A struggle for sacred land: the case of Wirikuta

October 3, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

For the moment, the Wixáritari believe that they are winning the fight for the hearts and minds of Mexicans and that public opinion is turning against international mining companies. They should not be underestimated. 

Hakima Hernandez sits on a plastic stool, head bent. With precision she picks up a tiny coloured bead and threads it onto an intricate patterned necklace. Business has been slower than normal and she complains that her eyes hurt from the work. Her young son stands shyly next to the family stall, his fingers running over the crafts for which his people are famous. Hakima and her child are Huichols, also known as Wixáritari, one of the few indigenous groups in Mexico, who have managed to preserve traditions and a religion predating the arrival of the Spanish.

Hakima smoothes out the folds in her billowing white skirt picks up a pen and starts drawing. The story of the Wixáritari unfolds on the page. With rapid strokes of her pen, she sketches out the four states where the Wixáritari live. She draws flowers and plants, explaining their medicinal properties. She describes the gods of the corn, rain and sun and how offerings must be left to them and she draws Wirikuta, their scared place.

Wirikuta, 140 hectors of protected desert in Central Mexico, is all sky and sun- bleached earth. It is to here that the Wixáritari have made their yearly pilgrimage, to the place where they believe the sun was born.  “Wirikuta for us is like the Basilica for the Catholics,” says Hakima. “It is our most treasured place, here we have our sacred water and the plants of our Gods. It is a place that must be respected.” But preserving such customs in modern-day Mexico is proving difficult. Land, where they leave offerings and through which they pass on the way to their sacred mountain, el Cerro Quemado, is increasingly being given over to agriculture and mining. In 2009, the Mexican government granted 36 concessions to the Canadian mining company, First Majestic Silver, 70 per cent of which are within the Wirikuta zone. The Wixáritari have since been involved in a peaceful struggle to preserve their religious sites.

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El Cerro Quemado, the sacred mountain of the Wixáritari, is located within Wirikuta, 140 hectors of protected desert, north Mexico. The land is increasingly under threat both from farming and international mining companies operating in the area. Credit: Nicolas Tavira

The sun is relentless and the wind cold in the mountain town of Real de Catorce. Real, on the edge of Wirikuta with a population of around a thousand, is an old mining town popular with tourists. It is also next to First Majestic’s proposed mining site. It was here, in 2010, where around 80 Wixáritari first gathered to talk. After two days of discussion, the decision was made to form the Regional Council of Wixáritari, an organisation to coordinate the fight against the mine.

The regional council and the Frente 

Santos de la Cruz cuts a formidable figure. His voice is deep, his tone serious. Cruz, a member of the Regional Council, explains that the body is made up of representatives from various Wixáritari communities spread out over four states in Mexico. Their way of organising mirrors the way their communities are governed with no one post being more important than another. It is a truly democratic form of leadership, says Regina Lira, an anthropologist specialising in the Wixáritari people.

The forming of a central planning group such as the Regional Council is a common strategy in nonviolent struggles, and the fact that the Wixáritari have no centralised leadership has served them well in the past. As Lira points out, “It is one of the reasons they were never taken over by the Spanish. The Spanish never knew whom to deal with,” she says. And, according to Althea Middleton-Detzner, a senior advisor at the International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict, an independent educational foundation specialising in nonviolent struggles, it could serve them well in the future. “What you see in some nonviolent campaigns is that a committee may purposefully make themselves invisible,” she states. “This gives them a certain amount of protection and stops personal politics from being brought into the movement.”

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Wixáritari women make their pilgrimage to Wirikuta. The indigenous community have been involved in a two-year struggle to protect their religious sites. Credit: Christian Palma

On the same day that the Regional Council was established, a group of NGOs and specialists formed the Frente, an organisation supporting the Wixáritari in their struggle. The Frente is made up of various departments, each one responsible for overseeing a different area. Úrsula Garzón Aragón, an environmental lawyer from CEMDA, an independent organisation focusing on environmental rights, explains.

“We have those responsible for issues relating to the environment, those who are specialists in law and those who are responsible for getting the messages out,” she states.

But it is the Regional Council that calls the shots. “We take our lead from them,” Garzón Aragón, who is part of the Frente, states. “They meet and authorise what needs to be done and depending on our expertise we look at what we can do to assist them.” Working together, the Wixáritari and the Frente try to find the best way of pressuring the mining company. It is not an easy task. Middleton-Detzner points out that the movement is not just up against one opponent, but two. “This is a struggle looking at two different opponents,” she states. “The government is a pillar of support for the mining company and the mining company likewise is a support for the government.” 

Building public support

The atmosphere is lively on Reforma, one of Mexico City’s main avenues. Over a loud speaker the shouts of “Wirikuta is not for sale, Wirikuta defends itself,” can be heard. Members of the Wixáritari community mingle with the Mexican public, their brightly coloured traditional clothing setting them apart. This march is one of several that have been held in the country’s capital, in what is a deliberate strategy by the Wixáritari to draw attention to their cause. The result has been a surge in support for their struggle. The stronger a movement’s support network, the more likely they are to be successful, explains Middleton-Detzner. “A successful campaign is linked to high level participation,” she says. “Part of the game is to get as many people involved as possible.”

While the Wixáritari have been largely successful in winning over the Mexican public, they have had problems convincing some members of their own communities. Max Muñoz de la Cruz is watching on his smartphone a video of his daughter being baptised. “She is now part of our tradition,” he states. “She has been washed with our sacred water.” Muñoz de la Cruz is a Wixáritari and member of the Regional Council.  He joined the movement later than others, something he attributes to the situation in his home state. “We are not as well-organised or structured as others,” he states. “The information never really reached my community, we were out of the loop.”  Max explains how the Wixáritari of his state had a lot of questions about the Regional Council and the Frente. “We didn’t really know who was behind it. What was this movement? What interests did it represent?” He turns back to his mobile phone, indicating with his finger the video of his daughter. “Our children have to know that these sacred places exist,” he says. It was this that drove him to join the movement. “We have to defend our sacred places and the best way to do it is unity. We still need to go to the most isolated places and spread the word.” 

Unity and poverty 

The people of San José del Progreso, once a peaceful town in the south of Mexico, understand only too well the importance of a united front. Since 2006, they have been involved in a nonviolent fight against the Canadian mining company, Fortuna Silver Inc. Over the past few years, two people have been killed and the presence of a paramilitary group in the area has added to the tensions. One of their problems is a lack of unity. Around half the town are in favour of the mine, making the struggle incredibly difficult. It is a problem that the Wixáritari also face. Despite winning over a large section of the Mexican public, they have mostly been unsuccessful in persuading the population who stand most to benefit from the mine, the people living in the municipality of Real de Catorce.

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Business in Real de Catorce, a town popular with tourists, has been affected by drug-related violence in the area. Residents hope that the 200 jobs offered by the mining company could offer a solution to rising unemployment rates. Credit: Nicolas Tavira

Making a living in the parched mountains of the state of San Luis Potosi is no easy feat. Work is hard to come by and poorly paid. The area has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state and one of the lowest wages in the country. Money largely comes in the form of remittances from family members in the United States and from work found in the faltering service industry. What is more, the area has been hit hard by drug-related violence, leading to a drop in tourism.

News of the mine’s arrival and the 200 jobs it will create has been met with cautious optimism by the people of Real. But Luis Barraza, an economist from the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosi, is not so positive. He says that mining does little to solve long-term problems of unemployment. “When the mineral runs out, the company packs up and leaves,” he states.

Finding a way

Aware that they need to do more if they are to persuade people to reject the mine, the Wixáritari are focusing part of their campaign on finding solutions to the unemployment problem. “It’s not about taking work away from people,” says Chema Guzman, a member of the Wixáritari community and part of the Regional Council. “You have to offer them a solutions. We come from the desert; we know how hard it is to make a living.”

The Regional Council is currently planning a series of projects for the area, financed by a music concert held in May 2012. Sales of tickets from the event made almost $800,000 US dollars, 40 per cent of which is destined to help communities in the area. “We want projects that are in keeping with the environment, that bring benefits to the people who are living there. We want people to be able to sell their products outside of their communities and make a wage,” says de la Cruz. The Regional Council currently has recently set up several initiatives, including a more efficient crop watering system and a plastic recycling center. Projects, the Wixáritari hope, that can provide an alternative to mining.

The Regional Council has also been applying legal pressure. Lawyers from the Wixáritari community and from the Frente have succeeded in halting any further mining work for the time being, but they acknowledge that the road ahead is long. Garcia, a lawyer working on the case, explains that one of the problems is that the Wixáritari do not live on the land affected by the proposed mining site. “They have had access to this land for generations,” she states. “But they do not live there. This is a difficult situation because it is not clearly defined in law what indigenous territory is.”

The Regional Council has several battles on its hands. A number of agricultural businesses, including tomato farming, operate in the area, threatening already scarce water supplies. And there is a bigger problem, the mining company Revolution Resource. Santos de la Cruz says that the Wixáritari are prepared to fight the company in the courts. “We are currently investigating, documenting and building a case,” he says. “This is worse than First Majestic, Revolution wants 59,000 hectors, 42 per cent of land within the natural park.” He explains how each community presents a legal case on behalf of the whole Wixáritari community with the community of San Sebastian bringing the case against First Majestic and Santa Caterina challenging Revolution Resource.

The struggle of the Wixáritari is not unusual, in Mexico, or elsewhere in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Local communities far from urban areas, often with indigenous people who have lived there for centuries or millennia, are under threat of despoliation of their land, removal of their resources, and even personal displacement, due to the rising global demand for mineral and natural resources. China has actively entered this picture recently, joining the corporations and state enterprises of the west to compete for control of lands and habitats formerly taken for granted by ancient communities.

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The Wixáritari partake in a religious ceremony dating back to pre-hispanic times. Indigenous leaders say their way of life is being threatened as more and more land is given over to farming and mining. Credit: Christian Palma

But the tools of civil resistance that involve self-organization and nonviolent self-defense, to pressure local and national political authorities as well as mobilize support from people in the cities, are finding new practitioners in these communities and may make a vital difference in the outcome of such struggles. “The Wixáritari are ‘nonviolent warriors’”, Middleton-Detzner said, using the phrase of the American civil rights leader Bernard Lafayette. “They should not be underestimated.”

For the moment, the Wixáritari believe that they are winning the fight for the hearts and minds of Mexicans and that public opinion is turning against international mining companies. For Aniceto Torres Robles a Wixáritari from the community of Santa Caterina, losing is not an option. “To have the mine operate in Wirikuta would be like someone pulling out my heart,” he says. He throws up his hands gesturing to the sky. “They must listen, if not, these companies will finish with us and they will finish with Mexico.” 

Tags: indigenous social movements, resource extraction