When I arrived the sign at the barricade read: ‘Welcome to the indigenous community of Cherán.’ All traffic was stopped and checked by volunteers from the local community. In April 2011, exasperated by deaths and the destruction of forest, villagers in Cherán, and women in particular, decided to set up blockades at the entrances to the towns. By night they kept watch at fogata vigilance posts, placed at street corners. The blockade has now been staffed by shifts of volunteers all night, every night, for nearly two years.
Cherán is a remote village: 2,400 metres above sea level, with 16,000 inhabitants and located in the Mexican state of Michoacán. This is one of a band of municipios or villages where the majority are indigenous Purépecha people with a history and language stretching back to before the Spanish conquest. The mountainous hills are covered by forest which they have farmed sustainably as a communal resource for centuries.
Nevertheless the indigenous people and their way of life have little importance for the ruling elites. Nearly 10 per cent of the adult population must migrate each spring for low paid work in the United States. Meanwhile the profits from illegal logging provide no benefits to the local economy in Cherán. Their struggle demonstrates what a community can achieve by uniting to defend and build its own future in the face of murder and destruction by private companies in connivance with drug gangs which the state has done little to prevent.
The immediate problems in Cherán were the killings and destruction of the forest. It was not hard to meet villagers who had lost family and friends trying to prevent illegal logging. Despite security being a central concern the villages were simultaneously building their local democracy and moving on to build their own vision for the future. For example, central planners were content to relegate Cherán’s position in the state development plan to timber extraction for processing elsewhere and to tourism. However the villagers wanted to make their own economic future. With the help of volunteers from the local university they set up a participative planning event which took place over several months from the spring of 2012 which was open to all villagers.
When the villagers established their autonomy, they banned the main political parties who were widely seen as a corrupt part of the municipal, state and federal government. Instead, the communities elected, by Purépecha customs, 12 representatives from the four barrios, or districts. This structure, or keris, has now been recognised by the electoral commission as the legitimate authority which runs the village’s affairs. The local democracy is sometimes referred to as ‘uses and customs’. This is not without dangers. Women have ended up disenfranchised by such practices in other places but women are currently represented on the keris in Cherán.
This establishment of their own keris was achieved by using legal frameworks which indigenous people have fought for since the Mexican Revolution. The second article of the constitution recognises the state as ‘pluricultural’ with indigenous people having rights to self-determination. Mexico signed the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169, passed in 1989, which requires governments to pursue indigenous policies centred on non-discrimination, cultural recognition and participatory democracy.
In 2001, the COCOPA federal law was passed - a watered down compromise in response to Zapatista demands - which did propose some autonomy at a local level for indigenous people over land, natural resources, the judiciary and governance. Cherán took advantage of these structures to gain recognition for its own keris. Decision making takes place in open meetings of the local assembly. The 12 representatives who act on behalf of the people of Cherán are instantly recallable delegates. The assembly is also struggling internally to avoid discrimination against women, young people or other ethnic groups.
The participatory plan which the villagers and keris adopted seeks to improve employment, health and education and to make a better life for women, young people and children. At its heart is a principle to see their customs, values and traditions respected and strengthened.
It is important to understand events in Cherán alongside other notable uprisings in Mexico over the last 20 years. There is the ongoing Zapatista (EZLN) uprising in Chiapas starting with an armed uprising in 1994 demanding justice for indigenous people.
Then in 2006 the Asemblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), a largely urban movement in Oaxaca grew from a struggle by the local teachers union. It developed forms of direct democracy in the barricaded town centre similar to the Paris Commune. It was suppressed in November 2006. However, across Mexico blockades of streets in town centres on particular issues ranging from changes to the education curriculum, ‘reform’ of the employment laws or local demands such as for a health facility are regular occurances.
Lessons for Europe
What are the important characteristics of the struggle in Cherán? First, it was very clear from the participatory work I witnessed in Cherán that this is a movement not merely focussed on the immediate security needs and environmental threats. It is looking beyond this to create a future social and economic model which is sustainable and which respects their language, customs and culture. Second, they hold a handed-down historical memory of droughts, privations and struggles which go back over a hundred years. They are connected to traditions which go back even further. This forms a strong basis for unity.
Third, they have knowledge and connection to networks of indigenous people facing similar conflicts across Mexico and other parts of Latin America – and they see the international dimension to their own struggle. Fourth, they are aware of the poverty and corruption of existing institutions and political parties and for this reason have set up their own local democracy.
What’s interesting is that despite the differences, the struggle in Cherán will be familiar to indignados and a growing culture of protests in European settings. The lessons can be summarised as, first, focus on the immediate issue but plan for a much broader future. Second, remember and learn the history of your struggle and build upon it. Third, see the links between your local struggle and understand the international forces operating on your situation – build alliances if possible. Fourth, build your own local democratic structures in inclusive ways.
Villagers in Cherán face the a triple threat from the forces of large scale private enterprise, organised crime and drug gangs, and a government at federal and state level which has not been able to protect the citizens. In response to war-like conditions the villagers have established their own governance, defence and local development. They are aiming to reinforce their own civil society based on ideas and values that pre-date the concept itself. They deserve our solidarity, respect and support.