Mexico: Wixáritari Indians Fight Mining in Sacred Desert Site

(IPS) – 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.

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.