Destroying a Mountain: Mexican President Orders Expropriation of Native Lands for Freeway Project
Members of the indigenous Otomi community in Xochicuautla protest the construction of a freeway through their land. Photo by Daniel Vargas Más de 131.
Written by Mas de 131
Translated by Samuel Francis
Life on the mountain just beyond the “Campamento de Paz de la Digna Resistencia” (Peaceful and Dignified Resistance Camp), located in a dense forest between the Mexican capital and the city of Toluca, was finally returning, before it was destroyed in October 2014.
“No one can beat the mountain. Even as it is, it only takes three years for the trees to grow [back],” one member of the local Otomi community explains, strolling along an area where the Toluca-Naucalpan highway is to be built.
The Otomi (or ñätho, as they are referred to in their own language) set up the Resistance Camp to halt the destruction of their lands, and the six houses they’ve built on it, when they learned of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s order to expropriate close to 100 acres for a highway project.
The project’s construction contract went to the Teya Corporation, part of Grupo Higa, a corporation that previously built a seven-million dollar house as a gift for the president in Lomas de Chapultepec, an area with the highest property appreciation values in the country. The scandal attracted worldwide attention less than a year ago, in November 2014.
Women at the camp say the psychological terror has not stopped since construction began. It’s not simply watching the trees fall or seeing the mountainside without vegetation; it’s the constant presence of police and the division in the community between those who benefit from the development and those who don’t. When the police come around, “children scream in defence of their sacred mountain,” women at the camp say, while those who stand to benefit “offer the officers flowers, bread, and fruit.”
The intimidation of women and children is constant. Photo by Ariadna Leon Más de 131.
A day after learning of the presidential decree, the Otomi arrived at the National Human Rights Commission to demand some measure of protection from the incursion by police and the Teya Corporation.
The President’s written decree, however, states that the Otomi were consulted between June 5-12, in accordance with the first and second articles of the Mexican Constitution and Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, as well as the United Nations declaration regarding the rights of indigenous peoples.
“It’s a consultation they made up over a few days,” assured Jose Luis Fernandez, spokesperson and Xochicuautla community member. “The President says we were consulted. That’s a big lie. There could not have been a consultation in the short amount of time stated in the decree.”
Fernandez related how, in 2007, topographers began surveying the land without consulting its inhabitants. A year later, armed with information about the project that they themselves sought out, the community called an assembly to decide if it would consent to the highway’s construction.
“On Februrary 24, 2008, after examining our community practices and customs, we decided against it,” recounts Fernandez.
The decree states as its first point that the expropriation of land for construction of the Toluca-Naucalpan Highway will be carried out for “public use.” It also states that the indigenous people will be compensated approximately $674,000 dollars.
“This project directly links the Toluca International airport with the north and north-eastern metropolitan areas of Mexico City, which would mean an enormous boost to the socioeconomic development of the entire central region of the country,” states the decree.
What the decree does not say is that a federal highway already runs from the city of Toluca to Naucalpan. It also fails to mention that it will be a toll road, that the Teya Corporation won its construction contract in 2007, when Peña Nieto was governor of the state of Mexico, where the proposed highway is to be built.
In 2014, Peña Nieto expropriated Huitzizilapan and other neighbouring communities of Xochicuautla. The freeway was 34 percent complete at the end of 2014, according to the state government.
Just a few months after Peña Nieto took office as President, Banobras (Mexico’s National Works and Public Services Bank) allotted over $172 million, in order to finalize the project by the second half of 2015.
Teya has a subsidiary, Autovan Inc., which the Federal Attorney General, the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Mexican Environmental Protection Agency have accused of “rights violations,” “destroying vegetation,” and “cutting down trees” in wooded and communal indigenous (Otomi) lands.
Since 2011, the state government has sent riot police to monitor community meetings in Xochicuautla, detaining 22 members: 14 in May 2013 and eight in November 2014. Everyone was released after a few days because of a lack of evidence.
Besides Xochicuautla and Huitzizilapan, construction has affected the Otomi community of Ayotuxco, which filed an appeal to stop Teya’s bulldozers, which have already destroyed part of their land.
In defence of the forest
The project cuts through a forest that separates the country’s capital and the city of Toluca. The forest falls under the protection of state laws, such as the one designating the Otomi-Mexica State Park as an ecological reserve.
The Otomi-Mexica forest is key for the preservation of the aquifer that supplies water to Mexico City and Toluca. The forest is also home to native species such as the aquatic salamander and deer. It is one of the traditional routes used by several indigenous communities that ascend the mountain where they conduct rituals to seek a fruitful harvest as well as natural and spiritual balance in the region.
Partial view of the Otomi-Mexica Forest which is critical for the preservation of the aquifer as well as native traditions. Photo by Daniel Vargas, Más de 131. (Translation left sign: “Here we breathe struggle, the sub-reality of living in a community with no more identity; right sign: No repression, no devastation, no intimidation, no freeway.”)
Xochicuautla has been defending its forests for eight years, employing various strategies, such as holding forums with other indigenous communities, like the Yaqui Tribe from the northern state of Sonora, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, who took up arms in 1994, and the families of the missing 43 students in Ayotzinapa, who will visit the indigenous community on July 20.
By defending this sanctuary, the community is deserving of the Sergio Mendez Arceo Human Rights Award, the most prestigious independent recognition in Mexico.
At a July 15 press conference, the Zeferino Ladrillero Center for Human Rights, which is providing legal assistance to the Otomis, announced that Xochicuautla approved a “re-appropriation counter-decree,” in order to return the land that has already been appropriated. The “counter-decree,” signed by community representatives and the Indigenous Supreme Council, intends to create a legal precedent in Mexico.
Armando Garcia, a delegate for practices and customs, has called on the general public and other indigenous groups to support their cause and join their camp.
“It is clear that agrarian law has served to legalize the displacement of native and indigenous groups, not only in Xochicuautla. There is also opposition to La Parota Dam in the state of Guerrero and to the construction of an aqueduct in the territory of our friends, the Yaqui Tribe,” says Fernandez, spokesperson and Xochicuautla community member. “The same thing is happening all over Mexico,” he adds.