The climate of Chiapas, except for the highlands, is hot. Rainfall is heavy from June to November. Subsistence crops are grown, and coffee (of which Chiapas is a leading national producer), rubber, and cacao are economically important, as is livestock breeding. The state's rich mineral resources, especially silver, gold, and copper, remain mostly unexploited, although petroleum production has become significant. Chiapas also has valuable amber deposits. The state is also a major producer of hydroelectric power from dams on the Grijalva River. In general, economic development has been hindered by remoteness and inadequate communication; however, airlines and the Inter-American Highway link Tuxtla with the highland towns, especially the pre-1892 capital, San Cristóbal de las Casas, and are opening up the interior. Tourism and ethnological research are both increasingly important. Interesting archaeological sites have been discovered near the village of Chiapa de Corzo.
Conquered with difficulty by the Spanish, Chiapa, as it was then called, was attached to the captain generalcy of Guatemala. Never part of colonial Mexico, quasi-independent Chiapas was annexed by the republic following the collapse in 1823 of the empire of Agustín de Iturbide. Its people, however, many of them members of highland Maya tribes, resisted the central government in various uprisings. In early 1994 several towns in Chiapas were briefly occupied during an uprising by peasants, who remain on the socioeconomic and political margins in the state. Armed conflict was brief, but the rebels (the Zapatista National Liberation Army) have continued to press for greater autonomy for all of Mexico's indigenous communities, and there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence.
Chiapas is the southernmost state of Mexico, located towards the southeast of the country. Chiapas is bordered by the states of Tabasco to the north, Veracruz to the northwest, and Oaxaca to the west. To the east Chiapas borders Guatemala, and to the south the Pacific Ocean. Chiapas has an area of . The 2005 census population was 4,293,459 people.
In general Chiapas has a humid, tropical climate. In the north, in the area bordering Tabasco, near Teapa, rainfall can average more than per year. In the past, natural vegetation at this region was lowland, tall perennial rainforest, but this vegetation has been destroyed almost completely to give way to agriculture and ranching. Rainfall decreases moving towards the Pacific Ocean, but it is still abundant enough to allow the farming of bananas and many other tropical crops near Tapachula. On the several parallel "sierras" or mountain ranges running along the center of Chiapas, climate can be quite temperate and foggy, allowing the development of cloud forests like those of the Reserva de la Biosfera el Triunfo, home to a handful of quetzals and horned guans.
The state capital city is Tuxtla Gutiérrez; other cities and towns in Chiapas include San Cristóbal de las Casas, Comitán, and Tapachula. Chiapas is home to the ancient Maya ruins of Palenque, Yaxchilan, Bonampak, Chinkultic, and Tonina.
As of the mid 1990s, most people in Chiapas were poor, rural small farmers. About one quarter of the population were of full or predominant Maya descent, and in rural areas many did not speak Spanish. The state suffers from the highest rate of malnutrition in Mexico, estimated to affect more than 40% of the population. "Without roads, cities or even small towns, eastern Chiapas is a kind of dumping ground for the marginalized, in which all of the hardships peasants confront in the highlands are exacerbated."
The increasing presence of Central American gangs known as Maras, and illegal immigration from Central America in general (mostly immigrants on their way to the United States), stresses an already poor state. These immigrants are subject to human rights violations from Mexican authorities.
In 1994, violence erupted between the Mexican Government and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). There are currently 32 Rebel Autonomous Zapatista Municipalities (MAREZ), affiliated with the EZLN in Chiapas.
In approximately 800 CE, Mangue-speaking Chiapaneca peoples from the north conquered the native Zoque and Maya towns. The mounds and plazas at Chiapas de Corvo date to approximately 700 BCE with the temple and palace constructed during the Late Formative, perhaps 400 BCE to 200 CE.
When Central America achieved independence from Mexico in 1823, western Chiapas was annexed to Mexico. More of current day Chiapas was transferred after the disintegration of the Central American Federation in 1842. The remainder of the current state taken from Guatemala in the early 1880s by President Porfirio Díaz.
Chiapas remained one of the parts of Mexico least affected by change, with the descendants of the Spanish continuing to control indigenous peoples through such institutions as debt peonage, despite attempts by the central government to abolish those practices.
In 1868, an armed native rebellion, led by the Tzotzil Maya, and also including Tzeltal, Tojolabal, and Ch’ol, nearly captured San Cristóbal, then the state capital, before it was suppressed by the Mexican army.
As the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect on in 1994, indigenous Chiapanecos felt increasingly left behind.
Such disaffection led to the rise of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, “Zapatista Army of National Liberation”, commonly called the Zapatistas), which began an armed rebellion against the federal government on January 1, 1994 as a response to the implementation of the NAFTA. Zapatista rebels are mostly Tzotzil and some Tzeltal Maya, from the central highlands of the state, and the group’s spokesman, the Sub-Comandante Marcos, gained it international attention.
The group is named after Emiliano Zapata, iconic general in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, who is lionized for having defended the rights of poor farmers. Although the EZLN was in principle a peaceful movement forced to arms by the Mexican government, to guarantee the right to ejidos, there have been a number of violent episodes in its history. The movement began in 1994 with the seizure of four cities (most notably San Cristóbal de las Casas), over 600 ranches, and control over about a quarter of the state.
After pushing the Zapatistas out of San Cristóbal, the Mexican army kept them bottled up in their jungle strongholds, cutting them off economically and politically. The Mexican government installed a solidarity program which while “ostensibly designed to alleviate poverty, […] instead became an instrument for rewarding political loyalty and contributed to the anger and frustration expressed through the Zapatista rebellion.” In 1996 both sides signed a peace accord.
Meanwhile, landowner-funded paramilitaries sporadically repressed indigenous communities. A series of massacres, most notably in 1997 in Acteal, where 47 indigenous refugees, mainly women and children, were killed in a church.
In 2000, the EZLN renewed its resistance, autonomizing a number of jungle villages and sending a delegation to Mexico City. While the delegation did not obtain everything it sought, despite some support from President Vicente Fox, the villages remain under Zapatista control. In August 2003, the EZLN declared all Zapatista territory an autonomous government independent of the Mexican state.
The armed EZLN has mostly eschewed armed conflict, in favor of political efforts to build health clinics and schools in their communities. Anti-Zapatista paramilitary and military activity continues on the part of the Mexican government, however, threatening of re-escalation. Zapatista action continues now with the implementation of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle and the launching of The Other Campaign.
Since World War Two, the highlands have benefitted from a boom in the energy and petroleum sectors. However, economic growth in these industries did not reach the subsistence farmers of the highlands. High population and land reform pressured the poor and rich alike to move into the eastern rainforest. The highlands are home to the cities of San Cristóbal de las Casas and Comitán. Close to the rainforest, San Cristóbal was one of the first sites seized by the Zapatista army in their attack on January 1, 1994.
The largest city in the Soconusco is Tapachula, site of the seventh Chiapaneco hydroelectric plant, José Cecilio del Valle.
The 20th century saw massive population growth in Chiapas. From less than one million inhabitants in 1940, the state had about two million in 1980, and over 4 million in 2005. Overcrowded land in the highlands was relieved when the rainforest to the east was subject to land reform. Cattle ranchers, loggers, and subsistence farmers migrated to the rain forest. The population of the Lacandón was only one thousand people in 1950, but by the mid-1990s this had increased to 200 thousand.
Despite its rich supply of natural resources, Chiapas is an economically underdeveloped state, suffering chronic unemployment, below average literacy, and a high infant mortality rate. “Only 11 percent of adults earn what the government calls moderate incomes of at least $3,450 per year (versus 24 percent nationally); less than 50 percent of households have running water (versus 67% nationally); and only 14 percent have televisions (versus 45% nationally).”