which has defined much of Latin America during the past quarter century. This is precisely what makes this book, and the Zapatistas in general, so interesting and relevant.

The contradiction is simple enough. Experience has taught marginal groups, and particularly indigenous peoples, that decades of interaction and struggle with and against the state, whether it be development agencies, schools, or the military, has often delivered little more than continued poverty while serving to create divisions within communities. At the same time, if one wants schools, roads, credit, land, and access to markets in short, something resembling development--there has been little alternative but to continue interacting with the state, despite the fact that history has shown that such efforts will, in all likelihood, perpetuate poverty and conflict.

Thus far, the Zapatistas' attempt to break this cycle has been radical, thoroughgoing, and fascinating. In 1996, two years after their initial insurrection, the Zapatistas decided that enough was enough and instructed their village support base to reject anything coming from the government, whether it be a teacher's salary, subsidized goods, or a health initiative. State resources, even state presence, was rejected because "it" had not solved problems or raised living standards, but was more than ever working to divide communities and undermine Zapatista support within Chiapas.

This is the basic story that Barmeyer tells in Developing Zapatista Autonomy: How did this contradiction develop over time? That is, what is the historical relationship between the state and indigenous communities in Chiapas? Why, in 1996, did Zapatista leaders take the movement in this radical direction--breaking relations with the Mexican state--when many of its constituents had historically...

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