How Mexico’s Past and Future Attempt to Tackle Indigenous and Environmental Concerns

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In the face of the Anthropocene: How Mexico’s Past and Future Attempt to Tackle Indigenous and Environmental Concerns

What does society deem essential? What entitlements does society consider every human being should have? Should every human be entitled to things that are indispensable to life such as clean air, potable water, or the very land one has resided on for millennia?  Human rights are multi-disciplinary; they are not the domain of politics or law alone. Through the lens of sociology, anthropology, and science can we begin to answer fundamental questions that the study of human rights poses in new and creative ways.  Different contexts might identify some human rights more critical than others, but the bottom line is that human rights protect the ability of all humans to have agency over their lives.[1]  The environment is something all humans share, which can make it difficult to manage and protect because of competing interests, but a healthy environment is one that benefits all humans and their agency in the long-term, even if it prevents human plans for industry in the short-term.  However, in the midst of a crisis in which the planet is being worn thin because of extraction of resources and creation of contaminants all for the sake of obtaining numerous forms of energy for numerous uses, it is a grand human ambition to be able to discover how to obtain unending energy through sustainable means.[2] Unfortunately, the very people that have been the best stewards of the planet, are the ones that are most affected by its deterioration and least involved in plans to mitigate such concerns.  Mexican indigenous people have been, at times even violently, excluded from participation in the governments of the country, states, and municipalities that they have inadvertently been made a part of and have historically failed to be recognized as an indispensable resource for environmental preservations and protection efforts.  Though the Mexican government has made some (albeit small) advances towards indigenous rights recognition, and a new president promises ecological renewal, not much can be accomplished until indigenous peoples are included and valued as important members of the Mexican community whose presence enriches the diversity of the nation and whose identity promotes the preservation and care of environmental spaces.

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Mexico is comprised of a population of which 15 per cent accounts for indigenous peoples, making it the country in Latin America with the largest population of such.[3] This is a significant portion of a country’s demographic and yet historically, the Mexican government did not include indigenous rights in its constitution.  The constitution promised protection for all its citizens, but indigenous communities were exempted from such protections.[4]  Left politically vulnerable by such an action, indigenous peoples, and their rights, would become traditionally overlooked by the Mexican political systems in place. But if one takes in the account that Mexico is a semi-democracy working towards developing a politically active civil society after nearly seventy years of power under the same governmentally patronising political party, known as PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), it is expected that it would deny indigenous people equal standing under the national constitution.[5]  This is not to say that it was right that Mexico denied people within its jurisdiction the rights and privileges they were entitled to, only that it was understandable why it did. PRI was moderately successful in its hold over the Mexican populace, until this same populace began to recognize the value of governmental reliability and transparency which they found lacking in their own.[6] The year 2000 was ground-breaking as PRI was dethroned for the first time when PAN (National Action Party) won the presidential bid, this occurring just as the countries around the world began to embrace the “environmental agenda.”[7]  With the creation of the INI (National Indigenous Institute) in 1948, Mexico attempted to integrate indigenous people into the Mexican national identity. Unfortunately, this integration proved to be assimilationist and forced many indigenous individuals to forsake their culture because it did not beneficial to accomplishing the economic and political goals that Mexico had in mind.[8] 1992 was a hopeful year as Mexico changed its constitution to include the acknowledgement that it was a culturally plural society. But the words written on the document had no effect on how things were done in practice, and this gesture resulted in no positive changes for the political status of indigenous communities.[9]  One major victory for indigenous people, if it can be procured, is that of representation and participation in ecological protection developments, which unfortunately, Mexico has not been keen to grant.  Environmental impact assessment only became integrated into federal legislation in 1982, but it would only (barely) live up to its name after 1988, when Mexico produced a new environment law LGEEPA (The General Law of Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection), which asserts that projects are required to assess ecological impact both at the level of state and municipality but that that can be done at the discretion of each respective authority.[10]  Though Mexico seems to produce much seemingly legally-binding paperwork which in theory welcomes the involvement of indigenous groups, in reality it does not actually care to pursue indigenous interests. Environmental impact assessment schemes should be established for the reasons conducive to guaranteeing indigenous participation, but Mexico’s version does not include their representation whatsoever. This program does not mitigate the challenges indigenous people experience in trying to participate but failing because of language barriers, the state not recognizing indigenous community rights as autonomous region rights, the lack of ability to manoeuvre the system due to poverty and illiteracy, the lack of access to technology, and the western cultural disdain for traditional wisdom and knowledge of personal ecologies that only the indigenous possess.[11] Because of a history of restrained freedom of speech, press, and association, Mexico today still suffers from a society that is in its nascent stage of learning to be more politically active and an incompetent and disinclined government that does not adequately provide for indigenous communities to integrate politically and customarily fails in actuality to recognize Mexico’s identity as a pluricultural nation due to the richness of culture from these very same indigenous communities.[12]

Mexican history, particularly if it alludes to environmental interests, cannot be told without the inclusion of Zapatista history.  On the very same day that NAFTA was to be implemented in Mexico in 1994, the Mexican government was the target of a war being waged by the Zapatistas.[13] Consisting of indigenous persons from the Mexican state of Chiapas and other non-indigenous supporters, the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) named after Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata because of the ideals he professed during the Mexican revolution, waged war on the federal government for its lack of attention to how NAFTA threatened the interests of indigenous communities. The treaty would particularly put many local farmers out of business because of their inability to compete with cheap American products, thus ridding many local people of their livelihood.[14] The Zapatistas were striving for ten specific requests: “housing, land, employment, food, education, independence, democracy, liberty, justice, and peace.”[15] The war lasted a total of eleven days and took the lives of 300 people before there was an armistice. The San Andres Peace Accords which ordered the Mexican government to entertain indigenous interests, was drafted two years later and embodied many of the interests of the Zapatista movement. The Zapatistas wanted indigenous rights to be equally represented in the country’s constitution and this was granted in 2001 when Mexican congress legislated a bill that would identify Mexico as a pluricultural nation and would grant indigenous peoples autonomous jurisdiction.[16] Though the Mexican government would fail to uphold its end of the promise to the EZLN, the Zapatista revolution was significant for a number of reasons: it ultimately acted as an admonition for other countries with overlooked indigenous populations; it stood as an exemplary model to other indigenous people about the power of revolution and resistance; brought awareness to the Mexican indigenous cause and its suppression by the national government; and it got the Mexican government to admit (at least on paper) that it was indeed a country founded on pluralistic cultures.[17]

Though indigenous populations like those present in Mexico, and throughout Latin America have scarcely been a factor in the cause of global contamination, these same countries hold the most promise in being capable of producing various forms of energy through renewable processes.  Such news is wonderful for a world which is slowly falling victim to the polluting habits of humanity.  But there is reluctance to blindly advocating for such a reality, for the sake that perhaps it would not be fair to place such a responsibility on countries which have had no hand in creating the problem this solution aims to solve. This is a case of neo-liberalistic ideals wanting to materialize whatever way possible versus preserving the ecological integrity of countries unmarred at-large by industrialization and its effects.[18]  There are clear examples in Mexico of what neo-liberalistic industrial practices can inflict on the planet.  Take for example the consequences of colonization in Latin American countries; colonizers whose new-world resource extracting ravages not only created a degradation of ecological proportions, but also resulted in the misery of indigenous people.[19]  More recently (and quite significantly), the establishment of the maquiladora industry, which denotes the business of industrial assembly plants established on both sides of the Mexico and United States border for economic transnational cooperation purposes, has affected the ecology of the Mexican/American borderlands extensively.[20] This industry has been known to engage in illegal and unsafe disposal practices, often discarding raw sewage and contaminated metals into the surrounding ecosystem.[21]  A further threat to ecological health is the result of major flows of population to the borderlands region due to Mexicans wanting to take advantage of a job with the maquiladora business ane the “economic spill over from the United States” which makes the region wealthier than any other in the republic. This large volume of people residing in the borderland region is affecting its ecological makeup, and the Mexican government with both its financial inability and lack of knowledge to create a framework to mitigate it, leaving the region continually vulnerable.[22]  Lastly, the creation of a culture within Mexico that attributes immense social value to owning a car, instead of riding public transportation because it is deemed undignified and a sign of being poor, has caused a surge in car-ownership which then has carelessly contributed to increased pollution and a spike in demand for petrol.[23]  With a situation like this deeming public transportation unsuccessful, there is no incentive for the government to contribute to such plans, despite them being a more eco-friendly option.[24]  Such ecological disasters adequately validate the concerns that humans are having too much of a negative impact on the natural geological processes of the planet.

The Holocene era was the one in which humans “developed as a species,” but its existence is no more due largely because of the negative contributions our species has made.[25] Now we find ourselves living within the Anthropocene period, which is the term used to describe the geological effects humans have caused on the planet due to our modernization, which has been accompanied by a rapid and alarming use of unsustainable resources and a destruction of life throughout the globe.[26]  The Anthropocene, as a new term, has generated a lot of deliberation and study, though the philosophy it inspires has actually been in use for thousands of years. But when scientists, philosophers, social scientists and general contemplators of the relationship between the physical earth and humanity think about the Anthropocene, it will no longer be a question of how the earth affects its inhabitants, but rather the inverse.[27] Such a reality will implicate the need for deep awareness and active contemplation about the implications its likely to express if something is not done to prevent or reverse such a situation.[28]

Indigenous peoples are already there. There is a deep relationship between the indigenous individual and the soil upon which he stands.[29] According to a UN press release on a meeting for indigenous rights, indigenous people are “disproportionately impacted by climate change and systematically targeted for defending their freedoms.”[30]  It is then a deeply iniquitous irony that the very people who have lived on the same land for hundreds or even thousands of years are relegated into a position of not being able to have a say in how their land is used by colonizing forces which only exploit it.[31] Many indigenous populations attribute a vibrant and colourful spiritual meaning to their communities and make political decisions as a unit, which if used through the lens of human rights can prove to be a successful tool for insisting upon collective preservation of their cultural, political, and language rights.[32]  The language of human rights is also useful in joining together ecological developments and human wellbeing.[33] The right to a safe environment should concern all human beings as it addresses the threat of ecological pollution and its effects on humanity which can range from mild sicknesses to lifelong inconveniences  to death.[34] Indigenous Mexicans deserve the ability to involve themselves in national political life without having to compromise their collective cultural rights, but correspondingly, these same people must also be given the freedom to “lead their own project of development and exercise control, to the extent possible, of their own economic, social, and cultural development.”[35] The Mexican government would also benefit from such concessions as indigenous people hold valuable familiarity of their terrain which would benefit the preservation of Mexican regions.[36]

So far, the Mexican government has made some public plans about what it intends to contribute in the fight against climate change.  In the wake of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s (nicknamed AMLO) victory many Mexicans were hopeful for change after six years of disappointments under previous president Enrique Pena Nieto.[37] A month before the election, AMLO in collaboration with an organization by the name of Abre Mas Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes More) released a multi-page pdf infographic entitled “NaturAMLO” charting his plan for ecological maintenance and protection.[38] It emphasizes that work alongside “guardians of the earth” is of profound importance, which if true, holds hopeful promise that AMLO’s administration will include indigenous voices in the process of purifying Mexico’s environment.[39] The document has a section on six different topics: water, biodiversity, climate change, sustainable cities, environmental justice, and protection of coasts, seas, and islands.  Each section has a strategy that outlines what the Mexican government hopes to accomplish for each respective category by 2024.[40] The document was written by a woman named Josefa González-Blanco Ortíz-Mena who is a lawyer and ecologist and will serve as part of AMLO’s cabinet as Secretary of the Environment.[41] Besides the promise of providing clean water to more people, incentivizing cycling and walking programs to reduce pollution, protecting the poor from the ecologically damaging interests of the wealthy, and preserving Mexico’s rich biodiversity for many years to come, AMLO has also pledged to ban fracking, planting nearly two and half million acres of trees to fight against the risks of climate change, endorse sustainable energy methods, and to adhere faithfully to all international climate agreements that Mexico has signed.[42],[43]

But AMLO’s promises are not enough to convince some people, particularly ecologists and climate experts that have expressed sincere doubt about his plans.[44]  Incongruous with his enthusiasm for combatting climate change, AMLO also has plans to build a new oil refinery in order to prevent foreign imports of petroleum from hijacking already elevated petrol prices.[45]  Such a declaration by AMLO makes one’s questionings of his environmental policies justified.  Even Zapatistas are suspicious of AMLO’s ecologically progressive platform, owing their fears to a history with the Mexican government which has often resulted in disappointment and lack of action on promised schemes.[46]  AMLO has not expressed an explicit rejection of NAFTA, and since the creation of the EZLN is because of the group’s collective resistance formed against the treaty, they find this fact to be especially revealing of AMLO’s “radicalness” which they claim is just a pretence.[47] It seems the Zapatistas see AMLO as just another puppet for a neoliberalist agenda. Though the Zapatistas are wary of engaging with mainstream politics because of past betrayals, they entered their own candidate into the elections of 2018.[48]  She is a woman commonly referred to as “Marichuy” whose real name is María de Jesús Patricio Martinez, whose purpose for entering was raise awareness of indigenous matters.[49] If the EZLN were willing to submit a candidate into the supposedly incompetent and hopeless political party system for the sake of cultivated consciousness of indigenous problems, it can be implied that for all the “work” Mexico has attempted to do for this minority, it has not effectively aided the plight of these people. Furthermore, through an investigation conducted by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, it was discovered that agrarian reform which was meant to settle the issue of land disputes, does not actually offer any solutions for that concern nor does it provide protection of indigenous boundaries nor acknowledgement of indigenous people’s right to organize.[50] It is realistic and helpful for the sake of remaining attentive to human or environmental abuses to recognize insecurities and setbacks within programs or plans that attempt or claim to solve the problem to issues as considerable as abuses to environmental communities or indigenous peoples, but there is also much to look forward to within the field of indigenous and environmental studies.

Latin America and the Caribbean are places on the planet with an incredible ability to produce the world’s most abundant supply of hydroelectric and biofuel energy, with the capacity to be able to produce many more sustainable forms of energy.[51] If Mexico makes any progress towards acknowledging the value of traditional knowledge found within indigenous communities, it will benefit from rural farmers’ understanding of protection efforts and from their resistant and relentless disposition for environmental concern even in the fact of ecological uncertainties.[52] The field of anthropology continues to uncover more and more evidence of the immense knowledge indigenous communities hold regarding how to combat climate change.[53]  Indigenous communities also have the watchful supervision of international organizations, attempting to keep the country’s governments accountable for any oppression or prejudice, such as Andrew Gilmour who is Assistant General Secretary for Human Rights of the United Nations and works toward making sure Mexican national documents implement the rights of indigenous.[54] Also, the UN Expert Mechanism on the rights of Indigenous People has made a recent visit to Mexico because it wanted to keep the government accountable regarding a fresh provision to the Mexican constitution – if programs like this continue to involve themselves in the affairs of countries who tend to neglect indigenous concerns, it might be very helpful for indigenous communities to seek the support of international organizations which can act as an arbiter and accountability partner over rights matters.[55],[56]

Indigenous and environmental rights in Mexico have had a turbulent history. Though they now identify as a pacifist group engaging in practices of peaceful civil disobedience since no resolution has yet to be determined, if it wasn’t for Zapatista activism, perhaps the indigenous groups of Chiapas and Mexico in general, would not have had their plight be brought to awareness throughout the world, thus encouraging other indigenous peoples to fight for their freedom.[57] Colonization and the exploitation of natural resources in the area have unfortunately caused environmental devastation along with historical oppression of indigenous peoples. Most recently, hazardous and careless practices of industry and social norms continue to harm already vulnerable ecosystems and contribute to the planet’s contamination. Because indigenous people maintain a deep connection with the earth, it is imperative that for their sake (and ours too) that we recognize their value as mediators between the planet and ourselves, who happened to be products of modernization which has caused their relegation, coming to a heart-breaking full circle (they have so much good to give when we’ve only given them bad).  Another impetus that pushes us to embrace healthy and appropriate environmental practices is that of the threat that the Anthropocene places in our lives. We should be constantly aware of how our livelihoods affect the geological epochs of our planet. Though the Mexican government has given many reasons to not trust in its reliability, a new party with a new face is worth sticking around and waiting for, despite the historical setbacks. Mexico has big plans for its ecology and indigenous communities are becoming more and more vocal (and recognized) as time goes on. There is hope that with push from international human rights organizations, and the ever-growing threat of climate change looming before us, the appropriate Mexican governments will recognize indigenous rights and give them the resources and power to lead us into a healthy planet.

Bibliography


[1] Keri E. Smith Iyall, “Comparing State and International Protections of Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights,” American Behavioral Scientist 51, no. 12  (2008): 1819. 

[2] Cymene Howe, “Latin America in the Anthropocene: Energy Transitions and Climate Change Mititgations,” The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 20, no. 2 (2015): 231.

[3] Godelmann, Iker Reyes. “The Zapatista Movement: The Fight for Indigenous Rights in Mexico.” Australian Institute of International Affairs. July 30 2014, http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/news-item/the-zapatista-movement-the-fight-for-indigenous-rights-in-mexico/. (accessed January 1, 2019). (according to a report from the UN)

[4] Smith Iyall, Keri E. “Comparing State and International Protections of Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights,” 1825-1826.

[5] Palerm, Juan & Carla Aceves “Environmental Impact Assessment in Mexico: an Analysis from a ‘Consolidating Democracy’ Perspective.” Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 22, no.2  (2004): 99.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 101.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 102.

[11] Ibid, 103-105.

[12] Ibid, 100.

[13] Godelmann, Iker Reyes. “The Zapatista Movement: The Fight for Indigenous Rights in Mexico.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Smith Iyall, Keri E. “Comparing State and International Protections of Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights,” 1823.

[16] Godelmann, Iker Reyes. “The Zapatista Movement: The Fight for Indigenous Rights in Mexico.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Howe,“Latin America in the Anthropocene: Energy Transitions and Climate Change Mititgations,” 232.

[19] Ibid, 233.

[20] Edward J. Williams, “The Maquiladora Industry and Environmental Degradation in the United States-Mexico Borderlands,” St. Mary’s Law Journal 27, no. 4 (1996): 769-770. 

[21] Ibid, 774-775.

[22] Ibid, 766, 781-783.

[23] Agren, David. “Mexico’s President-Elect Promises to Clean Up the Environment – and Build a New Oil Refinery.” Washington Post. September 13, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/mexicos-president-elect-promises-to-clean-up-the-environment–and-build-a-new-oil-refinery/2018/09/10/f91ac9d6-a336-11e8-a3dd-2a1991f075d5_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0080a5851b8c. (access January 2, 2019).

[24] Ibid.

[25]Howe,“Latin America in the Anthropocene: Energy Transitions and Climate Change Mititgations,” 231.

[26] Ibid, 231.

[27] Ibid, 237.

[28] Ibid, 239.

[29] Smith Iyall, Keri E. “Comparing State and International Protections of Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights,” 1818.

[30] United Nations, Meetings and Press Releases, Indigenous Peoples Disproportionately Impacted by Climate Change, Systematically Targeted for Defending Freedoms, Speakers Tell Permanent Forum. HR/5389, 18 April 2018, https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/hr5389.doc.htm

[31] Smith Iyall, Keri E. “Comparing State and International Protections of Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights,” 1818.

[32] Ibid, 1817,1822.

[33] Nickel, James W. “The Human Right to a Safe Environment: Philosophical Perspectives on Its Scope and Justification.” Yale Journal of International Law 18, no 1 (1993): 282 -283.

[34] Ibid, 284-285.

[35] Palerm, Juan & Carla Aceves “Environmental Impact Assessment in Mexico: an Analysis from a ‘Consolidating Democracy’ Perspective.” Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 22, no.2  (2004): 106.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Olson, Jared. “Zapatistas Maintain Suspicion of Mexico’s President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, “AMLO.”” Pulitzer Center. August 8, 2018, https://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/zapatistas-maintain-suspicion-mexicos-president-elect-andres-manuel-lopez-obrador-amlo. (accessed January 2, 2019)

[38] Gonzalez-Blanco Ortiz Mena, Josefa. “NaturAMLO: Mexico Está En La Tierra.Abre Mas Los Ojos. June 2https://drive.google.com/file/d/1wtqDgsYrhY6wIxVo3nRz4ou7qK1JPEOj/view (accessed January 2, 2019) (originally published in Spanish, any other references to the document from here on out are my own translations)

[39] Ibid, 1.

[40] Ibid, 18-19.

[41] Ibid, 19.

[42] Ibid, 5-13.

[43] Agren, David. “Mexico’s President-Elect Promises to Clean Up the Environment – and Build a New Oil Refinery.”

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Olson, Jared. “Zapatistas Maintain Suspicion of Mexico’s President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, “AMLO.”

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] United Nations, Meetings and Press Releases, Indigenous Peoples Disproportionately Impacted by Climate Change, Systematically Targeted for Defending Freedoms, Speakers Tell Permanent Forum.

[51] Howe,“Latin America in the Anthropocene: Energy Transitions and Climate Change Mititgations,” 232-233.

[52] Ibid, 237-238.

[53] Ibid, 238.

[54] United Nations, Meetings and Press Releases, Indigenous Peoples Disproportionately Impacted by Climate Change, Systematically Targeted for Defending Freedoms, Speakers Tell Permanent Forum

[55] Ibid.

[56] Smith Iyall, Keri E. “Comparing State and International Protections of Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights,” 1821.

[57] Olson, Jared. “Zapatistas Maintain Suspicion of Mexico’s President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, “AMLO.”

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