Ostula Culture and Defiance

Ostula Today

The indigenous community of Ostula, part of the municipality of Aquila, possesses a territory of over 19,000 hectares of land, extending from the coastal settlement of La Ticla up into the sierras. The village of La Mina de la Providencia is located on the boundary between the Ostula and Aquila indigenous communities, to the northeast, while Ostula's territory is bounded on the southeast by that of Coire. The main village and administrative centre, Santa Maria Ostula, is located near the centre of the communal territory, within the sierras on a plateau overlooking the Ostula river.

Ostula village is accessible from the federal coastal highway, constructed at the end of the 1970s, by a 16 kilometre dirt track that winds along the edges of the hills above the river. There is little flat or irrigable land within the Ostula valley. Most maize farming is done in the hills, using slash and burn techniques.

Map of Costa-Sierra Nahua and major regional towns - click to enlarge, opens in new window

Map of Costa Sierra Nahua

Aquila municipality, Michoacán's largest municipio in spatial terms, had a total population of 22,152 inhabitants in the year 2000, a growth of 9% relative to the previous decade, despite emigration to the USA and other parts of Mexico. In the absence of medical services and modern communications, infant mortality rates remained unusually high in the indigenous communities until the final quarter of the 20th century. Aquila is one of 14 out of 112 municipios in Michoacán that are ranked at the very bottom of the Mexican government's scale of social welfare indicators, level seven. Between Aquila and the Colima border lies the small municipio of Coahuayana, but the nearest major town on the coast is Tecomán, in Colima. The isolated highland town of Coalcomán is the nearest major urban centre in Michoacán, but the road linking Aquila to Villa Victoria and Coalcomán, which passes the iron ore mine owned by the Hylsa group, is in poor condition.

The indigenous community of Ostula incorporates 49 separate settlements ranging in size for tiny rancherías with just a couple of houses to larger settlements such as Ostula itself, with a population of nearly 800, La Ticla, with over 500 inhabitants, and La Cofradía de Ostula with over 400.

View of the Ostula valley and river from the hills - click to enlarge, opens in new window

Photo of the Ostula River

Agrarian and Civil Organization

En 1991, the last time the agrarian community carried out an oficial census of its members, the total population of the Ostula community was 3,360. At that time 591 of 669 heads of family were oficially recognised by the government's Ministry of Agrarian Reform as comuneros, people with the right to farm land within the community territory and vote on agrarian issues. There are only a few mestizo families living within the boundaries of Ostula's territory, and their members do not have rights to participate in the affairs of the indigenous community. The community assembly is the supreme authority in all community decisions. Agrarian issues are administered by a Comisariado de Bienes Comunales and Vigilance Council, whose members are elected at an assembly. An assembly of all adult residents of the community elects the civil authorities, presided over by a Jefe de Tenencia Municipal, whose office is in Ostula. Other settlements have an elected Encargado del Orden. These are all modern forms of community governance introduced after the community secured the Confirmation and Titling of its Communal Lands by Presidential Decree in 1964.

Land rights and farming

Although land is communally owned, once land is cleared by a family, they have exclusive rights to use it. We interviewed more than half of the comuneros. Although some comuneros have land that can be irrigated and cultivated all year round, the farming of the vast majority is dependent on the rains and shifting patterns of cultivation. Almost 80% relied solely on family labour. Raising cattle is less important now than it was in the past, when cattle could graze freely over the undivided common lands because there were no barbed wire fences round crops and areas of pasture. Although most households do not achieve self-sufficiency in maize production year-in year-out, very few are permanently and completely dependent on the market for all the food they consume, and there are social mechanisms within the community for redistributing corn from surplus to deficit households. Farm products produced for external sale include jamaica, tamarind and some fruits. But the markets are controlled by merchants in Tecomán and other regional centres and current schemes for promoting commercial production tend to be unattractive or inaccessible to indigenous farmers who possess virtually no capital. The establishment of a union of the different indigenous communities in the 1990s has yet to make a big impact on these problems, though it has provided channels for discussion of other problems, such as illegal logging.


Although the indigenous communities of the coast are often seen by outsiders as relatively closed and self-contained, seasonal migration in search of paid work is not simply a recent development resulting from the construction of roads, and people travelled outside the community to sell crops and cattle and buy goods from towns even in the days when it took a week to return from Tecomán. Two thirds of the comuneros we interviewed had some experience of working outside the community, many taking their whole families with them for a short spell of work on the commercial farms of Colima, Coalcomán or Jalisco. Migration to the USA had also begun by the 1960s and is an increasingly important option for younger people, many of whom are now staying for long periods in the United States given the escalating costs and risks of undocumented migration.

More photographs of community assembly

Click images to enlarge

Farming in the Hills

Photo of Ostula Countryside

Burning Fields

Slash and Burn Farming

Levels of Social Welfare in Michoacán, by municipios (INEGI)

Michoacan state in Mexico

Levels of Social Welfare in Michoacan by municipios

Community Assembly, Ostula.

Community Assembly

Comisariado speaks

comunero speaks

Another comunero speaks

Union of Communities

Indigenous Union Office

Content John Gledhill (john.gledhill@man.ac.uk)