Cowboys and Indians
(Published in Boston Review at: http://www.bostonreview.net/blog/cowboys-and-indians )
June 03, 2013
On July 2, 2012, the day after Enrique Peña Nieto won the presidential election, a group of some two hundred mestizo farmers and ranchers headed to Chihuahua’s state capital to confront the governor. It was a three-hour drive from the northwestern part of the Chihuahua; the caravan of pick-up trucks (and my minivan) would arrive in early evening.
Tensions have been rising there and in other parts of the Chihuahuan Desert over rapidly dropping water tables, near-empty reservoirs, and the accompanying surge in illegal wells for new agribusiness projects, mainly in Mennonite colonies. As their owns wells go dry, the farmers fear their livelihoods too will evaporate.
Earlier that day, in a Mennonite settlement near Ojo de Yegua, the group had demanded that Mennonite farmers, unable to show a drilling permit, shut down their equipment. Although representatives from government agencies had promised to join the protest and shut down the illegal wells, they never showed up. Instead, two policemen armed with AR-14s burst into the crowd and headed directly toward me. Having been told by the Barzón leader that I was there to chronicle the protest, the farmers quickly gathered around to protect me—and my camera. The policemen began shooting in the air and at our feet, then retreated. Protestors found several of their truck with slashed tires.
Martín Solís Bustamante, a leader from El Barzón, a rural organization in Mexico, called the governor’s office, insisting that he ensure our security, and pointing out that the state water and environmental agencies had agreed the previous week to shut down the new wells. One of the group picked up the bullet casings he could find. We then headed to the Palacio del Gobierno in Chihuahua City—the colonial palace which now houses the governor’s offices—for a late night ad hoc meeting. Our caravan was part of an incipient campaign demanding that the government make good on its promises.
Wearing jeans, plaid shirts, and cowboy hats, the men (along with a few women) arrived at the palace. Never before had I been inside this imposing colonial building with its murals depicting the state’s revolutionary history. Yet I was the center of attention when the Barzonistas confronted the officials that night.
Stunned government ministers and officials—including the state’s chief of public security—looked on as Bustamante unrolled a plat map with illegal wells marked, pulled a handful of the brass bullet casings from his pocket, and scattered them over the map . Pointing to me, Bustamente told them that the government was obligated to protect not only its own citizens but also international reporters.
In February 2013, I was back at the Palacio del Gobierno with many of the same Barzón-allied farmers and ranchers. But this time they came on horseback as part of the Cabagalta Para Justicia-–the Ride for Justice. This time, one of their leaders, Ismael Solórios, who had pushed for the community’s decision to ban mining operations to protect their water supply, was not with us. In October Ismael and his wife Manuela had been assassinated. The government’s failure to find and prosecute the killers had heightened the already highly charged struggle to conserve the water of the El Carmen aquifer into a broader struggle for justice and against impunity in this desert state.
And this time, the protestors weren’t just cowboys but also Indians. As the Barzon horsemen and women approached the palace from one direction, marching down another street were a couple hundred the indigenous Tarahumaras, who had traveled from southwest Chihuahua to join forces with the ranchers.
Water is also central to the increasing mobilization of the Tarahumaras, known as rarámuris (“those who walk well”) and whose legendary endurance running abilities were chronicled in the 2009 bestseller, Born to Run. The contingents from Tarahumara communities carried banners protesting the government’s new mega tourist project in the Barrancas del Cobre, or Copper Canyon. Climate change-aggravated drought has dried up all but two of the 32 springs in the Tarahumara community of Mogótavo, and, if the government prevails, the Tarahumara will also be denied their lands.
Climate change may prove their most severe threat, but their immediate concern was the takeover of their lands and the contamination of their water sources by the Barrancas del Cobre Tourism Project, sponsored by the federal and state governments in conjunction with private investors (mostly former or current government officials and politicians).
The Tarahumara people—about 120,000 dispersed throughout the Barrancas del Cobre—have over several hundred years survived the aridness of the Chihuahua Desert and the harsh canyonlands by carefully conserving their water springs. Perhaps more impressive has been their ability to maintain their vibrant culture despite the invasions of the logging and mining companies over the past three centuries. The Tarahumara survived largely through a strategy of limiting contact with meztizos and foreigners. Over the last decade, however, they have had to defend themselves in new arenas.
In March the usually reticent Tarahumaras went to Washington to denounce systemic human rights violations by the Mexican government before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Among other complaints, the Tarahumaras and their lawyers—as part of a strategy organized largely by the NGO Tierra Nativa—condemned the Mexican government for violating the Mexican constitution (which stipulates that indigenous communities must be consulted about prior to initiating any project that might affect them), for participating in highly profitable land grabs of Tarahumara land by government ministries and private investors, and allowing the sewage and effluents from three luxury hotels and the government’s own adventure park seep into their communities.
Alma Chacón is a volunteer lawyer for Contec, one of the NGOs in Defensa Tarahumara. During a recent trip to Chihuahua, she told me that “the combined demonstration at the Palacio del Gobierno in February had energized the Tarahumara communities, while our series of assertive legal initiatives have put the government, tourism project investors, and hotel owners on the defensive.”
For the first time, she said, the Tarahumaras are turning the tables on the government and those who have exploited them for so long: “Never before have I been so satisfied in my legal work.”
Photos by Tom Barry