Zapatistas Reimagine Science as Tool of Resistance

by Sophie Duncan

A digital illustration imagining Zapatista scientists: the first one holds a dropper and beaker, the second on a calculator, and the third is looking under the microscope. All three evoke the imagery of the Zapatista flag with a red star and a black background. Artwork by Keshy Jeong.

“Is it possible to create a science that is truly human?”

April 5, 2017

As scientists grapple with what it means to march for science and defend an apolitical and ahistorical vision of science “safe” from identity, the Zapatistas have put forth the possibilities of a symbiotic relationship between science and social justice. Between December 26 and January 4th, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN or the Zapatistas) facilitated an interdisciplinary conference in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, México: “L@s Zapatistas y las ConCiencias por la Humanidad”. [1] As part of an armed indigenous resistance, EZLN responds to the long history of Spanish invasion, indigenous genocide and slavery.

The conference title, Las ConCiencias, combines the Spanish words for science and awareness. This wordplay captures two of the conference’s themes: an interrogation of science as an oppressive force and the potential, through this awareness, to harness the power of science on behalf of indigenous communities. [2]

Science for the Indigenous Resistance

This 10 day meeting of revolutionaries and scientists provided an opportunity for collective learning through presentations by members of the EZLN and over 80 scientists from at least 11 countries. Las ConCiencias featured a wide array of disciplines ranging from theoretical ecology to solar photochemistry with talks, panels, and workshops such as—The Academy May Be Exclusionary, But Can Science Be A Common Good?, What Are the Stars Made Of?, Connectivity In Graphs, and Science for Oppression or Science for Liberation? [3]

However, what made Las ConCiencias truly unique was its subversion of conventional power dynamics. Although science conferences typically reinforce academic hierarchies, with hotshot senior researchers and oft-cited scientists dominating keynotes and roundtables, Las ConCiencias defied the notion of expertise, with scientists and activists interacting with each other as peers. During the Q&A and discussion following scientific presentations, Zapatista students engaged in a dialogue with the presenters that provided an opportunity for the scientists to learn from the students’ perspectives and knowledge.

“Can you create a science that is truly human?”

The conference provided an educational opportunity for members of the Zapatista community while challenging scientists to explore the fraught histories of colonial scientific practice. The General Command of the EZLN opened the conference by describing how science can and should be anti-capitalist:

“Begin to dream and you will see that we can only fight capitalism with good scientific science, the art of the artist, and the guardians of mother nature together with those below from across the world. This is our responsibility.” [4]

Later Subcommandante Galeano, Zapatista spokesman and insurgente, evaluated the troubled relationship between science and communities of resistance. In a talk titled “A Few First Questions for the Sciences and their ConSciences” he articulated one of the goals that the Zapatistas had in facilitating this conference: to build community-based scientific research efforts among the Zapatista community. He also shared the rigorous series of questions he and other EZLN members had prepared for the scientists in attendance:

“What are we going to ask these brother and sister scientists? Do we only ask them what they know about science? Or do we also ask them how they see the current situation, if they think things are bad or everything is calm? Do we ask they how they view their scientific work? Do we ask them how they struggle for justice and freedom?” [5]

Subcomandante Galeano pushed the scientists to seriously consider justice from the perspective of a scientist. To confront the issues of pursuing a (supposedly) apolitical and ahistorical science, he asked:

“With all of the damage that the capitalists have done to the people through their misuse of science, scientifically can you create a science that is truly human in order to avoid falling into a science that is inhuman, and if it is possible create a truly human science, who can create it?”

This question (and the other questions the Zapatistas asked of scientists) are essential for scientists to ask regularly to themselves, at lab meetings, to their mentors, to their mentees, in classrooms, and at conferences. Science that ignores these questions is not apolitical; it is oppressive.

Rather than suggesting that science and social justice can be compatible or that science might be political, this conference demands a future where science is used as a tool of resistance. Las ConCiencias refuted the assumptions that science and activism are insoluble and that science is neutral. By leaving these assumptions behind, Las ConCiencias created a space to build a new science, that is affirmatively community-based, just, and anti-capitalist. [6]

[1] Audio from presentations throughout the conference can be found here and here. The conference website can be found here. Youtube recordings of some presentations can also be found here. This is the second conference of its kind hosted by the EZLN, the first of which, an art conference called CompArte, occurred at the end of July in 2016.

[2] Las ConCiencias also coincided with the 5th National Indigenous Congress (CNI) in Oventic, Mexico, and many people attended both conferences.

[3] The full schedule can be found here.

[4] The entirety of the General Command’s speech can be found here.

[5] The entirety of Subcomandante Galeano’s speech can be found here.

[6] Thank you so much to Miriel Manning for providing valuable information and insights about this conference and through whom I vicariously attended.



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3 thoughts on “Zapatistas Reimagine Science as Tool of Resistance

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