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HomeSeriesEnvironmental DefendersMexico's Wixárika community vs the miners

Mexico’s Wixárika community vs the miners

A thirteen-year legal battle to stop mining in sacred territory

SourceMongabay

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  • Wirikuta is the most important sacred place for the Indigenous Wixárika people in the state of San Luis Potosí, Mexico.
  • In 2010, the communities discovered that mining companies were threatening this place, which is of great importance for biodiversity and culture.
  • Since then, they have been fighting a legal battle to annul the 78 contracts threatening the site’s existence.
  • Although mining activity is currently suspended thanks to a protection order obtained by the Indigenous community, there is still no definitive resolution. In 2024, they hope this will finally change, and the Mexican judicial system will rule in their favor.
  • This article first appeared (in Spanish) on Mongabay. You can read the original here. It was translated for LAB by Ruth Donnolly.
  • Main image:Consejo Regional Wixárika por la Defensa de Wirikuta, assembled during the forum ‘Wirikuta: 13 years defending our sacred territory’, held on 18 April 2024. Photo: Paloma Robles

Along the journey of every pilgrimage, the road to Wirikuta brims with offerings: lit candles, arrows, and jícaras (bowls made from the hardened skin of the jícara, or calabash gourd). Other vessels are placed on the ground leading to the sacred site. Each year, dozens of people leave the Wixárika communities in the state of Jalisco and walk for hours over more than 500 kilometers (about 310 miles) towards the site, located in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Their journey, guided by Tamatsi Kauyumarie – the Blue Stag, one of their highest deities – represents a prayer for the wellbeing of nature and all of humanity.

Wirikuta is not only the birthplace of Wixaritari culture. It also contains all the natural elements that sustain it. That’s why, when the communities found out that mining threatened this ecosystem, they came together to defend it.

‘In 2010, we discovered that Canadian companies wanted it [Wirikuta land], and we felt it was in danger. The companies wanted to open mines, but we felt that this would cause big problems. It is an extermination of what is sacred,’ says María Concepción Bautista, president of the commons for the Tuapurie-Santa Catarina and Cuexcomatitlán communities.

Wixaritari people leave offerings along the route to Wirikuta. Photo: Consejo Regional Wixárika.

This concern led to the creation of the Wixárika Regional Council for the Defence of Wirikuta (CRW) in 2011. The CRW is an organisation made up of traditional, agrarian, and civil authorities and members of the Wixaritari communities located in the Sierra Madre Occidental, between the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Durango, and Zacatecas. Its objective is to safeguard, protect, and defend all places sacred to the Indigenous people.

From there, the Wixárika people started a legal battle, which has now been going on for more than 13 years, against 78 mining licenses granted to extract silver and other precious minerals within the sacred territory of Wirikuta. Thanks to an amparo (an injunction to protect individual and constitutional rights) granted in 2011 and a traditional survey conducted in 2012, they achieved the suspension of all activities until the case reaches a conclusion.

Wixárika people during the traditional survey, in February 2021. Photo: Sofía García Mijarez.

These licenses cover approximately 70 per cent of the 140,212 hectares (about 346,470 acres) the Mexican government formally recognized between 2000 and 2001 as the Protected Natural Area known as the Sacred Natural Site of Wirikuta. This area spans the municipalities of Catorce, Charcas, Matehuala, Villa de la Paz, and Villa de Guadalipe, all located in the state of San Luis Potosí. The site also includes the Historic Cultural Route of the Wixárika People, which stretches 138.78 kilometres (86 miles) across Villa de Ramos, Salinas, and Charcas municipalities.

As of 1999, UNESCO also recognised Wirikuta as one of the world’s 14 Sacred Natural Sites.

The communities hope that 2024 will be a deciding year. They are waiting for the judiciary to pass a sentence cancelling the Wirikuta licences once and for all.

Santos de la Cruz Carrillo, coordinator of the Mesa Jurídica del Consejo Regional Wixárika (Legal Table of the Wixárika Regional Council) Photo: Cortesía Comunicación Institucional ITESO.

‘We have faith that the courts will rule in our favor because we are truly facing a situation in which the intersectional rights of the Wixárika people are being violated. It would not be just for the ruling to go against us,’ maintains Santos de la Cruz Carrillo, who hails from the community of Bancos de Calitique and is coordinator of the CRW’s legal bureau.

The nature of the sacred

The Wixaritari ancestor gods lived in darkness, creating the new world together. Each one took its own route to traverse the five cardinal points, according to Wixárika cosmology, and in each place, they established their five sacred sites. Wirikuta was the birthplace of the Sun (Tawexik+a), another of their highest deities.

Today, this place is located in a territory that not only extends across five municipalities, but which also encompasses part of the Potosino altiplano and the Chihuahan desert.

The Potosino altiplano. Photo: Juan Antonio Álvarez.

The Wixárika Regional Council for the Defence of Wirikuta warns that mining activity presents a threat to biodiversity in this large region, as it is home to numerous species of flora and fauna that are subject to special protection due to their at-risk status or rarity. Many are even listed in the Mexican Official Standard for Environmental Protection and recognized by international instruments such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The peyote is a case in point. Known by its scientific name of Lophophora williamsii, this cactus is categorized as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List and has been threatened by the destruction of its habitat and its illegal harvesting for trade. However, for the Wixaritari, this cactus, which forms an integral part of many of their rituals, ‘is not for sale,’ asserts Bautista. ‘We can use it, but only as part of certain traditional activities, that’s why it’s important that we conserve it,’ he explains.

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a sacred plant for the Indigenous Wixárika people. Photo: Enciclovida/Conabio.

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‘Each place that we pass through on the pilgrimage has to be cleansed, offerings must be left, and our sacred plant must be harvested — which is our older brother peyote, or hikuri,’ Marí Concepción Bautista tells Mongabay. ‘Our ancestors each took a different path into their own sacred place: Wirikuta is the resting place of the Blue Stag, who then became peyote. This is the reason we are here, to stand up for him, defend him, and protect him,’ says the Indigenous leader.

Santos de la Cruz Carrillo explains that the sacred plant hikuriis also a teacher. ‘It brings us knowledge and wisdom,’ says the Indigenous leader. ‘Thanks to the continued conservation of hikuri, we can continue our traditional practices, the wixárika cosmology, rites and ceremonies. That’s why it is important to us to protect the peyote and all the diverse flora and fauna of Wirikuta.’

Wirikuta, in February 2012. Photo: Sofía García Mijarez

The Protected Natural Area covers part of the Chihuahuan desert and is home to around half its flora species, 70 per cent of its birds and 60 per cent of its mammals. According to San Luis Potosi’s Secretary of Ecology and Environmental Management (SEGAM), this area is considered essential for conserving and propagating endemic cacti in danger of extinction.

The Sierra de Catorce, part of the Wirikuta ecological reserve and the Valle del Salado area, contains twelve plant communities. This plant coverage is essential for maintaining the water cycle, particularly groundwater recharge. Large perennial plants predominate in Wirikuta, as well as oak, pine, cedar, shrub oak, shrubs and grasslands, and gallery forests. The list of vascular plants in the region currently stands at 526 species.

Climbing the Cerro del Quemado, in February 2012. Photo: Sofía García Mijarez

‘At the end of the day, conserving this sacred space has a positive impact not only on the entire Wixárika population but also on the people using ejidos (communal Indigenous lands) in the region. To spoil and destroy the minerals present here is to put an end not only to the Wixárika people but all the others too. Mining companies really require a lot of water, and groundwater systems already contain very little water. That’s why it is turning into a desert. One of the reasons the people continue to make their pilgrimage also has to do with our request for an abundance of rain,’ says de la Cruz Carrillo.

Six species of mammals are listed in the region. Furthermore, on its cliffs, some nesting sites of the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), considered a high-priority species for conservation in the country, have been sighted. Ninety-six species of birds have been reported in Wirikuta, of which 16 are listed in the Mexican Official Standard for Environmental Protection, which is why this Protected Natural Area is of great importance for the conservation of at-risk species.

The landscape of Wirikuta. Photo: Nora Lorenzana

Their demands

On 18July 2011, the Wixárika Regional Council filed a suit for an indirect amparo, asserting the Wixárika people’s rights to consultation, territory, and cultural identity against 38 licenses granted to Minera Real Bonanza S.A. de C.V. and Minera Real de Catorce S.A. de C.V. These are subsidiary companies of First Majestic Silver Corp. This Canadian silver mining company operates in Mexico and the United States. According to information from the Economic Secretary, these licenses would form part of the silver mining project Real De Catorce-La Luz.

Sometime later, on 29 August 2013, they succeeded in extending the amparo against 40 more licenses, granted to at least 17 different applicants.

According to the traditional Wixaritari authorities, this legal remedy should demonstrate the inviolable link between Wirikuta, situated in the state of San Luis Potosí, and the Wixárika people, based in the state of Jalisco. They are defending a sacred territory that doesn’t form part of their community’s formally recognized land, but they are not trying to take material possession of it; they are only obtaining a guarantee of its protection.

Wixárika Regional Council for the defence of Wirikuta, during the forum ‘Wirikuta: 13 years defending the sacred territory’, on 18 April 2024. Photo: Paloma Robles.

While the case is being dealt with, all mining activity in Wirikuta has been suspended, so that no company can explore or exploit the territory.

Among the most recent procedural obstacles, according to a communication from Wixárika Regional Council, is the fact that the hearing has not taken place due to the failure to issue 11 notices to the responsible authorities. ‘We urge the federal judiciary to guarantee that the constitutional hearing will be held and to proceed with the review and drafting of the amparo ruling,’ the CRW said.

‘Once notified, the testimony will be heard, and then we will wait for the draft judgment. I am sure that, if everything is expedited, the ruling should be handed down this year,’ says Santos de la Cruz Carrillo, who is waiting for the constitutional authority to confirm whether justice will protect the Wixárika people and order the definitive cancellation of the contracts.

Sunset in Wirikuta. Photo: Sofía García Mijarez.

In a statement made by the CRW in April 2024 during a forum to commemorate 13 years of resistance, they demanded that ‘priority be given to the legal case and [it is demanded] that the judge’s decision be in accordance with the international legal framework on the fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples.’

Furthermore, the CRW denounced the fact that the Wixárika people’s actions were being monitored by the mining companies and other interested parties, who have rolled out a disinformation campaign in favour of the mining operation among the region’s inhabitants. Similarly, there is tension with some ejido groups in the municipality of Catorce, in San Luis Potosí, who have been filing amparo lawsuits against the declaration of Wirikuta as a Biosphere Reserve and Wirikuta State Reserve, since 2012.

‘Wirikuta is where the essence of life is founded,’ de la Cruz Carrillo concludes. ‘Without this sacred place, Wixárika culture doesn’t exist. It is our sacred place, and we have a tie to it and its deities. To destroy Wirikuta is to destroy our culture. It is important to conserve Wirikuta, and the Mexican State should use legal measures to do so and let it continue to exist as it is.’

LAB’s Environmental Defenders Series documents some of the work of environmental defenders in different Latin American countries, highlighting both the dangers they face and their achievements in defending their habitats and communities.

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