Wirikuta: The Point of No Return

Currently, there is a battle ranging on in the heart of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, of cosmic proportions that threatens the fragile and sacred eco-system on which the Wixárika (meaning the “healers” and “prophets”) natives believe the sun was born. The UNESCO-recognized, Wirikuta Natural and Cultural Ecological Reserve has been the site of their adoration for thousands of years; but now, the First Majestic Silver Corp, a Canadian mining conglomerate, is vying to exploit the vast mineral deposits that rest below their sacred land. Though in 2008, the Mexican federal government signed the Pact of Hauxa Manaká, guaranteeing the protection of the Wixárika culture, pilgrimage routes, and sacred sites. In 2010, it granted 22 mining concessions (6,327 hectares) to First Majestic, 70% percent of which are within the boundaries of the reserve, and has so far ignored calls from the Wixárika Nations for dialogue.

Despite the incessant change that modernity entails, the Wixárika people remain one of the best preserved living example of how native peoples saw themselves, their relationship to others, and their obligation to Mother Earth.  For as long as they have existed as a culture, the Wixárika people have worshiped the Mountains of Catorce and the desert lowlands for myriad reasons.  Aside from being the birthplace of the sun, the ecological preserve is revered for being home to the four principal deities in their religion: the eagles (13 variants inhabit the park), the blue deer, the corn trinity, and peyote. In short, “Wirikuta is the matrix of life. The matrix of rain and of fertility. A place to remember our origin and the natural future of humanity.”[1]

Every spring, the Wixárika embark on an arduous 400km pilgrimage across the desert from their spiritual centers in the Cierra Madre Mountains and offer prayer at 14 sacred sites along the way. In doing so, they believe that fertility is balanced and a spiritual equilibrium amongst all living things in the world is achieved. In an open letter to the Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, the Regional Wixárika Council for the Defense of Wirikuta describes it as such; “Wirikuta is the heart of our essence. If it ends, we die as a people. We have been making pilgrimages to Wirikuta for thousands of years and we know the Ancestors who live in each hill, each stony glade, each rocky crag, and each flower by their names.”[2] Along their path they consume peyote, which allows them to directly communicate with their soul as they pray for our survival and so that Mother Earth and the Creator may forgive us all for the sin of being alive. Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes, perhaps puts it best, “Sobrevivimos porque matamos a la naturaleza! No podemos evadirnos de esta necesidad. Nuestra necesidad es nuestra culpa. Y saberlo es algo que daña nuestra almas.”[3]

But what good is an enlightened soul, when your loved ones are starving? The Mexican economy has not been immune to the global recession, seeing its GDP contract by more than 6%, since 2008. Thus, coupled with the increasing cartel violence, many young Potosinos have seen themselves forced to immigrate. Those who support First Majestic’s endeavors do so on grounds that it has vowed to create 750 jobs in the first phase of construction and 500 others when the mines are in operation. Furthermore, they have also assured that they will invest in development projects such as scholarships, a mining museum, an artisan shop and finally, a reforestation project. Also, according to First Majestic, new technologies promise to revive inactive mines that were built in the 1700’s and avoid visible alterations to the land by engaging in underground mining. José Antonio Nieto, the Potosian functionary for First Majestic says, “This day in age mining is different, it is more organized and professional, and technology permits us to work in harmony with the environment.”[4]

However, the methods that First Majestic proposes to remove and process the materials are even more dangerous and unstable than in the past.  Also, the demand of water that this type of mining requires would inevitably tax an already dry ecosystem. The froth flotation method that they are proposing would only remove part of the minerals, while the other would necessitate cyanide, which is extremely toxic and would require costly monitoring to avoid contaminating underground water supplies even after the mines close. Though underground mining is alluring indeed, it misses the point and the unintended consequences would be more difficult to manage. To the Wixárika, Wirikuta is sacred in its entirety; extracting the silver ore without visible signs would still extract the essence that fuels their sacred traditions. And the massive underground excavations could ultimately cave in.

If nothing else, San Luis Potosi’s colonial history ought to serve as a sobering reminder of the economic cycles of boom and bust that come with mining. During the 16th and 17th centuries, San Luis Potosí stood at the center of social and economic life in the Americas, as it was the most precious jewel on the Spanish crown for its massive output of silver ore. But when the silver veins were exhausted, the capitalists withdrew their investments—leaving poverty and contamination in its wake. In 2010, a study conducted by the University of Guadalajara reveals the ever present wounds of San Luis Potosi’s tormented past; it showed potentially hazardous levels of ten metals in water, soil, animal tissue and even in the hair of the residents.[5] The ecological damage that was caused during the intense mining activities is also reflected in the lack of potable water, loss of soil and biodiversity, erosion, and in the soils inability to capture water.

To the Wixárika people, natural disasters are more than just random occurrences that are out of our control; they are Mother Earth’s defense mechanisms and her way of telling us that our current relationship is unsustainable and destructive. As tornados, hurricanes, blizzards, droughts, and earthquakes are becoming more frequent and powerful, I would rather take my chances and heed the Wixárika’s warnings.  I urge others to do the same. We are currently on the path to the point of no return and if we continue on this course we will have nothing but destruction and pain to show for it. Though the profits that will come from mining in the Wirikuta reserve are alluring indeed, how much value will they truly hold if the Wixárika are right and Mother Earth is no longer able to sustain even the most basic forms of life? If there ever is a time to confront the sad reality that short-term profits come before the protection of our communities—it is now.

~Alfredo Reyes

[1] Regional Wixárika Council for the Defense of Wirikuta, Urgent letter from the Wixárika People to the President of Mexico and to all the Peoples and   of the World, May 9, 2011

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fuentes, Carlos. El Espejo Enterrado; Translation in English: “We survive because we kill nature! We cannot escape this necessity.  Our necessity is our fault. And knowing this is something that hurts our souls.”

[4] Barnett Tracy, Wixárika Prepare for Battle, Esquire Latin America, August 2011 p. 117-125

[5] Ibid., Pg. 122

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