In the first part of this two-part article – Threats to the traditional Tarahumara way of life, part one – we looked at the threats to traditional Tarahumara life posed by alcohol, deforestation and the construction of new or improved roads in the Sierra Tarahumara (Copper Canyon) area.
In this part, we consider the impacts of drug cultivation, mining and tourism.
Drug cultivators and drug cartels
The incursion of drug cultivators seeking land for growing marijuana and opium poppies into the Canyon country has further marginalized the Tarahumara, sometimes labelled “Cimarones” (“Wild Ones”) by the newcomers. Drug cultivators have sometimes registered parcels of land as theirs and then ejected the Indians by force. Obviously, they choose the best available land, and their cultivation methods are designed to produce quick results, rather than sustainability.
Alvarado (1996) divides anti-drug policy into various time periods. First came an emphasis on catching those responsible, then came exhaustive efforts to eradicate the crops. Crop eradication has its own serious environmental downside, since it involves the widespread and indiscriminate use of aerially-applied herbicides, alleged to include Agent Orange, Napalm and Paraquat.
Alvarado’s study is an interesting analysis of the incredible, quickly-acquired wealth (and accompanying violence and corruption) that characterizes some settlements on the fringes of the Sierra Tarahumara. In some towns, for example, there are few visible means of economic support but the inhabitants are able to purchase far more late-model pick-ups than can their counterparts in major cities. Murder rates in these towns are up to seven times the Chihuahua state average. Violence even has a distinct, seasonal pattern, with peaks in May-June (planting time) and October-November (harvest time).
The levels of violence and injustice led Edwin Bustillos (winner of the 1996 Goldman Prize for Ecology) to change the focus of CASMAC, the NGO he directed, from environmental conservation to the protection of Tarahumara lives. In 1994, CASMAC was instrumental in stopping a 90-million-dollar World Bank road-building project that would have opened up still more of the Sierra Tarahumara to timber companies.
Besides deforestation and its resultant impacts, mining has had several other adverse effects on the Tarahumara and the local landscape. Mining activity has increased in the past decade as metal prices have been high and the federal government has encouraged foreign investment in the sector. Mining leads to a reduction in wildlife and to the contamination of water resources. The most damaging pollutants are heavy metals.
Even tourism poses a potential threat. In the past decade, investments totaling 75 million dollars have been made to improve infrastructure (highways, runways, drainage systems, water treatment facilities, electricity) in the Copper Canyon region so that the area has the hotels, restaurants and recreational activities to handle six times the current number of visitors. The plan includes three remodeled train stations and a cable car that is already in operation. Sadly, the Tarahumara were not consulted. The plan essentially deprives them of some communal land with nothing being offered in exchange. Clearly, they are in danger of losing control over even more of their natural resources, especially since improved highways will benefit other groups such as drugs growers.
Anthrologist María Fernanda Paz, a researcher in socio-environmental conflicts at UNAM’s Regional Center for Multidisciplinary Studies, argues that these recent conflicts in the Copper Canyon region have stemmed from the federal government’s support for inflows of foreign capital, helped by modifications to the land ownership provisions enshrined in article 27 of the Constitution, changes made in 1992 during the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In her view, the developers behind contentious projects first do everything possible to hide the project from public view until it is well advanced. Once people start to object, they then identify the community leaders and do everything possible to get them on their side. Before long, they have succeeded in creating a massive rift in the community, paying some very well indeed for their land, and others next to nothing.
Finally, the good news
The Tarahumara recently (12 March 2012) won one of the greatest victories to date for indigenous peoples in Mexico. The Tarahumara (rarámuri) community of Huetosachi in the state of Chihuahua has now been recognized by Mexico’s Supreme Court as having long-standing indigenous territorial rights (but not formal ownership) that must be respected by the Copper Canyon Development Fund (Fideicomiso Barrancas del Cobre). This is truly a landmark victory. The Tarahumara have been guaranteed the right to be consulted over all Development Plans, and to select the benefits they will receive in exchange for any loss of ancestral territory. Finally, this juggernaut of a tourist development plan must respect the territories and natural resources of the Tarahumara.
This was truly David against Goliath. Huetosachi is a tiny settlement of only 16 families, about 10 km from where the main tourist complex is being built near the Divisadero railway station. The village has no water, electricity or health services.
The Copper Canyon Development Fund is now obligated to create a Regional Consultative Council allowing the villagers of Huetosachi and other settlements a say in the negotiations to decide what level of development is acceptable, and what the villagers expect in return. This council is expected to include representatives of 27 indigenous communities in the immediate area between Creel and Divisadero.
This landmark court decision could well be the first of many as indigenous groups elsewhere in Mexico fight their own battles against developers of various kinds. There could still be more court cases concerning the Copper Canyon region since it is widely expected that this initial success will lead to a legal challenge against the siting of the cable car. The villagers are also reported to be discussing how best to deal with water contamination allegedly resulting from existing hotels, and the possibility of a golf course being built on the canyon rim.
- Alvarado, C.M. (1996) La Tarahumara: una tierra herida. Gobierno del Estado de Chihuahua. Somewhat repetitive academic analysis of the violence of the drug-producing zones in the state of Chihuahua, based in part on interviews with convicted felons.
- Merrill, W.L. (1988) Raramuri Souls – Knowledge and Social Progress in North Mexico. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
- Nauman, T. (1997) “Tala ilegal para la siembra de mariguana y opio en Chihuahua” p. 50 in El Financiero, May 12, 1997. Describes the Arareko project.
- Plancarte, F. (1954) El problema indígena tarahumara. INI. Mexico. Spanish language description published by National Indigenous Institute.
- Shoumatoff, A. (1995) “The Hero of the Sierra Madre” pp 90 – 99 of Utne Reader (July-August, 1995), reprinted from Outside (March 1995). An account of the determined efforts by Edwin Bustillos to prevent further environmental destruction in the Copper Canyon region.
- Threats to the traditional Tarahumara way of life, part one
- The seven main canyons in the Copper Canyon region
- How were the canyons in the Copper Canyon region formed?
- The settlement patterns of the Tarahumara in Mexico’s Copper Canyon region
- Tarahumara agriculture in the Copper Canyon region
- The diet and tesgüinadas of the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyon region of Mexico
- The geography of drugs-related deaths and violence in the state of Chihuahua