The extreme isolation of the Tarahumara (until recent years) and their adaptation of some elements of the alien Spanish/Mexican culture have enabled them to survive in what most observers would regard as an extraordinarily hostile natural environment. The effects of this isolation are reflected in their culture, in their relatively equal gender roles in terms of their economy, their flexibility of work schedule, lack of economic specialization and their willingness to share available food when necessary to ensure survival.
Their isolation has also hindered the emergence of any well‑defined leadership system. A lack of any “official” hierarchy make it much more difficult to resolve any serious disputes. It has also meant that the shy and politically naive Tarahumara have found it difficult to counteract intruders, whether they are government officials or drug‑dealers. As more roads are improved, even the furthest, most remote sanctuaries, of the Tarahumara come under threat.
Some Tarahumara have adopted more mestizo culture than others; the “gentile/baptized” distinction, first recognized by Lumholtz, with all its associated differences in settlement patters and lifestyle arose from the resistance of many Tarahumara to the imposition of a Spanish/mestizo culture that they considered “alien”. The more traditional Tarahumara still prefer to live in relative isolation and not to resettle into fixed villages where there would be insurmountable pressure on their culture. The mestizos in the Copper Canyon region, who occupied the best land by force and formed villages in the European‑derived tradition, have far more links with modern Mexico, and have preserved their economic dominance over the Indians.
None of this means that the traditional Tarahumara way of life has remained unchanged or will not continue to undergo modifications in the future. Any changes to the environment can have serious adverse impacts on their abilities to find sufficient food. The main drivers of environmental change have been drug-growing, forestry, mining and tourism.
In addition, they have to manage changes which, to some extent, have been thrust upon them by some of the government and other efforts aimed at helping them. For example, modern medicine and education threaten to change the Tarahumara population balance. Today, more infants survive to adulthood and fewer adults die as a result of accidents. The problem for the Tarahumara is how to feed and support an ever‑growing population using existing methods of cultivation and herding.
Equally important is the transformation of the traditional Tarahumara system of wants by contact with mestizos. Prior to these contacts, the Tarahumara had little or no access to commercially-made alcohol. Tarahumara tesgüino took considerable time and effort to make and had to be consumed rapidly, meaning that Tarahumara could get drunk occasionally, but could not remain drunk for long. The ready availability of commercial alcohol has completely changed this dynamic.
Slightly over a decade ago, an innovative, women-led project reportedly changed the 3500-inhabitant community of Arareco (8 km from the town of Creel) for the better. Kari Igomari Niwara, a 200-member women’s organization, began in 1992, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It has often been quoted as an outstanding example of what the Raramuri (Tarahumara) can do if left to their own devices and allowed to control their own resources. In this project, they have sought encouragement and support, rather than direction and dependence. By 1997, Kari Igomari Niwara had organized a health center, primary school, bilingual literacy program, drinking water system, bakery, three small food supply stores, a handicrafts business, a restaurant and collective transportation for the village.
One of the first collective efforts of the Kari Igomari Niwara group was to get the cantinas (bars) of Creel closed at 4pm in the afternoon, so that their husbands wouldn’t get so drunk. Almost 70% of Arareco women reported having been beaten by their husbands, the vast majority of attacks coming when their husbands were drunk. After the initial cantina victory, the men became even more repressive, but the women persisted and four years later managed to persuade the church to build them a small health center despite the objections of their local male-dominated council. The women have already reduced nutrition-related infant mortality to 25% of its former level and have brought birth rates down by 50% (Nauman, 1997).
The deforestation of the Copper Canyon region has a long history and has significantly changed the resource base of the Tarahumara to the point where their traditional way of life in the canyons is probably impossible to sustain in the future. Deforestation was started by mining companies who cut trees to make pit props and burn as fuel. In the 1890s, the region started to supply timber to the USA, via concessions given by Chihuahua state governor Enrique Creel to companies such as the Sierra Madre Land and Lumber Company, owned by William Randolph Hearst. Today, many of the local ejidos continue to cut more timber than they can ever replant, and there are more sawmills in operation than could ever be sustainable.
In many places, there are clear signs of the immense environmental destruction wrought by timber cutting, often on slopes so steep that there is little chance of reforesting them in the future. Soil erosion is rampant in some areas and satellite imagery reveals huge areas that are no longer forested.
Recent droughts have not helped, and one NGO, Alternative Training and Community Development (ALCADECO) has explored their links with deforestation and migration. The NGO’s director, Laura Frade, argues that the long-term effects of drought go far beyond the obvious. Poor crops in times of drought results in the abandonment of traditional lands. Families become dependent on poorly-paid jobs in the timber industry, or on drug plantations, or dependent on the sale of handicrafts to tourists. Many of those that fail to make ends meet then become the unwilling recipients of blankets and food from charity organizations. Others move to cities like Chihuahua, where they try to survive by begging or turn to alcohol.
New and improved roads
The development of forestry required the development of roads and vehicle tracks. Road development continues to this day and is not necessarily a beneficial thing. Improved road access has opened up new areas for lumbering, mining and tourism. In turn, small stores spring up, even in remote areas, selling mestizo items such as radios, carbonated drinks, cigarettes, and manufactured clothing. The use of money has become more widespread. Better roads have enabled traders to build a credit relationship with Tarahumara Indians, offering them non-traditional goods in exchange for a share of the next maize harvest. This has led to typical problems of indebtedness and exploitation.
- De los Derechos Humanos, A.C. & Texas Center for Policy Studies. 2000. The Forest Industry in the Sierra Madre of Chihuahua: Social, Economic, and Ecological Impacts. [pdf file]
- Lartigue, F. (1970) Indios y bosques. Políticas forestales y comunales en la Sierra Tarahumara. Edicions de la Casa Chata # 19, Mexico.
- Lumholtz, C. (1902) Unknown Mexico. 2 volumes. Scribner’s Sons, New York. Republished in both English and Spanish. Fascinating ethnographic account from the last century.
- 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.
- Vatant, Francoise. La explotación forestal y la producción doméstica tarahumara. Un estudio de caso: Cusárare, 1975-1976. INAH, Mexico.
- 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
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