Native Americans Create Their Own NAFTA

A variety of projects encourage Indians to engage in cross-border trade

Thousands of masked Mayan Indian guerrillas fought - and more than a hundred died - in the narrow cobblestone streets of this colonial city 3-1/2 years ago when they declared war against the Mexican government. Their intent was stated by their leaders: to warn of Indian society's impending dismemberment under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But now, some of the most loyal allies of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation - prominent Indian leaders here in Chiapas State and elsewhere - are proposing alternative trade networks that would take full advantage of the new continental order by trading with Indians in other countries. Some critics here, however, worry that American models of development are inappropriate for Latin America.

Aside from Indian casinos in Mexico, Indians are working on a wide variety of projects:

* As much as 8 million pounds of coffee from the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas will soon enter the US market through Land O' Lakes Inc., a non-Indian farmer co-op in the United States - thanks to American Indian brokers. The company also plans to import vegetables and shrimp from Yaqui Indian communities in Sonora.

* Bags of "Guatemalan Peace Coffee" will soon feature the visage of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Rigoberta Mench Tum, a Quich Maya human rights activist who once picked coffee and is now promoting fair trade at international forums.

* The American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Centers, an offshoot of the American Indian Movement, plan to develop a business marketing and training center in Chiapas.

* Maya-Ik, an Indian-owned, nonprofit trading company in Chiapas, last year took 5,000 tourists to Indian communities, Mayan ruins, and nature sites in southern Mexico and the Yucatn Peninsula. The company also ships coffee, honey, and crafts.

The sum of these projects has been alternately called "fair trade," "NAFTA between Indians," and a "Native American Free Trade Agreement."

It's also being called good business.

"Many of us have something to offer the international market, but right now it's corrupted," says Bill Means, an Oglala Lakota Indian who chairs the International Indian Treaty Council and the Indigenous Trading Company - the group that's brokering the Land O' Lakes deals. "We always provided either labor, raw materials, or land. We're not going to do that anymore. We have to create our own economy."

Mr. Means has attended a slew of Zapatista conventions and other Indian-rights events to promote his vision of Pan-American Indian economic unity. But some say Means is ignoring the Mexicans' communitarian values and, as with his offer to build an Indian casino in Mexico, is operating more out of self-interest than philanthropy.

"If he [Means] wants to trade with indigenous communities, he's free to do what he wants," says Jess Snchez, a leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Front, the guerrilla army's legal political wing. "But seeing as how the Zapatista army is in a war situation and is trying to transform the country, I don't think their main objective is to establish commercial networks."

Snchez says that, in the current Mexican economy, peasants must sell to government-owned buyers, their incomes are kept down through price ceilings, and they are urged to sell their land to logging or mining companies. He paints a picture of Indian peasants who cannot escape mounting exploitation by state and multinational entities.

That's why the Zapatistas and 56 ethnic groups in Mexico are trying to negotiate a constitutional change that would grant Indians limited political and economic autonomy, Snchez says. "Autonomy is necessary not only for survival," he adds, "but also for development."

John Kearney, an Irish-American consultant for the Indigenous Trading Company, says alternative trade can help by boosting farmers' incomes. Though the price for high-quality roasted coffee is now at a 10-year high, from $4.50 to $12 per pound, growers make $1.40 to $3 because they don't roast it themselves. So the ITC and Land O' Lakes may soon build a roasting facility in Mexico.

Other Indian activists insist the economics of Indian trade are less important than the politics. Some even argue that it fulfills a grand pre-Columbian prophecy about unity of all peoples of the Americas - the eagle of the north meeting the condor of the south. "There's always a spiritual dimension to everything, to share the blessings of Mother Earth with our relatives," says Tupac Enrique, coordinator of the ecumenical Indian group Tonatierra in Phoenix, Ariz. "In our concept there is not a dollar sign at the end of the equation."

In Mexico, this means taking control of cultural symbols for tourism revenue as well as for ethnic pride. Maya-Ik is talking with the National Institute of Anthropology and History about the possibility of transferring Mayan ruins - which the project's coordinator, Margarito Xub Ruiz Hernandez, calls "our religious sites" - to the care of indigenous groups.

Other organizations, such as the San Francisco-based Global Exchange, promote their "reality tours" in the same region, also buying a small quantity of Mayan goods for US "fair-trade" outlet stores. But Ruiz says Indian-run tourism reflects a deeper commitment to the welfare of the communities.

With the few Indian tribes that claim members on both sides of the US-Mexico border, the commitment is deeper still. Arturo Garca, one of a "rare breed" of cross-border Indian activists, has been working as a technical adviser to the O'odham people in both Arizona and Mexico's Sonora State since 1983.

"Historically, the US-Mexico border has been a barrier to Indian unity," Garca says from his cellular phone during a commute from his Arizona home to his northern Mexico office. But recently, whenever indigenous communities in Sonora lacked a tractor, or a well, or alfalfa seeds, their American cousins have pitched in and helped out.

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