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  • Developing Zapatista Autonomy: Conflict and NGO Involvement in Rebel Chiapas
  • Neil F. Harvey
Developing Zapatista Autonomy: Conflict and NGO Involvement in Rebel Chiapas. By Niels Barmeyer. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009. Pp. xxvi, 282. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Glossary. References. Index. $29.95 paper.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) caught international attention when it rose up against the Mexican government on New Year's Day of 1994. This new kind of rebel movement sought not to win power but to democratize the country from below. Central to this goal has been the effort of indigenous peoples to resist neoliberal policies and create alternative forms of development that are decided through democratic debate. During the past 15 years, many scholars and journalists have debated the causes and consequences of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas. Niels Barmeyer's book is one of the first to examine changes at the community and regional level and adds valuable new perspectives [End Page 592] on the practical difficulties of building grassroots autonomy. While generally sympathetic to the Zapatistas' struggles to build such alternatives, Barmeyer also notes some problems that weakened the movement during the period from 1995 to 2001.

One of the strengths of this analysis is that it is drawn from fieldwork carried out in several communities. Some of these are older villages that were divided by political affiliation, while others are newer settlements located on lands recuperated after the uprising. In the latter case, communities tend to be more homogenous in their Zapatista affiliation and emerged somewhat stronger from the turmoil of the late 1990s, in comparison to the more divided villages which saw the loss of many members. Barmeyer cites the EZLN's failure to defend the villages against army offensives in February 1995, together with the policy of refusing any government projects after 1996 as the main reasons for this loss of support in the second half of the decade. The hardships of living without basic goods and services proved too much for many. However, as the author points out, political affiliations in Zapatista territory are rather fluid and reflect pragmatic considerations as well as longer-term commitments. The EZLN has therefore had to compete with the Mexican state in providing access to land, education, health care, and productive projects. In doing so, it has had to maintain its appeal among national and international NGOs, and it is the relationship between outside NGOs and members of the Zapatista communities that forms the core of Barmeyer's analysis.

As a participant in several NGO projects in Chiapas, the author is able to provide a firsthand account of local interactions between indigenous base supporters and the staff of NGOs. His personalized accounts of two indigenous leaders who found work with NGOs is illustrative of the kinds of problems that can arise unintentionally, the most worrying of which is the distancing between leaders and other community members. Although the Zapatistas have responded to such dilemmas by periodically reforming their own internal structures, Barmeyer sees the potential for clientelism to reappear in a fashion that is reminiscent of how the Mexican state implements its rural development projects. The key distinction in how Zapatista autonomy operates resides in the rotation of community and regional authorities, a practice designed to prevent the emergence of a new and permanent class of leaders.

This book offers many lessons. On the one hand, Barmeyer highlights the diversity of communities that participate in the Zapatista movement and gives due weight to their quite different local histories. On the other, it calls on NGOs to carefully examine the impact of their projects on communities that may already be divided. Rather than adding to conflictive tensions, Barmeyer believes that NGOs could potentially act as mediators of local disputes and help avoid their further escalation. As such, this book will be of interest to students, researchers, solidarity activists, and NGO workers who share with Barmeyer the hope of building more socially just and inclusive forms of development in Chiapas and beyond. [End Page 593]

Neil F. Harvey
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico


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