Move over politicians

Ed Sykes reports from Mexico on the indigenous communities taking back local democracy and building safer, greener towns in the process.

Santa Fé de la Laguna, Credit: José Cortés

It was 500 years ago this August when Spanish invaders defeated the Aztec Empire. But there was another advanced society still thriving nearby – one the Aztecs had never conquered – the P’urhépecha civilization. Today in the Mexican state of Michoacán, many P’urhépecha descendants are leading the way in the struggle for self-rule, free from the disgraced party-political system that’s failed them so badly.

Uruapan, Michoacán’s second-largest city, is one of the most dangerous in the world. The state is where Mexico’s catastrophic, US-backed war against drug cartels began in 2006. By 2013, violence was still rife in Michoacán, and change was nowhere in sight, so thousands of local people took up arms to defend their communities. But despite initial successes, this self-defence movement soon fell apart amid government co-optation and criminal infiltration.

Meanwhile, in a more wide-reaching attempt to protect their homes and families, P’urhépecha communities in Michoacán had been building their struggle for political autonomy. And their drive for grassroots democracy is paying off.

The whole political system is so involved with organized crime that sometimes you need to be careful about what you say

In 2011, the P’urhépecha municipality of Cherán helped to pave the way for other indigenous communities by successfully obtaining official recognition of their right to choose their own form of government, without political parties. This hardly used right was set out in the surprisingly radical Mexican constitution. Indigenous struggles for autonomy also benefited from the Zapatista movement, which forced the government to sign the 1996 San Andrés Peace Accords, essentially pledging to respect indigenous self-rule (within certain limits). The UN, meanwhile, outlined indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination in 2007.

To the east of Cherán, on the bank of the Lake of Pátzcuaro, Santa Fé de la Laguna has just begun to control its own budget. José Cortés, a self-rule campaigner who has been an active part of the town’s struggle, described how the Zapatistas helped to shorten indigenous communities’ paths to autonomy significantly. In Santa Fé, government authorities had been involved in taking land away from local people who had to fight hard to get it back, taking direct action at government buildings to force concessions.

But self-rule in P’urhépecha communities doesn’t mean the Mexican constitution and national laws don’t apply. It just means the first step is always to try and resolve issues communally, according to local traditions. And it means power and resources (both natural and financial) are concentrated mostly in local people’s hands, rather than in the hands of political parties and the institutions they control.

Enough is enough’

San Felipe de los Herreros was the second P’urhépheca community to gain autonomy in 2017. A communal council run by local people now oversees the distribution of resources. Carlos Gutiérrez, who has taken a number of roles in this council, explained what pushed the 2,500-strong town to act: ‘Municipal leaders were no longer siphoning off just a few thousand [pesos] into their own pockets, but millions… At the same time, security wasn’t the same as it was previously. Everything was linked to drug cartels. They were the ones in control of the politicians. That’s why our communities got only a fraction of the resources they should have. We were tired of this and said “enough is enough”.’

In Santa Fé de la Laguna, José echoed this sentiment, stressing that ‘the whole political system is so involved with organized crime that sometimes you need to be careful about what you say.’

As soon as we pushed the political parties out, we immediately felt a change in the community towards greater unity

San Felipe locals organized a citizens’ assembly between 2014 and 2015 to reach decisions by consensus. But only by maintaining pressure on the authorities did they secure approval for self-rule in 2017, with the help of a lawyer. It was not easy to get political elites to give up power, but the reality is that local politicians had become synonymous with unfulfilled promises. And as Carlos insisted, ‘political parties were destroying and dividing our community… As soon as we pushed the political parties out, we immediately felt a change in the community towards greater unity.’

Shortly after becoming Michoacán’s governor in 2015, Silvano Aureoles decided to bring in law-enforcement officers from Mexico City to help reduce the violent instability in the state. But San Felipe and other communities opposed this, insisting that local people who knew their communities would do more effective jobs. Their call for locals to be more involved in defending their communities paid off in 2017 with the admission of over 100 indigenous people into the state’s police force. Self-rule, meanwhile, also boosted the town’s communal defence force. Thanks to both of these factors, Carlos said, there’s been a noticeable decrease in violent crime.

Over in Santa María Sevina, which got its autonomy in 2018, it’s a similar story. Like elsewhere, the town had felt abandoned by the political class. Now, as president of the communal council of administration, Jorge Chávez explained that each neighbourhood in the town has regular meetings to gauge what public works people want to be undertaken – whether that’s fixing a road or building a classroom. The project that gets the most support is undertaken first. A general assembly of Sevina’s four neighbourhoods, meanwhile, helps to deal with larger problems.

Jorge described how the level of local trust in the community’s current defence forces is higher than for the law-enforcement authorities in charge before self-rule. Sevina also shares its experience and knowledge with others. For example, it co-operates with neighbouring towns in terms of defence, sending support when requested and receiving support when needed. And it helps to advise other communities that are still in the process of receiving autonomy.

As in Sevina, each of San Felipe’s neighbourhoods chooses a number of advisers who meet every week to discuss what projects are needed and how money is being administered. Locals can get more details via the town bulletin board, at the communal offices, or twice-yearly at the general assemblies. The administrative council, meanwhile, is taking finances very seriously, bringing in an experienced accountant and sending the quarterly breakdown to the state’s official auditing body. Council workers receive only a simple ‘communal service’ salary, based on the minimum wage.

Road-building in Santa Fé de la Laguna. Credit: José Cortés

We’re only just getting started’

In terms of money at local disposal, the benefit of self-rule is clear. Before autonomy, Jorge said, authorities invested a maximum of 3 million pesos (around US$148,000) a year in Sevina; now, the communal council has almost 13 million (roughly US$640,000) at its disposal. In Santa Fé, the community only got around 3 million pesos previously, but it now gets approximately 17 million. Over in San Felipe, the previous authorities would invest up to 1 million pesos a year, but the local people will now have over 8 million annually to spend how they see fit.

With these new funds, equipping schools has been a top priority. In San Felipe, Carlos explained, the education ministry had previously budgeted the building of a classroom at over 1 million pesos; but the communal government managed to build it – ‘with a good architect’ – for under half of that amount.

The struggle needs to come from among us, from below… We need to learn how to do things for ourselves and how to manage the resources we have

Mexico has a seriously underfunded and divided public health system (and a powerful private health sector) so the autonomous communities have invested money in supporting local people when they’re ill. Gender equality is usually high on the agenda, with women taking roughly 50 per cent of the self-government roles. They’ve also bolstered community defence forces and focused on reforestation, recycling efforts and support for farmers.

Carlos insisted that: ‘We need to start valuing the environment. The environment is life. It’s health.’ That’s why San Felipe has already planted around 20,000 trees, while taking care of existing ones (particularly in the fight against forest fires). Sevina has also made reforestation a priority, planting up to 40,000 trees a year so far. This is in contrast with the state’s trend of cutting down trees to make way for avocado production.

Mexico (and primarily Michoacán) is the world’s biggest exporter of avocados. And because drug cartels have been key players in the expanding ‘green gold’ trade for decades, violence and extortion are rarely far away. The truth is, however, that it’s hard for the region to avoid the lucrative avocado trade. Because while Carlos and others are aware of the need for crop diversification, making a big change would require massive investment, which simply isn’t there.

Pável Uliánov, a spokesperson for Michoacán’s indigenous council (the CSIM), described self-rule as ‘a powerful tool’ for defending communities and their natural resources. It also gives a democratic voice to all, with the general assemblies being the driving force behind the communities’ most important decisions. In the struggle for P’urhépecha autonomy, he insisted that three aspects have been vital: 1) people’s awareness of their collective rights; 2) community mobilization to demand respect for those rights; 3) unity in both the community and its councils. Without knowledge, action, and unity, self-rule simply wouldn’t exist.

As Carlos stressed, however, ‘we’re only just getting started’. He called on other people in Mexico and elsewhere to learn how to defend themselves ideologically, so political elites can’t divide them or intimidate them into giving up. ‘Let’s stop waiting for politicians to do things,’ he asserted. ‘The struggle needs to come from among us, from below… We need to learn how to do things for ourselves and how to manage the resources we have.’ Amid the ongoing failure of global political elites to take the action necessary to end both economic injustice and climate destruction, that’s a message that must be increasingly tempting for people around the world.

Ed Sykes is co-founder of Phoenix Media Co-operative.