Tucked between sand dunes and the Pacific Ocean, perched on a small hill, is Xayakalan, home to members of the indigenous community, Santa Maria Ostula. Here, the sound of waves hitting the shore mixes with the cries of children playing among the wooden huts. Against this beautiful backdrop, a group of Mexican Nahua people are fighting to keep control of their land. The cost has been high.
Since 2009, this small community of around 3, 000 people has seen 28 of its members killed. Another four are missing. Those who dare step up to defend their indigenous rights are picked off one by one.
The Nahua people live on over 24,000 hectors of land, which they use for fishing and growing crops. They speak passionately of how the earth provides for them. Maria, not her real name, describes how she feeds her family from crops she grows outside her house. “Food is easy to come by here,” she states. “And the ocean always gives us a good meal.”
Maria and her community, unlike other groups of indigenous people, have maintained unbroken control of their land since before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. The community, in the past, has been successful in keeping invaders at bay. This time, they fear they will not be so successful.
Plans by local government to develop the coastline for tourism have stirred up old rivalries in the area. A land dispute going back to the early1900s has once again reared its head. And this time, the stakes are high. Around 1,300 hectors of unspoilt land running from the coast up into the mountains is being targeted for development.
The Nahua people say that their community owns the rights to the land and have the legal papers to prove it. This claim is disputed by a group of local businessmen, who say the land was privatized in 1911 and that it belongs to them.
To stake claim to this uninhabited stretch of coastline, local businessmen from the nearby town, La Placita, moved onto the land in early June 2009. One man in his fifties, who declined to give his name, explained how the businessmen started giving away plots of land to those willing to join them in the fight against the Ostulan community. “They started building houses,” he stated. “They planted crops. Just like the local politicians they wanted to develop the land for tourism.”
People from Ostula asked local government to intervene on their behalf. Their appeals were ignored. Some in the Nahua community believe that local government is involved. “The government was in agreement with those on the land,” states one woman. Others nod in agreement, but are reluctant to say so out loud.
Towards the middle of June 2009, the community, tired of standing by while others occupied their land, decided to take action. The Nahua called a regional indigenous meeting, which was attended by neighboring indigenous communities. “At the assembly it was decided that we would fight for what is ours,” said Juan, not his real name. Juan explained how around 60 members of Ostula took back the 1,300 hectors that had been taken from them. “They greeted us with gun shots,” he said. “But through sheer number of people we managed to overcome them and drive them out.”
To protect the stretch of beach from further development, around 40 Nahua families set up home in the dunes. What started out as a strong movement in defense of their land has dwindled significantly today, with less than 15 families remaining. People are reluctant to explain why this has happened. And considering the daily threat of violence this is not surprising.
In October of last year, Pedro Leiva Dominguez, spokesperson for the community and member of the Mexican peace movement, was shot dead in Xayakalan. Nobody there is prepared to talk about his murder and who was involved.
“It was a family problem,” a man in his late fifties said.
“It was over an argument,” said one woman.
Pedro was not the first to lose his life defending his community and he would not be the last.
Since driving the local businessmen from the land, the community of Ostula has been constantly under threat of attack by the local drug cartel. This situation is further complicated by the presence of paramilitary groups operating in the area alongside organized crime.
The community is isolated and increasing vulnerable. Those who step up to protect the community do so at their own risk. Many of those who have been killed or kidnapped were the pillar stones of the Ostulan community, without them, the others fear that their movement will fail.
Just before Christmas, the community lost one more member. Don Trino, head of the community police, was abducted while traveling with members of the Mexican Peace Movement, headed by Javier Sicilia. His body was found the next day. He had been shot at point blank range and his body showed signs of torture. Those who knew him talk of his dedication to the cause. Those who remain seem determined to stay, however it is yet to be seen if dedication alone will save them.