SIERRA MADRE, Chihuahua, Mexico — One of Mexico’s most isolated indigenous groups has won a significant legal victory. Mexican courts have suspended logging permits affecting old-growth forests in the group’s ancestral territory in the Sierra Madre of northern Mexico.
At the same time, export demand for the lumber is growing and there’s pressure to open up logging on other sections of indigenous land.
Flying above the Sierra Madre, you see an emerald carpet of pine forests, steep canyons and soaring mountains framed by an indigo sky. It’s home to the Tarahumara, an indigenous Indian group whose rugged terrain has allowed them to resist occupation since the Spanish conquest.
They’re fighting still, this time against loggers and the Mexican government. The demand for quality hardwoods abroad is running roughshod over the Tarahumara. They sell some of their forests to legally registered buyers.
Last fall, a Mexican court banned logging on a vast tract of Tarahumara territory. But that was only after outsiders had illegally cut millions of dollars worth of trees on indigenous land.
Tarahumara elders thought the ruling would set a precedent. It didn’t. Illegal logging continues. And now, Mexico’s equivalent of the EPA has ruled that loggers can harvest on another large tract of what the Tarahumara say is theirs.
“When there is a claim in court discussing property or possession, the
environmental agency cannot issue logging permits,” said lawyer Fernanda Venzon, who disputes the Mexican EPA’s permitting process.
She worked on the earlier case that the Tarahumara won. She claims that in this current conflict more than just a land title is needed before any logging permit should be granted.
“This is an indigenous community and in such cases the communities have to be
consulted before such a logging permit can be issued. And they were not
consulted,” Venzon said.
Ernesto Palencia, the Tarahumaras’ lawyer, sits in a damp, roofless wood hut in the Sierra telling people that another court battle looms. Sunbeams dance on pillars of smoke drifting up from a wood fire. He said he thought the initial victory — funded in part by private citizens in the United States — would mean that all indigenous land would be protected.
Now he’s appealing against logging in this second disputed area.
“It’s been difficult to defend land claims for indigenous people,” he said in Spanish. “There are legal protections, but they aren’t applied.”
Pro-business factions — and that includes some Tarahumara — defend the project, saying the cash infused into the Sierra raises the standard of living of everyone.
The Mexican EPA chief who gave loggers permission to harvest on what the Tarahumara claim is their land is Ignacio Castillo.
He said documents prove logging interests own the land. But the Tarahumara claim the papers are fraudulent.
Marcelina Bustillos is a defiant and vey popular indigenous governor here. She claims outsiders are stealing trees — a resource that protects the land’s ability to retain water and a cultural icon that links the temporal Tarahumara world to the heavens.
In July, Bustillos made a forceful case for the Tarahumara during a race for a seat for the Chihuahua State legislature. She lost. But not before injecting conversation about disputed land claims into the campaign.
"Loggers want us to leave and the government effectively tells them to ignore the court. This land belongs to us,” she said in Spanish.
Every day, trucks laden with huge old-growth trees navigate the copper-colored mud tracks that have been gouged through the forest. One truck driver says he’s conflicted; he needs the work. But he has no love lost for his bosses.
“They’re not treating the forest well. They’re just clear-cutting,” the truck driver said in Spanish.
The appeal against logging in the second area is underway. But the Tarahumara aren’t optimistic. The bureaucrat who in the earlier case ruled in favor of the loggers has quit his job to become an advisor to the pro-business mayor of the Chihuahua state capital.