NUEVA COLONIA, Mexico - When Indians lose land, conventional wisdom says, they never see it again. In central Mexico, a grass-roots organization is working to prove the old wisdom wrong.
The Jalisco Indigenous Groups Support Association assists central Mexican tribes in filing land claims and achieving economic self-sufficiency. AJAGI has devoted much of its attention to the Huichol, a people isolated in the western Sierra Madre who have lost land to loggers, planters, ranchers and narcotraffickers.
AJAGI founder Carlos Chavez described the delicate work of partnering with tribes: ''We don't give them a solution. We plan with them. We brainstorm with them. We evaluate our positions together. We're not so much colleagues as companions.''
The party most responsible for land loss, said Chavez, speaking by telephone from his office in Guadalajara, has been the Mexican government. The 1910 Mexican Revolution made possible the return of communal lands to Indian pueblos. But corruption of an agrarian reform allowed lands to stay in foreign and non-Indian hands. Tribes in Mexico do not have treaty relationships with the federal government. As a result, Chavez noted, Mexican land reform is closely tied to party politics.
After the revolution, federal officials agreed to look the other way while regional powers seized indigenous lands with impunity. For 70 years, the ruling party, PRI, maintained this arrangement, until voted out of office in 2000. Only in recent years has the gradual political thaw in Mexico allowed for a concerted effort at recovering land.
''The most important development has been communal organizations,'' Chavez explained. ''When the pueblos form alliances, they're better able to resist. One pueblo becomes many, which can organize regionally and then coordinate even on a national and international level. In large part, this is how the lands have been returned to the Huichol.''
To date, AJAGI, founded in 1990, has helped the Huichol recover 140,000 acres. The lands are now protected by law, making attempts at seizure illegal. But the law isn't always enough.
''It requires a strong effort to repel future invasions,'' Chavez continued. ''In the past, squatters would confront a single family in an isolated district; now, they have to deal with an organized community that demands damages for the action. While the law protects the land, local vigilance is also necessary.''
Lost fields are only one symptom of the attack on Huichol land. The government is also pressing for rights of way. While the electronic grid expands into the Huichol homeland, tribal authorities worry that new roads and power lines will have far-reaching repercussions in the future.
''The neoliberal project of the Mexican government is to surround us. Gradually, they will confuse our leaders with money, and little by little they will accept projects for their development, not ours,'' warned Xaureme-Jesus Candelario Cosio, a local district school supervisor who has worked with AJAGI.
''It hasn't happened in Nueva Colonia yet,'' said Cosio, a native of the pueblo. ''We have withstood a lot. But little by little, the young ones say, 'We need electricity, we need shops, we need television.' They fall in love with material things, which is dangerous for the next generation. And this divides all of us.''
Huichol authorities proposed a solar energy alternative to the electronic power pylons that cross their landscape, but the government rejected the plan.
The growing infrastructure in Huichol country may have ulterior objectives. According to Chavez, a series of industrial megaprojects is being built from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, thereby accessing faraway Asian markets. A network of roads is under construction, even superhighways through sparsely settled areas. The electrification of the Huichol homeland, said Chavez, ''is part of a larger national and global trade plan.''
Today, Huichol can be found who have studied everything from global commerce to the Kyoto protocols, Chavez continued. They've been assigned by pueblo governments to go out into the world and return with information useful to the tribe. They learn cartography and computer technology - but at the behest of the community and in the interest of protecting a culture.
''The Huichol are careful to want to understand the new technology without endangering what has made them who they are,'' said Chavez. ''And this is the dilemma: to move forward without losing the traditional ways. Unlike many other Indian groups in the country, the Huichol are protecting a cultural and social tradition that is still very strong at the same time they move forward.''
On the long bus ride out of Nueva Colonia, a Huichol child sat gripping a mask. Not a beaded mask in the ancestral tradition, but a hard, plastic likeness of Spiderman - a casual toy, perhaps ... or perhaps a sign of things to come.