PWH Undergraduate Essay Prize Wixárika (Huichol) Pilgrimage to Wirikuta: Global Shifts Inclusive of Indigenous Voices in the Regional, National, and International Discourse on Land-use and Policy

May 17, 2021
By Emrys Stromberg | Perry World House Undergraduate Essay Prize 2021

Author’s Statement

Over the course of the past year my work with the Wixárika indigenous people, who are better known to the outside world as the Huichol, has taken me throughout Mexico and along a network of historic and sacred landscapes. What began as a short-term project has evolved into a broad ethnographic study of a vibrant culture. The Huichol are the oldest surviving culture in Mexico who continue to practice their traditions much as they have for centuries. Each year they conduct a pilgrimage of over 400km from their communities in the western sierras eastward to the semi-desertic high plateaus of the Sierra de Catorce which they call Wirikuta. On their sojourn to the Wirikuta/Catorce region they conduct ceremonies at specific natural sites (including lakes, lagoons, mountains, and rivers) that serve to retrace and honor the path of their ancestors. The land corridors they traverse follow ancient Mesoamerican trade routes and represent to the Huichol a living connection to their ancestral cultural heritage.

This paper is about the current conflict between the Huichol and the Canadian mining company First Majestic Silver over the landscape of the Wirikuta/Catorce region. FMS, which acquired rights and proposed reopening a colonial-era silver mine in 2010, has been met with overwhelming resistance from the Huichol along with NGO allies, whose efforts have fared remarkably well in mobilizing resources both nationally and internationally against powerful economic forces. This outcome is demonstrative of a global shift toward the inclusion of indigenous rights and voices in the discourse on land management, mitigation, and policy. This paper highlights the fundamental divide between the two main actors (the Huichol and FMS) worldviews’, as they pertain to the environmental, economic, and sociocultural future of the Wirikuta/Catorce region. Finally, this paper draws a connection between the local conflict and global biocultural conservation issues, suggesting the need for policy guided by productive dialogue between local, regional, and international actors.


In 2010 First Majestic Silver announced plans to re-open a colonial-era silver mine in the Sierra de Catorce which runs through the town of Real de Catorce in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. Meanwhile, a voice of resistance echoing from nearly 400km away was increasing in amplitude coming from a people already intimately familiar with the landscape. For centuries, the Huichol indigenous people of western Mexico have undertaken an annual pilgrimage from their homeland in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains eastward to the sacred land they call Wirikuta. The journey is multifunctional, serving to unify the culture, educate, and transmit knowledge to new generations.

The current conflict over the Wirikuta/Catorce territory stems from two fundamentally different worldviews and concepts of land – its value and use. For the Huichol, the landscape is central to their cosmology and cultural continuity. For First Majestic, the land represents a means of delivering profits to its stakeholders. The effects of the proposed mining project in the Wirikuta/Catorce region would have lasting ecological, economic, and sociocultural consequences; therefore, the multiple actors must participate in transparent discourse to reach an optimum resolution.

The Huichol survived Spanish conquest in the mid-16th Century by retreating west to the remote sierras where today the population of roughly 22,500 (INEGI 2009) live among five communities. There is ample ethnoscientific, historic, and linguistic evidence that supports a northeastern desert origin of the Huichol, placing them as descendants of the Guachichiles, a semi-nomadic people from the Wirikuta/Catorce region. Their annual pilgrimage to Wirikuta can be viewed as a symbolic emergence into and migration from their place of origin (Grady & Furst, 2011).

Although the Huichol migrated centuries ago to the high sierras, they have also not remained isolated. Rather, the Huichols have maintained continuous interaction with the outside world, whether through necessity of trade or sheer curiosity. The Norwegian ethnographer Carl Lumholtz who lived among the Huichol in the late 1800’s was so impressed by the Huichols’ knowledge of the outside world he wrote that “it is almost as if they have newspapers or telegraphs” (Lumholtz, 1902). Part of their information comes from the pilgrimage to Wirikuta.

Clearly outlined demarcation of boundaries comprising Wirikuta do not exist in the Huichol tradition, thus, with each pilgrimage, they risk the danger of trespassing under the three modes of land ownership officially recognized in the Mexican constitution (individual small-holdings, collective ejidos [communal land held by the Mexican state], and comunidades agrarias [agricultural communities]). However, both Huichol tradition and ethnohistoric evidence indicate that the landscape of Wirikuta includes the Sierra de Catorce and a vast expanse of the low-lying desert plains.

Without access to the physical landscape and spiritual significance of Wirikuta, the culture of the Huichol would atrophy. According to my Huichol informant Watakame “We are deeply against this project that would affect entire ecosystems, the water circuits and cycles, and the entirety of our existence” (personal communication, March 4, 2021).

The Wirikuta/Catorce region in the State of San Luis Potosi, Mexico is noted as a place of high biodiversity (De Azcárate et al., 2018). Topographical features ranging from the Sierra de Catorce to the Chihuahuan desert plains provide unique habitats for numerous endemic wildlife to flourish.

The history of Spanish settlements in the Wirikuta/Catorce region dates to the opening of mines in the 18th Century. The site of First Majestic’s proposed project was once considered one of the most productive, technologically advanced, and lucrative mines in Mexico. As the Mexican Revolution took hold, from 1910 onwards all mining operations ceased, until 1967 when a Mexican company acquired rights. In 2009 the rights to the mine including Real de Catorce property were acquired by the Canadian mining company First Majestic Silver.

Alongside mining, the local economies are based on small-scale commerce, tomato farming, and goat herding. Additionally, in the last 30 years or so, the town economy has shifted towards tourism (Barrera de la Torre, 2015). This trend is due to its colonial ruins and its mystique as a ‘ghost-town’. Due to lack of economic resources, the local communities maintain a wishful optimism about the possibility of work in the mine; however, mining over the course of the last two hundred years has not provided long-term sustainable growth to the community.

The principal conflict between First Majestic and the Huichol calls into question the issue of territory as it pertains to property, politics, and policy. The main actors involved in the discourse include First Majestic, the Huichol, local communities, and civil societies both national and international. With the conflict over land management identified, the effectiveness of the actions and narratives of the actors involved can be gauged by observing how they relate to the actual mobilization of resources (human, economic, information, etc.) and the actions of others; in other words, the exertion of power (Boni et al., 2015).

The Wirikuta/Catorce region is a UNESCO-designated site and was designated by the WWF as one of earth’s three most biodiverse desert ecosystems. Additionally, the state of San Luis Potosi established Wirikuta as a protected cultural and ecological area in 1994, and its size was doubled in 2000. Despite these measures, mining concessions were granted to FMS in 2009.

In 2010, the Huichol, along with environmental and indigenous rights organizations gathered to sign and issue a statement entitled ‘‘Pronunciamiento en defensa de Wirikuta’’ (‘‘Declaration for the Defense of Wirikuta’’) that called for the cancellation of 22 mining claims held by First Majestic Silver (Boni et al., 2015). At the same time, in an act of unity, the Huichol communities convened in Wirikuta issuing a statement to the media expressing their gratitude to the numerous entities (including national/international NGOs and civil societies, universities, artists, intellectuals, media, and other indigenous peoples) who stood in solidarity with them over the single cause of saving their sacred landscape.

Mining causes serious threats to biodiversity throughout the world. As vast amounts of water will be consumed from local aquifers in operating the FMS mine, there are justified concerns over potential threats to existing water systems, including water scarcity and contamination in the Catorce region. While future mineral supply is uncertain, projections suggest demand will grow for many metals and shift mining operations towards more dispersed and biodiverse areas (Sonter et al., 2018).

FMS claims that because the work will be below ground that it will not affect the health of ecosystems above. These claims have been thoroughly refuted by ecologists, scientists, and the Huichol themselves (Vilchez, 2014).

Mining of minerals is necessary for producing many valuable technologies that contribute to our lives. In the case of silver, it is valuable in medicine, electricity, mirrors, silverware, mobile phones, solar panels, water purification, and more. Silver’s unique properties lend themselves to new technological innovations that are constantly emerging.

Initiating dialogue between mining companies, policymakers and conservation organizations is urgent given the suite of international agendas simultaneously requiring more minerals but less biodiversity loss (Sonter et al., 2018).

According to Dr. Eduardo Santana Castellón (Professor of Ecology and Conservation, University of Guadalajara) “Almost everything is made using mining products. So, it should not be up for debate whether there ought to be mining activity in the country. Obviously, mining is needed. What is under discussion is where mining is done, and where it is not” (Vilchez, 2014).

In October 2012, the Mexican federal government’s conservation agency, CONANP, (Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas) issued, to the surprise of all, a proposal to establish a Biosphere Reserve in Wirikuta (Boni et al., 2015). The proposal extended boundaries beyond the current reserve limits and called for a cessation of all mining operations within the newly delineated reserve. Additionally, the proposed biosphere reserve, in its modelling, considers the multidimensional aspects of biocultural conservation.

While the Huichol welcomed the new federal decree to declare a Biosphere Reserve in Wirikuta, they also warned of inconsistencies within the proposal (Schertow, 2012), noting that just a week prior, CONANP had supported the permittance of special use sub-zones which would disrupt entire ecosystems. In their reluctance to wholly accept the proposal as is, the Huichol demanded they be included in the drafting of a final decree and issued the following statement: “We are convinced that the Biosphere Reserve decree must be based on human rights recognized by national and international law, and specifically those who recognize the particularities of indigenous populations, because only in this way will it be guaranteed that the collective word of our people and the inhabitants of the area, will be considered in its true dimensions for management decisions in the area" (FDW, 2012).

As of the writing of this paper (April 8, 2021) no further major developments have occurred. Mining is temporarily halted, pending environmental permits.

The results of the proposed silver mining project in Wirikuta/Catorce will have lasting destructive effects on the biocultural diversity of the area. The effects of environmental degradation on the Huichol sacred landscape of Wirikuta will extend far beyond the physical territory and into the very cosmogeny that has sustained the culture for centuries.

Through interacting with and mobilizing resources from a variety of civil societies both nationally and internationally, the Huichol may have achieved a modicum of success at halting the proposed mining project. However, there remains a need for further cooperation with agencies that will help facilitate discourse between indigenous rights, biodiversity conservation, and development in a way that allows for peaceful resolution and is followed through on a local level. This last point is salient in consideration that governance in terms of environmental regulations and environment capabilities is prone to corruption and conflict, which can further exacerbate the process of resolution.

The productive discourse can be guided by and occur within a framework of annual or regularly-held forums/conventions inclusive of the language of indigenous rights, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable development. Integrative participation among organizations such as the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, the UN High-level Political Forum (HLPF)/ UN Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), and the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF) could progress the discourse and lead to new understandings, agreements, and resolutions.


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