When Indigenous Women Win
In the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico, a band of determined indigenous women led the overthrow of a criminal cartel. Their victory revived the town’s traditional livelihood, and ushered in a model form of self-government.
Story and photography by ANDREW SULLIVAN
The call to Catholic mass at Templo del Calvario had sounded at 6:30 every morning for as long as anyone could remember. But this morning was different. On April 15, 2011, the church bells tolled before the sun had even come up. Throughout the town of Cherán, a small, indigenous community in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico, people awoke with a start. Some ran to the church, others peered from behind curtains, keeping their lights off to stay hidden in the dark.
Those who lived near Templo del Calvario, where the street jogged left then right, saw piles of stones, and a pickup truck laden with freshly cut pine trees trapped at a blockade. Six local women stood nearby to confront the two loggers in the truck. At first, the men shouted at the women with threats and insults. When that didn’t scare the women off, the loggers climbed out of the truck’s cab. The women immediately sprung at them, binding their arms behind their backs with rebozos, the traditional shawls that indigenous women wear. They then marched the men into the nearby churchyard, where 15-foot high walls and a locked gate would prevent escape. A revolt now known as “The Movement” had begun, and it would change life in Cherán for years to come.
At the time of this uprising, more than half of Cherán’s 23,000 citizens, who are members of the Purépecha tribe, had been living in poverty. Their ancestors populated this mountainous area, which sits 7,800 feet above sea level in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt as early as the 13th Century. Visitors to the area often hear that the Purépecha, who were called Tarascans by the Spanish during the colonial era, were never conquered by the Aztecs.
“We have never let anyone into our territory, and we have always been united,” says Nieves Guerrero Geronimo, Cherán’s President of Community Affairs. “Cherán always stands up because we are strong.”
Then again, strength in today’s world is a relative term. Half of Cherán’s adult population has migrated to the United States to find work. The money they send home forms the largest segment of income for the local economy. Most of the community’s other income is generated by a simple craft that goes back to pre-Hispanic times: gathering resin from the pine trees that have long been native to this area, then selling it for use in a wide variety of products. Today, those products skew heavily to the industrial: chewing gum, tape and other adhesives, paint, solvents, inks, water proofing applications, binders in cement, solders and fluxes, detergents, synthetic rubber, insulation for electronics, and road markings. Gathering the raw material for these products is not glamorous work, but it provides a good bit of the glue, quite literally, that has kept the local economy together.
Masked men wielding assault rifles bullied townspeople and took whatever they wanted from store shelves and market stalls. They stalked the streets and brandished their weapons as they rode in logging trucks heading into the forests.
That economy faced a series of threats for five years, between 2007 and 2011. There were tit-for-tat killings of rival politicians and “disappearances” of some of those leaders’ relatives. At one point, the townspeople refused to recognize a new mayor, accusing his backers (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) of stealing the office. Meanwhile, Michoacán was sending more migrants to the United States than any other state in Mexico. For those who remained, the threat of being killed or kidnapped by the cartel kept many from venturing into the woods. By 2011, only about 50 men went out to tap the community’s pine trees for resin.
The first people who came in to fill this void were one of Michoacán’s infamous criminal cartels—La Familia Michoacána. For a few years, the cartel essentially controlled Cherán’s streets, offering payoffs or death to police officers who they wanted to look the other way as their logging trucks passed through. Citizens pled with local and state officials to stop the corruption, but no one took any action.
Then, in 2010, La Familia Michoacána began terrorizing the community. Masked men wielding assault rifles bullied townspeople and took whatever they wanted from store shelves and market stalls. They stalked the streets and brandished their weapons as they rode in logging trucks heading into the forests. They extorted mom-and-pop businesses in exchange for protection.
“How could they extort people living in poverty?” says Federico Hernandez, general manager of Pinosa, a pine resin refinery that’s based in Morelia, the state capital, and that purchases resin from Cherán. Cartel members also kidnapped young women. “We all had to be watching this without the power to do anything,” says Oscar Villa Ortiz, the elected leader of the town’s collective sawmill. “The people lived in fear. They didn’t know if they might get kidnapped and taken away to be tortured or killed.”
The cartel’s next step was to essentially strip mine Cherán’s hillsides. Seeing more immediate profit in selling the pine trees for lumber instead of cultivating them for resin, the cartel embarked on a timber cutting spree that deforested much of the landscape. When the trees were gone, the cartel hatched what seemed like a brilliant way to use the empty ground: plant miles of avocado groves. The only problem is that Cherán’s forests are not the best place to grow avocados.
Avocados need 11 times more water than a native pine forest does. Now it was clear that logging near the town’s springs would pollute whatever drinking water was left.
In other parts of Michoacán, low labor costs, fertile volcanic soil, and predictable rain has enabled the state to account for 80% of the country’s avocado production. And the market for these delectable orbs of green gold was rapidly growing. According a 2017 report from the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Michoacán has become the world’s largest avocado supplier, accounting for four of every five avocados eaten in the U.S.
Michoacán’s cartels were already battling over territory and drug trafficking routes through the state, and intimidating much of the population. The cartels held records from the Mexican Secretariat of Agriculture that showed them what percentage of avocado farmers’ income to extort as they looked to diversify their sources of revenue. If growers refused to pay, the cartels’ henchmen weren’t subtle in how they showed their displeasure. They cut down swathes of avocado trees and kidnapped family members.
Cherán’s homes and businesses survive by getting water piped from freshwater springs in the hills above town. Throughout those hillsides, acres of oak and pine prevent erosion, reduce sediment in the water, and filter pollutants before they reach the water supply. The Purépecha also harvest wild mushrooms and plants for traditional foods and medicines. “The forest provides water, clean air, and a way of life,” says Leticia Enriquez, a Cherán native.
For about a year before the resistance movement began, illegal loggers took thousands of trees out of Cherán. Estimates range from 150 truckloads a day to as high as 500. According to one study, conducted by a local university in 2016, two-thirds of Cheran’s 31,450 acres of forest were destroyed between 2006 and 2012. David Romero, manager of the town’s communal resin refinery, told me that when he and some associates walked into the forests to investigate the damage, they were driven away by gunfire.
When the loggers began cutting down trees near the town’s freshwater springs, the community decided it had seen enough. The town had already feared losing its water supply if the loggers developed avocado orchards, since avocados need 11 times more water than the native pine forest does. Now it was clear that logging near the springs would pollute whatever drinking water was left.
On that April morning, in 2011, after the six women brought their first captives to the churchyard, several hundred townspeople gathered to confront their tormentors. They carried broomsticks, baseball bats, stones, and fireworks. As more armed loggers arrived around 9:30 a.m., the crowd threw rocks and shot fireworks at them. To free their captured compatriots, the loggers fired at the crowd, wounding two people. The townspeople even captured police officials, and the town’s mayor at the time (Roberto Bautista Chapina), because these officials had been trying to protect the armed convoy.
There could have been a massacre, but the cartel’s loggers eventually retreated. Using one of the logging trucks as a battering ram, the citizens stormed the town hall. In a 2013 interview with Al Jazeera America, a Cherán elementary school teacher (Trinidad Ramirez) said the crowd “practically chased off everyone [who] was there.” The citizens even took the police officers’ guns, which included M-16s and AK-47 assault rifles. This was a sweet victory, because only few years earlier, government officials had taken the townspeople’s guns away.
That night, about 200 bonfires were lit at intersections throughout the town, where volunteers stood vigilant against the threat of an assault. The fires, called fogatas, continued to be lit night after night. Despite the fiery message of resistance, over the next month elements of the cartel repeatedly struck back. After one attack on the fogatas, in which two citizens were killed and another two were wounded, 70 Mexican soldiers arrived to restore order. The soldiers also found a meth lab, which they destroyed, along with more than 1,000 pounds of methamphetamine that were hidden in the forest.
In November 2011, the town sued for autonomy, using a provision in Mexican law that evolved from the 16th Century “Laws of the Indies.” (Interestingly, those laws were created by the Mexicans’ original conquerors, the Spanish, in an effort to protect Mexico’s indigenous people.) Despite opposition from the Michoacán state government, in 2014 Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in Cherán’s favor, giving the town authority to rule itself, without interference from state or federal authorities .
To this day, at least once a month 40 fogatas, which have become a symbol of Cherán’s independence, burn into the early hours at various spots around town. People now gather at these bonfires to discuss the issues they want to bring to their representatives, who have been chosen in each neighborhood by popular election.
In one of the decisions made through their new-found power, Cherán’s citizens decided to collaborate with a new business venture called Ejido Verde. The project’s mission is to replant deforested areas, revitalize Michoacán’s pine resin industry, and improve the lives of indigenous people working in and around the forests.
Shaun Paul, the American CEO of Ejido Verde, describes the venture as “a forestry company that leaves the trees standing.” Based out of Michoacán’s capital city Morelia, Ejido Verde now has partnerships and loan agreements in Cherán and 10 other Michoacán communities. In 2018, the project nearly doubled the amount of land it manages, and planted 2.2 million trees. Despite the rapid growth, Paul is trying to develop the business with an eye to indigenous values. “We know that things that worked in the past aren’t necessarily going to work in the future,” he told me during my visit. “How do we take from nature, and how do we give back? That is something embedded in traditional cultures.”
Paul firmly believes the relationships that Ejido Verde is developing will lead to a multiplicity of benefits: they can bring thousands of people out of poverty, nurture an indigenous culture, improve damaged ecosystems, positively affect climate change, and earn a profit. By his calculations, if the enterprise meets its goal—to reforest 12,000 hectares (nearly 30,000 acres, an area the size of two Manhattans) with resin-producing pine trees—more than $1 billion will enter the local economies over the next 30 years, and up to $2 billion in the next 70 years. He says he’s already heard from more communities than Ejido Verde can accommodate, to see if the endeavor can be brought to their lands as well.
Funded by a combination of industry investors who are seeking a stable supply of raw material, subsidies from the Mexican government, and some crowd funding, Ejido Verde gives out “solidarity loans,” at 0% interest, to the communities that can help build these relationships. The loans, which carry up to 20-year terms, will be paid back with revenue from resin harvests once the trees are mature enough to be tapped. As of this writing, Paul says that the enterprise has already raised $10.3 million, but its goal is $35 million. According to his latest tally, 7,000 people from 66 countries have already supported Ejido Verde with loans of at least $25.
In Paul’s view, Ejido Verde is an ideal vehicle to fight the cancer of short-term thinking. “My business plan is for three generations,” he says. “And clearly, we’re growing a tree, we wait ten years to see the resin, that’s pretty long-term.” That said, Paul realizes there are always risks in long-term planning. Community leadership could change and decide to use their land in a different way. “On a pure financial basis we’re not going to compete with avocados,” Paul says. “What wins them over? Clean water, air, a better future for their children.”
When I visited the community tree nursery in Cherán, about 200,000 smooth-bark Mexican pine seedlings, sprouted from seeds collected locally, were growing until they can be transplanted into damaged forests. As I walk through the nursery, Maria Juarez Gonzalez, a Purépecha woman and native of Cherán, sits under a few trees across the dirt driveway from the nursery, putting young trees about six inches tall into soil-filled plastic sleeves. Crews hired by the community travel into the deforested tracts with truckloads of these saplings. Paul says that since 2009, approximately 3,100 hectares (7,660 acres) have been planted with new pines.
At one point, two powerful, muddy pick-up trucks with knobby tires roar into the nursery’s driveway. A dozen masked men leap from the truck beds, assault rifles slung over their backs. They are forest guards—Cherán citizens with paramilitary training, dedicated to protecting the town and its natural resources. Armed checkpoints are now stationed at each entrance to the town. Heavily armed and uniformed personnel question drivers of every vehicle that enters and leaves Cherán.
After learning about the Ejido Verde initiative, Sergio Sánchez, a former construction worker, decided to begin working his 10 acres of Cherán forest. Portions of his land had been deforested by illegal logging before the uprising, but he now felt safe to work alone in the forest. He also saw a chance to rehabilitate his land, be his own boss, and work with his animals. A horse is an invaluable partner to resin collectors. To gather resin, the collectors ride an hour from town into the hills, and the horses can navigate rugged terrain and washed-out paths that could stymie an expensive vehicle; they also don’t damage an ecosystem in the manner caused by motorized vehicles, and the roads they require.
With each trip into the pines, Sánchez’s horse will carry back two five-gallon buckets of resin, which he can then sell for 1,450 pesos (about $90), depending on the current market price. Another Cherán native, Miguel Macías, stands to do even better. After living in Kentucky for 20 years, Macías, 61, returned to Cherán earlier this year to work with his son on their 54 acres, where about 25,000 pines grow. Resin from that amount of forest can produce nearly 1,000,000 pesos (about $55,000) per year, a significant income in Michoacán, where the average salary is about 285 pesos ($15) per day, or less than $5,000 a year. In 2018 alone, Paul estimates, Ejido Verde has created 750 new jobs, about 150 in Cherán.
Cherán’s communal refinery stands a hundred yards away from the nursery, on a slight rise. The day I visited a horse grazed near the loading dock. Billows of steam carried the scent of pine as Rubén Mondragón blasted hot water out of a high-pressure hose to clean the 25-gallon drums used to transport resin. The refining process creates turpentine and rosin, which are then sold to manufacturers of dozens of derivative products. Before the uprising, when only 50 men worked to collect pine resin, the refinery processed only about 15 tons a month, says Romero, the refinery manager. Now, 600 people are out tapping trees, and he’s processing 15 tons a week. “You take care of a pine,” Romero says, “and it will pay you back.”
If you’re interested in making a loan or donation to Ejido Verde, the project has ongoing crowdfunding campaigns for pine-sap gatherers in Michoacán. Two are underway as of this writing, and one of them–for the Xunhandaecha Group–is near Cheràn.