May 19, 2011
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
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,”
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,”
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
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
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
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
“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
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.
Informados.com, May 3, 2011. Lapolaka.com, 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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