By Dr. John Gledhill

Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology
The University of Manchester

P’urhépecha intellectual Dra. Bertha Dimas Huacuz, from the community of Santa Fe de la Laguna in Michoacán, has recently published a critique of what she calls the “third generation indigenism” associated with current government policies. Despite new programs such as the “Crusade Against Hunger” and further evolution of Mexico’s existing targeted cash transfer programs under the present PRI government, the number of Mexicans living in poverty has actually increased, and results are particularly dismal when it comes to the higher levels of poverty and deprivation that continue to afflict Mexico’s indigenous citizens, as demonstrated by the most recent report of the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL).

Although she notes that government has also transferred part of the task of poverty alleviation to NGOs and private foundations (including those associated with the two main TV companies), much of Dra. Dimas Huacuz’s critique focuses on the assistentialist, bureaucratised and individualised nature of current programs. She argues that this institutionalised tutelage does not build social dignity, but that this is not simply a consequence of a lack of change in official mind-sets. The limits of indigenous policy need to be understood in terms of the underlying priorities driving it.

Indigenous territories are seen by government principally as sites for the extraction of natural resources and other forms of economic exploitation by outsiders, making dispossession and displacement an increasingly common consequence of “development”, whilst it is individuals, not communities, that receive the benefits of the tourist development programs that have become increasingly important in Michoacán, such as the “pueblos mágicos” scheme and support for production of local crafts.

Dra. Dimas Huacuz therefore argues that future development plans for her state must involve the real participation of representatives of all the indigenous communities and respect for the principle of “prior, free and informed consultation” that is enshrined in ILO 169, which Mexico was the second country in the world to ratify.

ILO 169 does not, unfortunately, assure indigenous communities autonomous control over mineral and other subsoil resources that states wish to exploit “for the nation” and its weak regulatory regime largely relies on states and private corporations acting in good faith when it comes to consultations. Nevertheless, it does offer a foundation of significant rights, which indigenous peoples can fight to make states respect and extend.

Dra. Dimas Huacuz proposes a ten point plan for reconstituting the relations between the state and indigenous peoples in Mexico and Michoacán. These include proposals for institutional and jurisdictional changes to promote indigenous self-determination. There has always been, and will continue to be, debate about the best way to achieve the goals that indigenous activists seek, but it does seem absolutely clear that a more participatory approach will be crucial if policies towards indigenous people are to produce more satisfying results than have so far been achieved in Michoacán.  Poverty alleviation is not a sufficiently ambitious goal, but the present combination of social and economic policies are failing to meet even that basic challenge, and problems of poverty are exacerbated by continuing problems of crime, violence and insecurity.

One thing that is certainly essential for more to be achieved in terms of participation is to broaden the access of indigenous young people to higher education. In this regard, Dra. Dimas Huacuz is a strong advocate of the reconstitution of Michoacán’s Indigenous Intercultural University, whose ability to carry out its mission effectively has been severely impaired by some of the actions of previous state governments. Let us hope that the new administration of Silvano Aureoles can do better.



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