Right to self-determination

The right to self-determination in Chiapas, Mexico

By Ivette E. Galván García

Protecting the rights of indigenous communities in Mexico has required great effort and multiple claims by individuals and groups who have raised their voices and risked their lives to gain recognition as the founding peoples of the Mexican nation.

For more than 50 years, the Jesuit Mission of Bachajón has also contributed to this struggle in solidarity with the Tseltal people in the northern part of the Mexican state of Chiapas. The mission’s accompaniment of the people has included a number strategies for political advancement, including the preparation of indigenous candidates for municipal leadership. However, even though some indigenous candidates have won elections and become part of the municipal government, as a whole the people have not achieved full recognition of their indigenous rights. This is due to corruption and the abuse of power entrenched in the political party system.

The ongoing denial of indigenous rights has recently led to non-violent political resistance, supported by Christians, beginning with the 2015 elections. People in the municipalities of Chilón and Sitalá, whom the Bachajón Mission accompanies, took a stand by annulling their votes. Their action was significant both because of the number of people involved  and because it symbolized their rejection of the parties’ corruption and injustice.

Indigenous women in San Sebastian, Chiapas.
(Photo: Miriam Lopez-Villegas/CJI)

After the non-violent action of 2015, indigenous communities decided to make a concerted effort to recover ancestral principles of organization and governance. This meant promoting a place where the word of another is heard and respected, where the earth is understood as our mother and where everything is seen to have life and transcendent value. The people reached out to their leaders, called Trencipaletik, who have moral authority and deep knowledge of indigenous history and culture. Meetings with traditional leaders became spaces to link minds and hearts and to illuminate a path forward.

An important result of the meetings was the decision to call new assemblies to reflect on the experiences of other indigenous peoples who had the same problems with political parties. Notably, it included the Purépecha people of Cherán who, in 2011, successfully defended their territory against clandestine logging by organized criminal gangs in collusion with municipal authorities. The Purépecha now have an indigenous municipality that is recognized by the Mexican government and that serves as a precedent for other indigenous peoples.

In February 2017, when all indigenous communities of the region met at a General Assembly, they agreed to forge a community-based model of government that respects their worldview. To that end, a team of lawyers from the Jesuit Mission of Bachajón together with indigenous representatives wrote a brief to the government demanding the recognition of two rights: the right to a customary system for the election of municipal leaders and the right to their own way of exercising governance. The document was in line with national and international laws that protect indigenous peoples and was presented to the Mexican Institute of Elections and Citizen Participation on 17 November 2017.

Currently we are thus in a legal, organizational struggle to defend the right to self-determination of the Tseltal communities of Chilón and Sitalá. It is an important struggle for 2018, when municipal elections will again take place.

This article first appeared in the Spring & Summer 2018 issue of CJI’s Mission News. Ivette Galván is a lawyer on the Advocacy Team of the Jesuit Centre for Research and Social Action for Peace. She is active in the Jesuit Mission of Bachajón in Chiapas.

(Banner photo by Miriam Lopez-Villegas/CJI: A show of support at a meeting of indigenous people in San Sebastian, Chiapas)