Friday, May 20, 2011

Fronte NorteSur: Indigenous Mexico Resists

May 19, 2011

Special Report
Indigenous Mexico Resists
By Fronte NorteSur

From north to south and from east to west, indigenous communities in

Mexico are standing up for environmental protection, community defense,

cultural survival and self-determination.

Unfolding across the nation, the latest movements spring from the defense

of lands targeted for mining, tourist development, highway construction,

dams, energy projects and illegal timber harvesting.

“The response is not passivity, but autonomy and collective organization

from below,” columnist Gloria Munoz Ramirez recently wrote.

In the northern state of Chihuahua, hundreds of Raramuri (Tarahumara)

protesters could soon begin descending from their mountain homeland on the

state capital of Chihuahua City.

Community leaders demand that the Chihuahua State Legislature approve a

constitutional reform and pass an indigenous rights law that guarantees

access to health care, education, housing and other social necessities.

In announcing a march on the state capital possibly this month, Raramuri

leaders declared their communities are under siege from rural bosses, drug

traffickers, mining companies and loggers.

Numbering about 110,000 people, the Raramuri also suffer from an enduring

drought that renders their rain-fed agriculture precarious at best. In the

last two decades, many Raramuri have fled the Sierra Madre mountains for

urban settlements in Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez.

“We don’t come to beg for alms, we want the law so we could work,” said

Raramuri spokesman Ramon Gardea.

A proposed state indigenous law has stalled in Chihuahua’s legislature for

15 years, according to a summary prepared by the Sierra Madre Alliance, a

Chihuahua City-based non-governmental organization that supports Raramuri

community concerns.

Although a federal law obliges the states to pass conforming legislation

on indigenous rights, Chihuahua still lags behind several other entities

which have completed the task, Ernesto Palencia, Sierra Madre Alliance

spokesman, told Frontera NorteSur.

Palencia said law-makers and non-governmental organizations have been

working on the latest version of a state law since last year, but the

proposed legislation still lacks the community consultation required by

international legal agreements. “This part hasn’t been done yet,” Palencia


As for a possible protest march from the mountains, Palencia said Raramuri

communities are sending a message demanding recognition of their ancestral

territories. “This is the moment people want to come out and demonstrate,”

he said.

In addition to being the historic homeland for the Raramuri and three

other native groups, Chihuahua, and especially the state’s largest city of

Ciudad Juarez, is also now home to many indigenous migrants from other

regions of Mexico. “What you encounter in Ciudad Juarez is very diverse,”

Palencia added.

The Raramuri activism builds on a forum organized by the Sierra Madre

Alliance in Chihuahua City last fall.

The event drew together representatives of Raramuri communities with

supporters from non-governmental organizations like the Frente Democratico

Campesino. Jon Izaguirre of the United Nations Office of the High

Commissioner for Human Rights gave a presentation.

At the forum, the participants decried land invasions; the lack of

official respect for the traditional leadership authority of Raramuri

leaders; the absence of a state indigenous law; and ecological damages

resulting from the expansion of the Copper Canyon-Sea of Cortes tourist


The forum demanded upholding the United Nations Declaration on the Rights

of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labor Organization’s

Convention 169, a binding agreement that requires governments to pursue

indigenous policies centered on non-discrimination, cultural recognition

and participatory democracy.

“The principles of consultation and participation in Convention No. 169

relate not only to specific development projects,” the International Labor

Organization notes, “but also to broader questions of governance, and the

participation of indigenous and tribal peoples in public life.”

While Mexico is among 20 nations that have ratified Convention 169, the

United States is not.

The Chihuahua City forum also urged special attention on the rights of

indigenous women, and adamantly rejected mining projects blamed for

environmental degradation and jeopardizing the “well-being of current and

future generations.”

In wide berths of Mexico, new mining operations-usually spearheaded by

Canadian and other foreign investors-are galvanizing opposition from many

indigenous communities on environmental, cultural and political grounds.

Recalling in some ways the Spanish conquistadors’ lust for gold and silver

centuries ago, a new mining fever is gripping Mexico as international

prices for precious metals soar.

According to Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte, Mexican, Canadian and

British companies are expected to invest more than $1.5 billion in his

state alone during 2011,

In a recent letter to Mexican President Felipe Calderon, leaders of the

Wixarika (Huichol) people demanded the cancellation of 22 mining projects

in north-central Mexico.

The letter’s signers contended that the mines would “profoundly” affect

the Catorce Mountains and contaminate sacred springs at the heart of

Wixarika culture. The Wixarikas reside in mountainous areas in the states

of Nayarit, Jalisco, Durango and Zacatecas.

To the south, in the Pacific coastal state of Guerrero, indigenous

communities are also rebelling against planned mines in the Costa Chica

and La Montana regions.

Earlier this year, hundreds of community leaders and representatives of

allied social organizations gathered in a popular assembly to declare

their opposition to future mines reportedly on the planning block by

Canadian and British investors.

Since the assembly, the Chilapa-based community radio station Uan Milauk

Tlatojili (The True Word) has begun publicizing the “No to Mining”


In neighboring Michoacan, meanwhile, a tense calm surrounds the Purepecha

town of Cheran after weeks of confrontation arising from allegations of

illegal logging.

Residents of the town of an estimated 16,000 people have barricaded their

community and formed security patrols to guard against attacks by heavily

armed loggers allegedly associated with a drug trafficker named “El


The crisis erupted after residents of Cheran detained five loggers on

April 15. In presumed retaliation, two residents of Cheran were killed and

another was wounded in an ambush 12 days later.

A subsequent deployment of federal troops and police was met by a highway

blockade put up by residents of another indigenous town reportedly at odds

with Cheran and perturbed by the presence of the federales.

Yet the Cheran uprising has received support from other nearby communities

and groups in Michoacan and across the country, though food shortages and

an inability to conduct business are bringing normal community life to a

near stand-still.

In a written appeal to a famous son of Michoacan, President Felipe

Calderon, Cheran Mayor Roberto Bautista and other residents demanded the

dispatch of Mexican troops and a definitive solution to the long-standing

practice of illegal logging.

In a lengthy letter, Bautista and his constituents detailed repeated

requests for action from state and federal authorities since 2007.

The letter described an escalating spiral of drug trafficking, kidnapping,

livestock rustling illegal logging and even attacks against community

firefighters-all under the noses of government authorities.

According to Cheran residents, the illicit tree-cutting has devastated

more than 45,000 acres of forest land. Not a single request for help was

answered within a reasonable time frame, Mayor Bautista and other

residents charged.

“With the passage of time, it had to be through the loss of the lives of

communal members of Cheran that there might be attention from the state

authorities,” the letter stated.

Land theft and environmentally destructive tree harvesting remain burning

issues in other indigenous communities in Michoacan as well, despite years

of government pledges to crack down on illegal logging. The previous

administration of President Vicente Fox even defined the issue as a matter

of national security.

“The criminals arrive with unsigned documents and take control of the

lands; they are very well organized,” said Gabriel Mondragon Garcia,

communal representative of the community of Zirahuen. “Sometimes they come

and threaten us. We are afraid, but we have to struggle to defend our

communities. We seek to link up with other sister communities.”

Suppressed and marginalized for centuries, indigenous Mexicans have become

much more vocal and politically active in recent decades.

Marking water-shed moments in modern indigenous history, the 1992 mass

protests against the Columbus Quincentennial followed up by the 1994 armed

uprising of the Mayan-based Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas

ushered in a new era of community mobilization, cultural reaffirmation and

assertions of political autonomy.

On a national scale, the formation of the independent National Indigenous

Congress gave voice to a new movement as Mexico entered the 21st century.

The slogan, “Never again a Mexico without Us,” resonated across the

country among many of the nation’s more than 10 million people indigenous


In 1995, the Zapatistas and Mexican government signed the San Andres

Accords recognizing the right of indigenous Mexico to participate in

decisions vital to their lands, customs and communities. Years later,

however, the accords are gathering dust on a government shelf.

Not waiting for official policy to change, the Zapatistas and indigenous

groups in several other states established their own local governments and

chose leaders outside the official political system.

“It gives a glimpse of what could be done if an accord were implemented,”

said Dr. Neil Harvey, chair of the government department at New Mexico

State University.

According to Harvey, who’s done extensive field research and written

widely on the Zapatista movement, the forces of militarization, violence,

impunity and imposed economic development threaten indigenous communities

across Mexico today. The Mexican government, he added, has prioritized

investment and economic growth in sectors like mining.

Harvey said respect for the San Andres Accords and Convention 169 is

essential for resolving indigenous grievances and rights and minimizing


“As long as indigenous people don’t have the rights to consultation and

participation you’re going to see conflict emerging,” Harvey said.

Additional sources: El Universal, May 4, 10, 13, 13, 17, 2011. Articles by

Alberto Torres and Elly Castillo. Proceso/Apro, May 11, 2011. La Jornada,

March 5, 2011; April 30, 2011; May 3, 4, 5, 10, 14, 2011. Articles by

Gloria Munoz Ramirez, Ernesto Martinez Elorriga and Pablo Alarcon Chaires., May 3, 2011., May 1 and 3, 2011. El Sur,

February 6, 2011; April 21, 2011. Articles by Jesus Rodriguez Montes, Luis

Daniel Nava and Agencia Reforma.

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news

Center for Latin American and Border Studies

New Mexico State University

Las Cruces, New Mexico

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Censored News is published by censored journalist Brenda Norrell. A journalist for 27 years, Brenda lived on the Navajo Nation for 18 years, writing for Navajo Times, AP, USA Today, Lakota Times and other American Indian publications. After being censored and then terminated by Indian Country Today in 2006, she began the Censored Blog to document the most censored issues. She currently serves as human rights editor for the U.N. OBSERVER & International Report at the Hague and contributor to Sri Lanka Guardian, Narco News and CounterPunch. She was cohost of the 5-month Longest Walk Talk Radio across America, with Earthcycles Producer Govinda Dalton in 2008:
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