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  Number 327 | Octubre 2008
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Mexico

Mezcala: A Mirror and a Heart

As the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence approaches, Mezcala’s volcanic lake, island and lands are once again proving irresistible to federal, state and municipal governments. But the consciousness of Mezcala’s Coca people is more deeply rooted in its ancestral past, a history of resistance and pride in its indigenous identity. It is defending its beautiful lands, resisting, protesting and creating autonomy.

Jorge Alonso

The struggles of a great variety of peoples for their autonomy demonstrate a long-term desire that constantly transforms both the group and the reality in which they live. This is the case of Mezcala’s indigenous community, which lives alongside Mexico’s largest lake, Lake Chapala, in the state of Jalisco. The community maintains a centuries’ old resistance strategy in defense of its lands and its rights, constantly adapting to changing circumstances without bowing down to them.

One threat to the communal lands has to do with the attempt of the Poncitlán municipal authorities to impose an Urban Development Plan on Mezcala by means of which those in government want to award themselves the right to decide on the use and enjoyment of this land without consulting the people or asking the community’s assembly for permission.

Another pitfall that the Coca people of Mezcala have discovered is that having lost their language and traditional dress, the Jaliscan authorities are unwilling to recognize them as an indigenous people. They perceive this as another attack and insist that they don’t need that legal recognition to continue being what they in fact are.

Founded by the Aztecs

Mezcala’s inhabitants are proudly aware of their origins. A sign at the entrance to the town announces that Mezcala was founded by a group of Aztecs who stayed behind on their journey to the valley of Mexico. They are proud of the pre-Columbian pottery found on their lands, a cave, their cave paintings and petroglyphs and some huge stones on the hill that evoke their religious beliefs about rain. They are especially proud of the island the town faces.

The town is protected by a huge mountain on the lake’s shore and its inhabitants have known how to take advantage of its barely accessible topography to preserve their traditions. Nonetheless, they’ve been adept at hybridization, incorporating new elements into their culture without letting them take over. It is said that their festivals date back to before the Spanish conquest but they’ve clothed them with the Catholic saints’ days and added on the national independence holidays.

In the early 1990s President Salinas’ modification of Article 27 legalized the sale of land belonging to ejidatarios (members of Mexico’s communal farming system known as ejidos) or held communally. Hence pressure grew on Mezcala’s communal landholders to sell their land, highly desirable for tourist projects due to the beauty of the place, but they have been steadfastly opposed to privatization and have not accepted the Procede and Procecom programs, the first an official program legalizing ejida l rights and titling individual lots and the second a version of the same program for communal land. With the arrival of the rightwing National Action Party (PAN) to Jalisco’s state government, moves to privatize the countryside gained momentum. Moreover, with the complicity of one of the community members, a person close to the first PAN governor occupied part of the communal mountain forest, blessed with a view of the lake, towards the end of his administration. Since then the community members have begun mobilizing local society and waging a legal struggle against this man, who is protected by powerful politicians.

It’s a sacred place

In 2002 the community suffered another incursion by the government and business people who want its land. Rather than build a highway following the old road alongside the lake, their plan crossed the communal hill to open up the land for subdivisions and tourism, obviously hoping to attract foreign investment.

With such pressure increasing, the community’s resistance has also increased. The community members looked for allies in their fight to preserve their land and traditions and found them in the National Indigenous Council. They have particularly strengthened their ties with the Wixaritari (Huichols), who regard Lake Chapala as a sacred place, which they visit from far away to make offerings to it in exchange for water and life.

The Mezcala community enthusiastically joined the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign, and when Subcomandante Marcos visited Jalisco in May 2006 the community took part in massive Other Campaign events. They introduced themselves as the Coca indigenous community, a historic people, owners of their own territory. They said their identity was established in ancient documents, but also that they knew their identity through their parents, grandparents and all those who had fought for land and freedom in the area. With pride in their indigenous origins, the community maintained that Mezcala was a nation that had always been in the Other Campaign. On that occasion they stated that, as members of the Other Campaign, they put no hope in Mexico’s presidential races every six years. They weren’t looking for a President or a political party but rather a solution to their problems, and their experience had convinced them that they would achieve this from the bottom up, rediscovering their indigenous roots, defending their land and rebuilding their communal vision and behavior.

Relying on the
support of other peoples

In November 2006 the Mezcala community organized a National Forum in Defense of Mother Earth and the Autonomy of Indigenous Nations, an event where they consolidated relationships with other indigenous peoples around the defense of water, maize, land, traditional medicine and self-government. The Mezcalan community members said that if two centuries ago 400 indigenous people had successfully opposed 8,000 men of the Spanish Royal Army, today thousands of indigenous people would rout those who wanted to strip them of their land and customs.

In March 2007, in the meeting of the National Indigenous Congress in the Central Pacific region, the Mezcala community took part under the name of the Coca people. At the end of this meeting the participating peoples issued the Tuxpan Declaration, which highlighted the constant attacks and harassment that indigenous peoples experience from political parties and churches that work on the side of big money to weaken and divide their assemblies, authorities and cultures.
Included among the accusations of all the participating groups was the Coca people’s charge that their communal forest was being turned into a motocross race track with backing from municipal authorities and motorcycle clubs in the state of Jalisco. The clubs had set themselves up on the community’s land against the community members’ wishes, using their land as if it were a private amusement park and causing huge environmental damage.

In the Tuxpan Declaration the signers announced they would continue to strengthen their de facto autonomy in order to continue existing. The declaration was signed by indigenous peoples from the states of Morelos, Durango, México, Colima, Guerrero and Jalisco.

A controversial celebration On November 25 last year, the Mezcala community again invoked history and their dead to state publicly that they were not selling their land but defending it. They objected that every November 25 their town was taken over by municipal and governmental officials who arrived to celebrate the battle waged on the island during the war of independence. They complained that those people were forgetting that today’s townspeople are the legitimate descendents of that resistance, and insisted that their ancestors’ struggle hasn’t ended. It’s not only the communal hill of Mezcala that’s in danger but also the historic island where their ancestors fought for four years in the war of independence and weren’t defeated, despite the superior military technology of the royal armies. Jalisco’s PAN government wants to see the island as government property and, using the pretext of preparing for the official bicentennial independence celebrations in 2010, the state and municipal governments began public works on the island, without consulting the community.

The idea put forward by the government representatives was to invite Mexico’s President to the island for one of the bicentennial celebratory acts. The members of the community have invited Oaxaca’s indigenous peoples to attend the 2008 commemorative forum of the island’s resistance. On their own account and with their own means they’ve been organizing their own celebration of the bicentennial, separate from state authorities at every level.

We’re owners, not bits of folklore

Although the community has existed since before the arrival of the Spanish, those on high, immersed in their bicentenary independence celebration programs, are trying to avoid recognizing the indigenous community. The community members protest that they want to impose an external form of government when they already have their own system. Those on high want to sideline the community’s traditional government so they can implement changes in land use.

In December 2007 the community had to raise its voice against the work beginning to be done on the island without its consent. They opposed the plan to convert the place into a special tourist center for foreigners where native people would just be objects of folklore and curiosities in the landscape. They objected to the use of heavy machinery without the needed authorization or environmental feasibility studies and especially the failure to consult with the community. Emphasizing their ownership of lands, mountains, water and monuments, the indigenous people accused the municipal, state and federal authorities of violating international treaties protecting the right of indigenous cultures to their own cosmovision.

An impartial expert sided with the members of the community, confirming that the works being built on the island were inappropriate, plagued with oversights, omissions and negligence, such as the demolition of part of the fort’s defense structure and the absence of criteria in separating rubble from remains and of a comprehensive architectural and archeological plan.

We won’t sell our heart

The community members have said that the island is the heart of their community and the authorities are trying to turn it into a product for the tourist business. In November 2007 the community members issued a proclamation: “Our ancestors’ blood pulses and lives on Mezcala Island; here the memory of our people takes refuge and here we affirm our identity as an ancient nation. Every November 25 our history walks through the town, the lake, the island, accompanied by our dead ancestors who arise and whisper in our ears about how we should care for our lands, our inheritance… We will not sell the land; rather we shall defend it as the closest remembrance that joins us to them.”

Mezcala is a mirror

At the beginning of 2008 the Mezcala indigenous community members’ General Assembly, their traditional authority, invited indigenous peoples and civil society to a forum to discuss, analyze and denounce the actors and promoters of the land invasion to steal lands that have belonged to them since time immemorial. The meeting was held next to where a businessman from Guadalajara had built a luxury home on community land. By denouncing the theft of their lands they showed that what’s happening in Mezcala is a mirror reflecting very indigenous nation in the country.

There was a lot of support for the Mezcala community from representatives of peoples in the National Indigenous Congress and from people in Jalisco involved in the Other Campaign. On explaining their problems to representatives of other indigenous peoples, the Mezcala community members said they found themselves facing “a new war of conquest” and were very aware of what their grandparents had taught them. They were using that wisdom to design their resistance, their struggle and their own plans for coexistence with that territory.

“We have suffered the same”

At the end of the event the participants released the following declaration: “Here in the Mezcala community in Jalisco, the P’urhepecha, Wixárika and Nahua indigenous peoples of the states of Jalisco and Michoacan, during the commemoration of the Vice-regal Land Treaty, manifest our complete rejection of the shameless federal, state and municipal governments, who in league with business people and caciques, aim to strip our Coca brothers from Mezcala of their resources, historical heritage and land. We know from our own experience that hidden behind supposed objectives such as “progress,” “environmental and archaeological conservation” or “development,” one finds the desires of the powerful to exploit for their own benefit the resources of our peoples and communities, still protected because of our century’s old resistance.

“We recognize that throughout history our Mezcala brothers have been one of the strongest nations to have led the indigenous struggle for dignity and help preserve the integrity and identity of our country with their blood. Because of this it is doubly outrageous that Jalisco has not even awarded them the status of Indigenous People, or at least recognized them as the legitimate owners of their lands and territory, including the waters of Lake Chapala and Mezcala island, which they have defended for generations.

“We, the communities present at this event, have also suffered the attacks that capitalist and now globalized interests engage in against our Nations and against the resources that traditionally form part of our cultures, from genetic material to our forests, water, minerals and land, in their attempt to sell it all, wanting to extend the damage already caused by this market logic to the whole world in opposition to our sacred vision of care of and responsibility towards our Mother Earth.”

The right to our autonomy

The National Indigenous Congress member nations that joined in solidarity with the Mezcala community members also came out against the Mexican state’s neoliberal policies and against militarization and paramilitarization, since on the pretext of fighting organized crime, soldiers and police invade indigenous territories and protect those stealing from their peoples.

They raised their voices against the illegal means of appropriation being used by wealthy nationals and foreigners to plunder the nations’ resources. They opposed so-called environmental projects which, forcing ecotourism projects and scientific research on them, help wrest away control of their territories, resources and knowledge from indigenous peoples by introducing bio-prospecting measures that end up awarding to huge transnationals patents and intellectual property rights over resources belonging to these peoples and the whole of humanity.

They are the Coca people’s lands

As another way of defending their autonomy, the Mezcala community members prepared a communal statute in 2008 in which they insist they are an ancient nation that has been there since time immemorial. They refer to their primordial title, which shows them to be the rightful owners of the water, lands, forests, hills and island. They stress that no law, person or government can dispossess them since they are the absolute owners with permanent legitimate rights. The statute is based on principles that protect the indigenous community’s lands, territory, island and natural resources; govern their communal, agrarian, social and economic organization; and lay the foundations for running their own institutions, which taken together form part of the community’s traditional government.

In the terms of the ILO’s Convention No. 169 on indigenous peoples in independent countries, these people indeed belong to the Coca nation. The issue doesn’t lie exclusively with their dress or language. They are descendents of populations that lived in the country during the time of the Conquest and maintain their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions. They apply their uses and customs or their customary law but observe the fundamental rights defined by national and international law and respect the general spirit of those laws. They participate in the administration, conservation and use of the resources on their lands and preserve the characteristics of the transmission of rights to the community’s own lands.

Woodlands, streams,
hills, plants, animals…

Their organizational structure is communal, with a general assembly of community members as the highest decision-making body in the community. From antiquity to the present day they have used the land and water collectively to benefit the whole community. According to their laws, the interests of the whole community prevail over individual interests; they favor the community’s development based on the development of all its members, they maintain social unity and identity as a community by protecting and promoting their institutions with particular emphasis on their main festivals, historical and archeological monuments, customs and history. They defend as their own the community goods recognized and confirmed by the presidential resolution published in August 1971 as well as the lands they’ve historically possessed and that were legally recognized by the Spanish colonial government in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

The lands belonging to the Mezcala community members enjoy special protection that makes them inalienable, enduring and immune to embargo. The community not only owns the land and Mezcala Island, but also all the natural resources found therein.

Referring to article 13 of ILO Convention 196, the community’s territory consists of the entire habitat of the area it occupies or uses, and this includes land, forests, water, streams, springs, sacred places, hills, valleys, plains, hillocks, gullies, plants, fungi, animals, corn patches, settlements, maguey patches, stones and other communally used resources. For this reason it establishes that any subdividing of the communal wooded areas will be null and void.

Defending the environment

There is great awareness of the need to conserve the area’s ecology. The Convention states that all activities carried out by the community for the exploitation, use and conservation of its natural resources must make every effort to achieve sustainable management; ecological balance; protection and preservation of the environment, ecosystems and biodiversity; and ensure full autonomy to the communal nucleus in managing these resources. Any exploitation of the community’s natural resources should take into account the type of protection they should have, valid ecological criteria, possible environmental impact, instruments and policies of ecological planning and the natural vocation of the resource to be exploited.

Given the special relationship that the community has always maintained with its communal lands, the plants, fungi and animals found there enjoy special protection; they are considered crucial to satisfying the community’s needs. The common lands cannot be granted to an individual communal member and will be subject to the care and administration of the common goods commissariat and the oversight committee to guarantee their common interest and protect them from use by anybody outside the community. The privatization, rent or sale of springs, dams or riverbanks is banned and nobody can use them for their personal use, only for community use.

“Our nation comes from way back”

The people in the community are proud of their indigenous identity, defense of the land, self-government and preservation of their historical memory. Most of the young people are on the side of the elders and the community stresses that to feel they are indigenous it is enough for them to know they are and defend this identity.

In May 2008 the Mezcala community contacted the UN Commissioners for Indigenous People’s Rights to tell them they shared the poor conditions of other indigenous nations in Mexico, because of the Mexican state’s neglect and abuse. They also said the Mexican state did not recognize their community as Coca people, claiming the Coca nation is extinct because neither its language nor its dress have survived.

They won’t cut our roots

The Mezcala community refutes these arguments as follows: “Our nation, our elders laugh at the government’s words because we don’t need their approval to tell our children and the general population that our nation comes from way back and that what we have, our lands, our islands, our forests, our traditional authorities, our dances, festivals and customs represent our ancestors’ heritage.”

The Mezcala community also told the UN about the heart of their community, the powerful symbol of their history of resistance and the perilous situation in which it finds itself. They introduced another important issue about the island: the governmental plan to eliminate the island’s origin and ignore the worship of Ytzollanlzintzi that has taken place there since time immemorial. While the government wanted to restore the stones, the community “saw their ancestors’ memories, words and blood.” The Mezcala community members complained that the authorities mock their nation’s history but warned that while the government was cutting the community’s leaves, branches and even part of the trunk, it forgot that the roots are what give it strength and life.

Memory’s workshops and
interviews with those absent

This September the community members continued their struggle in defense of their communal land against invaders or strawmen. Knowing the importance of keeping their community’s historical memory alive, they ran workshops to reinforce this memory among all their members, from the elderly to the children. They are determined that the Mezcala community should talk and write books. They are also imaking an inventory of the flora, fauna and natural resources and making a video to publicize community life. And as half of the old community members have died, they have promoted a new process to renew the community members, receiving dozens of youngsters into their ranks.

In the community they have kept up a careful communication with the “absent children,” immigrants in the United States. Population growth and the lake’s pollution have increased emigration, especially to the north. The migrants send money back, which is used to build houses in the community, and remain united by the main religious festival, that of the Virgin of the Assumption. The “absent children’s organization” is well connected to the communal structure.

Following the Zapatista tenet of “walking and questioning,” they have incorporated the whole population in the dynamic of defending their autonomy and started a consultation in September between the resident population in Mezcala and the absent children to analyze all the problems they are currently experiencing.

“Our dead surround us and whisper”

The Mezcala community members look at the example of what happened to other ejidatarios in neighboring towns along the lakeshore, particularly Chapala and Ajijic. As a result of the pressures of capitalist tourism, which holds out the carrot of job creation, these neighboring communities sold their lands one by one and are now underpaid servants to strangers and foreigners in what were once their own lands. The Mezcalans do not want to make the same mistake. Most of them want to keep their community free, although a few are dazzled by the money on offer.

But the community organization continues strong and acts as a brake on community disintegration. The community members have repeatedly denounced the intentions of authorities and individuals. They remind others that their dead watch with distress the trickery by both government authorities and academics, who promise a progress that excludes the place’s inhabitants, its true owners. The Coca elders say that the warriors who died two hundred years ago surround us and whisper in the ears of the living: “Remember you are our children; cry out that our story isn’t over.”

With them and like them

Mezcala is experienced in local resistance to outside invasions by those from above and by neoliberal globalization. This resistance has been historically successful, putting a halt to government pretensions to act without its permission. The Mezcala community is aware it has the support of many centuries behind it. On the shore of Mexico’s most important lake, its members continue their anti-capitalist search and their long struggle for autonomy.

There are other groups of indigenous peoples, peasants, neighborhood residents, young people and women just like Mezcala’s community members in many corners of Mexico whose daily lives resemble theirs. Like them, they are looking to free themselves from the molds imposed on them by the state and capitalism.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher for CIESAS West and the envío correspondent in Mexico.

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