Community Defenders: Indigenous Communities in Mexico Unite to Protect Ancestral Lands

Jonathan Treat | 04.30.2015

Throughout Mexico, campesinos (small, rural and often indigenous farmers) are struggling to protect their lands and their right to produce food. Their farmlands are under attack by mega-“development” projects promoted by multinational corporations and backed by the Mexican government and international financial institutions like the World Bank.

This land grab is ironic considering Mexico’s long history of agrarian reform. The bloody 10-year Mexican Revolution was fought under the rallying cry, Tierra y Libertad—“Land and Liberty.” At the end of the war in the 1920s, the victors began a massive land redistribution program, giving away large tracts of land to be farmed communally by poor Mexicans who had previously worked practically as slaves in vast haciendas. Finally, these farmers could work together to produce food autonomously for themselves and their communities on communally held lands known as ejidos.

The ejido system, however, soon became an obstacle to a changing world order that brought neoliberal “development” to the fore. In 1992, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari ended Mexico´s historic commitment to communal land ownership by reforming its constitutional foundation, Article 27. This opened the door to the privatization of ejidos along with serious, even violent, divisions between and within once-united communities.

Last year, President Enrique Peña Nieto took these steps much further, with reforms that gave the Mexican government expanded powers over access to communal, largely-indigenous lands. The new reforms essentially gave the Mexican government carte blanche to occupy lands that contain natural resources to be exploited—paving the way for multi-national corporations promoting mining, hydroelectric projects, commercial wind farms, and other extractive industries. People living on those lands will be forced to relocate until the extraction, dam, or other project is completed. Only then can they return to what is left of their plundered lands.

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Many campesinos are recovering their understanding of the importance of their role as providers of food, and their relationships with the land.

The impacts that these constitutional reforms have had, and portend, are devastating. Indigenous Mexicans who farm small plots of land in Mexican states like Oaxaca and Chiapas manage to produce enough for local consumption, but without their lands, they cannot subsist. Many will be forced to migrate, while others will enter low-wage or informal labor markets in the city.

However, others are resisting and defending their lands and traditional ways of life. Many campesinos are recovering—if they ever lost it—their understanding of the importance of their role as providers of food, and their relationships with the land.

The accompanying photo essay tells the story of the Council of Peoples United in Defense of the Río Verde (COPUDEVER), a diverse group of communities on Oaxaca´s southwestern coast that is determined to defend its lands. COPUDEVER has come together to nonviolently oppose a proposed hydroelectric project that would directly affect 43 communities and rich agricultural lands.

In Chiapas, indigenous peoples are also being economically and physically displaced as their traditional lands are ravaged. Vast oil palm plantations are taking over agricultural lands to produce biofuels instead of food crops and Coca-Cola is depleting community aquifers to produce its soft drinks. Resistance to mining projects has been met with violence, including the murder of anti-mining activist Marcelo Abarca in 2009 for his opposition to the Canadian-owned Blackfire Barite mine.

As in Oaxaca’s southwestern coast, Chiapas’ campesinos have organized to defend their cultures, communities, and the lands that are vital to their production of food. Undoubtedly the most well know are the indigenous Zapatista communities, who have not only articulated a new form of politics and alternative ways of seeing the world, but have also actively worked for more than 20 years to create autonomous communities with their own schools, clinics, and sustainable food production. Their positive vision and actions have inspired many around the world.

We are not here to change the world. That is too difficult. We are here to create a new one. – Zapatistas

On the upcoming Food Sovereignty Tour to Chiapas, we will be exploring some of the same issues COPUDEVER is confronting: loss of agricultural lands and traditional lifestyles, out migration, and the often-violent criminalization of social protest. At the same time, we will witness the Chiapans’ inspiring ways of envisioning and embracing the possibilities for positive change.

As the Zapatistas have said, “We are not here to change the world. That is too difficult. We are here to create a new one.”

View the the photo essay here.

jonathanJonathan Treat is the Tour Coordinator for our upcoming Food Sovereignty Tour to Chiapas. He is a journalist, professor, and activist with extensive experience in Mesoamerica. He has lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, for 11 years. During that time he has focused on issues of human and environmental rights and alternatives to neoliberal “development,” organizing and leading international delegations, writing (for the Center for International Policy—Americas Program, Upside Down World, Narco News, and others) and working as Academic Director of various study abroad/alternative learning programs.

Don’t miss our upcoming Food Sovereignty Tour, Mexico: Indigenous Food & Water Sovereignty in Chiapas, October 17–27, 2015.

This article was featured in Movements, the monthly newsletter of Food Sovereignty Tours. Subscribe to Movements today to receive announcements about new and upcoming tours!