Ostula Culture and Defiance

Indigenous Rights and Autonomy Today

The rebellion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas in 1994 gave a strong impetus to the indigenous rights movement in Mexico by highlighting the particular system of disadvantage faced by so many Mexican citizens who continue to maintain an indigenous identity, not simply in terms of living standards, health, social welfare and access to public services but also in terms of enjoyment of political, civil and human rights. When President Vicente Fox ended the seventy-year monopoly on national government enjoyed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000, he promised to send Congress a new Indigenous Law based on a draft prepared by the all-party Commission for Concord and Pacification (COCOPA) that had mediated in the negotiations between the Zapatistas and the government of his PRI predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo. This incorporated the principles agreed to on paper between the government and the rebels in San Andrés Larráinzar, which the Zedillo administration had refused to honour.

The Senate modified the draft law in a way that vitiated its intent to guarantee indigenous ethnic groups a strong measure of self-determination in organizing their own affairs in their own way. The modifications also reduced the rights of indigenous people to decide on how the resources within their regions should be used in future development, thus defending the interests of transnational corporations as well as non-indigenous interests within Mexico. This provoked widespread dissatisfaction, but defenders of the modified law argued that many of the substantive points of the legislation would be better clarified in state legislation, since regional conditions varied widely. This refocused campaigning on efforts to draft new state indigenous laws.

Progress towards a state law in Michoacán

The state elections of 2001 put the governorship of Michoacán into the hands of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The new governor, who took office in February of the following year, was Lázaro Cárdenas Batel, grandson of the reforming president of 1934-40. Although Lázaro Cárdenas Batel had actually voted in the Senate in favour of the amendments to the COCOPA law, he subsequently admitted this had been a mistake and promised to pass a better law at state level.

Althought the Chiapas crisis was an important factor in the development of indigenous rights politics, states such as Michoacán already had their own, longstanding, indigenous movements, centred on the P'urhépecha communities in the central highland regions of the state. Indigenous people are only a small minority (3.5%) of the total population of the state, but the P'urhépechas leaders (who are most educated professionals) have achieved a political voice, even if it is not a decisive one. One particular P'urhépecha movement, the P'urhépecha Nation (Organización Nación P'urhépecha), has now put forward a radical draft state indigenous law that would create a kind of parallel indigenous-run administrative structure to deal with all aspects of life in areas with majority indigenous populations. The new law would guarantee indigenous communities absolute control of all resources within their territories (including mineral resources and coastal areas) and the new Council of First Peoples (Consejo de Pueblos Originarios) would make the final decisions on agrarian matters, as well as administrating social development programmes, education and environmental programmes. It would become, in effect, a government apparatus for the indigenous population, funded from taxation and receiving the federal and state budgets currently allocated to programmes targetted at indigenous communities.

Although governor Cárdenas Batel has said he is personally sympathetic to more radical visions, he has also emphasised the practical political difficulties of persuading a largely non-indigenous state congress to vote for such proposals. He also stressed the need for the P'urhépechas to ensure the full participation of all the other indigenous groups in the state. One fruit of this policy was the Indigenous Forum held in Aquila in October 2002, in which activists from Ostula played a leading role. This was to elect representatives to a new indigenous council proposed as an interim measure by the governor, and to make positive policy recommendations (on the basis of discussions within community assemblies of thirteen questions put forward by the government).

The system being created by the state government does not give the new council, which will consist of existing elected agrarian or civil officials from the communities, very much power. But it also places what some might see as an alarming amount of influence in the hands of the single person —who must be an indigenous "professional" such as a teacher — to be selected as coordinator of social development programmes in each region by agreement between the communities. Another contested point is that the state government's appraoch seems to reproduce a neoliberal model in which support for productive activities from the state becomes dependent on an economic contribution from the beneficiary that is simply beyond the means of most indigenous people, although it also includes a number of social assistance programmes, some of which are targeted at families through women and the elderly. Although the latter are generally welcomed within the communities, they are attacked as measures designed to deflect more radical policies by many indigenous activists.

Is indigenous autonomy possible?

It is clear that there are strong political obstacles to the achievement of the ambitious plans for autonomy as self-determination embodied in the P'urhépecha Nation draft law (and the proposals of the EZLN). There are also innumerable practical difficulties in achieving economic self-determination under contemporary conditions, even where communities are united in their opposition to external interests and internal political divisions linked to political parties and other wider power structures do not complicate matters further. Another practical difficulty in much of Michoacán is the fact that indigenous and non-indigenous people often live close together in ways that make it difficult to define spatial units that would correspond to indigenous "territories" for agrarian and administrative purposes in a straightforward way, though some of these problems could be alleviated by redrawing municipal boundaries. Nevertheless, there are also very interesting possibilities in these kinds of proposals from the point of view of promoting viable "alternative development" models better adapted to the needs and aspirations of local people, especially where it is proposed to create new and democratic structures of regional governance above the level of communities and existing municipal units. In the case of the Nahua communities of the coast, a de facto control over territories and their resources still exists. The case of Ostula is exceptional in the sense that there are very few non-indigenous outsiders living within community boundaries, but all the communities now possess functioning institutions of communal governance that can be strengthened as truly inclusive forms of practicing local democracy, despite sometimes bitter internal conflicts. The development of the new politics of indigenous rights and autonomy may, in fact, be providing new motivations to overcome disunity and differences.

Indigenous identity politics might be seen as a response to the increasingly socially exclusionary effects of neoliberal policies and the deepening social polarization that they have produced, a way of securing benefits that would be denied to other poor people. The interests of transnational corporations in the biodiversity, mineral resources and tourism potential of the regions where indigenous people live have also made the stakes in "self-determination" much higher. Some people would reject the claims of the indigenous rights movement on the grounds that only some of the descendants of the original inhabitants of colonised lands are now in a position to make such claims. Some of the mestizo neighbours of the people of Ostula are as poor as they are, and many of the mestizo poor living in Mexico's cities (alongside a large number of migrants who still conserve an indigenous identity) are descended from indigenous peoples deprived of their lands and obliged to migrate in the past (like many of the former comuneros of Maquilí). Indigenous rights seem to depend on continuing possession of an identity and culture that the outside world is willing to recognise as "different" (despite the fact that the lived culture of real people is constantly changing). In the case of Ostula, the Náhuatl language is no longer spoken, although the community conserves other distinctive cultural practices and a strong sense of its own special identity and "difference". Does this amount to a case for special treatment in terms of public policy?

Some would say absolutely not. Others would argue that the only form of special attention merited on grounds of identity and culture would be in the field of assistance in preserving unique cultural practices (or turning them into tourist attractions). Otherwise the claims of the community should be based on universal criteria related to problems of poverty and social exclusion shared by citizens with a diversity of cultural practices and identities. But why should the people of Ostula be impressed by these arguments? Through their own efforts they rebuilt their lives after a period of terrible suffering and exploitation and spent the following four hundred years defending their territory and asserting their wish to manage their own affairs in their own way. They did not refuse to participate in the project to build a new independent nation and still wish to belong to it fully, fulfilling their duties as citizens in return for the enjoyment of the full rights of free and equal nations. Today, many are obliged to seek a livelihood outside national borders and most have to engage in some kind of temporary migration within Mexico. The social development assistance they receive from the wider society is not especially generous and their access to public medical care and higher education is less satisfactory than that of many citizens who live elsewhere in the state. All they want is to be allowed to continue to call the little bit of Mexico in which they live exclusively their own and exercise autonomy in managing their patrimony and their internal affairs.

The indigenous rights movement has recognized the need to change some "traditional" practices to make self-determination consistent with individual human rights and the rights of women, and these are, in any case, hardly problems that only exist in communities that maintain indigenous identities. It is difficult to see how demands for autonomy prejudice the vital interests of other groups that need to be taken into account in the context of the Michoacán coast, though they clearly do prejudice the interests of more powerful actors who wish to take control of the community's resources and territory. But whatever outsiders think, it seems unlikely that Ostula will ever give up on what it has defended with such extraordinary success and tenacity. In fact it is much more likely that members of this community will play an increasingly important role in the new indigenous politics of the state of Michoacán and the wider national and continental movements.

Adobe Acrobat Logo Read an article about and the full text of the state Indigenous Law proposed by the Organización Nación P'urhépecha, from Relaciones, the journal of the Colegio de Michoacán (in Spanish)

Foro indígena, Aquila, October 2002

Speech at the Foro Indigena

Attendees at the Foro Indigena


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