Resisting in the mountains in Mexico: using territory and self-determination to resist COVID-19

By Tania Martinez, this piece was originally written for a series of reflections on access to food security on the face of COVID19 as part of the Collective on Agrarian Scholar-activists from the South (casas.org) and can be found at https://casasouth.org/resisting-in-the-mountains-using-territory-and-self-determination-to-resist-covid-19/

A Mixe woman on a Sunday market in Tamazulapam Mixe, Oaxaca,

Mexico is a diverse country and as such, each region is coping with COVID19 in different ways with the resources they have. Today, I will describe the coping mechanisms of my hometown, Tamazulapam Mixe, a little indigenous community located in the mountains of “Sierra Norte” in Oaxaca, Mexico. Many people know us as ‘the never conquered people’, who successfully resisted the colonisers when they came in the 1500s. We take pride in our maintained ‘sovereignty and autonomy’ connecting us to our territory and identity as Mixe or ‘Ayuuk’ people and which we have used to face many challenges like COVID19.

The first case of COVID19 in Mexico was registered on February 27th, 2020 (Gobierno de Mexico, 2020). The government called for a lockdown on March 20th to reduce the effects of the virus, though responses to the virus are taking longer in rural areas like my community for several different reasons. First, communication and information flow slowly in rural areas, due to poor accessibility and communication infrastructure. Second, most of the information generated about COVID is in Spanish and has only been partially translated into Mixe and other native languages, and at a slower rate, leading to confusion about the danger the virus poses. Since the disease is new to the world, my community, like many others, was not fully aware of the seriousness of it. Many people believed that the little hospital in my village, with the promises that they have been told about modern medicine, could protect them if they caught the disease. Recently, young people and NGOs have played key roles in making audio-visual materials available in native languages and creating awareness in our communities about the situation and lack of equipment to treat infected people along with local authorities. Third, for several communities like mine that are community-based organised and where collective activities are a key component of the social fabric, the idea of personal lockdowns as it has been perceived in most of the places does not fit the community and rather the lockdown operates on a community basis. A key component of my community is the cosmovision that places the importance of the communal celebrations of life. These celebrations cannot be easily stopped as they are core to our beliefs. Local authorities have cancelled community meetings and which occurred frequently until new notice, classes have been suspended and people have been invited to reduce their group gatherings as much as possible. In the face of all these challenges, the community decided to try to continue life as normal as possible with some preventive actions when possible and to use a community-based lockdown, preventing the entry of any person that is not from the Mixe region, especially people from the cities who might be a vector of infection. Thus, the sense of sovereignty and territory becomes a central feature in the fight to prevent the infection on a community rather than on an individual level.

Locally produced food by Mixe peasants

Another important component of the response to security in general. Research in Mexico suggests that at least 53% (Reyes, 2020) of jobs are informal, meaning that many people do not have access to basic social security. When the lockdown was announced, many of my people that have migrated to urban areas and live there most of the time, returned to my community because they feel safer in the community than in the cities where they can rely on shared responsibility for each other. This also links to the living costs that are lower in the community vs in the city and the sense of community and the sharing of resources for survival, i.e. you can rely on your family, friends, neighbours and community for food, house, care, among others. In response, some local authorities (CEPIADET, 2020) are asking urban migrants to think twice when moving back to our communities as they could bring the disease back with them. As in my community, in many territories of Oaxaca, Mexico, our right to self-determination, our self-governing structure, our community-based organisation and our rights on our territories are tools that we can use in the face of this pandemic. 

The community structure also provides food security, and our peasants are our heroes because they are feeding us throughout the emergency, while many other cities start to struggle to feed their people due to food access issues. Our local market on Sundays has reduced the working hours to reduce exposure. Since April 5th, our local authorities closed our markets to people coming from Oaxaca city and non-Mixe sellers to protect against the virus. And they could do this because only 10% of sellers in the market are non-Mixe and they do not sell basic products. Luckily, peasants from our community will supply our food demands with the local and seasonal cultivated crops using native seeds, traditional and sustainable techniques, and cultivated with water from our springs, rivers, and rainfall. We are lucky to be located in the mountains because our food sovereignty is partially the result of public policy and private markets looking down on the agricultural potential of our lands and therefore not wanting to invest in them to turn them into ‘productive lands’. Thus, we can get the food we need for the year without any external demand either. Additionally, most of the families in the community still crop small fields and this will also allow them to survive through the contingency. Peasants are now waiting for the start of the rainy season to start growing their milpa, an intercropping of native maize, potatoes, beans, pumpkins, and other veggies, and this will allow us to survive. Local authorities noticed that some local sellers were increasing prices on some products, e.g. tortillas, eggs, chicken, and they are visiting sellers to control the rise in prices and warning them of potential fines.

Up to May 1st there are no cases of COVID19 registered in the entire Mixe region. The response changes from one community to another in our region and my community has strengthened the restrictions to outsiders passing through my community to reach further communities that haven’t been as strict as us, and are redirecting that traffic using outside roads to further protect our people from possible interactions with the virus. Members of our communities in the Mixe region have also taken to social media shaming on Facebook when other communities are not taking serious action to protect their people. Thus, I would say we are acting as a set of organised communities that are taking care of the people living in the mountain because we are aware that if the disease hits one person, the contagion can easily spread. And with the collective power of the communities, I am confident we will find a way to face the disease as a community even if it enters. In the end, the idea of locking ourselves down as a community, rather than as individuals, has been a powerful weapon for centuries and it is only possible because we have rights on our ancestral land, strong ideas of ‘self-governing’ and our pride as “the never conquered people”.  

The story of Tamazulapam in the face of the pandemic makes me hopeful because we act as a collective who can protect ourselves using our control of our territories, and because we can feed ourselves with food produced locally and we see each other as a family who looks out for each other. However, this also makes me think of other indigenous peoples that have been expelled from their territories, that cannot enact that right to self-determination and sovereignty, that cannot even produce their food, or have a secure house. It makes me worry about the ones relying on informal jobs in urban areas which account for more than half of the job market, the ones with health problems and no health insurance at all, the elderly, immigrants and others that aren’t protected by strong communities. This pandemic is teaching us that we need to do things differently, to value the collective over the individual and to build inclusive societies that respect and protect everyone.

References

CEPIADET, 2020. “Official decrees from autonomous Mixe towns in Oaxaca, Mexico”. Information was retrieved from facebook official website. https://www.facebook.com/colmixe/photos/a.2618220981620909/2618925861550421/?type=3&theater

Gobierno de Mexico 2020. Report on Feb 27, 2020. Available at https://www.gob.mx/cms/uploads/attachment/file/537574/AvisoEpidemiol_gico_COVID19_27022020_FINAL.pdf

Reyes, Diego. 2020. “Las Pymes ante a llegad de la epidemia de COVID-19 a México”. Tec de Monterrey, State of Mexico.https://tec.mx/es/noticias/estado-de-mexico/emprendedores/las-pymes-ante-la-llegada-de-la-epidemia-de-covid-19-mexico

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