Young boys and elders head to the Mezcala hills to talk about the importance of their heritage and resisting displacement. Photograph: Duncan Tucker for the Guardian
Machetes in hand, the indigenous Cocas are climbing the steep scrubby hills that overlook their territory. Young boys climb alongside elders while a trusty donkey carries their camping equipment. Other groups man outposts beside the entrances to Mezcala, the lakeside town their forefathers founded in the late 13th century, over 200 years before the Spanish arrived in Mexico.
They’re heading out on a unique voyage - bringing the community together to discuss their tactics against displacement. The men and boys will spend the night huddled around ceremonial bonfires, telling stories about their heritage, before descending upon the sacred Isle of Mezcala the next morning to discuss with a larger group how to defend their land and way of life. Based in the western state of Jalisco, the Cocas go back more than 700 years and have had to fight off waves of invaders over the centuries.
The latest threat to their land? A wave of American retirees heading south - pretty ironic, given President Donald Trump’s demonisation of Mexican immigrants. Thousands of American and Canadian retirees have settled in the neighbouring towns on Chapala and Ajijic in recent decades to take advantage of the cheap living costs, year-round sunshine and stunning views of Mexico’s biggest lake.
“We’ve always had invasions by people who want to take control of our land,” says Manuel Jacobo, a 30-year-old Coca activist Photograph: Duncan Tucker for the Guardian
Now known as the “Chapala Riviera”, the area is brimming with boutique hotels and gated communities. Foreigners are driving the growth, having spent more than twice as much as locals on housing and tourism in 2015. An estimated 7,000 expats live there all year round, with up to 10,000 “snowbirds” joining them each winter. Expat community leaders say their population could double within five years.
Property developers have long coveted nearby Mezcala, the home of 5,000 Coca people. With poorly paved roads and crumbling houses, it is noticeably less developed than Chapala and Ajijic. But after witnessing what happened to the original residents of those towns, the Cocas have reason to fear outsider-led development.
Santiago Bastos, an anthropologist who has spent eight years studying Mezcala, notes that (pdf) the arrival of foreign retirees and wealthy Mexicans from nearby Guadalajara saw indigenous residents ousted, often illegally, from prime plots of land, while prices shot up, making the lakeside area unaffordable for many locals.
Senior citizens have flocked to Ajijic, attracted by great weather, cheap real estate and the quaint cobblestone streets of the town. Photograph: MCT/MCT via Getty Images
“We’ve always had invasions by people who want to take control of our land,” says Manuel Jacobo, a 30-year-old activist with a punk-inspired appearance. “We inherited it from our forefathers who fought and gave their lives for it. Our grandfathers used to tell us the myths and legends. We don’t want future generations to lose [the land].”
“We’re not against progress,” adds Vicente Paredes, a Coca spokesperson. “But if there’s urbanisation then let it be carried out by our community, not outsiders. We’ve seen the problems that happened in Chapala and Ajijic, where the original inhabitants have been forced to move into the hills and live as third-class citizens.”
There have already been some unwelcome attempts to develop Mezcala’s 3,602 hectares (8,900 acres) of communal land, which were not only formally recognised as belonging to the Coca people under a 1971 presidential decree but also in viceregal deeds dating back to 1539.
Since 1999, the Cocas have been locked in a series of legal disputes, still unresolved, with Guillermo Moreno Ibarra, a wealthy local businessman who built a hillside mansion on 10 hectares (25 acres) of their land. The townspeople claim Moreno seized the land illegally, diverted a local stream, sent armed men to intimidate them, and falsely accused several locals of property damage.
Moreno, whose family owns a mining firm and has shares in exclusive housing developments along the Riviera, denies the accusations. His lawyer, José Soto, says he built the property in partnership with a local resident in a sustainable manner that “doesn’t affect the community in any way”. The locals are upset, Soto says, because “they’ve never wanted socioeconomic development”.
This is not true, the Cocas say. They want to see investment in health, education and communications infrastructure. Mezcala has “an infinite number of needs,” Paredes affirms, describing how they’d like funding for programmes to combat poverty and marginalisation. Mezcala residents have also had to begin patrolling their territory to defend their forests and water from illegal logging or pollution.
The town of Mezcala is home to 5,000 Coca people. Photograph: Duncan Tucker for the Guardian
They need government support on these issues, though, and that remains lacking. The Cocas, according to their state government, don’t meet the criteria for “indigenous people” as they have no traditional dress or dialect. And without this formal recognition, Mezcala’s residents are ineligible for additional funding that could give them greater control of their destiny.
“They’ve been trying to gain recognition from the state for some time in order to gain access to the funds assigned to indigenous communities,” notes Fela Pelayo, the head of Jalisco’s congressional committee for indigenous affairs.
But even formally recognised indigenous groups have little control over the administration of public funds in their communities, as local governments rarely consult them before deciding what the money is spent on. As a result of “structural, systematic and historic discrimination”, the National Council Against Discrimination found that Mexico’s 15.7 million indigenous people have substandard access to health and education and suffer “unjustifiable levels of poverty and marginalisation”.
The Mexican government is trying to make changes. The current administration says it has invested a record 21.5bn pesos (£917m) in infrastructure for indigenous peoples, issued 8,000 birth certificates to unregistered indigenous children, and provided legal support for 4,100 indigenous people who were found to have been wrongly imprisoned.
There is still a way to go though. Last August, Pelayo proposed changes to state law to give Jalisco’s indigenous groups greater control over the use of public funds for development projects in their communities - but it was blocked in February.
The Cocas may not have a traditional dress or dialect, but they are determined to protect their way of life. Photograph: Duncan Tucker for the Guardian
Local indigenous leaders were bitterly disappointed. “It bothers me that many politicians complain that Mexico is being discriminated against by Donald Trump when they’re the ones discriminating against us in our own country,” says Alfredo Carrillo Salvador, a spokesman for a local Wikárika community.
Jacobo, the Coca activist, also feels his community’s potential goes unrecognised by authorities who would rather their land be developed for the benefit of wealthier Mexicans and American and Canadian immigrants. “We’re not stupid, we have the knowledge and organisation to develop our community,” he says, describing how the challenges the community faces partly spurred the organisation of recent talks about how to protect their way of life.
“We want progress but we want to own that progress. We don’t want to be sweeping up the crumbs of others because this land is ours.”
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