• 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.

The Indigenous World 2023: Mexico

According to data from the 2020 Population and Housing Census, produced by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), 23.2 million people aged three years or above self-identify as Indigenous in Mexico, equivalent to 19.4% of the country's total population. This breaks down into 51.4% (11.9 million) women and 48.6% (11.3 million) men. Of the 23.2 million people who self-identify as Indigenous, 7.1 million (30.8%) speak an Indigenous language and 16.1 million (69.2%) do not.

The 2020 Census also records that 6.1% of the country's total population speak one of the country’s 68 native languages (broken down into at least 364 variants). This is equivalent to 7.36 million people, of which 51.4% women (3.78 million), and 48.6% (3.58 million) men. Of these, 6.4 million also spoke Spanish and 866,000 did not, with just four of the country's 32 states (Oaxaca, Chiapas, Yucatán and Guerrero) accounting for 50.5% of the total number of Indigenous language speakers. In addition, the 2020 Census indicates that 11.8 million people live in Indigenous households in Mexico, 5.7 million of them men and 6.1 million women, with an average of 4.1 individuals per household.[1]


The long road to exercising the right to autonomy over water

The Oaxaca Coordinating Body of Peoples United for the Care and Defence of Water (COPUDA) received its water concession titles from the Mexican government in August 2022 in the context of a decree establishing the regulated zone of Aquifer 2025 for the administration and control of the extraction, use or exploitation and conservation of groundwater.[2] This decree is the first legal instrument establishing the communities' rights to self-determination, autonomy, their right to territory and to jointly administer water with the federal authorities. It also regulates legal pluralism by establishing compliance with administrative water laws and international treaties on Indigenous rights, as well as the communities’ own regulatory systems. It further establishes self-determination and autonomy; legal pluralism; interculturality; non-discrimination; consultation and Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC); and respect for and protection of traditional water-related knowledge as guiding principles of the government's relationship with Indigenous communities.

This achievement in respect of Indigenous rights to water as set out in the decree is the result of a more than 15-year-long struggle on the part of the 16 Zapotec Indigenous communities that make up COPUDA. The communities refer thus to the Indigenous movement for the defence of water: “(...) it was born out of the need to seek solutions to the drought, as well as to a series of discriminatory policies implemented by the State, which exacerbated the water shortage situation in 2005. We thus embarked on a legal path in order to overcome the administrative problems deriving from regional restrictions that were limiting access to water for Indigenous and peasant communities.”[3]

As a result of an Indigenous consultation that was ordered by a court judgement, several agreements were reached, such as the right of the communities to participate in the administration of water,[4] the granting of collective water concessions, the application of internal regulations and the harmonization of the powers of the Federal Executive with those of the Indigenous authorities, in addition to coordination between both authorities. The decree sets out the duty of the Federal Executive to register the regulations that communities may draw up in the exercise of their autonomy and self-determination in order to publicize them and ensure compliance on the part of third parties. This duty is still pending fulfilment, as is enjoyment of this right on the part of other Indigenous communities in Mexico.


Water and the Indigenous population

The importance of the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation of indigenous peoples, presented during 2022, should not be under-estimated as it raised the profile of the issue and the contributions of ancestral cultures and proposed viewing water management from a perspective of recognizing the value of the cosmovisions and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples.[5] It clearly includes aspects and problems of great relevance and topicality that need to be resolved. It is worth highlighting the role of women in this regard, which goes beyond “fetching water” given that they contribute to health care and to improving the quality of life of the population by using water resources in their healing therapies: in the hydrotherapy of temazcales [steam baths], for example, and in the use of thermal waters, not to mention the use of water as a symbolic resource.[6]

Water is furthermore a fundamental element in the cosmovision of the Indigenous population. According to data from the Diccionario de la Medicina Tradicional Totonaca de Veracruz [Totonaca Dictionary of Traditional Medicine of Veracruz],[7] produced by the University Programme for the Study of Cultural Diversity and Interculturality of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (PUIC-UNAM) and the Papantla Indigenous Arts Centre in Veracruz in coordination with traditional doctors, it was found that, in the Totonaca cosmovision, natural resources are related to deities that take care of them:

Everything in this world has a soul, everything is alive and always has an owner who takes care of the environment and its order. Water, plants, animals and also air, stones, fire, mountains, earth and everything around humankind has a soul; they all have a spirit and an owner who takes care of them (Martinez, 2012, cited in Zolla, et al, 2022: 305).

The same source speaks of Aktsini, God of Water, who “occupies an important place together with the Sun. Aktsini is said to have power over the water of streams, lakes, springs, wells and the sea. They are also dangerous because they represent the storm or hurricane.” This knowledge coexists in a context in which Indigenous Peoples are continuing to push for a new form of integration into societies, a new social pact in which the political structures of the States recognize their specific cultural features, their inalienable rights as peoples with autonomy and self-determination, and their possessions, all of which make their own development possible as full political subjects. This is because they still suffer a situation of economic and social inequality in the country compared to other sectors of the population, as confirmed by their lack of basic infrastructure, including water and sanitation.

According to the 2015 Intercensal Survey[8] conducted by INEGI, together with data from the National Institute for Indigenous Peoples (INPI), 12.8% of the population do not have piped water in their homes and 26.9% lack drainage, a situation that results in a greater likelihood of health problems. This situation is made even more difficult by the lack of access to water services (a social deprivation suffered by 47% of the Indigenous population) and represents a barrier to addressing any pandemic situation, in which water is fundamental. As UNESCO has pointed out, “Water is of huge importance in the context of the current health crisis”.[9]

The situation remains unresolved since the most recent data from the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Policy (CONEVAL) reported that 67.4% of the Indigenous language-speaking population still suffers al lack of basic housing services. The native peoples of Mexico thus face a number of problems on their territories, including the deterioration of the natural resources (hazards and disasters), political, interethnic and religious conflicts, insufficient educational opportunities (only 4.6% of the population has achieved a professional level, according to ENEGI 2018 data[10] and, in 2020, schooling levels were recorded at an average of 6.7 years for men and 5.8 for women, according to CONEVAL), in addition to low income (46.4% of the population survives on an income below the poverty line, according to CONEVAL, 2020).[11]

These situations are a reflection of the disadvantaged relationship that persists between Indigenous people and the rest of society and the State. This restricts them in the way they are able to face up to current problems such as climate change, which “is already seen as an attack affecting the survival of entire societies” (PUIC, 2022);[12] one of its consequences is the impact that is being felt on water resources. There is therefore a need to build new plural and intercultural models based on equity, developed in dialogue with social organizations, government and intergovernmental agencies and universities but, above all, with the local Indigenous population.


UN experts point out negative impacts of Train Maya project

Following a letter from the UN human rights rapporteurs to the Mexican government on the Train Maya project on 21 September 2020, several UN experts repeated their concerns in a press release issued on 7 December 2022. In this communiqué, they state that the government's megaproject, known as the Train Maya, which envisages laying 1,500 km of railway line on the Yucatán peninsula, was endangering “the rights of indigenous peoples and other communities to land and natural resources, cultural rights and the right to a healthy and sustainable environment”.[13]

Various protests and strategies have been organized by civil society organizations against this megaproject, including legal injunctions granted by the courts due to the lack of environmental impact studies, to mention just one violation of State and federal laws. To get round this situation, the federal government therefore declared the project a “priority for national security”, meaning that it was able to omit several environmental and social safeguards. The rapporteurs themselves emphasized that the Mexican State could not circumvent international agreements and treaties governing respect for human rights and environmental protection. In turn, Fernanda Hopenhaym, chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, stated, “That decision not only has the potential to allow human rights abuses to remain unaddressed but also to undermine the project's purpose of bringing inclusive and sustainable social and economic development to the five Mexican states involved.”[14]

Another aspect of concern to the rapporteurs is the participation of the Mexican army in the project’s management and construction, as well as the increased number of threats and attacks on human rights defenders and respect for the FPIC of the region’s Indigenous Peoples. This last aspect is set against the clear backdrop of the points made by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico (OCHCR-Mexico) to the Mexican government, between 15 November and 15 December 2019, regarding the Indigenous consultation process on the “Train Maya Development Project”, noting that “it has so far not complied with all international standards on the matter”.[15]

The signatories of the December 2022 press release are: the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights; Francisco Cali Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples; Saad Alfarargi, Special Rapporteur on the right to development; Alexandra Xanthaki, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, among others.


Endnote: As this article went to press, the University Programme for the Study of Cultural Diversity and Interculturality of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (PUIC-UNAM) published the work Atlas II: Impactos de los Megaproyectos en Territorios Indios y Negros de América Latina [Atlas II: Impacts of Megaprojects on Indigenous and Black Territories in Latin America.] The work, coordinated by Nemesio J. Rodríguez, analyses a number of aspects of the impacts of megaprojects on land, territories, health and nutrition, as well as modern slave labour and the popular organizations and movements that question and defend themselves from these projects.[16]



Carolina Sánchez García, Director of PUIC-UNAM; Juan Mario Pérez Martínez, Technical Secretary of PUIC-UNAM; Rocío Becerra Montané, Teaching Coordinator of PUIC-UNAM and José del Val, Coordinator of PUIC-UNAM Advisors.


This article is part of the 37th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2023 in full here.



Notes and references

[1] INEGI Press Release No. 430/22. Estadísticas a propósito del Día Internacional de los Pueblos Indígenas. INEGI, 8 August 2022. Available at: https://www.inegi.org.mx/contenidos/saladeprensa/aproposito/2022/EAP_PueblosInd22.pdf

[2] Decree establishing the regulated zone of the Valles Centrales Aquifer 2025 in the State of Oaxaca. Available at: https://www.dof.gob.mx/nota_detalle.php?codigo=5636230&date=24/11/2021#gsc.tab=0

[3] Press Release. “Simulación de la Conagua: 16 comunidades Zapotecas de Oaxaca exigimos cumplimiento de acuerdos firmados en proceso de consulta indígena garantizando nuestro derecho al agua”. Flor y canto, 10 August 2020. Available at: http://cdiflorycanto.org/web/2020/08/12/comunidades-zapotecas-exigen-cumplimiento-de-acuerdos-a-conagua/

[4] Minutes of Agreements Corresponding to the Closing of the Fourth Stage of the Free and Informed Consultation Process to Amend the Decree on Restrictions in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. 12 October 2019. Available at: http://cdiflorycanto.org/web/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/ACTA-CONSULTIVA-12OCT20192.pdf

[5] Pedro Arrojo Agudo. Human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation of indigenous peoples: state of affairs and lessons from ancestral cultures. UNO, 27 June 2022. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/thematic-reports/ahrc5124-human-rights-safe-drinking-water-and-sanitation-indigenous.

[6] Zolla, C., Sánchez, C., García, H., Bautista, L. and García, J. (Coords.). Diccionario de la medicina tradicional totonaca de Veracruz. Mexico: PUIC-UNAM and CAI, 2022.

[7] Ibidem.

[8] INEGI. Encuesta Intercensal 2015. INEGI, 2016. Available at: https://www.inegi.org.mx/programas/intercensal/2015/

[9] UNESCO. Pueblos indígenas y COVID-19: una mirada desde México. UNESCO, 4 August 2020. Available at: https://es.unesco.org/news/pueblos-indigenas-y-covid-19-mirada-mexico

[10] INEGI. Encuesta Nacional de Ingresos y Gastos de los Hogares. INEGI, 2018. Available at: https://www.inegi.org.mx/programas/enigh/nc/2018/

[11] CONEVAL. Informe de la pobreza multidimensional en México, 2020. Metodología actualizada 2018-2020. CONEVAL, 2020. Available at: https://www.coneval.org.mx/InformesPublicaciones/Paginas/Mosaicos/Informe_de_pobreza_2020.aspx

[12] PUIC. (2022). Plan de Desarrollo Institucional, UNAM.

[13] United Nations. Mexico: Government and business must address negative impacts of Train Maya project, say UN experts 7 December 2022. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/12/mexico-government-and-business-must-address-negative-impacts-train-maya

[14] Ibidem.

[15] UN-HR. “ONU-DH: el proceso de consulta indígena sobre el Tren Maya no ha cumplido con todos los estándares internacionales de derechos humanos en la materia”. UN-DH, 19 December 2019. Available at: https://hchr.org.mx/comunicados/onu-dh-el-proceso-de-consulta-indigena-sobre-el-tren-maya-no-ha-cumplido-con-todos-los-estandares-internacionales-de-derechos-humanos-en-la-materia/

[16] Rodríguez, Nemesio J. Programa Universitario de Estudios de la Diversidad Cultural y la Interculturalidad UNAM. “Atlas II: Impactos de los Megaproyectos en Territorios Indios y Negros de América Latina”. 28 February 2023. Available at: https://www.imezinal.unam.mx/

Tags: Global governance



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