What Mexican land defenders told us at a bar on a UW trip

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Photo by: Margot Whittington

One of the most eye opening experiences during my trip to Mexico was a community talk at a local bar. 

To immerse ourselves into the local culture, one evening a few of us went to a local establishment in the city of Xalapa in Veracruz to listen to local music and drink Pulque – a traditional fermented drink made from the sap of agave plants. 

We were pleasantly surprised that we had stumbled upon a gathering of land defenders from across Mexico, holding a special knowledge sharing event.  

The place was live with conversation, friends reuniting for a common cause – to protect the Earth.  

Our eyes were glued on the makeshift stage where community members from Cherán, Michoacán explained to the diverse crowd how they successfully expelled the mayor, narcos (drug cartel) and police from their town. 

They explained how they had created their own armies to protect their citizens and land from violence and the logging industry that was draining the nearby forests. The Cherán liberation is one of the best examples of a Mexican town liberated from violence, political parties, and narcos while creating their own political system based on traditional governance. 

There is a growing trend of towns paving their own independence without political parties and identifying as an Indigenous town with the ability to self-organize. 

Checkpoints and rules are used to monitor who is allowed in and out of the area and to monitor the activity of industry and government. 

Our group experienced a checkpoint in the town of Jalcomulco in Veracruz on our way to Los Pescados River.  

There was a camp set up a few years ago by the group Colectivo Pueblos Unidos de la Cuenca Antigua por los Ríos Libres, defending against a large-scale dam project by Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht. 

Our driver had a short conversation with the group to explain who we were and provided a monetary donation for food for the group. 

Campamento Centinelas del Río approached the stage to explain their community’s objection to the dam project, which threatens to flood their community and 30 other communities living along La Antigua basin.

While they spoke, our Mexican guide’s eyes lit up, as he explained to us that the group speaking are his idols. The group is a highly respected and well-known group of land defenders that organize protests and have written a book about their experiences.  

After the event, many people stayed to mingle and share stories with one another.  

As we made our way to leave, one of the rooms we walked through caught our attention – upon one of its walls there was a projection with a video commemorating an environmentalist who had been killed recently.

On our walk home we excitedly discussed what we had witnessed. A diverse group of people brought together to share their successes and challenges of protecting the land, their culture, livelihoods, and collective identities. 

This was a recurring theme on the trip – we met numerous individuals and communities taking environmental issues into their own hands by implementing community initiatives. 

It was very powerful to see the challenges many communities face and the brave actions they have taken to ensure future generations are able to have access to the land and water they deserve.

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