Photo: Tom Pierce for The Guardian

The state of Chihuahua is located in the north of Mexico and is bordered by Texas and New Mexico. The so-called "Sierra Tarahumara", a mountainous region of vast dimensions and difficult access, corresponding to the northwestern side of Sierra Madre Occidental; it consists of 21 municipalities, where basic services and connectivity exist precariously. The region is inhabited by four Indigenous Peoples: Odami or Tepehuan, Pima, Warijio and the most numerous - reaching a 77.8% - the Raramuri or Tarahumara people. The area has been of economic interest mainly due to its wide extension and because 70% of it is of forestry interest; furthermore, it has such a biodiversity that makes it attractive for mining and tourism. The confluence of different parties and interests, has positioned Sierra Tarahumara as one of the areas that presents most agrarian conflicts, which has meant an important deterioration of the collective rights of communities, and has generated an ecological imbalance due to the exploitation of those communities. Several indigenous communities that inhabit this region are in the middle of a process of defense of land and territory, with the aim of preserving their life models, based on their history and rights as peoples. We have interviewed human rights defender organizations that work with communities and their opposition processes. All those organizations have a close relationship with PBI since the opening of our office in the north of the country. Although we have interviewed people from the communities, we have incorporated this information in a crosscutting way, safeguarding names for security reasons.

Context of the defense of land and territory in Sierra Tarahumara

Mexican and international civil society has seen with concern the increase in and consequences of violence on people living in the Sierra, especially it’s impact on those who defend land and territory. During the last official visit to Mexico by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and one day before his arrival in the state of Chihuahua, Isidro Baldenegro, an internationally recognized community defender, was assassinated. Two weeks later, Juan Ontiveros who just days before had participated in a meeting in the state capital together with civil society organizations and authorities, raising awareness of the security situation and the territorial agrarian conflict in his community, was also assassinated.

During his visit to the state, the Special Rapporteur mentioned the presence of organized crime in the area and a lack of adequate protection by authorities as one of the risks faced by both the indigenous communities of the mountains and the people who accompany them. The presence of illegal actors, such as organized crime, has been recognized as a phenomenon that is increasing in this region due to its strategic interest, both for cultivation and for the transfer of illicit substances. One of the main problems the above circumstance has caused is the pressure that these groups exert on the indigenous communities that inhabit the territory, by generating forced recruitment and forced internal displacement processes, among others. Members of COSYDDHAC tell us that, for those who stay, there is uneasiness and fear; in addition to the dispossession -- either by occupation or control of the land -- which reduces the space for traditional and subsistence crops, "Their space has been taken away, their peace has been removed (...) an act such as sitting on a stone to see with great satisfaction how their forest, their corn, their beans, their potatoes, their broad beans, or their plants are growing ... now they do it with fear ".

Another problem which land and territory defenders in the Sierra Tarahumara face is the development of projects and mega-projects -- both of national and transnational nature -- concerning the tourism, mining, and infrastructure sectors (such as the Creel airport or the "Encino-Topolobambo" gas pipeline). The installation of mega-projects is described by some defenders as a “cultural shock”, which "puts at risk the natural resources of the mountains in favor of the interests of parties other than the ancestral inhabitants; i.e. of private or public groups in power.” Among the effects on communities and the environment resulting from projects and mega-projects, they mention: dispossession; contamination of water and/or the use of water resources traditionally used for human consumption or agriculture; and deforestation. Communities and civil society organizations have denounced that, in most cases, these projects are carried out without consulting the indigenous communities, and that, in cases where this consultation is carried out, it does not meet the minimum standards of being free, being performed prior to the commencement of the project and being informed, which leads to a scenario of "distribution of economic benefits" that results in the manipulation of communities or in their division.

The organizations point out that the Mexican State "is not taking care of the indigenous people", because the agrarian reforms implemented in 1923 and in 1992 did not take into account the indigenous territorial organization; which now implies a lack of legal recognition of the communities and their ancestral lands, and therefore of the right to use and ownership over these territories (both the land and natural resources), and thus affecting the exercise of their collective rights. Legal uncertainty in land tenure of Mexican indigenous communities was identified by the previous special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, who specifically denounced the violations of the collective right to land and territory and to the enjoyment of the natural resources of the Tarahumaras and Tepehuanos in the mountain region. COSYDDHAC tells us that “they have a plot of land, where they grow their crops and where their houses are located; however, in case of logging or if a mining company arrives in the region to exploit it or if a pipeline is built, they earn nothing, they are not even consulted, because they are not the owners of the land. As they have no right over their territory, they have no way to benefit from logging or to say whether they agree to it or not.”

The high cost of defending land and territory in Sierra Tarahumara

Despite the context -and because of it- there are communities that are in the process of defending land and territory, many of them have organized and receive the aid of people and organizations that defend human rights. This diversity of defenders faces risks in the exercise of its work, among which are public defamation, such as that suffered on several occasions by COSYDDHAC; harassment, such as that which was perpetrated against CONTEC; threats, such as those suffered by members of ASMAC (for which protection measures ordered by the IACHR were granted); and assassinations, such as that of the renowned defender Ernesto Rabago, advisor to the Baqueachi indigenous ejido (land communal system), who was murdered in his office and whose case remains unpunished.

For the defenders who support them, people in the communities are at a greater degree of risk than other defenders who could be protected by an institution and are more capable of responding to possible attacks. Community defenders are especially vulnerable, since they are in the territory on a daily basis and live with a multiplicity of potential aggressors. An example of this is the community of Choreachi, displacements, assassinations and threats have been documented and members of the community have been awarded precautionary measures by the IACHR since 2014. Because the risk for defenders of land and territory in the area continued to worsen, in 2017 the IACHR granted precautionary measures to the entire community. In addition, the recent murders of defenders of this territory support the conclusion that the risk level faced by these communities is extreme and that the need for protection is urgent.

The challenge of resisting: "If one were silent, the stones would scream”

In response to the closing in their space for action, communities and organizations have identified and promoted self-protection mechanisms, where the sense of ancestral community has been fundamental to continue their struggle; they have also implemented other security strategies in their transfers, schedules, communications, which allows them to "continue to walk tall in the face of adversity”. The diversification of legal strategies has led defenders to win cases despite the difficulties they face; and because of threats, on several occasions, they have been forced to generate new work strategies, as ASMAC tells us: "We have found a way forward -- constantly training community promoters, and every time we are training younger people ... We are not ourselves [in the territory], but we are still working (...) They have not defeated us. They're not going to break us; we're going return.”

Another example of these mechanisms is the work carried out by the Network in Defense of the Indigenous Territories of the Sierra Tarahumara a network of civil society organizations that denounces violations of land, territory and environmental rights before different judicial bodies, offering legal advice and assistance to communities during trials and during the enforcement of relevant verdicts. The network is defined as a space with a political sense, which jointly analyzes cases from a legal standpoint, and establishes work strategies for effective assistance to communities. They have discovered that legal remedies are essential to achieve the other work objectives each organization has. According to CONTEC, which is a member of the network, "apart from being a network of organizations, it is a network of communities in defense of territory." Their work seeks to foster a more global organization in communities that allows them to face isolation and to stop threats to their territories. Another issue addressed is advocacy and visibility: For three years, the network has conducted “Caravans for Justice” which visits key actors at both the state and federal level, in order to detect issues, to raise awareness, and to acquire commitments to address problems in the Sierra comprehensively.

Thanks to civil society efforts in Chihuahua, the Federal Protection Mechanism for HRDs and journalists activated an early warning system, consisting in a “Contingency Plan” signed on June 9, 2017 in response to the worrisome violence and risk situation they face in the state. The Plan includes a series of measures aimed at preventing potential aggressions and violations of human rights and aimed at guaranteeing that further violations and aggressions do not occur. Said Plan devotes a chapter to the specific case of the Sierra Tarahumara, consisting of a set of actions that will be developed in order to complement the protection measures that certain mountain communities have. For PBI, the early warning means an important recognition of the emergency situation in the state of Chihuahua, and represents a more contextualized approach to addressing it. However, until now, no significant changes have been observed that indicate an improvement in the serious situation of defenders.

"That is the tragedy... one, two, three families, who say 'they will not get in here' ... and they say it for the last time, because the next time they cannot say it, for they are already dead, they have killed them.” , Cossydhac.