Mexico Indigenous community makes strides to land rights, but obstacles remain

  • In a watershed ruling, a federal court in Mexico recognized the land rights of the Rarámuri Indigenous community of Bosques de San Elías Repechique, in the state of Chihuahua.
  • The ruling annulled the forest-harvesting permits held by private individuals on the community’s ancestral property and required an Indigenous consultation process should the permits be reapplied for.
  • The Rarámuri had been demanding the recognition of their ancestral territory for more than 40 years while facing aggression and resource grabbing.
  • However, Mexico’s environment ministry and two private individuals with forest-harvesting permits have filed appeals against the ruling.

The Rarámuri Indigenous people of Bosques de San Elías Repechique have traveled a long road to defend their community territory in northern Mexico. Living in the state of Chihuahua, the Rarámuri have fought for decades to protect a coniferous forest damaged by logging, airport construction and a gas pipeline. After a long legal battle, a Mexican court sided with the Rarámuri this past February, ruling that the territory belongs to them.

The ruling by the Tenth Federal District Court of the State of Chihuahua concludes a six-year process that recognizes the community’s existence as an Indigenous people and the negative environmental impacts on 11,415 hectares (28,207 acres) of their territory.

A peaceful protest by the Rarámuri on the Creel–San Rafael highway in 2022 demanding the legal recognition of their territory and an end to the intimidation efforts against them. Image courtesy of Carolina Ruiz/CONTEC.

“Our ancestors left us the task of taking care of the forest, of taking care of water sources and rivers. Each of these things has a mystical meaning for the community,” said Luis Pérez Enríquez, governor of the Bosques de San Elías Repechique community. “Now a judge is forcing the state and government institutions to respect our territories and forests before engaging in any project that affects the community.”

However, Mexico’s environment ministry, as well as the state government and two private individuals who hold logging permits in Rarámuri territory, filed appeals against the ruling in early March, according to Repechique’s legal team, which is led by the organization CONTEC, short for Community Technical Consulting. CONTEC has been assisting the Rarámuri communities in legally defending their territory for the last 24 years.

Private individuals hold logging permits throughout the territory of Bosques de San Elías Repechique. However, the community and its legal team have argued that the environment ministry didn’t consult the Rarámuri before authorizing the permits.

The ministry didn’t respond to Mongabay Latam’s request for comment.

Community members in Bosques de San Elías Repechique in June 2021. Image courtesy of Raúl Fernando/Raíchali.

“It’s sad that those responsible — in this case, the authorities — instead of complying with the ruling, are doing everything they can to delay compliance and litigate against the communities,” said Isabel Saldívar, a human rights lawyer responsible for legal matters at CONTEC. “They do this frequently.”

Defending the forest

The inhabitants of Bosques de San Elías Repechique, who today number more than 500, have led a struggle that dates back to the last century. Their objective has been to defend the lands and forests they have long inhabited, but to which they still lack formal ownership.

“They see themselves as the owners of an ancestral territory of almost 34,000 hectares [84,000 acres], much larger than what is recognized and fought for in the last trial [in 2018], which is 11,400 hectares,” Saldívar said. “It’s a very strong community with a lot of resistance, and it’s systematic in its struggles. Before joining them in 2014, we realized that they had written records dating back to the 1960s. This shows how long they have been fighting to prevent the plundering of their natural resources.”

The coniferous Repechique forest. Image courtesy of Carolina Ruiz/CONTEC.

However, more than 40 years ago, businessmen from the region acquired 12 plots of land covering a combined 11,400 hectares (28,170 acres) claimed by the Rarámuri. They obtained logging permits from the environment ministry for at least eight of the properties, despite complaints by the Indigenous people.

In 2020, Mongabay Latam documented that locals aren’t harvesting timber in Repechique; instead, harvests are done by outside workers sent in to cut down the trees. The Rarámuri contend they’re not only witnessing the destruction of their forests, but also experiencing water shortages due to the deforestation.

“No to injustice,” reads a poster carried by a member of the Bosques de San Elías Repechique community during a protest in 2022. Image courtesy of Carolina Ruiz/CONTEC.

“We lived through land grabbing for megaprojects. In addition to a lot of logging and fires, we had the gas pipeline project, and there’s an airport that’s still there [which began operations in Bocoyna in late January 2024],” Pérez Enríquez said. “We’re also seeing that tourism is coming, with racecars and ATVs. But right now, what we have is a water shortage because it doesn’t rain as much as it used to.”

The ruling

As a part of its ruling, the court also annulled all current logging permits issued by the environment ministry. It also required the ministry to carry out an Indigenous consultation that takes into account “the social, spiritual, cultural, and environmental” issues if the permits are applied for again.

In a statement, CONTEC said the ruling also grants additional protection due to the lack of legislative or administrative measures to guarantee the rights of the Repechique community over the forest.

“There is no mechanism for delimitation, demarcation, titling and registration that allows the Indigenous communities to claim ownership of the lands that constitute their ancestral property,” the organization said. Therefore, a mechanism or a procedure must be established to guarantee the integrity of their indigenous lands, it added.

Locals celebrate the opening of a sewing shop, Bowe Najativo, in Bosques de San Elías Repechique in June 2021. Image courtesy of Raúl Fernando/Raíchali.

“[The Rarámuri] presence in the geographic area where logging permits were granted presupposes the existence of a right over [the land] due to the traditional way in which they have occupied [the land] and, therefore, the authorities are obliged to take the necessary measures to guarantee the effective protection of those rights,” CONTEC said.

According to Saldívar and Pérez Enríquez, the ruling is an impressive step forward, putting the Rarámuri on track to gain legal title to their ancestral lands.

A press conference in Chihuahua to present the Nátiga Busuré regional development plan, created by 11 communities in the municipalities of Urique and Bocoyna. Image courtesy of Carolina Ruiz/CONTEC.

“Although we’ve been directly demanding this before the authorities, we have not been heard,” Pérez Enríquez said. “Now, a judge is forcing the three levels of government to take into account the community, the members of this territory. What we hope is that authorities at the state and federal level will recognize this right and provide [land] title so that the community itself can decide what to do.”

The backlash

One month after the ruling, Repechique and its legal defense team learned that the environment ministry, the state government, and private parties had disagreed with the decision. Saldívar said the next step is to wait for a collegiate court to decide if the ruling is in accordance with the law.

In the meantime, the community is reviewing the written ruling and has begun meetings with the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI) to determine how to proceed in gaining legal title to its territory, Saldívar said.

A protester holds flyers emphasizing that the community of Bosques de San Elías Repechique has no intention of selling off its territory, during a protest in late 2022 to demand legal recognition of the territory. Image courtesy of Carolina Ruiz/CONTEC.

“Given the rulings issued by the courts in favor of the native communities, the authorities should make progress in terms of the awareness and commitment they need to have, for example, with regard to the protection of indigenous rights,” Saldívar added. “[The community] shouldn’t have to be dragging [the authorities] back to court to [get them to] do what they should do ex officio: respecting and guaranteeing their rights is part of the state’s duty.”

Pérez Enríquez said he envisions a future where, in addition to conserving and sustainably using the forest, the Repechique can live without fear of displacement.

“It has been very difficult, because they threaten us, because they want to run us off,” he said. “Many people leave temporarily, others stay. It’s really difficult for many people to remain in the community. But this gives us legal certainty — recognition by the court — so that we can continue to live here.”

The court’s ruling sides with the Repechique, a community that for more than 40 years has been demanding recognition of its ancestral territory, while facing aggression and resource grabbing. Image courtesy of Carolina Ruiz/CONTEC.

Banner image: Peaceful protest by the community of Bosques de San Elías Repechique along the Creel–San Rafael highway in 2022 to demand legal recognition of its territory and an end to the intimidation of the Rarámuri Indigenous people by private individuals. Image courtesy of Carolina Ruiz/CONTEC.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on March 12, 2024.

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