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A Presidium in Mexico Under Threat From Land Grabbing

Mexico - 21/11/2013

The Sierra Norte mountain range winds through the northeast of the state of Puebla, 300 kilometers from Mexico City. Here, in the shadow of these peaks, the Náhuat and Totonacos indigenous peoples have always lived closely connected to the nature surrounding them. The forest is considered a kind of nourishing mother, and intercropped with its wild vegetation, the communities cultivate coffee, pepper, vanilla and cinnamon, using an integrated production system called koujatkiloyan, “productive forest”. A deep spirituality ties the local people to the environment and their modern cosmovision includes Catholic saints like St. Michael alongside divinities that represent the mountains, water, flowers and animals.

In the Sierra mountains, the indigenous people collect honey from native bees, a Slow Food Presidium since 2012. This fermented honey with a spiced flavor is produced by the tiny, docile native bee Scaptotrigona mexicana, reared inside traditional mancuernas. These unusual hives are made by sealing together two terracotta pots with an ash-based paste, which the indigenous beekeepers then separate using a machete to harvest the honey.

But this unspoiled environment is currently under threat from overly ambitious and devastating projects. Dozens of concessions have been granted in recent years to national and international groups to build hydroelectric power stations and open-pit mines. One of these directly affects the production area for the Presidium honey.

Leonardo Durán Olguín, the local Presidium coordinator and one of the organizers of the Tosepan Titataniske cooperative, has raised the alarm: “Just in this region, since 2007, around 120,000 hectares of land have been granted to Mexican and foreign companies, for example from China and Canada.” He is extremely worried for the future: “Surveys are underway to build a dozen power stations which will provide electricity to gold and silver mines.”

Grabbing land in order to exploit its natural resources is a widespread and disturbing phenomenon in Mexico. According to a recent study published by the FAO (Héctor Manuel Robles Berlanga, “El caso de México” in Dinamica del mercado de la tierra en America Latina y el Caribe, 2011), the country is one of the most “generous” in terms of mining concessions granted. The government protects investors through deeply unbalanced agreements: The purchasing prices are very low (especially when compared to potential profits), the promises of assistance for the local people are very vague and often ignored and there is no compensation for the damage done to the environment.

As explained in a report from the Gaia Foundation, the mining industry has a devastating effect on ecosystems all over the world. Rapid deforestation is accompanied by the poisoning of waterways, the air and the soil. The greed of investors sweeps away local communities, and the social consequences can be devastating.

Threats are the order of the day,” says Leonardo. “The authorities are involved in the attempts to force the indigenous peoples to silently abandon the land in which their ancestral culture is rooted, relocating them to crowded and anonymous ciudades rurales. Without their land, farmers become no more than underpaid laborers and the traditional mechanisms for community management of the land are destroyed from one day to the next.”

How can this rampant, indifferent violence be stopped? “The Tosepan Titataniske cooperative belongs to the Consejo Tiyattlali, an alliance of organizations who are working to protect the whole Sierra Norte de Puebla area,” explains Leonardo. “For example, a hydroelectric plant was supposed to be built in Olintla, but the local community protested fiercely and the project was blocked. In our experience, the population’s capacity for collective expression is the only resource able to halt the greed of investors. Mobilization is the only effective tool for preventing this destruction of ecosystems and communities.”

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