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Huichol say no to Mexican highway

SAN FRANSISCO - Nine hundred men, women and children of the Huichol community of Santa Catarina in Jalisco, Mexico, staged a peaceful blockade for two weeks in February to protest a proposed highway into their remote Sierra territory. Food and blankets were scarce, but they were determined to stay.

The week of March 3, the Mexican government temporarily halted the proposed highway north of Guadalajara. Now, in the face of pressure from local government and commercial interests to open up their territory, this traditional community is trying to figure out what to do next.

;'The Mexican government has started constructing this road on our territory without our permission. It has already damaged trees and it will damage our ceremonial sites,'' said Santa Catarina community member Luciano Valdez.

Santa Catarina is the most traditional of the three Huichol communities, and the guardian of the sacred ceremonial centers. The proposed road would geographically split the community in two. Community members are also concerned that it will bring unwanted tourism and commercial activity which will endanger the health, culture and environment of the Huichol, who have become known worldwide for the visionary artwork inspired by their annual pilgrimages and peyote ceremonies.

''We have walked this sacred path for hundreds, for thousands of years for our ceremonial pilgrimages,'' said another Huichol spokesman, Usha Yukawai, in a YouTube video. ''Now they have buried it and we can't find our way through. This affects us physically.''

The video shows felled trees and bulldozers gouging holes in the earth.

The Huichols, or the Wixaritari as they call themselves, have accused six officials of the state government of Jalisco and of the municipalities of Mezquitic, Bolanos and Huejuquilla el Alto of obtaining a false document giving permission to build on Huichol land. They have called on the president of Mexico to permanently halt construction of the highway and to fire and press charges against the six, who they say obtained signatures from individual leaders by coercion, without community support or knowledge, and falsified the seals on the document.

The leaders who signed the document have since been replaced by the Huichol.

''It's outrageous,'' said Humberto Fernandez Borja of Conservation Humana, a Mexican nongovernmental organization that works with the Huichol. ''CDI [Comision Nacional para el Desarollo de los Pueblos Indigenas], a government organization that is supposed to be helping indigenous people, is pushing this highway. They just want to open it up so logging and other interests can move in.''

Javier Camacho, director of infrastructure of CDI, said an investigation into the Huichol concerns about the proposed road and how the document was obtained is under way, and that a meeting with the Huichol has been called.

''I know it wasn't done in a usual way,'' he said of the charges regarding document falsification and coercion, ''but I can't deny or confirm the charges.''

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The lead CDI investigator - Guadeloupe Flores Flores - is one of the six employees that the Huichols want fired.

Camacho emphasized that the state of Jalisco was in charge of getting the necessary approval and documents from the community, not CDI.

''The objective of this road is so that the people of this area have better access to health and educational services,'' he said. ''It will also give them the resources to develop investment projects,'' he added, ''but only if they are in agreement.

''We are confident that all of the benefits that this project will bring to the indigenous region of the north of Jalisco will become clear.''

The other two Huichol communities, San Sebastian and San Andres, both support the road, Camacho insisted, citing signatures from those communities on a Feb. 27 document.

''Baloney,'' said Juan Negrin, a Mexican adviser to Santa Catarina who attended the blockade and meetings in February. ''There is one president of communal goods from San Sebastian who is a member of the municipality of Mesquitic'' who supports the road, but most other members of that community don't, he said. The third community, San Andres, is not going to be affected by the highway.

The Huichol have a traditional government chosen by the elders and a second government with the purpose of dealing with Mestizo society, chosen because of their knowledge of Spanish. These leaders, he said, are more likely to be ''bought out'' by local government and commercial interests.

Drug cartels in the area are also influential in opening up Huichol territory to harvest and transport opium and marijuana, he said, which is then blamed on the Huichol.

Logging and silver mining have already affected regions close to Huichol territory, he added, causing serious health problems and threatening 500-year-old pine trees.

''There is going to be a cultural sacking,'' he said. ''If they can get into this area, they will be able to go and really dilapidate one of the principle centers of Indian culture in North America.''

The 20,000 Huichols in Mexico have managed to survive as a people for 2,000 years, outlasting the Toltecs and the Olmecs. Approximately 7,000 of them live in the three traditional communities and two annexes in Jalisco in a zone that contains several endangered animal species and is listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world's 200 priority ecosystems.