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Mexico Still Challenged with 'What Shall We Do with the Indians?'

Francisco Lopez Barcenas - La Jornada
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January 22, 2013

HUICHOLES: THE LAST PEYOTE GUARDIANS is a story about the mystical Wixárika People, one of the last pre-Hispanic alive cultures in Latin America, and their ongoing struggle against the Mexican government and multinational mining corporations to preserve Wirikuta, their most sacred territory and home of the famous peyote cactus.
Show your support and explore the region's cultural heritage by taking the incredible Huichol Indian Encounter on your Mexico vacation with the Riviera Nayarit Convention & Visitors Bureau. (HuicholesFilm)

On October 25, 1875, Ignacio Ramirez, The Necromancer, concerned about the social inequality prevailing in Mexico, wrote to Carlos Olaguibel, governor of Mexico state, a letter asking "what shall we do about the poor?", who, at the time when the question was formulated, were synonymous with the Indians. Almost a century and a half later, the question is still relevant, not least because, despite the policies developed by the state for its disappearance and economic programs in the private sector for the same purposes, indigenous peoples remain, struggling against the colonialists policies exercised against them, demanding a real reform of the state so as to be included in the Mexican nation and have it recognize their collective rights and create mechanisms to make them effective.

The current government is looking at two routes to address the problem: one of welfare and the other containment of social unrest. The first one is the responsibility of the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI) and the second is that of the Commission for Dialogue with Indigenous Peoples. The latter is an extension of what was the Commission for Dialogue and Negotiation in Chiapas and, like that, comes under the Secretariat of Government Relations. Nuria Mayorga Delgado, head of CDI, has said his priorities will be the National Crusade Against Hunger and electrification programs, clean water and productive actions, i.e., the same programs that have been developed for years by CDI. Meanwhile, Jaime Martinez Veloz has said that the committee he heads "is about the politics to build the conditions for resuming dialogue."

Welfare policies for indigenous peoples are not new; for decades they have been the focus of government action and such was the path that the President laid out as a candidate, not modified by anyone other than sectors within his party and an indigenous group linked to government institutions which suggested it to him. In that area there is nothing surprising. What is new is the second path, which apparently was not on his government agenda and came in response to the public reappearance of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, but they do not want the rebels to be the center of attention and therefore they extended the dialogue and negotiation to all the country's indigenous peoples.

Thus, there are at least two strategies to address indigenous issues. The first is clearly known, but the second is not. If it is going to go to the bottom of the problem, what should be asked is what was already noted at the beginning of this column: the type of measures to be taken to end the colonial policies disguised as Indianism, the transformations of the State that are needed in order to include them in the Mexican nation, the legislative reforms needed to recognize their collective rights and the mechanisms to enforce them. Moreover, in the years since the signing of the San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture, many things have occurred that cannot be ignored if we really want to recognize indigenous rights and establish the conditions for this exercise.

One is that international law on indigenous rights has advanced substantially and contains some issues that are absent in the San Andrés Accords, and their provisions are mandatory in our country through amendments to our Constitution. The other is trade treaties which, even though they don't refer to indigenous rights and their negative impact on the latter, it is necessary to regulate the way they are implemented so as not to have such consequences. And, most importantly, many of the people with whom dialogue is sought are already, in fact, implementing their autonomy, creating self-government, security forces and defending their natural resources.  The commission should take on these problems and find solutions for them. Doing so requires political will; unfortunately, the ruling group doesn't appear to have it.

That's what some of the indigenous communities and organizations that accompany them in the defense of their rights perceive. That's why we are already hearing voices calling the government's strategy a simulation, a measure for containment of social protest. And these are not just any voices, because the speakers are representatives of some of the indigenous communities in resistance against current government policies. They need clear signals as to the real objectives of the commission for dialogue to know whether they can expect something from it, because, as Eric Hobsbawm taught and experience dictates, the only way to win rights is to fight for them. Spanish original

Francisco López Bárcenas is an indigenous Mixteca from Oaxaca. He is a prominent indigenous rights lawyer and an advisor on rural policy. He was a participant in the San Andrés meetings as an advisor to the EZLN between November 1995 and September 1996. He is the author of numerous publications, including 'Autonomy and Indigenous Rights in Mexico'.

Posted by Reed Brundage at Mexico Voices

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