Reclaiming a Territory and the Culture that Goes with It
By Talli Nauman
Back to February 2002 Journal
Mexican naturalist Carlos Chávez accepted a cup of the Huichol Indians' throat-scalding, brain-rattling tuchi, a ceremonial liquor made from the wild agave plant, during a ritual celebration 15 years ago. He knew Huichol customs well enough to understand that the indigenous itsucame (traditional authorities) were entrusting him with an important responsibility by sharing this cup with him.
At the time, Chávez wasn't exactly sure what that responsibility entailed. But today, after helping the Huichols win recognition for their ancestral land claims in 172 legal battles before Mexican tribunals, plus a precedent-setting UN resolution for the return of tribal territories, Chávez has no doubt about his charge.
To the Huichols, it meant he would help them try to recover the land and resources they have lost in invasions, [loss] "which is by far the most heartfelt, painful problem of the Huichols and almost all indigenous peoples," Chávez said.
A succession of settlers, farmers, miners, refugees, ranchers, loggers, and narcotics growers has gradually eroded the Huichols' land base, beginning with the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in the 1500s. The Huichols, or Wixarikari as they are called in their native language, continued to suffer losses during the ensuing colonization, the Mexican Reform period of the 1900s, the post-revolution agrarian land redistribution epoch of the 20th Century, and up to the current day.
Chávez (right) recognizes that this usurpation erodes the Huichol culture, which is intimately tied to natural resources and can serve as a powerful force to protect them from exploitation. Thus, he has transformed their land claims battle into an environmental movement that pulls together threads of the local indigenous philosophy to form a package of practical conservation policies.
The name of this package is the Project for the Integral Reconstitution of the Wixarika Territory and Habitat. It calls for grassroots participation in the design and implementation of a sustainable basin-wide plan for developing the Huichols' territory.
The plan would create a protected reserve on all of the 1,740 square miles that constitute the current Huichol homeland, a swath of western Mexico equivalent in size to one of Mexico's smallest states.
The two-year-old project aims to build the political will among the Huichols, and a wide range of outside interest groups, so they can convert legal victories in territory battles into concrete protection of the indigenous culture and biodiversity that sustain the Huichols. The project is managed by the traditional Huichol decision-making process of consensus within the 50,000-member population.
It also receives guidance from the Jalisco Indigenous Groups Support Association (or Asociación Jaliscience de Apoyo a Grupos Indigenas AJAGI), a non-governmental organization that Chávez founded in 1990 to tackle the challenge offered by the Huichols.
AJAGI staff numbers about one dozen and includes lawyers and experts in education, community organization, agricultural administration, and agricultural ecology. Most are non-Huichols, based in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state.
Another half-dozen Huichol volunteers work in the mountains of Jalisco and adjoining west-central states where most of the traditional Huichol communities are located.
The key to establishing the reserve envisioned for the Huichols is the propagation of their centuries-old worldview. This worldview sees all individuals, plants, animals, elements, and parts of the universe as relatives. No one is greater or lesser than the next, and each is responsible to the whole for maintaining harmony.
This respect for the balance of nature translates into an overarching religious life that is full of daily ritual. It makes environmental protection an individual responsibility because it elevates each component of the ecosystem to the status of a near relative, an ancestor, and, importantly, an integral part of one's self with whom consultations and decisions must be undertaken.
This is so much the case that when Chávez offered to translate the Huichol word iurameka as "natural resources," a community member objected strongly. He explained that non-indigenous people seem to perceive natural resources as "a warehouse of materials, and we're not saying that. Essences of life are the object of protection," he told Chávez.
The peyote cactus, deer, rattlesnake, and certain sites, such as water wells and mountain peaks, are among the better-known examples of what is central to the spiritual and physical well-being of the Huichol people. This is also true of the elements around which elaborate ceremonies constantly revolve. They are so sacred that their devastation or degradation is perceived as both a failure of Huichol spiritual conduct and an obstruction of Huichol evolution. And they are reflected in prized Huichol yarn and bead art, which have become internationally acclaimed.
"To the Huichol, spiritual life is central," Chávez observes. "The Huichols share the mission of their ancestors, which is to permanently care for the world and to look out for life for everything and everybody, everywhere. When you realize that, you feel the profoundness of what they are doing."
The native religion's conservation impulse is reinforced by socio-political structures peculiar to the Huichols. The elders choose which community members will hold public posts, basing their decisions on communion with nature, dreams and visions.
The public servants are bound to lives of sacrifice and escalating impoverishment during the one- to three-year terms that they are obliged to accept. They oversee the communal subsistence agriculture, hunting, gathering, and rites that sustain their clans whose every initiative is determined by a process of consensus.
For at least 1,000 years, the Huichols have kept their religion intact, as well as their own form of government, communities, and definition of their land-base. As a result, the Huichols have maintained their land in better shape than the non-Huichols who have moved in on them, according to anthropologist Paul Liffman, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate who is doing his dissertation based on six years of fieldwork with the Huichols.
Chávez pulls out a photograph taken from atop a fenceline. On the Huichol side of the fence, plants and trees of many species distinguish themselves. On the non-Huichol side, the terrain is barren.
It's a scene of contrast that is repeated around the planet. Borrowing a phrase coined by a friend, Chávez calls it the evidence of the difference between "the culture of corn and the culture of livestock."
Chávez believes the Huichols have much to offer to efforts that oppose environmental destruction around the world. Tacked to a wall in AGAJI's office is a multi-colored poster map of Mexico, titled "Mexico's Cultural Diversity." It shows the location of 62 officially recognized indigenous groups and is peppered with drawings of the flora, fauna, and traditional dress of each ethnic area.
"Indigenous peoples have achieved conservation as a result of their cosmovision; that's why respecting and learning from their cultures is fundamental," he said. "They have conserved their resources; 70 or 80 percent of what remains in good condition on the planet is land [inhabited by] indigenous peoples."
Chávez learned to respect indigenous cultures during his teenage years when, as a soul-searching young man in the throes of the late-'60s cultural revolution, he worked his way around Mexico on a self-prescribed mission to encounter people and circumstances that would help him discover his own values.
"At the end of my examination of society, it was clear to me that I really did not like what was going on; it wasn't going to lead us to anything good, and I had the certainty that other possibilities of human development exist," he said. "The indigenous peoples showed a lot of that."
The Huichols are one of Mexico's most successful indigenous groups when it comes to preserving their traditions, partly because the rugged mountains they inhabit have blocked encroachment and Western-style development.
They live in small towns and extended-family villages in seven municipalities in the contiguous states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Durango and Zacatecas. Many are located a two-day walk from the nearest back-road. Nevertheless, the Huichol model has been misunderstood, underestimated, and crippled by what Chávez refers to as "the culture of domination."
"To begin with, the neighbors invade their territory," he said. "Corrupt authorities permit the invasions; they steal government budget money (intended for community projects)." Political parties divide communities by competing for Huichol votes, weakening ethnic cohesion, he adds.
When AJAGI arrived on the scene 12 years ago, 309 square miles (80,000 hectares) of Huichol territory had been invaded by livestock growers, lumberjacks and drug cultivators. Cattle grazing, timbering and marijuana cropping were decimating the deer population, degrading spring water, stripping topsoil, killing medicinal plants, and taking land once used for cornfields, all of which are necessary for Huichol survival. Shootings of Huichol elders and children, attributed to other Mexican neighbors, were not uncommon.
"The influence of the invading groups ranchers, narcotics growers, very powerful people was absolutely out of balance," Chávez said. "So officials weren't going to go up against a man or a powerful group for a bunch of barefoot indigenous people. The problem here is that authorities act in accord with the strength that different actors are capable of displaying."
Further complicating matters, Mexico's federal, state and municipal governments have been under one-party rule (the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI) for most of the past 70 years. "In Mexico, under the PRI's command, regions are definitely controlled by certain people who receive proceeds from the party, and these people have established interests in the regions," Chávez said.
All this has taken a toll on recent generations of indigenous people. It is demoralizing for Huichol youth to strive to maintain traditions against political and environmental pressures. Many migrate to work in tobacco harvests where often they are sickened by toxic agrochemicals.
Still others, those who opt to study in order to help their people defend their resources by using the tools of the outside society such as the court system, feel threatened. For example, Bernabe Aguilar, a 21-year-old Huichol college freshman in Guadalajara, says he left his village this fall because he wanted to study agrarian law "to help my people."
But he adds, "Sometimes it's disagreeable to non-indigenous people that some indigenous person is getting preparation. So I tell my dad, 'Don't tell (the neighbors) that I'm studying, just that I'm working.'"
Huichol leaders have asked Chávez to help them address these pressures. Because of the geographical isolation of their territory, the people have minimal understanding of the language, laws, and institutional workings of dominant society. They have faith in his ability to bridge the abyss between them and the political system because he demonstrated his usefulness as a cross-cultural emissary when he pursued independent and government-backed projects to study the Huichol's natural medicine during a five-year period in the 1980s.
Chávez has not disappointed them: thus far AJAGI's court victories have recovered more than 115 square miles (30,000 hectares) of land. Lawsuits for an equal amount of territory are expected to be resolved successfully under agrarian reform law in two to three years.
However, in the process, both the AJAGI staff and Huichols outside the organization discovered that legal papers would not be sufficient to guarantee restoration of the natural resource base. Implementation of the law still poses a major problem.
Thus, the preliminary work of the Project for the Integral Reconstitution of the Wixarika Territory and Habitat requires a two-prong attack. On one front, AGAJI negotiated with international, national, state and local power brokers to build the political muscle needed to gain respect for the Huichol's case. On the other front, Huichols redoubled their participation in land-use decisions, conciliation with non-Huichol neighbors, and alliances with other sectors of society.
The Huichols' strong community fiber has held the indigenous population together in the face of attacks over the past decade. Meanwhile, AJAGI has taken their plight to the UN and the Mexican government. As a result, the past two presidential administrations have designated Huichol claims as one of their top five agrarian reform priorities.
In an effort to stem violence arising from opposition to the Huichol's territorial gains, Chávez and other AJAGI team members have found themselves face-to-face with local political bosses and media representatives at every level. Chávez recalls one of many instances: AJAGI filed suit in response to outsiders' destruction of a Huichol fence that was built to keep hundreds of head of cattle off community streets and cornfields.
Chávez took the issue to the newspapers and raised such a ruckus with influential friends that the federal Agrarian Attorney General intervened to order the guilty parties to either rebuild the fence or go to jail. They rebuilt the fence.
This action became a "scandal of mythical proportions in the mountains," Chávez said. "Never before had anyone been so humbled before the indigenous people. It was empowerment for the Huichol on a regional level, a state precedent, and an important national harbinger."
The Huichols have reached consensus on the major strategies for developing their land-use conservation plan through hundreds of AJAGI's Reflection and Planning Workshops. They are pursuing a number of goals:
The Reflection and Planning Workshops have allowed a trial-and-error process that has produced a growing inventory of achievements. For example, when people agreed to create a centralized organic garden at a temple site, the outcome was disappointing because participants couldn't find time to hike there from their far-flung homesteads to tend the plot on a daily basis. So they reconsidered, ripping up the materials at the location and redistributing them to a series of smaller plots closer to their homes.
The successful pursuit of land claims has spread knowledge of the legal system to the Huichols, focused government and civil society attention on Huichol problems, and rekindled hopes within Huichol communities. At the same time, it has made the Huichol struggle part of a worldwide movement for definition and respect of indigenous autonomy.
With AJAGI's help, the Huichols "have been gaining ground, making an impact, coming together, and finding a space to discuss projects," said Yuri Escalante, assistant director for anthropology at the federal government's National Indigenous Institute.
Chávez's "political work with the Huichols has been very important, too," Escalante adds. "He accompanies them to the National Indigenous Congress [CNI], advises them on their demands, and has many contacts in Guadalajara and the Federal District, where he does considerable promotion to contribute to the development of the Huichol indigenous people."
The Huichols participated in peace negotiations after the 1994 Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico currently the best-known indigenous struggle worldwide. There, the Huichol delegation helped forge the San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Culture and Rights.
When the accords went to the Mexican Congress for a vote last year, the Huichols played a lead role in rallying other ethnic groups in the CNI to push for ratification. The CNI adopted a concept as its slogan that had been developed in Huichol workshops: "For the Reconstitution of the Indigenous Peoples."
The Huichol workshops also launched an effort to secure the first resolution for the return of ancestral lands from the Administrative Council of the UN's International Labor Organization, under its Covenant 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples' articles 13, 14, and 15. Mexico's response to the precedent-setting case will determine the future of other indigenous claims around the world.
On the conservation front, the workshops led to the 1996 expulsion of the timber interests that were operating in the Huichols' territory. Workshops outcomes include:
In the area of formal education, the workshops culminated in the establishment of an independent middle- and secondary school certified by the federal Education Secretariat.
This Intercultural Educative Center is staffed by seven Huichol teachers who have developed their own curriculum and materials. It combines traditional Huichol teachings with conventional course work, thereby encouraging students to maintain their cultural identity while researching techniques that contribute to community development.
In three years of operation, the middle-school has graduated 76 pupils, 24 of whom are now in the upper grades. The rest are working on community projects. The school now enrolls a total of 104 middle-school students.
"Before, we spoke of a society isolated from the rest of the national society," Chávez said. "We started with projects that responded to what they needed, each one on its own, but these have been coming together. Now it's not strange to see a Huichol who is very worried about the war in Afghanistan and what position to take based on [his] culture, given economic policies and new technologies.
"That's where the idea of integral reconstitution comes from. This project is what will allow us to go beyond the confrontation that occurs when you're talking about land claims."
The key to the project's success in protecting resources is its ability to enhance intercultural communication because "cultural diversity [is] an essential, constituting element of the struggle for conservation," Chávez said. "And we're not the only ones who say that."
UNESCO assembled a multi-disciplinary team during the late 1990s in order to define the principal challenge of the upcoming century. It declared it to be "finding the necessary equilibrium to rescue the biological and cultural diversity on the planet," Chávez notes. "There are strata of Huichol thought and strata of occidental thought that are beginning to combine, and I think a very important part of what we're doing is finding ways to conjugate conceptually and have material results in the field."
That, of course, is no simple task. Over the years there have been many failed attempts to relieve the pressures placed on the Huichols and other indigenous peoples by authorities, non-governmental organizations, church groups, and various interlocutors. These groups have been frustrated by their tendency to impose Western organizing techniques, their efforts to force submission to Christianity, or their attempts to speak for the indigenous population, according to Yinue Santiago de Flores. She worked for six years with one of the most established Mexican groups, seeking such a mutually beneficial intercultural exchange.
Santiago's Association of Lay Missionaries of the Nayar has been supporting the rescue of indigenous sacraments belonging to the Tepehuans, people geographically linked with the Huichols in the Four Great Peoples of the Nayar region. This effort was opposed by Catholic authorities, who wanted to control the Tepehuans, resulting in the group's decision to disband last year.
One major reason that ethnic communities reject outsiders' support is their long history of bad experiences with non-indigenous groups that don't comprehend their cosmology and perspective, Santiago said. "The majority of the projects are assistencialist (paternalistic), which, rather than helping, bogs people down," she added.
"Some [outside] people have good will, but little understanding. Some have interesting proposals, but they don't respond to the needs that indigenous people feel."
AJAGI has tried to avoid such pitfalls by responding only to needs expressed by Huichol communities and their Huichol Indigenous Communities Union. "The word 'support' has meant a lot to us: the constant intent not to substitute for them, to play a role not unduly protagonist, not to treat them like children, [to recognize] that they are the principal actors," Chávez said. "It means, precisely, recognizing that they have important values."
This approach has garnered such confidence from the Huichols that AJAGI has become their principal adviser. This is reflected in the communities' invitations to AJAGI to participate in their strategic planning inner circles.
Although reluctant to make individual statements about their business, the Huichols have made group declarations of their acceptance of AJAGI. One such statement was signed in late 2000 by the itsucame representing 968 indigenous community members who had gathered at a single assembly.
It states: "The direct work of the communities . . . and their AJAGI advisers has identified different problems and designed some projects to resolve them; the work continues but studies are lacking to carry out and design more projects."
The statement declares a consensus authorizing AJAGI to manage funding and provide consultation for the integral reconstitution project. It is signed with the closing phrase, "All together for the common dream."
Today, solidarity groups on every continent have adopted approaches similar to AJAGI. "There also is interest in concepts that permit development of an intercultural world in Eastern Europe, the Manchuria region, and Africa," Chávez said. "There are many people working on this in the United States and Canada."
Chávez believes these other groups could learn more from AJAGI's methodology, which translates its concept of support developed in the Reflection and Planning Workshops into concrete actions that protect land and resources. When Huichol leaders decide to tackle a problem, AJAGI schedules a workshop, sets up a chalkboard somewhere in the concerned community, and facilitates a discussion, providing games it has adapted to heighten group dynamics.
Workshops that address a single issue are carried out as many times as necessary for the participants to arrive at consensus. These workshops have long since become a part of daily life for the Huichols.
Aguilar, the 21-year-old Huichol studying agrarian law, was inspired to go to school after attending AJAGI sessions and workshops and seeing its success in winning Huichol land claims. He receives moral support from a Huichol student organization that AJAGI helped establish to reduce the alienation experienced by indigenous minority members at Guadalajara universities.
"AJAGI is working well, is constantly supporting the Huichol communities, and is always on top of the problems," Aguilar said.
Despite these successes there is a resurgence of backlash reaction from non-indigenous neighbors who will lose their land rights in court cases soon to be concluded, according to Chávez. "We expect attacks on individual Huichols who take posession of the land, as well as legal and political attacks but nothing we're not already familiar with."
"The probability of such a backlash is heightened by tensions brought about by Mexico's involvement in the globalizing economy," says anthropologist Liffman. Global capitalism's emphasis on "the interest of maximum yield in minimum time" and the capital intensive mining, lumber, and ranching enterprises in the Huichol's region are at loggerheads with the idea of "overcoming the ethnic tension to form a higher set of values that basically benefits everybody in terms of the long-term sustainability of the region," he said. "The question is: Can sustainability be a viable alternative, or will the pressures be to great?"
AJAGI aims to nip these forces in the bud through various outreach programs. Chávez envisions these programs establishing a protected area in 10 to 12 years. It would be based on scientific studies, area-wide agreement on criteria, support from the federal government, and participation by many institutions.
But, "We expect a difficult transition," he said. Nevertheless, "We're going to make the law stick. We're tying down relations."
AJAGI has extracted a promise from the federal administration's top liaison for indigenous policy that the government will ensure that police are present to protect the Huichols from their neighbors' opposition, not only on the dates when lands are turned over, but for as many months as necessary for the indigenous people to settle their recovered tracts, he said.
Meanwhile, based on decisions reached in the Reflection and Planning Workshops, the Huichols' community assemblies have certified 11 planning committees from which proposals for the protected area will be hatched. Among the first proposals is an eco-tourism program.
However, rather than calling it eco-tourism, the Huichols call this a "visitors program." The difference is that the guests stay with Huichol families, and spend their time in dialogue with Huichol hosts, rather than being on their own.
A group of visitors from Finland was the first to experience the Blue Deer Visitors Project one year ago. Each visitor paid $1,000 for a weeklong tent campout, with 20 percent of the money going to an environmental fund that will be used to develop the protected area. As a result, the Huichols are building a cabin camp with a central ceremonial circle to provide better entertainment for their next group of guests.
The plan is to set up a series of such camps. This commercial use of the land will ensure added legal protection for their territorial claims, and the camp experience is expected to spread understanding of the Huichols' environmental rationale for creating a protected area.
Chávez pictures groups from different ethnic backgrounds using the camps, including environmentalists, academics, lawmakers, and non-indigenous neighbors. He sees the camps "as a way in which the community can access resources, and also build a base of strategic alliances."
AJAGI has signed an agreement with Guadalajara's Occidental Technological Institute of Higher Studies (ITESO). Chávez hopes it will be just one of many agreements that lend viability to the protected area. Under the terms of this agreement, the institute is training Huichols in topographic mapping, geographic information systems (GIS), and computer skills in order to create a data bank for land-use planning.
Similarly, the University of Guadalajara and the Ancient Forests Civil Association are collaborating by assigning biologists to inventory the Huichols' resource management needs. "We want to progress toward an educational system in the mountains that responds to the need to support the reconstitution of the territory, so that grandchildren and great grandchildren will have the possibility to continue being the Huichol people," Chávez said.
"We're going to need a lot of collaboration. What's more, AJAGI can't do this alone. We need to join with universities and with other organizations to build together. We have asked them to get into this more and more, to broaden the quantity of organizations involved in the project, to allow us the sufficient force and the technical, human and financial capacity to pull off a project like this.
"Once we have achieved this joining of forces international, academic, conservation, and so on we will create a new level of respect for the Huichol territorial space from the Mexican government."
AJAGI is proposing creation of an environmental, agricultural demonstration center that will sell its products as a way to establish economic self-sufficiency that will help carry the project forward. However, Chávez insists that AJAGI doesn't need to get any bigger to achieve the project's goals. Rather, it is the project that must grow, he says.
"It's not about making this a mega-organization," he said. "We hope that in four or five years we'll be working with the rest of Mexican society to make this a sustainable project for natural resources, culture, and equitable relations."
But Chávez has reason to fear strong opposition from entrenched interests. Two years ago, when resentment over land claims was already rising, one of his sons was kidnapped. The boy turned up in an adjacent state, able to escape when the kidnappers crashed their vehicle.
After this, Chávez questioned whether the risks of the project were worth taking. On the advice of a human rights lawyer, he sent his family away from Guadalajara for more than a year, while he continued to work with the Huichols. Everyone agreed that all parties would be in greater danger if they abandoned the project.
Despite real and anticipated opposition, Chávez also has reason to believe that the cross-cultural communication he deems necessary for the sustainable development of the Huichol region can be achieved effectively. For one thing, he asks, if he, as a non-indigenous person could come to terms with the Huichols, why couldn't others?
In any case, AJAGI has set the ball in play, and there's no way to stop it now, he says. "The process is already underway. We're doing it. We're advancing."
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Talli Nauman, a U.S.citizen, has been working as a correspondent in Mexico for the last 14 years. She is co-director of the Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness project, which she initiated seven years ago with support from the MacArthur Foundation. In her 28-year journalistic career she has worked for international and national news organizations.