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Choréachi: The Struggle for Their Land

In the Sierra Tarahumara, in the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo, a 1½-day journey by car from Chihuahua City takes you to the Choréachi Community, where the Rarámuri gentile or Cimarroni live in more than 50 rancherías. They clearly define the boundaries of their territory: the Guasachique Hill to the south, passing by the Coyachi, Pino Gordo, and Cerro Pelón Hills, to the banks of the Verde River, or Sinforosa River, to the north.  More than 600 indigenous people live throughout the approximately 32,000 hectares of this territory.

Choréachi is also the name of the place where their ceremonial center is located, the place where they meet every Sunday to listen to the nawésari, and also the area where they celebrate their parties, agreements, and commitments.
The Choréachi People has maintained possession of its territories since ancestral times. Registries of their settlements have existed since colonial times, and throughout the centuries, and to the present day, they continue living there. In 1892, the Norwegian explorer, Karl Lumholtz, spoke at length of this indigenous people in his book Unknown Mexico (Lumholtz, ed. 1981).

The inhabitants of Choréachi grow corn, beans, potatoes, pumpkins, and oats.  Eighty per cent of their territory is covered in old-growth pine and live oak forests; it is one of the last places in the Sierra Tarahumara with this sort of vegetation.  A great diversity of flora and fauna can be found there.  To date, more than 1,000 species of plants and 120 species of neotropical migratory birds have been registered.

The Choréachi people have a very well established socio-cultural and political organization. In contrast to other indigenous peoples in the Tarahumara, here the Owirúame has a much more active, strong, constant, and participatory presence in the nawésari, or councils, that the Isérigame provide for their people, as well as in the daily life of their people.

The Choréachi people have maintained possession over their lands and the integrity of their forests, even though documents exist that include part of their Rarámuri territory within the boundaries of the Pino Gordo ejido, and other documents that include approximately 15, 200 hectares in the agrarian community of Coloradas de los Chávez, all of which are found within the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo.

Boundary Conflicts

Choréachi is a de facto indigenous community that has still not received formal recognition of its territory from Mexican agrarian authorities, even though it has never lost possession or use of its territory. The lack of such recognition is due to the omission of the federal government to recognize this and other indigenous territories, as is their obligation to do under Article 14 of ILO 169.

The territory of Choréachi is adjacent to the agrarian communities of Tuaripa and Coloradas de los Chávez, as well as the Pino Gordo and Chinatú ejidos, which already have formal documentation of their status as agrarian units. However, that documentation does not reflect in any of those four cases the actual boundaries of the territory occupied and recognized as their own by the inhabitants of those communities. Thus, for the four agrarian units that are adjacent to Choréachi, the documentation (land-use plans and boundaries) differs in its actual physical location and is superimposed on the oldest part of the territory which is held by the Choréachi indigenous community and which constitutes the latter’s territory.

Mountains That Move

The agrarian community of Coloradas de los Chávez, according to a presidential resolution passed in 1969, is bounded on the north by three hills: Cerro Pelón, Cerro Pino Gordo, and Cerro Coyachi, which are aligned horizontally. The community’s southern limits abut the town of Barbechitos. These vertexes denote that Coloradas de los Chávez physically possesses 10,000 hectares of area, which has been demonstrated by topographic studies. However, the documentation of Coloradas de los Chávez erroneously states that within the geographical boundaries noted above, there are in fact 25,000 hectares of land, instead of the 10,000 that actually exist physically within those boundaries.

Using this discrepancy as a pretext, Coloradas de los Chávez has attempted to use 15,000 hectares of forest which have always been in the possession of the Rarámuri people of Choréachi, and which obviously the Coloradas de los Chávez community has never possessed.

In order for the Coloradas de los Chávez community to realize their attempts to possess 25,000 hectares instead of 10,000, the hills that form the boundary on the north (Cerro Pelón and Cerro Pino Gordo) would have to be displaced and moved several kilometers to the north, a scenario that is physically impossible to achieve.

In order to document their attempts to gain more land than that to which they are entitled, the Coloradas de los Chávez community developed maps showing the “displaced” hills.  Even though the community has never had possession of those 15,000 hectares at issue, it utilized those erroneous maps and land-use plans, and, in 2001, PROCEDE (Program for the Certification of Ejidos and Communities) certified its lands.  PROCEDE’s act is illegal because the law does not permit the certification of lands to those whom do not have possession of them.

As a result, the Pelón and Pino Gordo Hills appear twice on the map that is used today in Chihuahua: where they are actually located, as well as in another location, “displaced” to the north.  However, the cartographers who created the map forgot that there are, in fact, three hills aligned horizontally, and only “displaced” two of them northward, leaving Guasachique Hill unaligned from the other two and facing the southern wind.

Regardless of the boundary conflict, the well-documented existence of an indigenous community, and the fact that those who had been granted logging permits did not have possession of the forest area that was slated to be logged, the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) for the state of Chihuahua granted a forest-use permit to Coloradas de la Chávez for lands that Choréachi has historically possessed.

An Illegal Logging Permit

According to the Forest Law (2003) and its corresponding implementing regulation, Article 32, I sets out the obligatory criteria for forest policy: “Respect for the understanding of nature and the culture and traditions of indigenous peoples and communities, and their direct participation in the development and implementation of forest programs in the areas where they live . . .”

Complementarily, Article 65, Section II states: “The Secretariat will suspend logging authorizations . . . where there exists a conflict regarding the property or possession that has been filed before any competent authority or court.”

Finally, according to Article 72, “when a logging authorization has the potential to affect the habitat of an indigenous community, the authority should ascertain the opinions of the representatives of said community.”

In flagrant violation of the provisions of the above-mentioned articles of the Forestry Law, SEMARNAT issued a logging permit to Coloradas de los Chávez for the Choréachi forests. It should not have done so due to the ongoing agrarian conflict currently before the Joint Agrarian Tribunal in Chihuahua. It should further not have issued the permit without first consulting with the Choréachi community.

The violation of the law could not be more obvious or crude: on the same map that SERMARNAT used for approving the forest-use permit is clearly written the statement “area in conflict” regarding the territory in Choréachi’s possession.

The Lawsuit
Regarding the Nullification of the Logging Permit

SEMARNAT’s decision was questioned by the Choréachi people through a lawsuit asking for the nullification of the logging permit filed in February 2007 before the Joint Agrarian Tribunal and therein admitted. The Tribunal’s Judge determined that the questioned logging permit be suspended until the agrarian controversy can be definitively resolved.

The request for nullification and suspension of said logging permit has a legal basis, both in the afore-mentioned forestry law, as well as in Article 2 of the Constitution, that grants legal standing to indigenous communities, that is, the legal ability to initiate collective legal proceedings in defense of their human rights. The request is also based on the human rights of indigenous peoples.

Regarding the Recognition and Titling of Communal Lands

In addition to the nullification of the logging permit, Choréachi is demanding the recognition and titling of the lands it has possessed communally since the days of their ancestors. During the legal procedures, the Choréachi community will demonstrate that it has maintained possession over their territory since ancestral times, both the area of land it covers as well as their rights to it. To that end, the Choréachi community will provide a great deal of evidence, including experts’ reports on topography, anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics; testimonies; admission of facts; sight inspections; and a study on the application of international law to indigenous peoples of Mexico, amongst others.

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