Indigenous Land Has Never Been Modern

By Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez Posted in - Voices Rising on April 17th, 2014 1 Comments

My father was sitting quietly in a hammock eating corn on the cob, he had just finished the first harvest. He was lean and tall. Behind him, my nieces and nephews were busy chewing their corn and drinking fresh atole.

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My father turned and looked at them saying: “my parents and grandparents and their grandparents have lived in this land and eaten what we grow and gather. We have worked hard but it has been a good life, how is growing your own food not a good thing? When my grandparents died, they said: “do not abandon this land.” As I write this, eight years have passed since my father first asked me to research on the impact of wind power generation on our people’s traditional livelihoods in the Tehuantepec Isthmus, the narrowest chunk of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Golf of Mexico. He was concerned with leasing our community’s lands to wind-power corporations and the prospect of not being able to be self-sufficient. Like my father, many Zapotec and Ikoot peasants and fishermen have a strong sense of belonging and respect for the land and water that have sustained them. Like Elsipogtog and other Indigenous nations around Turtle Island, the peoples of the Tehuantepec Isthmus are defending their lands against large-scale wind power parks, the new face of colonial dispossession.

Some like to believe that prosperity for Indigenous communities comes from international corporations and their ever-expanding need to accumulate wealth. Some others like to think that Indigenous people’s defense of their land and their traditional livelihoods are things of the past. Some like to think that our circumstances can get better when our

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communities conform to the norm of being part of a reservoir of cheap labour force. But as Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntassel notes in his post, “Indigenous peoples’ sense of belonging is what breaks through the colonial confines.” Like Cherokee or Nishnaabeg peoples, Zapotecs have their own word to describe belonging as responsibility. The word guendaliza means that we all are relatives and as such we have reciprocal responsibilities. When we say thank you in Zapotec we say chux quixely, which means ‘I will reciprocate’. Reciprocity is not limited to human beings but extends to the land and other beings visible or not. While governments, financial institutions, and the media insist that Indigenous peoples are backward, violent, and inefficient, the latter insist on maintaining their responsibility to defend their land. In the same way that Canada does not own the land in Elsipogtog, Indigenous lands in the Tehuantepec Isthmus belong to the Zapotec, Ikoot, Mixes and other peoples. Resource extraction and land dispossession without prior and informed consent and without benefits for Indigenous communities is at the heart of these conflicts.

Invoking narratives of public goods, environmental crisis, poverty, and security to justify intervention in the management of other peoples’ lands is hardly new. The language used to characterize Indigenous subsistence agriculture in southern Mexico is embedded in colonial discourses of wasteland which is, by definition, land that does not have a “productive” use. Although Indigenous traditional livelihoods have had very limited impact on carbon emissions, blaming peasant communities for their “unsustainable,” “unproductive” livelihoods contributes to the belief that traditional land uses must be abandoned in favour of a greater use: climate change mitigation. A number of scholars have documented how the global south is being reconfigured through the logic of green capitalism and how national compliance is borne by local Indigenous communities (McAfee; Sullivan; Valdivia; among others). Environmental organisations and international financial institutions such as the World Bank have aggressively supported the idea that “ineffective” and “unsustainable” local land-uses are connected to high levels of poverty and environmental destruction in the Tehuantepec Isthmus. Simultaneously, this and other international financial institutions are financing projects to produce shale gas and frame fracking as an “innovative” method. To me, this is hypocrisy.

It is important that we look beyond these colonial narratives. Poverty, innovation, and environmental crisis have become key sites of capitalist intervention in the global south and on Indigenous lands. Blaming Indigenous peoples of the Tehuantepec Isthmus for their “unsustainable” footprint is not disconnected from facking on Mi’kmaq land. These are two faces of the same coin. In both cases, the Indigenous owners of the land bare the cost of capitalist expansion. The World Bank’s Southern States Development Strategy (2003) is concerned with the existing “thin market” in southern Mexico, where the subsistence economy continues to be central to many communities. Fishing and agriculture have been the two most important traditional economic activities in the Tehuantepec Isthmus and are still part of a trading system that has satisfied local and regional demands for centuries. Zapotec corn and Ikoot fish have constituted the two most important currencies regulating interactions among different Indigenous peoples in the region. Pushing Indigenous peasants and fishermen to abandon their “unproductive” livelihoods simultaneously opens up huge tracks of lands for international wind energy corporations to lease and creates the market envisioned by the World Bank.

Although wind power remains a dream for many environmentalists, large scale projects are also an industrial process that is both environmental and economic. As such it is a mode of capital accumulation that relies on the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Land grabbing has gained momentum in southern Mexico and in Latin America as a whole during the last decade. This phenomenon has taken different forms and involves thousands of acres affecting the lives of Indigenous and peasants communities. Land grabbing can involve more than land itself, it can imply grabbing the power to control land and other associated resources such as fresh water, forests, fish, and biodiversity in order to derive benefits from such control. Land used by small farmers can also be converted into plantations to produce biofuels, to offset carbon, or for industrial agriculture, effectively reestablishing colonial relationships. Oxfam estimated that in the global south, at least 227 million hectares has been sold, leased or licensed to foreign corporations between 2000 and 2011. In 2009 alone, 50 million hectares were transferred from small farmers to corporations mostly in African countries. Some of this land has

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been purchased while the majority, which is held communally, has taken on long-term leases of 25 to 99 years (and are usually renewable).

In the Tehuantepec Isthmus, where Indigenous communities have a strong attachment to the land and favour local governance of resources, land grabbing has involved coercion, manipulation of information, and repression. Fourteen wind parks have been constructed and four more are under way precisely because corporations have relied on illegal practices. Embedded in this process of land dispossession is the rejection that the Zapotec, Ikoot or Mixe peoples can possess knowledge of the world. But the Indigenous peoples of this region have a long-standing tradition of fighting against what they perceive as unjust and defending what is rightly theirs.

To be clear, it is not that the Indigenous communities oppose the production of renewable energy per se. They oppose large scale wind power parks that destroy trees, ancient mangroves, and kill thousands of migratory birds when they stop in this region after travelling across the hemisphere. More importantly, Indigenous communities oppose the lack of consultation and fair distribution of benefits. The case of the small city of Ixtepec, where Latin America’s first community wind park is going to be constructed in partnership with the Yansa Foundation, will likely provide important lessons for the Tehuantepec Isthmus as a whole. Small scale community owned renewable energy projects have been and are being built in different Indigenous communities across North America for self-sufficient purposes. These examples show that there are alternatives that do not rely on colonial tactics that push Indigenous peoples off their lands.

The Indigenous Peoples of the Tehuantepec Isthmus Coalition for the Defense of Land is standing on the way of unsustainable wind power development by organizing peaceful demonstrations and by demanding a halt on corporations’ activities. Appeals on the grounds of illegality have recently opened a window of hope as a regional judge ordered the suspension of a corporation’s activities on Ikoot land. As a result, the Governor of Oaxaca recently announced that he respects these communities’ decision not to participate in the “green economy.” While this is a victory, the struggle is not over. Like other Indigenous nations throughout Turtle Island, the peoples of this region continue to resist this new wave of land dispossession by renewing their relationships and sense of being in the world as self-determined peoples. These are common struggles and demand that we stand in solidarity with one another and that we recognize there are other ways of living outside the ever expanding colonial capitalist system.


Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez is Zapotec from the Tehuantepec Isthmus, Mexico. She is an activist and also an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta.

capitalism green energy development Ilkoot land protection Mexico Mixe Tehuantepec Isthmus wind power Zapotec

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  • Tom Cunningham - Reply

    April 28, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Thanks for the information. Obviously, the Multi National Corporate mind-set is not going to change.
    They have so much money and power, to hire the lawyers who work for the MNC’s
    Its distressing to see how many community members are going to be affected negatively by the MNC’ s.
    What will this world look like in 20 years. Hopefully I will be long gone .
    Who wants to live in a world run by MNC’s.
    Who wants to watch as they gobble up land, water, people, and turn this earth into a hell hole.
    Greedy, greedy, lustful, self-centred, is the best way to describe MNC’s.
    I wonder what they are going to do when everything stops as a result of raping the land, water, and of course the community members who want nothing but to live, work, raise their families and enjoy this beautifiul earth. Shame on the MNC’s. They act like overindulged children. The earth does not belong to anybody. A great big PISS Off goes out to all the MNC’s as they continue to rape the earth.
    Tom Cunningha – BA/BSW/CTC

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