Human Rights Violations in Rural Oaxaca

Two Thirds Column


Defending the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Protection of their Ancestral Forests

CATA is currently engaging the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) in order to seek justice for the community of San Isidro Aloapám, Oaxaca, community of origin for many of CATA’s members, including one CATA board member. Below is an article describing their struggle, originally published in January 2005 in Siembra:

Migration to the United States from Mexico has been occurring for centuries. Indeed, much of the southwestern United States belonged to Mexico before Mexican War of the mid-nineteenth century (which was instigated by the U.S.), and cultural and economic exchange took place long before the Conquest and process of colonization that began in 1492. However, in the past fifteen years the U.S. has seen a surge in migration from Mexico, an increase that can be attributed to neo-liberal economic policies including NAFTA and continued U.S. government subsidies to domestic farmers. These policies have served to undercut rural economies in Mexico and elsewhere – leading to a level of desperation that forces more and more people to migrate. In recent years CATA, a migrant workers’ organization based in the mid-Atlantic, has seen a marked increase in people migrating to the U.S. for work from more remote and indigenous regions of Mexico. Such people have deep ties to the land, and a deep reluctance to leave – and they maintain these ties to their home communities after emigrating to the U.S.

This migration of desperation is often exacerbated by local injustices, combined with the neglect – or even worse, complicity – of the Mexican government in human rights violations perpetrated against indigenous peoples. This past year CATA has begun aiding some of its members now living in Bridgeton, New Jersey, in seeking justice for their community of San Isidro Aloapam.

San Isidro Aloapam, a small Zapotec community located in Ixtlan de Juarez, Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, has for decades been locked in a struggle for justice with the larger neighboring municipality of San Miguel Aloapam. Since 1982, in collusion with the state government of Oaxaca, San Miguel has gradually usurped more and more land that rightfully belongs to the people of San Isidro, using such tactics as bribing local officials, intimidation, and violence. For instance, the state government has gradually reduced the official population count for San Isidro – a tally used in determining land use rights – despite the fact that the population of San Isidro has approximately doubled in the past twenty years. State agencies entrusted with protecting the environment and promoting sustainable forestry have continuously granted illegal logging permits to San Miguel – something the people of San Isidro believe has been achieved through bribery.

With land use rights comes the right to log the forest for sale, and the people of San Isidro watched helplessly twenty years ago as their forest was clear cut. They are determined not to let this happen again. Jorge Cruz, resident of San Isidro and member of CATA, explains, “The most important thing is the protection of the forest – that it not be logged anymore, that it not be exploited anymore.”

In 2000 the people of San Isidro began to mobilize to protect their rights and their forest, and submitted a legal challenge to the Agrarian Tribunal. In August of 2002 they protested when the municipal government of San Miguel seized yet more land belonging to San Isidro that was being used for growing crops, in order to plant more trees for their logging plantations. The peaceful protesters were retaliated against with violence, including an assault on a pregnant woman that resulted in miscarriage. Several residents of San Isidro were arrested on falsified charges, one of whom remains in prison to this day. “For having asked for justice, we are being imprisoned,” says Zenon Perez, resident of San Isidro and a CATA board member.

In addition to the organizing being done by CATA and other local organizations representing the people of San Isidro, international organizations and advocacy groups have begun to notice the human rights violations taking place there. Amnesty International described the August 2002 incident (UA 253/02 Fear for Safety, 13 August 2002), noting in their report that the men who had been arrested were all apparently beaten, and “a number of other people were seriously injured in the clash.” They also noted that police arrived at the scene and left without any attempt to stop the violence. The human rights violations occurring in Oaxaca have also been acknowledged by the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Rodolfo Stavenhagen (E/CN.4/2004/80/Add.2; June 2003).

With CATA’s support the residents of San Isidro sent a letter to President Vicente Fox demanding that any members of their community still in prison be immediately released, that all charges be dropped, and that their rights to their forest lands be officially recognized. In the letter they not only make the strong case that their rights are being violated, but also explain the wider environmental repercussions to come if the situation is allowed to continue: “If they continue to clear cut the forest, the springs that provide drinking water to our village and neighboring villages will dry up.”

Both the state and federal governments have officially acknowledged receipt of the letter, but have not yet replied in a substantive way. CATA plans to continue the campaign and is preparing a letter of support to increase pressure on the state and federal governments to remedy the situation. In December 2004 President Fox issued a public declaration of his government’s commitment to ensuring the human rights of all Mexicans, and he must be held accountable to this pledge.

The goals of the people of San Isidro Aloapam are clear: “We want the federal government to recognize our rights to the land that belongs to us,” says Perez, “and allow us to protect the forest. What we want is the defense of our human rights – justice – and no more violence. Whether people are brown skinned or black or white, tall or short, big or small, we are all children of God, and justice should not be just for rich people, but for the poor as well.”