LA YESCA, Mexico, Dec 19(Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
A udelina Villagrana has run her ranch in Mexico's Western Sierra
Madre mountains on her own since the death of her husband 23
years ago, herding livestock, hiring local Huichol people and
even raising a young Huichol boy like a son.
Now she and other ranchers are locked in tense confrontation
with their indigenous neighbors over land that has been in
contention for centuries. A series of recent legal decisions has
brought the dispute to a boiling point.
"It's a strange situation, when on the one hand I share my
home with them, and on the other, they're suing me for my land,"
Villagrana told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from her
terracotta-tiled farmhouse in the mesquite-studded hills.
At issue are vast stretches of property that ranchers want
for intensive agriculture and grazing, but the Huichols - also
known by the traditional name of Wixarika - want it for
subsistence farming and to practice their traditional ways of
Each side wants the Mexican government to settle the
dispute, but so far it has failed to do so.
TRADITIONAL WAY OF LIFE
The Huichol people hold land grants dating back to the 1700s
from the Spanish crown, but the ranchers hold titles from the
Mexican government, dated before the decade-long national
revolution that began in 1910.
Now, after a series of lawsuits were decided in favor of the
Huichols, they are moving in to claim 10,500 hectares (nearly
26,000 acres) in the state of Nayarit, beginning with a
184-hectare (454-acre) hillside ranch.
Since September, hundreds of Huichols have organized
themselves to take turns camping on the land and standing guard.
"This land is an inheritance that the ancestors left to us,"
said Luis Sánchez Carrillo, a Huichol elder who said he believes
the land is necessary for upholding his people's traditions.
The Huichols object to the ranchers' intensive grazing and
planting, and use of chemicals and deforestation practices. They
prefer subsistence farming and reforestation efforts.
The Huichols also practice rituals to honor sacred sites
such as the Cerro Cuate, a towering peak, where they leave
offerings for ancestors and deities believed to reside there.
The conflict echoes the Standing Rock dispute in the U.S.
state of North Dakota, where Native American activists and
supporters have camped on federal property to demand a halt to
an oil pipeline project, said Paul Liffman, a professor of
anthropology at Rice University in Texas and a Huichol expert.
Indigenous groups have been making land claims more
forcefully since a 1989 United Nations convention provided them
with a legal framework, Liffman said.
"There's been a major revival of indigenous claims amidst
the enhanced possibilities that were afforded by the
ratification of Convention 169," he said. "Even ... the
countries that did not sign onto that have felt the pressure."
'LOSS OF LIVELIHOOD'
But the ranchers in Nayarit fear they are losing their
"I ask you, who generated the problem? Was it the Huichols,
or us?" said rancher Lucio Gamboa. "Wouldn't you agree that it
was neither of us? It was the government. So, who is responsible
for solving this problem? The government."
The Mexican government has rejected a request by Huichol
leaders to reimburse ranchers with federal funds designated to
help prevent land conflicts.
A committee of Huichol leaders and ranchers recently wrote
to the government asking for a commission to be set up to
address the dispute, but the government has yet to respond.
A spokesman for Mexico's Secretariat of Agrarian,
Territorial and Urban Development, which is charged with
resolving land disputes, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation
that it lacks the resources to get involved and is already faced
with some 323 pending land conflicts.
But Gamboa said the government should step in.
"If the two sides want an arrangement, why doesn't the
government want that?" he said.
(Reporting by Tracy Barnett Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights,
trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)