MAC: Mines and Communities

Wixáritari Indians Fight Mining in Sacred Desert Site, Mexico

Published by MAC on 2011-11-08
Source: Inter Press Service (IPS), EFE

Last month, some two hundred Wixáritari travelled to Mexico City, calling on the government to cancel 80 mining concessions which, they claim, are threatening one of their most sacred ceremonial sites.

This isn't the only area where the country's indigenous  peoples are currently facing the planned destruction of their traditional territories by mining companies. See previous article on MAC: Declaration in Defence of Wirikuta


Wixáritari Indians Fight Mining in Sacred Desert Site

Daniela Pastrana

Inter Press Service (IPS)

28 October 2011

MEXICO CITY - Some 200 Wixáritari or Huichol men, women and children travelled 20 hours from western Mexico to the capital to defend their sacred ceremonial sites from silver mining.

Huichol representatives and their supporters marching in DF
Huichol representatives and their supporters marching in the
capital.  Source:

Dressed in their colourful traditional attire, the demonstrators came from their mountain villages in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Durango to hold protests on Oct. 26 and 27 to demand a stop to the activities of foreign mining companies in the high desert of San Luis Potosí in the central state of that name.

Wirikuta is a nature reserve considered sacred by the Wixáritari, who make an annual pilgrimage there by foot every year from their villages in the western states.

"We want life, we want to continue existing," Wixáritari representative Santos de la Cruz said in a press conference this week in Mexico City.

"The Mexican state is killing and stealing our sacred land," he said. "They want to finish us off, kill our mother earth. We are here to ask them to live up to their word, to obey the laws."

The Wixáritari are one of the few indigenous groups in this country who have largely preserved their prehispanic spiritual identity. They worship the gods of maize, eagles, deer and peyote, a spineless cactus (Lophophora williamsii) that has hallucinogenic properties when ingested.

Peyote doesn't grow in the western Sierra Madre mountains where the Wixáritari live, but is abundant in Wirikuta.

The desert area, where the old mining town of Real de Catorce is located, was one of the main silver mining zones in the country during the Spanish colonial period.

Real de Catorce is now a popular tourist destination, drawing artists, hippies, university researchers, ecologists and actors alike - who have come together in the on-line social networking sites to defend Wirikuta.

"The most important thing at stake is what is happening in Wirikuta right now. We have to defend our land, defend our humanity," Mexican actor Gael García Bernal wrote on Twitter while the Wixáritari protesters were on their way to the capital.

In April 2008, President Felipe Calderón, clad in a traditional Huichol outfit, oversaw the signing of the Huauxa Manaka pact by the governors of five states, for the preservation of Wixáritari culture.

But in 2009, the Calderón administration granted 22 mining concessions to the Canadian mining company First Majestic, through its subsidiary Real Bonanza.

Seventy percent of the 6,326 hectares granted in concession to the Canadian firm is in Wirikuta.

And in the heart of Wirikuta, around El Bernalejo, the government granted two other concessions to another Canadian company, West Timmins Mining.

Members of the Salvemos Wirikuta (Save Wirikuta) movement say there are at least 30 mining projects in the sacred region, which in 1988 was declared by the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO as one of the world's 14 natural sacred sites in need of protection.

The government has been deaf to calls for the defence of Wirikuta, Rodolfo Cossío, head of the Wixáritari ceremonial centre in the community of Santa Catarina, Jalisco, told IPS.

Besides the cultural problem, the mining concessions in Wirikuta raise legal and environmental questions, because the 140,000-hectare area was declared a protected nature reserve and sacred site by the state government in 2001.

The area is rich in biodiversity, with one of the world's highest diversities of cacti, according to Conservación Humana, a Mexican NGO working to protect the Wixáritari's sacred sites

"It is an island of vegetation in the middle of the desert," said Humberto Fernández, head of Conservación Humana.

The Wixáritari people believe that "if Wirikuta is destroyed, the world will come to an end too," the activist said.

But Wirikuta is not the only place the federal government has run into opposition to mining in indigenous territories.

Similar resistance has been encountered by the Minera San Xavier, the Canadian-owned mining company that runs the Cerro San Pedro gold and silver mine, also in the state of San Luis Potosí, and in the southern state of Guerrero, where the Regional Coordination of Communal Authorities (CRAC) and Communal Police are fighting plans for gold mining in the Costa Chica and La Montaña regions.

According to the CRAC, one-tenth of the territory of Guerrero has already been leased to mining companies, which operate open-pit mines, which are especially damaging to the environment.

In February, an assembly of local agricultural authorities declared that the native people of Guerrero were opposed to mining in the region, and in early October, 700 Communal Police were staked out in villages and along roads, to keep the mining companies from operating.

The tension mounted further this week when Me'phaa indigenous activist Agustín Barrera, a founding member of CRAC, was arrested after federal agents and soldiers were sent in on Oct. 25 to the territory controlled by the indigenous police.

"We cannot allow them to exploit the land without consulting the local people," CRAC legal adviser Valentín Hernández told IPS.

Clashes between the Calderón administration and native groups over mining would appear to be inevitable.

The day after Barrera was taken to a state prison, Calderón said in a speech in the state of Guerrero that the mining industry has invested 12 billion dollars in Mexico since he took office in late 2006, and that this country has once again become the world's leading producer of silver, and is the ninth biggest producer of gold.

"We have given support to the mining industry. And today, it is enjoying conditions that it had not seen in a long time," said the president, who made no reference to resistance against mining by local communities.

Indigenous people in Mexico are variously estimated to make up between 12 and 30 percent of the country's 112 million people (the smaller, official, estimate is based on the number of people who speak an indigenous language).

In Mexico City, the Wixáritari announced a series of cultural events to support their struggle, including an art auction backed by actor Daniel Giménez Cacho, and the Wirikuta Fest, a February 2012 music festival that will draw bands like Manu Chao, Calle 13, Aterciopelados, Cafe Tacvba and Los Tigres del Norte.

Battle for 'birthplace of the sun' in Mexico

A struggle for a UNESCO-recognised site unfolds between Canadian mining companies and the Wixarika people in Mexico.

Tracy L. Barnett

Al Jazeera

28 October 2011

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - To the native Wixarika of Mexico, better known as the Huicholes, the mountains of Catorce and the desert at their feet are the centre of the world, a temple of prayer on the level of the Vatican. To a pair of Canadian mining companies, it's a mother lode of gold and silver in a market hungry for both.

A battle for the UNESCO-recognised Wirikuta Natural and Cultural Ecological Reserve in the northern state of San Luis Potosí has been unfolding over the past year, since word got out that First Majestic Silver Corp. of Canada had been granted 22 mining concessions for more than 6,000 hectares, nearly 70 per cent of it within the reserve.

The context seems like a movie script, but it's deadly serious to the Wixarika, whose core cultural practice for more than a thousand years has consisted of regular pilgrimages to Wirikuta, the birthplace of the sun: a magical desert where the balance of life on Earth is maintained through a sacred cactus that carries the wisdom of a blue deer.

"It's as if they wanted to put a gas station in the middle of the Basilica," said Santos de la Cruz, referring to the most sacred shrine of Mexican Catholics, the Basilica of Guadalupe. De la Cruz is a traditional authority in his community of Bancos San Hipólito and also an attorney engaged in the legal battle to defend his people's lands and traditions.

In a press conference flanked by a cadre of grim-faced Wixarika men and women who had travelled for days from their communities in the western Sierra Madre, De la Cruz grew visibly emotional. "What they want to do is to rip out the vein of the heart of Wirikuta - and that's why we're here... We're not interested in gold and silver; what interests us is life."

On October 26, the Wixarika began streaming into the mega metropolis in a two-day mobilisation, drawing stares and smiles of recognition in their distinctive fringed hats and colourfully embroidered traditional dress. They are calling on Mexican President Felipe Calderon to honour his word, reminding him of the 2008 Pact of Hauxa Manaká, when Calderon donned the ceremonial Wixarika clothing in a ceremony attended by five governors and guaranteed the protection of the Wixarika culture and sacred sites.

Saints, goddesses, and politicians

After the press conference, the multihued band loaded onto buses for a pilgrimage to the Basilica and to the Hill of Tepeyac, where the indigenous Juan Diego is believed to have seen the Virgin of Guadalupe. Perhaps more importantly to the Wixarika, it's the ancestral temple site for Tonantzin, the powerful pre-Hispanic Earth goddess.

Another part of the delegation went to meet with officials at SEMARNAT, the federal environmental agency, to outline their concerns. And yet another group went off to do interviews with the national media.

Later they converged in a ceremony on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, carrying their traditional God's Eyes and signs that read "Mining is the New Conquest", "Wirikuta: Matirix of Life", and "The Origin of the Earth is Not Negotiable". Some played haunting traditional melodies on the handmade traditional fiddles of the sierra.

Today's agenda includes an early-morning ceremony at the pre-hispanic ruins of Cuicuilco, followed by a march down Reforma Boulevard to the presidential residence of Dos Pinos to ask for an audience with President Felipe Calderón. A letter delivered here in May has so far gone unanswered.

'Some return dead'

Meanwhile, local residents in the desperately poor region are torn between their desire for jobs on the one hand, and fears of losing their scarce water reserves on the other. They also worry about the impact on the local tourism industry, currently one of the only sources of employment. But San Luis Potosí's depressed economy has made it one of the areas with the highest emigration rates in the country.

"This is an opportunity," said Guillermina Bustos, a mining supporter from Real de Catorce. "There are young people who leave, not because they want to emigrate, but because here there is no work. And there are some who return dead."

Real de Catorce, a former ghost town-turned-tourist attraction, has enjoyed a tourism boom since it served as a movie set for Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts (The Mexican). Now, however, with an increase in drug-related violence throughout the region, tourism is suffering, and mining is looking more attractive.

Representatives of First Majestic Silver are calling on Wixarika authorities to come to the table for a dialogue. The company has offered to set aside 761 hectares of land that contain sacred springs and other spiritually important areas, and promise not to touch the Cerro Quemado mountain. They've presented a plan to reactivate a subterranean mine that operated decades ago, and they promise not to affect the local environment.

"We want to reactivate the mining activity in a manner that's socially responsible," with sustainable development projects," said Juan Carlos Gonzalez, manager of Minera Real Bonanza, the First Majestic subsidiary managing the Real de Catorce operation.

But Wixarika leaders have said the issue is not negotiable. Wirikuta is much more than the Cerro Quemado and the sacred springs, explained Humberto Fernandez Borja, founder of Conservación Humana, a conservation group that has worked with the World Wildlife Fund, UNESCO and others to defend the site for more than two decades. It comprises the entire range of the Catorce mountains and the desert that lies below, for a total of more than 140,000 hectares, all of which acts as a sacred, integral whole.

Other threats loom

First Majestic is not the only threat to Wirikuta, as Fernandez pointed out.

Another critical problem in the area is the ongoing razing of thousands of hectares within the reserve for industrial tomato growers. Conservación Humana filed a formal complaint with the federal attorney for environmental protection (PROFEPA) in March and is yet to receive an answer. Wednesday's meeting with the SEMARNAT and PROFEPA officials brought a major step forward: officials announced they had recently ordered the tomato grower in question to close operations and remediate the site.

Last month, tensions heightened when Minera Golondrina SA de CV, an affiliate of the Canadian West Timmins Mining Corp., met with local residents to discuss plans for an open-pit gold mine in the desert below Real de Catorce, around the place known as Bernalejo or Kauyumaritsie - the hunting grounds of the sacred peyote cactus, where the blue deer spirit Kauyumarie, an intermediary between the deities and man, is believed to reside.

All of these incursions, say the Wixarika leaders, endanger the integrity of the ecosystem and their ability to practice their religion. They also maintain they are in violation of their right to informed consent regarding development of their traditional lands, a claim that the UN's Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Affairs, James Anaya, is investigating.

An existential threat

In 1998, UNESCO declared Wirikuta as one of the world's 14 natural sacred sites in need of protection. Since 2004, it's been on the tentative World Heritage Site list, and defenders are urging the agency to grant protective status before it's too late. They are also asking that the reserve's jurisdiction shift from the state to the federal level, since they say the state is not fulfilling its obligations to protect the reserve. The World Wildlife Fund designated the area one of the three most biodiverse desert ecosystems on the planet, with an unusually high rate of endemic species. It's also a nesting ground to the golden eagle - or as it's known down here, the Mexican eagle - a national symbol featured on the Mexican flag that's in danger of extinction.

The case has garnered international attention from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Native American Churches of North America and Canada and conservation groups in Germany, Italy and Austria, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues, James Anaya, who plans an investigation into the matter. Gael Garcia Bernal, big-name Mexican music groups like Cafe Tacuba and Mexican poet-turned-high profile peace activist Javier Sicilia and his Movement for Peace and Justice have taken up the cause, as well.

Paul Liffman, anthropologist with El Colegio de Michoacán and author of the book Huichol Territory and the Mexican Nation, sees the mine as an "existential threat" for the Huicholes.

"The Huicholes are deeply afraid of this project," says Liffman. "The entire ecological flow that forms the basis of their sacrificial system would be affected. The circuit of waters and rains and underground water flows would be affected, as would their whole reason for existing."

Wirikuta is key, Liffman explained, to the Wixarika vision of themselves as intermediaries with these forces of nature. "Their whole ritual system is based on the idea of sacrificial reciprocity with the ancestors who control the climate as well as wealth and health and human wellbeing. If you destroy the preeminent ritual sites, you've totally pulled the rug out from under them as a culture."

The situation in Wirikuta is altogether too common, said Jennifer Moore, Latin America coordinator for the nonprofit Mining Watch Canada, who travels the continent investigating complaints against Canadian mining companies.

"These mining concessions are often granted without the knowledge, let alone the consent of local peoples," she said. "We've seen the water supply of campesino and indigenous communities become contaminated, we've seen important sources of water dry up, we've seen violence and conflict as people have demanded the right to be consulted over projects taking place on their lands or headwaters."

Mexican Indians demand gov't end mining contracts in sacred area


27 October 2011

Mexico City - Dozens of Wixarika, or Huichol, Indians are calling on the Mexican government to cancel 80 mining concessions - including two held by Canadian multinationals - at one of their sacred ceremonial sites.

Even though 140,200 hectares (346,170 acres) in Wirikuta, located in the central state of San Luis Potosi, were declared a protected natural reserve in 2001, mining operations and tomato plantations have proliferated there and threaten the region's biodiversity, spokespersons for the Wixarika Regional Council said Wednesday.

"We are carrying the severe pain of the sacred territories, primarily Wirikuta. The Mexican government is killing (that area), kidnapping it," council envoy Santos de la Cruz said at a press conference in Mexico City, where nearly 150 Wixarika Indians from several states have gathered.

De la Cruz especially denounced the operations of Canadian-based multinationals First Majestic Silver and West Timmins Mining in the Catorce highlands and lowlands.

First Majestic's Real Bonanza unit holds 22 mining concessions, 70 percent of which are located within the natural reserve, while two West Timmins subsidiaries, Golondrinas and Cascabel, also operate in the area and plan to use an open-pit method that is considered among the most highly polluting.

According to Wixarika Indian organizations, the impoverished residents of that region have allowed the mining companies to operate there in exchange for small cash payments.

The Indians are therefore demanding the cancelation of all concessions awarded within the sacred Wirikuta site, De la Cruz added.

The Wixarika Indians regard Wirikuta, declared in 1988 to be part of UNESCO's global network of sacred sites, as a "sacred, indivisible and continuous territory."

One area in particular, the Cerro Quemado, is "where the sun was first born" and is therefore a very important "altar" within the Wirikuta sacred territory, the Indians say.

The Indians and members of allied non-governmental organizations held a series of peaceful protests in the Mexican capital Wednesday and Thursday to press their demands, including a reception at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a ceremony at the Cuicuilco pyramid on Mexico City's south side.

Protesters on Thursday also held a rally Thursday at Mexico City's emblematic El Angel column and marched from there to the Los Pinos presidential residence.

Mexican actor Daniel Gimenez Cacho, who was among a group of artists expressing support for the Indians during Wednesday's demonstrations, thanked the protesters for their activism because "they are teaching us to defend our house and what is ours."

In addition to Wirikuta, the Wixarika culture of west-central Mexico also have sacred pilgrimage sites in San Blas, a municipality in the state of Nayarit; the Tepehuana highlands of Durango state; and a zone near Chapala Lake in Jalisco state.

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