Fotos de Patricia Diaz Romo
During the past year and a half, a struggle has ensued over the 346,523 acre reserve of Wirikuta located in the northwestern Mexican semi-desert of Catorce in the state of San Luis Potosí. Local residents and small business owners, transnational corporate interests, and the Wixárika (Huichol) indigenous people stand in an intense faceoff over a series of mining and agroindustrial concessions that violate the norms that protect the area from activities that disturb the delicate ecological and cultural integrity of this desert. Since the summer of 2010, Mexican and international organizations have joined with Wixárika authorities in a multifaceted effort to pressure the Mexican government to stand by the international accords it has signed, observing the rights of the country’s indigenous populations. This includes the conservation of the lands on which indigenous peoples historically live and those which form part of their cultural and religious traditions.
While the Wixaritari do not live in Wirikuta, their annual pilgrimages to this location where Our Father Sun is said to have been born date back hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. As follows, Wirikuta is an integral part of sacred Wixárika territory which extends past the communities where they traditionally live in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Durango. For the Wixaritari, the recognition of these sacred territories does not imply that they seek private or communal ownership over them—what they request is the protection of this land in order to ensure their continued capacity to practice their traditions.
Although the bulk of media attention has focused on Wirikuta as a cultural sanctuary, the struggle over its preservation is increasingly bringing into focus the conditions of the desert’s residents. Caught between poverty and the threatening presence of drug traffickers, many locals welcome the presence of the mining and agribusiness industries. Yet some of the region’s residents are hoping for more sustainable economic alternatives that will not damage the environment and the health of the local population. Many now hope that the focus on Wirikuta as sacred land will bring about the needed attention and resources to make economic alternatives come into fruition.
Corporate Interests and Broken Pacts
A key element of the struggle to defend Wirikuta focuses on the Pact of Hauxa Manaka for the Preservation and Development of Wixárika Culture signed in April of 2008 by federal and state authorities to protect this indigenous group’s sacred sites located in the states of San Luis Potosí, Jalisco, Nayarit, Durango, and Zacatecas. At the ceremony marking the pact, President Felipe Calderón donned Wixárika attire and vowed to protect Wixárika sacred sites adding that his government stood committed to preserving this culture as a “patrimony of humanity” and the “pride of all Mexicans.” As it stands, the Pact of Hauxa Manaka is being sidelined by corporate interests under the pretext of creating jobs for local residents and helping grow the Mexican economy.
The first alarm came with the news of Vancouver based First Majestic Silver Corporation whose La Luz project is comprised of 22 concessions covering 15,627 acres, 70 percent of which lie on the reserve. While the La Luz project is yet to begin exploiting the silver veins of Wirikuta, its management has actively courted the local population: in addition to creating jobs, they promise to build a local mining museum and a much needed water treatment facility. As the months pass, more mining concessions have been awarded, this time to Revolution Resources of Canada. Because of Mexico’s constitutional law that prohibits foreign entities from directly exploiting the nation’s subsoil resources, all of these concessions are being operated by Mexican affiliates. These ventures are greatly facilitated by nearly two decades of market-driven reforms to the country’s mining laws which have helped bring in approximately 281 mining companies, 75 percent of which are Canadian. Not only do Mexican authorities rarely enforce labor and environmental protections, but they celebrate the country’s flexibility toward foreign investors. The Secretary of Economy openly cites low wages, an ample gamut of untapped ecological resources, and favorable exploration and exploitation rights for foreign companies.
The mining industry, which is the second contributor to the nation’s GDP after oil, offers great expectations for local populations who have been devastated by diminishing agricultural returns and an unstable climate that has led to a year in poor rains. Ironically, while small and medium farmers have seen drastic cuts in public subsidies, large agroindustrial plantations have gained government backing. Dry tomato farms have ripped through Wirikuta’s periphery toppling the region’s unique cacti, including the peyote, the sacramental plant used in Wixárika tradition. The locals’ inability to make ends meet through smaller scale farming has been these large industries’ gain.
The Defense of Wirikuta and its Critics
In May of 2011, two Wixárika delegates attended the First Majestic Silver Corporation’s annual shareholder meeting in Vancouver. Despite holding shareholder passes, they were initially barred from entering the meeting where they eventually were allowed to distribute literature but not speak on the matter of this corporation’s mining ventures in sacred Wixárika land. Outside of the conference venue, hundreds more gathered as part of a week of protest against the mining industry’s reckless practices which have historically placed profit over the wellbeing of workers, the environment, and the land of indigenous populations. Concurrent to this mobilization, two other Wixárika delegates traveled to New York in order to attend the 10th session of the United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. This venue gave the delegates an opportunity to share their concerns and seek wider international support in their struggle to protect their sacred pilgrimage site of Wirikuta. The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, has since called on the Mexican government to cancel the mining concessions.
Over the past year and a half the movement to defend Wirikuta has picked up steam through a series of popular mobilizations that include a three day action involving thousands of demonstrators in Mexico City in late October 2011. This past February, a historic pilgrimage involving 600 members of Wixárika ceremonial centers arrived to Wirikuta bringing to the desert their message of opposition to these projects. With each mobilization the cry “Wirikuta no se vende, se ama y se defiende” (“Wirikuta is not for sale, it is loved and defended”) has met the backing of other indigenous peoples, writers, actors, musicians, and community organizations. These actions have resulted in important media coverage yielding radio shows as far as New Zealand.
The response of governmental entities has trailed behind. In February of 2011, at the behest of an international letter writing campaign, the body in charge of environmental affairs, SEMARNAT, claimed ignorance of any mining activity in the reserve. It has taken this entity a full year to acknowledge the existence of the concessions by stating that companies are prohibited from operating until an environmental impact study is carried out. The good news is that since this latest mobilization, the federal judiciary has placed a suspension on the projects until further analysis. But whether or not Mexico’s environmental protection agencies have any teeth to stand up to these transnational corporations is yet to be seen.
The mobilizations to defend Wirikuta have functioned through an alliance between Wixárika and non-Wixárika communities who understand that the cultural and ecological significance of this semi-desert cannot be matched in monetary value. Supporters have aided in writing articles, providing interviews, researching the activities of mines and agribusinesses operating in the region, and fundraising for mobilizations and the legal defense. But the impetus of this movement has not been without its critics who accuse the Wixárika people of attempting against the wellbeing of the desert’s impoverished residents and would-be-laborers. The pitting of local desert residents against Wixaritari obscures the efforts that are simultaneously being made to find economic alternatives that do not devastate the ecology of the region, the health of its inhabitants, and the sacred land that the Wixárika venerate. As the debate moves ahead, the wellbeing of those living in the desert should continue to be a central concern.
The defense movement is also accused of being controlled by a small group of folklorists who are speaking for and manipulating Wixárika authorities. Meanwhile, any differences between Wixárika communities have been seized as opportunities to delegitimize an independent defense and push for the government entity in charge of indigenous issues to be the sole arbiter. Yet this entity, the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, holds a poor track record when it comes to protecting indigenous lands and respecting the will of traditional authorities. What is indisputable is that traditional Wixárika authorities continue to emit declarations showing their adamant opposition to activities which can damage their sacred pilgrimage site.
The mining companies involved dubiously claim that their operations can bring good to the locals and Wixaritari alike. In addition, they assert that the methods of extraction will produce no damage to the health of the region’s residents and to the reserve’s flora and fauna. Yet even the best innovations in extractive methods give little credence to these claims as toxic chemicals inevitably are released into the environment and astounding amounts of local water are used in the process. As for the dry tomato farms, cloud-seeding techniques that manipulate rain fall devastate the little prospects that local farmers already face.
Ultimately, the defense of Wirikuta is not just a matter of upholding the rights that indigenous peoples have to practice their millenarian traditions—it is about protecting one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world, and one more step toward preventing further damage to the global climate. No measure of short term profit can justify the long term effects of losing this region from our world heritage and destroying the home of the desert’s inhabitants.