Agency against the Anthropocene within the EZLN

—Danae Tapia

Having reviewed EZLN’s cosmologies and approaches to timescales, this section analyses the concept of agency across Zapatistas’ practices in relation with the environment and the concept of Anthropocene.

Donna Haraway is one of the many scholars and activists who had denounced the defeating narrative that the Anthropocene provides, she states that this concept, as well as the Capitalocene, “lend themselves too readily to cynicism, defeatism and self-certain, and self-fulfilling predictions, like the “game over, too late” discourse” (Haraway 2016 p.56). This is a scenario that seems to leave very little room to action: the scientific evidence on the unavoidable destruction of our ecosystem keeps growing and, as Bruno Latour indicates, “we are supposed to do something but we’re not told what to do” (Latour 2017 pos.1067).

In terms of practical ecological recommendations, the EZLN promotes ways of action that do not differ that much from the ones developed in the West: renewable energies, promotion of scientific research, the conservation of natural resources, recycling and reutilisation (Santomé Kau 2017). But the difference between the mere adoption of these measures and the Zapatista practices, resides in the political system and the autonomous social structures that the EZLN built.

Probably the major issue addressed by the EZLN is the reclamation of land. In their first declaration they speak about the land as “our soil” and establish the suspension of the extraction of natural resources in every place that is controlled by the EZLN (EZLN 1993). This demand is also central for many indigenous communities around the world though this claim is never fulfilled because in the capitalist system the possibility of revoking corporations’ land rights is never an option. However, scholars as Naomi Klein provide an optimist vision regarding this topic, explaining that there is an increasing number of non-natives that feel appealed with the ways of life of indigenous groups in which the relation with the land is not purely extractive (Klein 2014 p.370).

In order to consider the Zapatista movement as an alternative to the Anthropocene, then it is necessary to question the capitalist paradigm. This theoretical exercise inevitably collides with the very notion of Anthropocene, at least with the notion used by Bruno Latour in which he critiques the idea of “reconciliation” or unification between nature and society. To Latour, this proposition is impossible and not convenient because it renders invisible the human footprints on the ecosystem, although he believes that we can circumvent this impossibility by rejecting this dialectical reconciliation and just accepting this dividing line between the social and the natural (Latour 2017 pos.2917). While Latour does not center his work in a critique of the capitalist system, he does indeed acknowledge the political work that surrounds the Anthropocene discussion, for example, he is very critical of the ecological call on blaming people for the climate crisis using scientific proofs to perform this accusation full of moral indignation, he calls these discourses “strategic essentialism” (Latour 2017 pos.1126). The alternative that Latour provides to this strategy is found in his idea of Gaia as “an occasion for a return to the Earth where sciences, politics and religions are finally reduced to more modest and more earthbound definitions of their former vocations” (Latour 2014 pos.162). This localist drive, opposed to the planetaristic visions of the Anthropocene, finds so much resonance at the EZLN practices.

“A world where many worlds fit” is the claiming of the second declaration of the Zapatistas (EZLN 1994). This is coherent with the reality of the heterogeneous composition of the Zapatista structure, in which members of different indigenous groups belong to the community. Actually Chiapas, the area where the EZLN is based, is the most diverse of Mexico in terms of ethnicities with twelve officially recognised groups. This multiplicity of cultures is widely addressed by the EZLN but at the same time the group self-identifies with the Mexican identity (Soriano 2013). “A world where many worlds fit” is a claim that also resonates with the idea of a sympoietic system presented by Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble: a way of organization without defined self-spatial or temporal boundaries, where information and control are distributed among components. According to Haraway, these systems are evolutionary and have the potential for surprising change (Haraway 2016 p.33).

The EZLN has indeed these distributed forms of organizing that Haraway describes, the most celebrated is the one of “caracoles” which could be translated as “snails” though it refers to the circular form of a snail’s shell:

The origin of the term demonstrates an advanced understanding of the aesthetic aspects of the notion of interconectedness, especially because it has a solid coherence with their decision-making structure. The caracoles are a non-hierarchical way of organising and they carry an idea that allows its members to centrifugally expand their practices but also to follow a centripetal path so the communities can look inside themselves and reflect (Marcos 2003).

Even some degree of poetry is involved in the constitution of the caracoles, a poetry with evident relation to Earth, this is very visible in their names:

  • Madre de los caracoles del mar de nuestros sueños (Mother of the caracoles of the sea of our dreams)
  • Torbelliino de nuestras palabras (Whirlwind of our words)
  • Resistencia hacia un nuevo amanecer (Resistance towards a new dawn)
  • El caracol que habla para todos (The caracol that speaks for everyone)
  • Resistencia y rebeldía por la humanidad (Resistance and rebellion for the humanity)

“On-the-ground collectives are capable of inventing new practices of imagination, resistance, revolt, repair and mourning, and of living and dying well. They remind us that the established disorder is not necessary; another world is not urgently needed, it is possible, but not if we are ensorcelled in despair, cynicism, or optimism, and the belief/disbelief discourse of Progress”, says Donna Haraway (2016 p.51). The Zapatista movement has been able to build a model in which their political vision has found an echo in their way of living, and this model has had a direct impact on the land since they are able to block the capitalist exploitation by the use of arms and minds. The Zapatista practice can also relate to the proposals of Naomi Klein, who advocates for interdependence rather than hyperindividualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. In any case, when thinking of the EZLN as an alternative to the Anthropocene, it is extremely important to not oversee their radical constitution. They are able to subsist in Chiapas because of their organized armed resistance that has defended them from decades of militar attacks perpetrated by state agents.

To solve the climate crisis, Naomi Klein recommends a strategic alliance between climate activists and activists in the various movements for social justice. This proposition has also been adopted beforehand by the EZLN, they have succeeded in the building of alliances with groups that do not just belong to the political thinking realm. They invest in military aspects, in economic exchange, but also they have been very effective in their communication practices. They are expert users of digital media, great artists and they have achieved a respected level of international solidarity, Noam Chomsky actually attributes the EZLN permanence to a certain global repudiation of any eventual military action destined to exterminate them (Chomsky 2011).

This multi-sectorial approach carried by the Zapatistas turns to be a useful strategy against the Anthropocene because it contributes to the group’s sustainability but also because it shows us that without a radical political shift no effective change will occur since capitalist-approved practices such as green energies or recycling are certainly not enough in this scheme in which the neoliberal economic system is leading us to an exponential overconsumption (Klein 2014). There is no way to ensure that the Zapatista movement is going to overcome the climate crisis, in fact every revolution has to deal with the uncertainty of its future, however, the EZLN constitutes an example with such commitment to the radical transformation of the dominant paradigms that they should be considered as an obvious reference when studying human agency. Moreover, their approach to agency is consistent with the ideas of scholars dedicated to environmental studies who demand an active role of human agency; this is the case of Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble and her vision of a human being that is truly present right next to the crisis; or Bruno Latour who proposes that human agency should share agency with the things that lost their autonomy, forming a space for many agencies (Latour 2014 p.15).

Ursula Heise (2017) situates the problem of agency at the centre of the environmental humanities, she describes two conceptual tensions: between humans’ agency as a species and the inequalities that shape and constrain the agencies of different kinds of humans; and between human and nonhuman forms of agency. “En la voz de la tierra habló nuestro dolor” (“In the voice of the Earth our pain has spoken”) (EZLN 1994). The Zapatistas, challenging notions of space and time, are addressing these two tensions: they have acknowledge our ethnic differences, our power relations and they have respectfully heard those agents that do not belong to the human realm. They are starting at the very center of a small caracol but the spirit of their revolution is larger than life.


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Heise, U. (2017). Introduction: Planet, Species, Justice -and the Stories we Tell about them. The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities. U. Heise, J. Christensen and M. Niemann, Routledge.

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Latour, B. (2017). Facing Gaia. Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, Polity.

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