Battle for ‘birthplace of the sun’ in Mexico

A struggle for a UNESCO-recognised site unfolds between Canadian mining companies and the Wixarika people in Mexico.

Huicholes tourists Mexico
Wixarika delegation organises say: “Save Wirikuta: The Sacred Heart of Mexico” [Gabriela Delgadillo/Al Jazeera]

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – To the native Wixarika of Mexico, better known as the Huicholes, the mountains of Catorce and the desert at their feet are the centre of the world, a temple of prayer on the level of the Vatican. To a pair of Canadian mining companies, it’s a mother lode of gold and silver in a market hungry for both.

A battle for the UNESCO-recognised Wirikuta Natural and Cultural Ecological Reserve in the northern state of San Luis Potosí has been unfolding over the past year, since word got out that First Majestic Silver Corp. of Canada had been granted 22 mining concessions for more than 6,000 hectares, nearly 70 per cent of it within the reserve.

The context seems like a movie script, but it’s deadly serious to the Wixarika, whose core cultural practice for more than a thousand years has consisted of regular pilgrimages to Wirikuta, the birthplace of the sun: a magical desert where the balance of life on Earth is maintained through a sacred cactus that carries the wisdom of a blue deer.

“It’s as if they wanted to put a gas station in the middle of the Basilica,” said Santos de la Cruz, referring to the most sacred shrine of Mexican Catholics, the Basilica of Guadalupe. De la Cruz is a traditional authority in his community of Bancos San Hipólito and also an attorney engaged in the legal battle to defend his people’s lands and traditions.

In a press conference flanked by a cadre of grim-faced Wixarika men and women who had travelled for days from their communities in the western Sierra Madre, De la Cruz grew visibly emotional. “What they want to do is to rip out the vein of the heart of Wirikuta – and that’s why we’re here… We’re not interested in gold and silver; what interests us is life.”

On October 26, the Wixarika began streaming into the mega metropolis in a two-day mobilisation, drawing stares and smiles of recognition in their distinctive fringed hats and colourfully embroidered traditional dress. They are calling on Mexican President Felipe Calderon to honour his word, reminding him of the 2008 Pact of Hauxa Manaká, when Calderon donned the ceremonial Wixarika clothing in a ceremony attended by five governors and guaranteed the protection of the Wixarika culture and sacred sites.

Saints, goddesses, and politicians

After the press conference, the multihued band loaded onto buses for a pilgrimage to the Basilica and to the Hill of Tepeyac, where the indigenous Juan Diego is believed to have seen the Virgin of Guadalupe. Perhaps more importantly to the Wixarika, it’s the ancestral temple site for Tonantzin, the powerful pre-Hispanic Earth goddess.

Another part of the delegation went to meet with officials at SEMARNAT, the federal environmental agency, to outline their concerns. And yet another group went off to do interviews with the national media.

Silver, peyote, Huicholes and tourists converge in the antique town of Real de Catorce, population 1,200 [Gabriela Delgadillo/Al Jazeera]

Later they converged in a ceremony on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, carrying their traditional God’s Eyes and signs that read “Mining is the New Conquest”, “Wirikuta: Matirix of Life”, and “The Origin of the Earth is Not Negotiable”. Some played haunting traditional melodies on the handmade traditional fiddles of the sierra.

Today’s agenda includes an early-morning ceremony at the pre-hispanic ruins of Cuicuilco, followed by a march down Reforma Boulevard to the presidential residence of Dos Pinos to ask for an audience with President Felipe Calderón. A letter delivered here in May has so far gone unanswered.

‘Some return dead’

Meanwhile, local residents in the desperately poor region are torn between their desire for jobs on the one hand, and fears of losing their scarce water reserves on the other. They also worry about the impact on the local tourism industry, currently one of the only sources of employment. But San Luis Potosí’s depressed economy has made it one of the areas with the highest emigration rates in the country.

“This is an opportunity,” said Guillermina Bustos, a mining supporter from Real de Catorce. “There are young people who leave, not because they want to emigrate, but because here there is no work. And there are some who return dead.”

Real de Catorce, a former ghost town-turned-tourist attraction, has enjoyed a tourism boom since it served as a movie set for Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts (The Mexican).  Now, however, with an increase in drug-related violence throughout the region, tourism is suffering, and mining is looking more attractive.

Representatives of First Majestic Silver are calling on Wixarika authorities to come to the table for a dialogue. The company has offered to set aside 761 hectares of land that contain sacred springs and other spiritually important areas, and promise not to touch the Cerro Quemado mountain. They’ve presented a plan to reactivate a subterranean mine that operated decades ago, and they promise not to affect the local environment.

“We want to reactivate the mining activity in a manner that’s socially responsible,” with sustainable development projects,” said Juan Carlos Gonzalez, manager of Minera Real Bonanza, the First Majestic subsidiary managing the Real de Catorce operation.

But Wixarika leaders have said the issue is not negotiable.  Wirikuta is much more than the Cerro Quemado and the sacred springs, explained Humberto Fernandez Borja, founder of Conservación Humana, a conservation group that has worked with the World Wildlife Fund, UNESCO and others to defend the site for more than two decades. It comprises the entire range of the Catorce mountains and the desert that lies below, for a total of more than 140,000 hectares, all of which acts as a sacred, integral whole.

Other threats loom

First Majestic is not the only threat to Wirikuta, as Fernandez pointed out.

Another critical problem in the area is the ongoing razing of thousands of hectares within the reserve for industrial tomato growers. Conservación Humana filed a formal complaint with the federal attorney for environmental protection (PROFEPA) in March and is yet to receive an answer. Wednesday’s meeting with the SEMARNAT and PROFEPA officials brought a major step forward: officials announced they had recently ordered the tomato grower in question to close operations and remediate the site.

Last month, tensions heightened when Minera Golondrina SA de CV, an affiliate of the Canadian West Timmins Mining Corp., met with local residents to discuss plans for an open-pit gold mine in the desert below Real de Catorce, around the place known as Bernalejo or Kauyumaritsie – the hunting grounds of the sacred peyote cactus, where the blue deer spirit Kauyumarie, an intermediary between the deities and man, is believed to reside.

All of these incursions, say the Wixarika leaders, endanger the integrity of the ecosystem and their ability to practice their religion. They also maintain they are in violation of their right to informed consent regarding development of their traditional lands, a claim that the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Affairs, James Anaya, is investigating.

An existential threat

In 1998, UNESCO declared Wirikuta as one of the world’s 14 natural sacred sites in need of protection. Since 2004, it’s been on the tentative World Heritage Site list, and defenders are urging the agency to grant protective status before it’s too late. They are also asking that the reserve’s jurisdiction shift from the state to the federal level, since they say the state is not fulfilling its obligations to protect the reserve. The World Wildlife Fund designated the area one of the three most biodiverse desert ecosystems on the planet, with an unusually high rate of endemic species. It’s also a nesting ground to the golden eagle – or as it’s known down here, the Mexican eagle – a national symbol featured on the Mexican flag that’s in danger of extinction.


The traditional dress of the Wixarika, embroidered with figures of deer, eagles and peyote [Gabriela Delgadillo/Al Jazeera]

The case has garnered international attention from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Native American Churches of North America and Canada and conservation groups in Germany, Italy and Austria, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues, James Anaya, who plans an investigation into the matter. Gael Garcia Bernal, big-name Mexican music groups like Cafe Tacuba and Mexican poet-turned-high profile peace activist Javier Sicilia and his Movement for Peace and Justice have taken up the cause, as well.

Paul Liffman, anthropologist with El Colegio de Michoacán and author of the book Huichol Territory and the Mexican Nation, sees the mine as an “existential threat” for the Huicholes.

“The Huicholes are deeply afraid of this project,” says Liffman. “The entire ecological flow that forms the basis of their sacrificial system would be affected. The circuit of waters and rains and underground water flows would be affected, as would their whole reason for existing.”

Wirikuta is key, Liffman explained, to the Wixarika vision of themselves as intermediaries with these forces of nature. “Their whole ritual system is based on the idea of sacrificial reciprocity with the ancestors who control the climate as well as wealth and health and human wellbeing. If you destroy the preeminent ritual sites, you’ve totally pulled the rug out from under them as a culture.”

The situation in Wirikuta is altogether too common, said Jennifer Moore, Latin America coordinator for the nonprofit Mining Watch Canada, who travels the continent investigating complaints against Canadian mining companies.

“These mining concessions are often granted without the knowledge, let alone the consent of local peoples,” she said. “We’ve seen the water supply of campesino and indigenous communities become contaminated, we’ve seen important sources of water dry up, we’ve seen violence and conflict as people have demanded the right to be consulted over projects taking place on their lands or headwaters.”

Source: Al Jazeera