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Defending the Territory: A conversation with Pedro Uc Be

Pedro Uc Be is a Maya poet, a translator, an organizer, a mobilizer, living in the community of Buctzotz, some 90 km northeast of Mérida, the main city of the region of Yucatán. This region is located on the peninsula that separates the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and is one of the thirty-two states of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. The biodiversity of Yucatán is extremely varied and rich, and has a unique ecosystem encompassing very different types of forests (mangroves, tropical, subtropical, seasonal evergreen, savannahs, and more). The conservation of this ecosystem is also due to the protection of Maya People on the territory and their very complex and holistic land management practices and knowledges around care for the Earth, something that enabled them to co-inhabit the natural world for thousands of years, without destroying it and while going through extreme changes and natural disasters.

I met Pedro in early 2021, when he introduced me to the work of The Assembly for the Defence of the Mayan Territory and it is their work this conversation focuses on. Particularly, their starting points and motivations, their strategies and forms of organizing. The hope is that such a story and the experiences it speaks of may be inspirational for similar but different situations, for collective and local-community driven forms of fighting extraction, land expropriation or ecological devastation.

It is especially a way of reading, or of listening, to the words of people who have been living sustainably for centuries and thanks to whom the majority of the remaining world’s biodiversity is protected. Communities who keep on finding ways to defend their territories and all lives on them despite colonization, marginalization, expropriation, the effects of industrial agriculture or of mega projects for mass tourism.

A short conversation that may get the reader a tiny bit closer to understanding how to eventually come together for what is a situation we are fundamentally codependent in and co-responsible for.

AA: Can you briefly describe the Assembly for the Defence of the Mayan Territory?
What does it do and where does the need for its work come from?

PU: On January 13th, 2018, those of us who are Mayan peasants, local property owners, collectives, children, women and men, affected in our territory by development megaprojects that occupy large tracts of land for the monoculture of soy, for the construction of pig farms and wind and photovoltaic parks, large hotels, restaurants and their subdivisions, and finally the ill-named Mayan train, gathered together in the city of Mérida. After listening to each other and sharing our words among the people from twenty-five Mayan communities of the Yucatan Peninsula, we agreed to organise ourselves into an assembly in defence of the Mayan territory under the name of Múuch’ Xíinbal (we walk together).
A Follow-up Commission (FC) was appointed to implement the agreements made. The work of this commission revolves around at least five strategies: media or outreach, the legal strategy, alliances with other organisations or collectives, political and organisational community training. The Assembly meets at least once a year, but the Follow-up Commission is in constant contact with the participating communities with which it works. As communities directly affected by the interests of economic and political power, we saw the need to vindicate with all our efforts the values of our Mayan identity with the message “The land is neither for sale nor for rent”.

As of today, after our first years of going on this journey together, we have discovered that our path of resistance and organization is the right one. We have been building this together, it is a task or “fajina” as we say in these areas; some of us from the CS are in charge of collecting, filtering, editing, synthesizing and translating the information in the national and local media into the Mayan language, that is already cleansed of the power of propaganda, in order to bring it to the communities in need. So, we generate the reflection of the communities that receive it, and begin to make agreements. We produce texts, infographics, videos, audios and even a podcast every Monday in Mayan and Spanish that we call “No-Radio Múuch’ Xíinbal”, as material for informative work, reflection and training in the communities. We implement a community political training program with young people from communities in a fight to conserve their lands and territories, once a month we meet to develop themes around identity, rights, milpa, rites, etc. to vindicate and strengthen our link to our territory. We seek support and legal accompaniment for the communities that wish to bring their land defense cases before the corresponding justice instances such as the Unitary Agrarian Court, the Federal Judiciary or the Prosecutor’s Office if necessary. For dissemination we implement a strategy in social media through the publication of information that we produce from the communities as their defense processes, their demands, their pronouncements, their press conferences, their infographics etc. Finally, we take Mayan literature to the communities, such as poetry and stories or narratives to strengthen the language, culture and identity.

AA: Thank you so much Pedro, your work is amazing. That’s why I want to focus on delving deeper into the practices to realise so many layers and strands of work. In fact, I’m sure that your strategies are incredibly inspiring for many. First of all, how did you manage to gather so many people in 2018? I mean this literally, how did you bring people together from so many distant communities? A Facebook call? Someone wrote a poster? WhatsApp messages that went viral?

At the beginning of 1986 I worked as coordinator for a non-formal theological training project that included study centres throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, as well as in the state of Chiapas. This role allowed me to visit for the first time most of the Mayan communities to conduct workshops from the perspective of Latin American theology. It also allowed me to meet many people and get to know many Mayan peasants who work their land with joy, with Mayan identity and great strength. In the next Peninsular tour that I went on, on which I was also accompanied by comrade Russell Pebá Ocampo, I held workshops in many communities and ejidos, with the intention to discuss the constitutional reform of article 27 within these spaces, which from our point of view was the legal framework for the beginning of the dispossession of the Mayan peasants and the whole country’s land. We also used Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recently ratified by the Mexican government. It was in this context that we participated in the 500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance Campaign to denounce the celebration that was being prepared by the invading and colonialist countries in 1992. Two years later, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) made its public appearance to vindicate the rights of the indigenous peoples of the country and we joined their demands as Mayan people. Since that experience, we have never stopped visiting the communities to listen to them, talk with them, read with them, celebrate with them and cry with them. Some civil society organizations occasionally invited us to facilitate workshops on human rights and particularly on indigenous rights, and we visited the communities again. All of this to say that our contact with the Mayan territory has been consistent since the end of the 1980s. We founded a movement in the Yucatán Peninsula that we call Indian theology, which originated in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, and for over 20 years, this space has served to strengthen the identity of our communities in the southeast of the country. But the experience gained visibility with the arrival of the internet and social media networks, among so many conversations with communities. There was one conversation in particular in which we told how we were supporting some communities in Quinta Roo to defend their lands from the monoculture of transgenic soy promoted by Monsanto. Then, the host did a live broadcast on one of the social networks, and that’s how we received many requests from communities who wanted information about the defence of land and territory because they were being dispossessed by megaprojects such as renewable energy parks, pig farms and real estate among others. It was then when we launched an invitation to meet in the city of Mérida, because many communities had already known us for many years, they responded to our call, and that’s when they gave birth to the child that today we know as the Assembly of Defenders of the Maya Territory Múuch’ Xíinbal.

AA: From this point on, how do you make collective decisions? Or are decisions made collectively? Or do they always have to be totally collective? How many people or communities are there that make decisions? You talked about the Follow-up Commission, how was it formed and how many people are involved?

The FC was appointed by the founding Assembly, it meets once a week via zoom to share its activities, to discuss issues and to agree on new activities. It is formed by at least ten people from different communities of the Peninsula. In case anything urgent comes up for a community or a difficult decision must be made, we speak over the phone and through WhatsApp groups, where discussions are held and agreements are reached.

AA: How do they facilitate collective participation between different people? Are there methodologies to facilitate dialogue and exchange?

One of the characteristics of Mayan culture is its communitarian nature, it is an “us”culture, not an individualistic one – although colonisation has permeated many spaces with its individualism. However, the Múuch’ Xíinbal Assembly claims communitarianism, which is composed not only of people but also of animals, birds, water, land, wind, etc. That is why it is of utmost importance for us as a movement that it be communitarian: where elders have to attend because of their experience and knowledge to give advice, young people to give strength and dreams, children to learn to walk our paths – everyone in a communal nature without discrimination for disability or gender. Everyone is simply assumed as equal because they are all part of the community, just as the wind or the birds. The strategy, which I’m not sure if it can be a methodology, is to take the information we gather about the community’s interests and share it so that they can discuss it with each other or with us; we also read Mayan poetry or stories – which the West calls tales – but which for us are our stories, those of our ancestors; sometimes we read the laws established by the State and compare the criteria of justice of the West with what we as Mayan people understand and assume as justice.

AA: Time and possibilities: Is it all based on voluntary work in the Follow-up Commission? Do some organisations support you? Do members make small donations? Maybe not even money, but in different ways?

We are all volunteers. We are not accompanying the communities – we are the communities directly affected by the projects that are dispossessing our territory. Some organisations have supported us with didactic material, or computer equipment that is fundamental in the production and promotion of our work. What is fundamental though, is time, commitment, skill, knowledge and also the different means that each member of the FC has to use in order to work with our communities, such as a bicycle, a motorbike, a car, a mobile phone, internet connection etc. each person contributes that from their own means, as well as space to sleep or eat.

AA: What are the most complex problems of collective and communal work? Is there any advice?

The government’s counterinsurgency strategy and the development and land grabbing companies are the most difficult problems. The government launches assistance programmes in the communities in order to break communitarianism: buys wills, corrupts community leaders with money, disintegrates families, uses the school to disorient, uses the churches – mainly the modern denominations that speak of the theology of prosperity or the gospel of neo-Pentecostalism -, bombards with propaganda, applies programmes of co-optation and destruction of identity, sowing individualism, and as if that were not enough, the political parties end up breaking any attempt at communitarianism.

AA: If you had to name one or more supporters that you could really benefit from, outside your own group, what or who would they be?

It would be very helpful for us if they would know us, if they would understand how we organize ourselves to lead our resistance, if they listen to us, and then, if we could talk about what we can share with all those who share our corn heart. We believe in exchange, in sharing our words, our corn, our vision, our dreams; we want to give, we want there to be a big table in a big house where everyone is present just as if it were an altar, where all the colours of maize are represented like a well-made cornfield. We believe that the first thing is to create a community so that our “jícaras” taste like pozole with honey from our native bee sisters.