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MEXICO: A Naked Call for Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Land

MEXICO CITY, Jan 2 2008 (IPS) - Every year, some 300 indigenous people from the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz march naked through the streets of the capital to demand land. But while their unusual form of protest certainly attracts attention, there is little chance that it will achieve their goals.

The protesters, most of them from the Nahua indigenous community, are members of an organisation known as the Movement of 400 Peoples. The organisation suffered a heavy blow in 1992 when the police evicted them from a parcel of over 2,000 hectares of private land in Veracruz that they had occupied in 1988.

Following the eviction, they began to demonstrate in the capital to air their grievances.

First they demanded the release of 100 members of the group imprisoned on charges of squatting, theft, assault and murder. Once this had been achieved, they began to call for the restitution of the land they originally occupied or to be granted ownership of other land, as well as punishment for the authorities who evicted them 15 years ago.

In 2002, during one of their annual visits to the capital, where they spend two or three months living in tents set up between the busy downtown thoroughfares of Reforma and Insurgentes Avenues, they decided to take off their clothes as a form of protest. Since then, they have continued to stage their nude demonstrations every year.

“They stole everything from us, they took our land and locked us up in prison, and that’s why we march naked, just as we are,” Nereo Cruz, one of the group’s leaders, told IPS.

Cruz explained that the organisation’s name dates back to the 1970s, when it grouped together 400 different indigenous campesino communities.

“It’s hard to protest naked, but we are Indians committed to our cause, and we will keep on doing it until we get attention,” said Cruz, who spent seven years in prison after 1992.

Along with other members of the group, Cruz was accused of theft, squatting and a homicide, which he maintains was a trumped-up charge “to try to silence me.”

The 2,000 families who now make up the Movement of 400 Peoples are among Mexico’s 20 million rural dwellers, of whom 75 percent live in poverty.

Of the country’s total 31 million hectares of farmland, the growing export agriculture industry is concentrated on less than one million hectares. The rest is largely used by indigenous and other campesino (peasant farmer) families to grow their own food.

The majority of campesino families own their own land through the ejido system, a collective or cooperative form of land ownership which also allows for individual agricultural or livestock production.

Through the agrarian reform process initiated in 1917 at the end of the Mexican Revolution, roughly 100 million hectares of land – equivalent to over half of the country’s total land area – were distributed among millions of rural dwellers. Over the years, many of these lands have been absorbed by towns and cities, while others have been sold and put to other uses.

Nevertheless, some 70 million hectares are still ejido or collectively owned lands.

Much of the land distribution under the agrarian reform process was subject to the discretionary powers of the governments of the day, a situation that led to the emergence of a number of large campesino organisations, including the 400 Peoples.

In 1992, after 75 years of land distribution, a legal reform opened the way for the privatisation of collectively owned lands and brought an end to the granting of land under cooperative ownership.

This change in legislation authorised the sale of communal or ejido land. Moreover, from that point forward, in order for the government to distribute rural property, it would have to purchase it first.

The leaders of the Movement of 400 Peoples maintain that in 1989, then president Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) offered the organisation a parcel of land that was never turned over to them.

At the time, the campesinos who made up the movement included both land owners and non-owners, such as the children of former ejido land co-owners. Their goal was to obtain ownership of the land occupied in Veracruz in 1988.

In the end, however, Salinas allowed for a portion of the land to be granted to campesinos loyal to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), while the rest remained in the hands of its original owners, a family of former large landholders.

Most of the campesinos in the Movement of 400 Peoples are Nahua Indians, the largest ethnic group in Mexico. Out of a total population of 7.1 million, close to a million of the inhabitants of Veracruz are impoverished indigenous people.

Many of the indigenous cultures of southern Mexico and Central America have their roots in the Nahua people, including the Aztecs, who achieved significant cultural and economic development and control throughout central Mexico.

In recent years, 70 percent of the members of the Movement of 400 Peoples have received parcels of between two and three hectares per family, where they primarily grow citrus fruits. The remaining one-third continue to fight for land of their own.

In Veracruz, which ranks fourth among the states with the highest degree of marginalisation (out of a total of 31 states), one-third of the labour force works in the agricultural, forestry and fishing sectors.

For the 400 Peoples, exhibiting their naked bodies is the best way to draw attention to their demands. “Land is an essential part of life for campesinos, and that’s why we won’t rest until we get it,” said Cruz.

When the protesters staged their first nude demonstration, it understandably shocked the residents of Mexico City. But as the years have passed, the naked demonstrators have practically become part of the daily scenery in the capital.

Nevertheless, they continue to draw the attention of some of the city’s authorities, federal lawmakers and the Attorney General’s Office.

With regard to the 2,000 hectares of land that the protesters continue to demand, the authorities say that one part is already owned by other campesinos and the former owners, and that no more land can be granted for now.

But the protesters persist in their demand for land rights. At the same time, they are calling for punishment for Dante Delgado, governor of Veracruz between 1988 and 1992 and currently a federal legislator, accusing him of brutally cracking down on the 400 Peoples.

However, a Senate committee formed to study the case concluded in April 2007 that Delgado ordered the eviction of the group’s members in compliance with a court order, which means there are no grounds for the accusation.

Sources consulted in Veracruz claim that the Movement of the 400 Peoples has declined significantly in power and importance in the past decades. While its original membership was estimated at around 13,000 families, by the 1980s it had shrunk to roughly 8,000 families, of whom only 2,000 remain today.

“I only hear about them when I go to the capital. They’re the naked ones, right?” commented Father Alfredo Zepeda, a Catholic priest and member of the church-based Cultural and Educational Promotion Group, which has carried out communications and community support projects with indigenous people in Veracruz for 35 years.

For his part, Dante Martínez, an indigenous town council member in Ixhuatlán de Madero, remarked: “They’ve really dwindled. I think that now, more than a social movement, they’re like an agency that works on exerting pressure to get land and money.”

Ixhuatlán de Madero, located in the mountainous area of Veracruz, borders on the areas of influence of the 400 Peoples, which occupy lowlands along rivers and the Gulf of Mexico coast.

“Our neighbours are indigenous people, but they have lost a lot of their culture, and many of them are merchants and have even used the lands issued for business purposes,” said Martínez.

Cruz, one of the organisation’s leaders, refutes these accusations: “We are poor like all Indians. Otherwise, why would we make the effort to come here to the capital ever year and protest naked?”

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