02/24/14 (written by feliciagomez) — Protection of indigenous populations in Mexico has been in the spotlight recently, with protests and marches organized in February to demand more action from the government. Human rights advocates have long argued that Mexico’s indigenous population has received unequal protections and access under the law, critiques that surfaced with the recent claims of the government overstepping indigenous land rights and the government’s failure to provide much-needed hurricane relief to indigenous populations.
In early February, indigenous groups and peasants rallied in several states to demand that all local, regional, and national organizations unite to defend the land and territories of their rural communities. They assert that mining is ruining the land’s ability to produce food, while also failing to recognize the rights that indigenous people have to their territory, their property, and the use of their resources, which goes against Mexico’s constitution and various international treaties to which it is a signatory. The amount of land being used for mining has also caused social tensions in indigenous and peasant communities, many in Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla, especially because mining companies allegedly exploit much of the territory in which indigenous communities reside. The presence of mining companies has also been seen as a lead cause of armed confrontations, forced displacements of communities, an increase in violence, and health issues because of contaminated water supplies, among various other challenges.
According to a study done by the Commission for Dialogue with Indigenous People (Comisión para el Diálogo con los Pueblos Indígenas) of the Ministry Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación, SEGOB), “in the last 17 years, the administrations of Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox, and Felipe Calderón have granted more than half of the country’s territory to projects for foreign mining purposes, discriminating against rural communities, principally indigenous people.” Between 1993 and 2012, the government made 43,675 million mining concessions that add up to a total of 95,765,800 hectares of land. The concessions for mining are granted by the Economic Secretary (Secretaría de Economía) and can last up to 50 years with the possibility of a renewal for another 50 years, with no limit to the amount of concessions granted to any one business.
While the rallies for land rights protections unfolded, the State of Guerrero was undergoing its own fight regarding the government’s response to Hurricane Ingrid and Tropical Storm Manuel, which hit Guerrero in September 2013, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Thousands of indigenous people from the region of La Montaña marched on February 4 in the Pilgrimage of Hunger to demand the economic resources, food, and equipment that were promised to them by the Mexican government in response to the hurricane. Although President Enrique Peña Nieto promised $30 billion pesos ($2.26 billion USD) to assist the population in rebuilding the affected areas, Guerrero Governor Ángel Aguirre Rivero claims “not even one peso has arrived.” Among the numerous complaints against the government’s inaction, some argue that mayors contribute to the problem, as they “are not attending to the demands of their communities in a timely manner.” Others discussed the organization of aid efforts stating that there were no concrete plans laid out on how to distribute aid and to rebuild affected areas, with some suspecting that they would have to wait until the 2015 electoral season when aid would be traded for votes. Wanting their voices to be heard at all levels of government, particularly the federal, Deputy Sebastián de la Rosa Peláez of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido Revolucionario Democrático, PRD) stated, “[Indigenous populations] are fed up with the discussions and the promises of aid from the federal government because they simply have not received the help they were offered.” In response, the disgruntled populations have threatened to block access points and exits to roads leading to the towns Puebla, Chilpancingo, and Manquelia.
While the community and the Governor of Guerrero claim they have not seen any of the aid promised to them, Rosario Robles Berlanga, the Secretary of Social Development (Secretaría de Desarrollo Social, Sedesol) stated that resources had been given to the community residing in La Montaña in a “direct and immediate way, and without intermediates.” She also claims that, since the hurricane hit, Sedesol has distributed more than “700 tons of corn to more than 25,000 families and that they operate 222 community dining halls that distribute 30,000 rations of food each day.”
In the months preceding the recent struggles, the Mexican government did take some additional steps in favor of indigenous protections and equal access. At the end of December, Congress proposed to grant autonomy to the indigenous populations, marking the 20-year-anniversary of the indigenous guerrilla movements in Mexico largely under the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN). If approved, the constitutional reform would help Mexico meet its “commitment to ‘harmonize legislation’ with the United Nations declaration on indigenous rights,” as was printed last December in the Official Journal of the Federation (Diario Oficial de la Federación, DOF). Just a week later at the start of January, the Government of the State of Jalisco approved $5 million pesos ($377,000 USD) in scholarships to over 400 indigenous students to allow them to continue their studies. Salvador Rizo Castelo, the Secretary of Development and Social Integration, remarked that the funds will “benefit the social integration and productivity of its recipients, particularly the young indigenous population in Jalisco.” In 2013, the state government did not only support efforts for access to education, but also provided medical and legal services to indigenous populations, including the Mixtecs and Triquis, among others.