Mexico: indigenous communities battle mega-tourism

A small indigenous community in Mexico’s northern Chihuahua state finds little glitter in the “magic town” planned for their ancestral lands. Instead of good fortune, leaders of the Raramuri (Tarahumara) community of Bacajipare allege they’ve been the target of death threats and bullets because of an escalating land conflict related to the planned Divisadero-Barrancas Adventure Park.

To counter the purported attacks, Raramuri leaders Antonio Gutiérrez, Pedro Moreno, Lorenzo Moreno and Enrique Moreno have filed a legal complaint with the Chihuahua state attorney general’s office. “The threats are in response to community demands over the fences that are put up to profit from the sale of lands to tourist project investors,” the Raramuris charged in a public document.

A 400-member community which forms part of the San Antonio communal lands in the Sierra Tarahumara, Bacajipare is located in a zone slated for development as part of a renewed push to draw more tourists and their dollars to the famed Copper Canyon region. The land dispute pits Raramuri against mestizo members of the communal landholding unit known as an ejido.

Tagged as part of a cross-country network of “magic towns” envisioned by Mexican tourism promoters, the Divisadero-Barrancas mega-project is planned to include a tramway over the Copper Canyon, a heliport and major hotels. Reportedly backed by Spanish capital, the Chihuahua state government is supporting the tourism industry expansion.

Previous efforts to expand tourism in the Copper Canyon region have sometimes clashed with the desire of indigenous communities to control their lands, their cultural resources and their local economies. “When projects of this kind are announced, it is always claimed there will be development and economic benefits for the residents,” Mexican environmentalist and columnist Ivan Restrepo recently wrote. “Experience shows they end up dispossessed of their best lands and working as gardeners and minor employees in hotels and other businesses.”

As the Bacajipare conflict heats up in Mexico’s north, an indigenous movement to take control of tourism is gathering steam in the country’s south, in the state of Chiapas bordering Guatemala. On December 28, indigenous supporters of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) stepped up demands that Mayan archaeological ruins and popular tourist parks be managed by local communities. Arriving in four trucks, a group of protesters entered the legendary Palenque archaeological site and painted slogans on museum and administrative walls. A few of the slogans read: “The Country is Not for Sale,” “Death to the Capitalist System” and “Long Live the EZLN.”

The EZLN is celebrating the 15th anniversary of its armed uprising against the Mexican government with an international festival in Chiapas this month.

Currently, Palenque and other ruins are administered by the federal government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. Indigenous activists contend that Article 169 of the International Labor Organization recognizes indigenous communities’ ownership rights to archaeological sites.

Last September, a police operation to dislodge indigenous protesters from an archaeological zone near Chinculitk and the Montebello Lakes National Park in Chiapas left six people dead and more than 20 others injured.

Amid the end-of-the-year holiday celebrations when most government officials are away on vacation, the Chiapas Human Rights Commission issued a Dec. 26 report that concluded state agents committed human rights violations during last September’s confrontation. The official human rights agency sent its non-binding recommendations to the Chiapas state public safety and justice ministries for review and possible action.

From Frontera NorteSur, Jan. 2

See our last posts on Mexico and the struggles in Chihuahua and Chiapas.