From Scarcity To Abundance: stories from the streets of Oaxaca > by Joel Catchlove

| | |


There´s something brewing on the streets of Oaxaca. The genteel colonial centre is vividly scrawled with graffiti and much of it is political. Spray paint depicts everything from giant, masked Lucha Libre wrestlers with the caption La lucha sigue (The struggle continues), to repeated references to the Zapatistas, the indigenous-based rebel movement in the neighbouring state of Chiapas. Small, scrawny figures in the trademark Zapatista ski-masks adorn street signs, the masked face of Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos appears in bold black on freshly painted walls, while on another, stencils depict a masked indigenous woman harvesting corn beneath the line "corn is our life". Amid the Zapatistas, another line repeats itself, in stencil or running spraypaint: Oaxaca Libre, 14 de Junio, No se olvida (Free Oaxaca, June 14, Do not forget).
While it scarcely registered in the Australian media, and few media outlets anywhere fully grasped the depth of what was happening, for five months in 2006, the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca was, as Al Giordano describes "a government-free zone", "not governed from above, but rather self-governed by popular assembly.” What began as a teachers´ strike for better wages and conditions grew into a massive, non-violent, broad-based social movement that drove the corrupt and universally despised governor into hiding, and laid the foundations for a truly participatory democracy. As the people of Oaxaca realised that the corrupt government needed them more than they needed it, they began a shift (to use a phrase of Oaxaca´s Universidad de la Tierra) from the scarcity of dependence to the abundance of community self-reliance.
Oaxaca has a heritage of community self-government in its diverse indigenous population. Four out of five municipalities in the state still govern themselves through a process of communal assemblies, known as "practices and customs" or usos y costumbres, a system that doesn´t acknowledge political parties and functions by consensus. Furthermore, as Nancy Davies describes, "statewide, the greater part of public works in four hundred small communities are still carried out by citizen tequios [the traditional indigenous system of unpaid community service] that accomplish a variety of tasks like building roads; repairing churches, bringing in the harvest; and sharing the expenses of weddings, baptisms and deaths." With state and federal levels of Mexican government apparently riddled with corruption and with governments everywhere increasingly wedded to neoliberal economic policies that privilege the health of corporations over the health of communities, the critical importance of community self-reliance is becoming increasingly clear. It is this self-reliance that two Oaxaqueño organisations, Casa Chapulin and the Universidad de la Tierra, seek to cultivate.


The Casa Chapulin collective (named for Oaxaca´s famous snack of fried grasshoppers or chapulines) was born in the adrenalin rush of Oaxaca´s five months of community government. As Diana Denham, one of the initiators of the collective explains, Casa Chapulin formed after Oaxaca´s corrupt governor Ulises Ruiz Diaz ordered police to attack a teacher´s sit-in in the town´s main plaza with helicopters and teargas on 14 June 2006, unsuspectingly triggering an all-out revolt. Realising that much mainstream media was unable to comprehend what was happening in Oaxaca, Casa Chapulin initially adopted a role of independent journalists, documenting and broadcasting the uprising around the world. As the movement grew, and the retaliation of the government and its henchmen became more vicious, the collective also conducted informal human rights accompaniment with threatened participants in the social movement.
As Denham told us, the struggle for the media was a key battle of the Oaxaca uprising. One of Casa Chapulin´s most recent projects is the publishing of a book, entitled Teaching Rebellion: stories from the grassroots mobilisation in Oaxaca, that documents the astounding story of the uprising through the testimonials of the citizens involved. Through stories like the “March of Pots and Pans”, Denham highlights both the importance of community-controlled media, and how the uprising inspired the involvement of people from all backgrounds and sectors of society. In early August 2006, thousands of women from all over Oaxaca descended on the state television and radio studios, brandishing saucepans and cooking utensils. They entered, requested half an hour of airtime to air their grievances and when they were refused, they peacefully occupied the entire complex. The employees left, and the women ran the station for three weeks, broadcasting live news on the movement, together with documentaries and stories on local and global issues and social movements. When the government retook Channel 9 by force, the movement responded within hours, non-violently seizing all eleven of Oaxaca´s commercial radio stations in a demonstration of popular power. By noon the following day, the social movement had voluntarily returned all but two, which the movement retained for its own uses.
Such astonishing collective strength was possible through the formation of the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, or APPO). The APPO formed within days of the June 14 attack on the teachers, drawing together hundreds of people representing a broad array of unions, social, political, human rights and nongovernmental organisations, collectives, farmers, indigenous people, church figures and citizens from communities across the state. While the APPO provided a forum for action and governance across the community, Denham suggests that part of its strength was its simultaneously decentralised nature: that everyone who participates is a representative of the APPO. As the popular catch-cry went, “Todos somos APPO” (We are all APPO). Such decentralisation meant that the APPO was suddenly everywhere. Pirate radio stations (Mexican law only permits commercial or state radio, making all community radio stations illegal) were APPO, students organising in their universities were APPO, people taking action in their barrios were APPO, housewives storming radio stations were APPO.

Casa Chapulin now focuses on seven main areas: gender, popular education, immigration, urban agriculture, community based economies, community-controlled media, and human rights and political prisoners. While it runs weekly community workshops and hosts guest speakers on a wide array of topics, the main focus of Casa Chapulin (and its sister collective Casa de la Paz in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas) is education for social change, through a program of hosting and educating activists in local issues. This "activist exchange" is intended to provide participants with a spark for community work in their own home communities, facilitating the building of broad political networks and increasing access to ideas.


The Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth) was born on the crest of another era of democratic promise for Mexico. The 2000 federal election carried with it the possibility of finally dislodging the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a notoriously corrupt organisation that had rusted in power for the past 70 years (Incidentally, the PRI is the same party Oaxaca´s Governor Ruiz represents).
Meanwhile, in the northeastern highlands of Oaxaca, the Mixe indigenous group had begun expelling teachers from their communities. While acknowledging that education was essential for their children, the Mixe asserted that the schooling system as it stood was one of the most powerful tools of cultural destruction. Mixe children were forced to attend school for six or eight hours every day, rather than working in the fields or participating in community life and thus learning the necessary skills for contribution and participation in Mixe society. Furthermore, formal schooling emphasised a set of values that didn´t reflect the community´s needs: values that encouraged students to move away to city universities and pursue careers in urban centres far from their culture and communities.
From this context, founding member Sergio Beltrán tells us, the Universidad de la Tierra emerged. Placing community self-reliance and self-determination at the core of its educational principles, the Universidad is determined to reclaim the sense of the university as a public space for debating and sharing knowledge. The Universidad has no teachers, no curriculum and no grades. Rather, it views itself as a community of learners that facilitate the seeking of knowledge.
Potential students (or “learners” as Beltrán calls them) approach the Universidad with a proposal for what they would like to learn. According to the Universidad´s criteria, the proposal, which often takes the form of a concrete project for a community, must be socially balanced (it must be relevant and make a contribution to the person´s community), ecologically sensitive and economically feasible. Advisors will then work with the learner for up to three months to develop a ´path of learning´, helping them to find the resources they need, putting them in touch with people already working in their field of interest or who have initiated similar projects, or supporting them to become apprentices in their area, underscored by a belief in “learning by doing”. "Everyone will answer your questions", says Beltrán, "but no one will tell you what to do. You are in control of your learning process."
The Universidad´s focus on self-reliance extends well beyond its formal "academic" work - even as broad as that is. One of the Universidad´s long-standing projects is CACITA, (Centro Autónomo para la Creación Intercultural de Tecnologías Apropriadas) an appropriate technology workshop in the suburbs of Oaxaca. Beltrán emphasises that truly appropriate technology is technology that can be “appropriated”. That is, it is adaptable to a range of contexts and can be developed with a range of local materials by the community itself. Solar panels, he argues, are not appropriate technology. Instead, they only represent a shift in dependence from one industrially produced technology (for example, a fossil fuel power plant) to another.

In mid-2008, the Universidad initiated Guerreros Sin Armas (Warriors Without Weapons). Originating in Brazil, Guerreros Sin Armas is based on the principles of non-violent communication. Through collective work, the project supports a community in building a desired project using resources and skills from within the community.
With Guerreros Sin Armas, Colonia El Diamante, a neighbourhood with no public services, no municipal sewer, and only partly connected to electricity, took vacant land and using only their own resources converted it into a public park, no small thing in a city that has only 2 metres of green space per person. As Beltrán highlights, projects such as these are very much about transforming a sense of scarcity to a realisation of the abundance already present within a community´s knowledge, skills and resources.

While the Mexican government ultimately unleashed the full strength of its military and paramilitary forces to bring Oaxaca back under its rule, the seeds of self-determination continue to take root in Oaxaca and beyond. Oaxaca´s experiment in self-government, and the organisations like Casa Chapulin and the Universidad de la Tierra that continue to work to build resilient communities offer a model and inspiration for communities everywhere to begin a transition to the abundance of self-reliance.

- September 2008, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico & Huehuetenango, Guatemala

References and further reading:

The People Decide: Oaxaca´s Popular Assembly, Nancy Davies, Narco News Books

Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the grassroots mobilisation in Oaxaca,Diana Denham & CASA Collective, PM Press

The Oaxaca Commune and Mexico’s Autonomous Movements, Gustavo Esteva, Ediciones Basta!

CASA Chapulin,

Universidad de la Tierra,

Guerreros Sin Armas,