Deep in the mountains of the Mexican state of Guerrero, small communities are organizing themselves to take on multi-national mining projects which threaten to scar this beautiful landscape.
On a cold, rainy night in September the community of San Miguel del Progreso gathered to give thanks to the human rights defenders of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center. The director of Tlachinollan, Abel Barrera – known throughout the region as “El Antropólogo” (The Anthropologist) – spoke quietly through a raspy microphone, reminding those gathered of how long they had been fighting to protect their land. The Mexican courts had granted them a victory in June, for the moment blocking the construction of open pit mines financed by the British company Hochschild Mining. Barrera and Tlachinollan have been with the residents of San Miguel over six years of battles, both in the courts and in the mountainous communities themselves.
The ‘high mountain’ of Guerrero is among the poorest regions in Mexico, suffering from high levels of malnutrition, illiteracy, and extreme poverty. The population, largely indigenous Mixteca, has been historically marginalized by the national government. One of the first popular uprisings took place in 1873 in an attempt to regain control of land which had accumulated in the hands of a wealthy few. This struggle, for land and for self-autonomy, continued to play out over the next one hundred and fifty years. Tlachinollan was founded in 1994 to defend human rights in the region. A few hours over the mountains from San Miguel is the small town of Iguala, where in 2014 international attention was drawn to the case of 43 students who ‘disappeared’ after a confrontation with local police. Investigations later showed that local politicians, security forces, and a crime syndicate had all been involved in the murder of the students. This is a region which justice comes slow, if it comes at all.
Barrera (center, in the red shirt) and his staff at Tlachinollan are not content with a temporary victory. They are challenging the national Mining Law, aiming to prove that it violates Mexico’s previous commitments to international human rights treaties. While they prepare arguments for the Supreme Court, work remains to be done in communities like San Miguel del Progreso. Over the long term, the community wants to strengthen the local Me’phaa culture and language, and give young people opportunities to make their livelihoods without having to migrate to Mexico City or the United States. In the short-term, they want simple things – like a roof over the concrete sports court which doubles as the town’s meeting space.
A visit during this celebration made clear the crucial role that Tlachinollan plays in representing the legal rights of communities like San Miguel del Progreso. This goes far beyond simple victories in court, hard-won as they may be. Barrera and these local leaders want to build a society where rule of law is synonymous with respect for local cultures and local autonomy. A society where national authorities will think twice about shilling out ancestral land to foreign mining companies. That is the future which is being built on this rainy night deep in the mountains of Mexico.
Photo credits: Centro Tlachinollan
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