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Friday, 01 July 2011

Volunteering in Chiapas

Written by Celine Massa
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Untitled 3Chiapas, Mexico has always been a place of wonder for me. Since I first heard about the Zapatistas, an indigenous led revolutionary movement that has broken society’s structures, to create a new and improved society. I was privileged enough to live with the people of this inspiring movement for three months and learn about their intriguing and diverse culture, natural surroundings and the struggles of its people, through my internship in Mexico.

Located in the very South of Mexico, the state of Chiapas is enveloped by mountainous jungle, enshrined in rich indigenous traditions and home to many ancient Mayan kingdoms that can make any person imagine the intrepid stories that took place here. Chiapas is known for its abundant vegetation and precious biodiversity. 

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I traveled to Chiapas for three months to participate in an internship at a small grassroots organization working to promote women’s health and support women’s groups, some being Zapatista communities, located in Palenque. Organised by the Edmund Rice Centre through their Lilla (International Women’s Network) internship program, I was given an orientation to the social and political situation in Chiapas by various different organizations located in San Cristobal, the cultural capital of the state and a ‘magic city’ (a term used by the government to denote the particular traditional Mexican lifestyle).

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Here I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit a Zapatista community (a Caracol, meaning snail in Spanish), located in the heartland of Chiapas, a two to three hour drive from San Cristobal in beautiful picturesque mountains. I handed over my passport upon entering the community’s grounds, as if I was entering a new country and I was then approved to meet with the ‘good government junta’, an autonomous government completely separate from the Mexican government and entirely democratic. I was greeted with open arms into the government house and time was made to answer all of my questions with eagerness and pride, even though there was an important assembly to take place that night.

Untitled 1smAs I sat in front of a diverse group of females and males, old and young, I listened to the descriptions they offered explaining the community that they have formed. The rebellion, starting on the 1st of January 1994, has been ‘luchando’ (fighting) against the capitalist regime that has devoured and stripped natural resources from the land while exploiting and oppressing its original owners. The response has been to set up a new governing style, one that takes into account all its citizens voices, allowing everyone to have control over decisions and issues affecting them. The communities are also attempting to be entirely self-sustainable, relying as much as possible from their own community for all their needs as well as conserving their own cultural practices.

Over the next three months, I hastily got to know the situation that people, indigenous and non-indigenous, face in Chiapas: land grabs, environmental contamination, few employment opportunities, poverty, exploitation of the environment for tourist dollars, and a highly militarized region exposed to regular attacks by paramilitary gangs.

Untitled 6My work consisted of creating a recycling campaign to encourage the people of Palenque to reduce, reuse and recycle. Recycling in Chiapas is a new concept, one which hasn’t been very developed and isn’t in many peoples conscience yet. There is more thought upon the day-to-day struggles of earning an income and having enough food to eat as opposed to recycling. But little-by-little mentalities are changing and consciousness is being raised. The women’s groups that the organization works with were all interested in incorporating recycling within their activities, whether it be using recycled material to create crafts to then sell or collecting materials to be recycled.               

I left after taking part in a successful recycling campaign launch but most importantly, having shared some experiences, stories and knowledge with local communities in Chiapas – a definite gift in itself.

The one word of advice I have to give to anyone visiting this gorgeous state is to try and support local communities through everything that you participate in. Many do not have a reliable income and have suffered much abuse by being the original owners of the land. By choosing eco-tourism, you will be choosing to support local communities and the environment instead of exploitation and multinationals.

For more information:

Chiapas is unique travel experience where you can delve into the jungle, discover ancient Mayan cities deep in the heart of nature, experience amazing natural waterfalls, lakes and mountains, learn about indigenous culture and traditions as well the fascinating social/political situation.

You can find out more information by going to: - official government website on Chiapas - Indigenous Tourism Network of Mexico (in Spanish) - The official Zapatista website

Particular places of interest:
- Palenque – Large Mayan ruins site – big tourist attraction
- Yaxchilan – Mayan ruins set deep into the jungle – amazing!
- San Cristobal – Cultural capital of Chiapas
- Chamula – Village near San Cristobal that has a famous church which combines traditional indigenous ceremonies and shaman rituals
- Agua Azul – A group of magical waterfalls in a small village 2 ½ hours near Palenque or San Cristobal
- Misol-Ha – One frighteningly big waterfall that you can swim in
- Sumidero Canyon – By boat, 1 ½ hours from San Cristobal
-  Lagunas de Montebello National Park

©Celine Massa

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012