• Indigenous peoples in Mexico

    Indigenous peoples in Mexico

    There are 16,933,283 indigenous persons in Mexico, representing 15.1 per cent of the total Mexicans. Mexico has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and is a declared pluricultural nation since 1992. Yet, the country’s indigenous population are still facing a number of challenges.

Indigenous World 2020: Mexico

There are 68 different Indigenous Peoples that inhabit Mexican territory, each of which speaks a native language of their own. These languages form 11 linguistic families, comprised by 364 dialectal variants. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), 25.7 million persons, that is 21.5% of the population, self-identify as Indigenous. 12 million inhabitants (10.1% of the population) indicate that they live in Indigenous households. In addition, 6.5% of Mexico’s population is registered as speakers of an Indigenous language, representing 7.4 million persons.1

Indigenous communities continue to  be the most vulnerable in terms of the inequality they endure. Indeed, according to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), 69.5% of the Indigenous population, that is, 8.4 million persons, are living in poverty, and 27.9%, that is, 3.4 million persons, live in extreme poverty.2 In addition, 43% of speakers of an Indigenous language have not completed primary school, and 55.2% work in manual, low-skilled labor jobs.3 Mexico signed ILO Convention 169 in 1990, and in 1992 the country recognised that it is a pluricultural nation by amending Article 2 of its Constitution.

On 1 January 2019, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) observed the 25th anniversary of the start of its uprising and expressed its opposition to the infrastructure projects scheduled by the federal administration, such as the Mayan Train or the Trans-isthmus Corridor.4


Indigenous women in migration: from the domestic setting to the labour market

The presence of Indigenous women in current migrations is increasingly notable. As occurs with the rest of the migrant population, Indigenous migrant women come from the most marginalised zones – mainly the country’s southeast and central regions. They are migrating into areas of greater economic development: certain cities, areas with agrobusiness development, tourist zones in several parts of the country, the northern and southern border regions, and even international destinations, particularly in the United States and Canada. The 2010 Population and Housing Census recorded that, out of 174,770 Indigenous-language speakers migrating between Mexican states, 82,416 are women, that is, 47% of the total. In the case of those migrating internationally (37,117), women account for 6,858 persons, representing 18% of the total. These are approximate figures, considering the undercounting of the Indigenous population due to denial of ethnicity and, in some cases, loss of one’s maternal language, which is the criterion used by INEGI to identify the Indigenous population. This phenomenon is accompanied by discrimination against Indigenous Peoples, as has been documented in studies on the issue: “In the places of destination there is a strong tendency to discriminate against Indigenous migrants.” Women are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, due to being triply discriminated: as migrants, as women and as Indigenous persons.

According to INEGI, 20 states in Mexico recorded the greatest migratory flow of Indigenous women. This trend can also vary depending upon the ethnic group. For example, in 2006 an increase was recorded in the migration of women and complete families, displaced from their state or from the country, although migration of the male population is indicated as greater. Nonetheless, the presence of Indigenous women’s migration was not suitably reflected in state-by-state data, due to undercounting. INEGI does not even quantify Indigenous women by ethnic group and thus further limits the measuring of this phenomenon. On said account, qualitative information needs to be considered, even if from prior years, in order to reconstruct migration history. According to ethnography studies conducted in the country’s Indigenous zones by several different researchers, women who participate in migration are Mazahuas, Mixtecas, Pimas, Tepehuas, Pames, Otomíes, Nahuas, Amuzgas from Guerrero, Popolocas, Tojolabales, Zapotecas, Triquis, Yaquis and Coras. That phenomenon went unnoticed as a general trend for the Indigenous population, even though it was recorded in those studies.

There are multiple causes of Indigenous migration. Structural factors are nonetheless the principal causes for the continuing presence of the phenomenon. Indigenous women also have the highest illiteracy rates, highest school dropout rate, fewest job opportunities, highest rates of suffering domestic violence, health problems and risks during pregnancy, and high levels of fecundity and mortality, among other factors. Working as domestic servants or in the informal economy – restaurants, maquila assembly plants or even begging5 – are some options through which Indigenous women obtain income in the cities. Work in agricultural zones is another option to which they resort.

Megaprojects, consultation, Indigenous and AfroMexican Peoples

Mexico recognises itself as a pluri-diverse country, with enormous contrasts, especially in economic terms. Yet this fails to be reflected in the Federal Government’s strategy for combatting corruption, initiated with a transformation of programmes for the socially disadvantaged population. As noted in the 2019-2024 National Development Plan, these programmes have included measures, such as economic supplements distributed to individuals, without considering the cultural perspective or worldview of Indigenous Peoples. Such an approach ignores the organisation and solidarity practices of Indigenous Peoples derived from their internal governance systems. Thus, it undermines the community structure of Indigenous Peoples and weakens their social fabric.

The national development vision has also been imposed in Indigenous territories through infrastructure megaprojects without considering the participation, needs and aspirations of Indigenous Peoples, thus jeopardising both the survival of Indigenous Peoples as collective entities and that of their territory, as was indicated by the UN representative.6 For example, the current federal administration considers the Mayan Train to be the most important project for infrastructure, socioeconomic and tourist development. The project covers a 1,525-kilometer route through the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo, with 15 stations, and an approximate investment  of 120 to 150 billion Mexican pesos.7 Certain Indigenous communities, however, consider the project to be an imposition, and have reacted to it by filing constitutional relief actions in the Federal Courts. Such is the case of Xpujil, Calakmul, in Campeche, which won a provisional suspension of the project. The grounds for their court action include failure to be informed of the technical studies and of the Environmental Impact Statement; and that the consultation was spurious, fraudulent and in violation of international human rights standards. Yet the greatest opposition to the megaprojects is represented by the EZLN, whose members have stated they are willing to die as protectors of the earth before permitting those projects to go ahead.8

The procedures outlined by the General Act on Ecological Equilibrium and Protection of the Environment make it difficult to guard against adverse environmental impacts, because that law requires the communities to request the consultations once there is an Environmental Impact Statement and not before the project is designed.9 The Indigenous Peoples’ right to consultation is based on Article 2 of the Constitution and Article 6 of ILO Convention 169, and must be free, prior and informed consultation (FPIC). That right also forms a part of Indigenous Peoples’ right to autonomy, self-determination and development. The Supreme Court of Justice of Mexico, however, has turned this right into a mere administrative procedure, restricting the content of case law from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights by finding that there must be a significant impact10 in order for a consultation to take place; and maintaining that a consultation shall be considered prior if conducted before the project is executed.11

In this context, the Federal Constitution was reformed to include Afro-Mexican peoples and communities in Article 2(C) of the Constitution, without expressly indicating their rights. This makes their inclusion obligatory in the upcoming 2020 National Population and Housing Census, which, for the first time, contains the question: “Do you, by reason of your ancestry, traditions, customs, consider yourself to be Afro-Mexican, black or of African descent?”12

This year the Senate ratified two international instruments: the Inter-American Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance, and the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Related Forms of Intolerance. Nonetheless, Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Mexicans have been exclusively recognised as cultural subjects and not as entities with legal personality under public law within the legal system, which prevents them from exercising such legal personality to defend their collective rights and their assets.

Murders of Indigenous activist rights and environment defenders

According to several international organisations, such as Global Witness and Amnesty International, Mexico remained one of the most dangerous countries in 2019 for activists who defend the environment and human rights. These activists have faced harassment, threats, repression and attacks against their lives. In 2019, at least 14 activists and defenders of the environment belonging to several different Indigenous Peoples were murdered, some of whom had already reported to the authorities that they had been threatened. These crimes, in their majority, were committed in the states of Chiapas, Chihuahua, Morelos, Oaxaca, Puebla, Tabasco and Veracruz, in the context of territorial conflicts, opposition and resistance to megaprojects involving infrastructure, extractive industries and energy production.

One of the most representative cases of violence and impunity with which Indigenous Peoples are faced is the murder of Nahua peasant activist Samir Flores Soberanes, who was a communicator and member of the Peoples’ Front in Defense of the Earth and Water of Morelos, Puebla and Tlaxcala. Flores Soberanes was opposed to the Morelos Integral Project and the two Thermoelectric Powerplants in Huexca, as well as to the Apatlaco River aqueduct and gas pipeline. In the early morning hours of 20 February 2019 he was killed while leaving his home in Amilcingo, Morelos, while heading towards the Amiltzinko community radio station, which he founded in 2013.13 The case was especially relevant, since only two days later the public consultation was held for the thermoelectric plant to go into operation. According to official data, 59.5% of the population voted in favor of the project, with 55,715 citizens participating in the consultation.

25 years of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN)

The first of January 2019 marked the 25th anniversary of the EZLN uprising, which took place in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. The EZLN continues to be an intense opponent to the Mexican State. Indeed, even though it has been a quarter of a century since they declared war, their demands have not been resolved. In the framework of this anniversary, Subcomandante Moisés, spokesperson of the EZLN, expressed his opposition to the current federal government’s economic and infrastructure projects.

In an environment of constant conflict between the Federal Executive Branch and the EZLN, several activities took place over the course of the year. For reasons of space, we will describe just two of them. On 21-22 December 2019, in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the EZLN, in conjunction with the National Indigenous Congress and the Indigenous Council of Government, held the Forum in Defense of Territory and Mother Earth, attended by 921 participants and representatives from 25 states of the Mexican Republic and 24 countries. The principal discussion revolved around the various megaprojects, such as hydrocarbon extraction and construction of gas pipelines; hydroelectric, thermoelectric and wind power plants; and mining, agroindustry and tourism projects; which adversely affect the Indigenous communities by plundering and polluting their territories. At the forum’s conclusion, it was agreed to hold the “We are All Samir” Days of Action in Defense of Territory and Mother Earth, scheduled for February 2020. Subsequent to the forum, the EZLN, from 27-29 December, held the Second International Gathering of Women Who Struggle, with the purpose of reflecting upon, highlighting and denouncing violence against women, as well as developing strategies for putting an end to the violence. The gathering took place at the “Following the Footprints of Comandanta Ramona Center of the Caracol (“Good Government Council”) of Tzots Choj (“Whilwind” in the Maya language)”, in which more than 4,000 women from 49 countries participated. During the three days, activities took place that enabled the women to share their experiences and establish ties of mutual support to combat gender-based violence. One of its principal functions was to create support and discussion networks among women from different places who are defenders of territory.14 We invite readers to visit the Radio Zapatista website to learn more about these activities: radiozapatista.org


José del Val, Director of the University Program for Studies of Cultural Diversity and Interculturality (PUIC-UNAM); Juan Mario Pérez Martínez, Technical Secretary of PUIC-UNAM; Carolina Sánchez García, Academic Secretariat of PUIC-UNAM; Elia Avendaño Villafuerte, Indigenous Peoples and Blacks Rights Area of PUIC-UNAM.


This article is part of the 34th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is from the Peruvian Amazon inside the Wampis territory, taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2020 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here

Notes and references

  1. “Numeralia indígena 2015,” in Indicadores Socioeconómicos de los Pueblos Indígenas de México, 2015,” CDI, Mexico City, 2015, available at: https:// gob.mx/inpi/articulos/indicadores-socioeconomicos-de-los-pueblos- indigenas-de-mexico-2015-116128
  2. “Medición de pobreza 2018. Población según pertenencia étnica,” CONEVAL, Mexico City, 2018, available at: https://www.coneval.org.mx/Evaluacion/ PublishingImages/Pobreza_2018/POBLACION_PERTENENCIA_ETINICA.jpg
  3. “Por mi raza hablará la desigualdad. Efectos de las características étnicoraciales en la desigualdad de oportunidades en México,” Oxfam, 2018, available at: https://www.oxfammexico.org/sites/default/files/Por%20mi%20raza%20 hablara%20la%20desigualdad_0.pdf
  4. “El EZLN advierte que se opondrá al Tren Maya y a la Guardia Nacional,” in Animal Político, 1 January 2019, available at: https://www.animalpolitico. com/2019/01/ezln-amlo-tren-maya-guardia/
  5. Páez Cárdenas, Juan, 2000, “Indígenas Tijuanenses,” in Diario el Mexicano,Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, July 22.
  6. “Conversatorio hacia una agenda legislativa garante de los derechos a la libre determinación, al territorio y a los modelos propios de desarrollo de los pueblos indígenas y afrodescendientes,” ONU-DH, Mexico City, 24 April 2019, available at: https://www.hchr.org.mx
  7. “Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2019-2024” [2019-2024 National Development Plan]. Department of the Interior, Mexico City, 12 July 2019, available at: https:// dof.gob.mx/nota_detalle.php?codigo=5565599&fecha=12/07/2019
  8. “Palabras del CCRI-CG del EZLN en el 26 Aniversario,” in Enlace Zapatista, 31 December 2019, available at: http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2019/12/31/ palabras-del-ccri-cg-del-ezln-en-el-26-aniversario/
  9. “Poder. La participación de las comunidades ante megaproyectos, en la agenda de la SCJN,” in RED TDT, 28 January 2020, available at: https://redtdt.org. mx/?p=14969
  10. In “Gaceta del Semanario Judicial de la Federación,” [Federal Weekly Judicial Gazette] Book 31, Volume II, Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation, Mexico City, June 2016, p. 1213, available at: https://scjn.gob.mx/sites/default/ files/gaceta/documentos/tomos/2016-12/libro31t2.pdf
  11. In “Constitutional Relief Action on Review 601/2018,” Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation, Mexico City, 70-71, available at: https://www.scjn.gob.mx/sites/ default/files/listas/documento_dos/2018-11/AR-601-2018-181112.pdf
  12. Paz Gómez, Leonor, position paper, INEGI, Mexico City, 26 November See https://www.inegi.org.mx/
  13. Muñoz Ramírez, Gloria, “¿Quién era Samir Flores, el defensor nahua de Amilcingo, opositor a la termoeléctrica de Morelos asesinado hoy? Aquí su perfil,” in Desinformémonos, 20 February 2019, available at: https://org/quien-era-samir-flores-el-defensor-nahua-de-amilcingo-opositor-a-la-termoelectrica-de-morelos-asesinado-hoy-aqui-su- perfil/
  14. Segundo Encuentro de Mujeres que Luchan del EZLN recibió alrededor de 4,000 mujeres de distintos países,” in Infobae, 28 December 2019, available at: https://www.infobae.com/america/mexico/2019/12/28/segundo-encuentro- de-mujeres-que-luchan-del-ezln-recibio-al-rededor-de-4000-mujeres-de- distintos-paises/ 

Tags: Land rights, Women, Business and Human Rights , Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders



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