Interview with members of the indigenous Cherán K’eri community in Mexico, whose struggle against central government and illegal logging has seen the development of libertarian organising, with direct democracy, equal participation of women, and autonomous patrols of both the community and neighbouring forests, all striking fear into the heart of the Mexican government.
Ruptura Colectiva (RC)
At the beginning of 2016, the community of Cherán K’eri planned two events. First was the traditional Resurrection Festival that would take place during three continuous days. The festival would include the participation of bands made up of wind instruments and drums, as well as the participation of symphony ensembles from everywhere in the state of Michoacán. The other event was the fifth anniversary of the uprising of April 15th, 2011, a courageous act that would become an experiment with a unique model of community organization.
In the activities in preparation for the festivities, members of the Communal Goods Council and others that constantly work toward the improvement of the community received a solidarity caravan of students and different social organizations in the house of the Council. This opened the space for a conversation regarding the history of this emancipatory struggle, the synthesis between the p’ur’hépecha world view and the libertarian spirit that is now written into their uses and customs, the equal participation of women in the different councils and administrative projects, the use of direct and rotating democracy in communal elections every three years, the labor of the community patrol and the forest guards as organs of autonomous security in defense of territory and nature, as well as different ethnic-political relations that have converted Cherán K’eri into a living example that gives fear to the minds of the government of Mexico—and all of its political parties.
These are the results of a very productive interview-exchange.
(By means of introduction): There have been many things of which we have had to fight, but never realized that this would come out nearly perfect… imagine when you organize, when one says, “Well lets do this, lets do that”, not always do things come out as planned. However, the situation arose from nothing. For that, we thank all those that have supported us.
How are the laws in the community of Cherán K'eri governed? Are they governed by the Mexican Constitution?
F: We have our own rules so that we are secure.
Sebastián: Well yes, effectively we do not know how to leave behind all of the laws that we have in this country. But equally—like was already said—we are governed by our own uses and customs, and we legally have our own laws. If someone is caught carrying out illegal logging, the municipality and the councils operate in a manner according to the laws of the community.
Here the Council of HJ (Honor and Justice) is that which makes judicial decisions. Equally, the Major Council does the work of more or less a municipal president determining the appropriate sanctions. What has come to be the Communal Goods Council derived from what before was the Communal Goods Representative.
F: Before we were organized in a structure of self-government, there was our "uses and customs". These are traditional forms of organizing justice that apply punishment to the people if they are caught carrying out a robbery or whatever type of mischief. They were exposed in the public plaza, they displayed signs depending on what they were caught doing. If they were caught carrying out a robbery, a sign would read, “I LIKE TO STEAL”. Well, with their huge signs! What shame they were shown for carrying out this type of behavior in the community!
All of the people of our municipality have their duty: all are part of our security. There are no longer people facing this sort of punishment. Now whenever you are seen doing something wrong, you are denounced: “This person was acting badly”, “This person was doing this”, etc.
The uprising in the community responded directly to the illegal logging of the forests, therefore, it was necessary to reforest them. How did the idea arise of a nursery and forest-related businesses that increase economic production and care of the environment?
F: It is practically already a “giant nursery”. There was the necessity. What we wanted most was to conserve our natural resources. In it’s time, it couldn’t be done because we were against the whole world (referring to the process of rebellion in 2011 and forward). The government does not respond to what we ask. It is a lie that the merchants denounce a fire or clandestine logging. We got tired of that, but it wasn’t until they were finishing off our forests, that we began to struggle with our own hands.
We did not care if it was my death, or if it was the death of another compañero. There were many fallen in that moment. However, we had to see in which manner we could restore our forests. From there, we began to analyze how we would organize ourselves. Before the Communal Goods Council, a group was formed we called PIDEF. To us, it seems we are in the third autonomous government. Little by little we began with the plantation. In the beginning there were 100,000 plants, now we have around 1,500,000 plants.
We have been collecting seeds from the few remaining forests to be used in the “nursery”. Compost is obtained from the sawmill, the rind is being crushed to be used as a good substrate, or fertilizer for the plants.
First we wanted to plant and cover areas with sufficient pine trees to restore the forests and then ask ourselves: "what is good for us and what isn’t?". This is work that is being carried out little by little.
What type of support have you had on part of NGO’s, forest engineers and different associations in terms of the care and preservation of the territory?
We have had a lot of support. The people of the community have made it clear that they like to work. That is what is important for some of the organizations that are focused on nature. Those that help us do not only believe in us, but we have shown results. Our compañero Roberto has been participating in many works of reforestation, he has a lot of information in that regard.
Roberto: The government has shown support from he beginning. In December 2015, a Chinese academic organization gave us a prize for our insurrection and for our care for nature. Yes, we have received various rewards for our care of our forests and territory. We accept the support of these organizations because they care about the environment, not only in our territory, but also throughout the majority of the world. In these times of climate change, the devastation of a forest is something that is very complex. If we continue forward, we will create a better world.
F: There is an agreement with CONAFOR—National Forest Commission—of 853,000 plants. We do the production and a certain amount of plants are destined for our community. They have aspirations in other communities with sharing plants, principally in the rainy seasons.
Roberto: The forest organization (...) they are participants in this project. Part of the nursery is sold to them and they distribute the trees in all parts of the country. We have a lot of influence on a national level through the nursery.
What is the role and importance of the political/ organizational aspects of women in Cherán K’eri and its different projects?
F: In the Major Council, which is like if there was a "presidential" organ, we have three active women. In the Communal Goods Council there are also three women. Their role is the same that is given to us men. They go to the mountain with us, carrying out security and supervision of the work there. One is the treasurer of the nursery; the other two women are involved with questions of Communal Affairs (one as president and the other as secretary). They have been involved in all of the activities.
There is a Council of Women, which works to increase opportunities for women. Why is this important? When the uprising took place, it was thanks to the influence and action of women. We were there to back them up.
They say, “Do not make a women angry because when she is angry” (…). We try to ensure equality and respect towards women.
After the removal of the political parties in 2011, then began the use of direct democracy as a tool of struggle and organization. How was this process developed and organized amongst the people, and what do you think of the rotation of communal roles?
F: There is a coordinator of each one of the barricades/bonfires in our community. Each one of these zones discusses in which manner they want to organize, of whom to elect. For these positions an invitation is released regarding what is to be done and what position is to be occupied. It is done like that, in that manner. Like now, we are in an assembly and we say “Let’s see, it’s your turn” or “There is so-and-so, or such and such a person”. Afterwards, we move forward, we raise them to the seats, we form ourselves, and whoever has the most votes is who wins. We all think that consensus is a commitment with our community to carry out the things in the best way possible, to avoid the potholes that the previous compañeros fell into, to fix them. What we do poorly, the compañeros that come afterwards try to solve. It is a constant political follow-up.
We think that in our assemblies, at least at some time, all of us will have the opportunity to hold a position. “You don’t criticize. When you are in the position you do it in a better way”. This type of government gives you the possibility of holding a position, not because you are better, but because that is how we think: we are all equal. With or without the profession, whether women or man, all of us can participate, we all have the capability, not because we have studies or we have a career. Here the people want to work and help improve the community, obviously not 100% can because that is very complicated. However, we try to make it happen.
J: What you are saying is important. Cherán is the heart of the P’ur’hépechas. Our grandparents gave us their knowledge and values. Why? Because here we respect women and children, and we do not lack respect for our elders. In the city, all of this is very distant. It doesn’t exist.
When there is an aggression toward another person, it is dealt with in a manner so as to not exacerbate the problem. Here we favor love between the people, amongst the community. When one leaves the community and they identify themselves as someone from the community, I don’t know how or in what sense, but there is an energy that says, “Ah so-and-so is from Cherán!”, and they pass you a feeling from the attraction of the P’ur’hépecha blood.
Our ancestors have taken care of the forest for 800-900 years, so that a person would come and continue the care. That is love that the compañero mentions.
F: The feelings are most rooted in the things that we have, things that our grandparents gave us as inheritance, that part is very sacred. It does not have the value of all of the work that they carried out, when one day you don’t have it.
J: Cherán always has resisted. Historically they have tried to conquer Cherán and they couldn’t. When the Spanish arrived, they only conquered the community for ten years. The root is from below. From that root Cherán has risen, and it has allowed us to no longer be dependent on the government.
F: Cherán has been the heart of the plateau and is those who have always risen up in arms. Besides the uprising of April 15th, 2011, we have already had others, like against the bandit Inés Chávez who committed much barbarism. In those times, not only was Cherán saved, but also was the neighboring communities.
Cherán K´eri signifies “big”, “Big Cherán”, therefore the people have said: “we want to be like Cherán”. We do not admit people from the outside. We do not sell our land to those from outside. We all know each other. Whatever one is doing we say, “Well, he is from that family, tell his family!”. This is the part of the communication and organization that makes things easier for us.
In the city, who knows each other? An example: when I was studying in the University of Morelia we were robbed. They stole from our house. We went and we denounced the actions, and in the questions that were asked of us: “And who was it?, “How did it happen?”. And we said if we knew we would have already searched for them. These things are examples of the lack of communication.
In various resistance movements across the world, people have come to see Cherán K’eri as a referent of autonomous organization. What message would you give to the compañeros of the world?
This is quite delicate. Sincerely, if this does not function or something happens… seeing that the community police—self-defense groups—when they existed they were leaving the hands not only of the indigenous peoples, but in various regions of Michoacán.
We have a clear posture: try to be more “intelligent” than “the intelligent”, the government is very clever, “play at your own risk”.
Roberto: It is very important to touch on those themes. We have had relations with the communities that also are experiencing dispossession of their territory by the large transnational corporations, who want to appropriate their minerals, waters, rivers, create new hydroelectric dams. Where we have been involved, we have always said, “let’s unite together”, some of them have said to us, “LET'S CHERANIZE MÉXICO!”. It is possible, but it is delicate like the compañero said because we don’t have all the answers. For example, “how are we going to do things?”. We say to the rest of the communities that they have our support and that it is possible to generate a radical change regarding the current government, toward a type of government that benefits us all.
They feel the same because we know it is possible for our Mexico. In other countries they are wanting to retake this part, and seeing us as en example we want to say, “Not one step back!”. We will go to where we have to go.
We didn’t have an idea of where we were when we started the uprising. The only thing we wanted was to rescue our people. However, the organization that we had previously gave us the blueprints. We say to them that they can. We can organize ourselves as communities, as students, until we can create a better social economy.
J: What allowed us to grow was the organization; that was fundamental. Wherever it is, a group reaches what a person cant because he has a limit, a group carries out many things and is the part that made it worth it for us: to be together and to not separate.
The community patrol was converted into an organ of autonomous security when the municipal police were expelled. How is it organized and what are its principal ethics?
F: The Community Round (RC) is directly linked to the Major Council. We have knowledge of how the security work is done. Its elements are native to the community. There aren’t people from outside the community. They are people that have good—or more or less good—behavior. They have their training programs where they go, they try to learn defense—like how to act in dangerous situations. The community patrol is drug free and has its own rule. For example, the people that are not acting well are asked to take a rest or let go.
Roberto: In order to arrive to the model of security that we have now, we built from the foundations of our ancestors. They saw the importance of security more than punishment, the act of care. When they saw people late at night, they said to them: “we can accompany you to your house so that nothing bad happens”.
The election of the RC—because we were organized by neighborhoods—selected five people from each neighborhood, that are good people, who don’t have any vices and that obviously have respect. With that case, the RC was created.
One of the principle values of wanting to belong to the RC—or to whichever of our councils—is to serve, far from seeking an incentive or seeing it as an investment, the principle objective is to serve the community. This is how the participants are chosen and how it is formed.
In fact, it was attempted in other communities, but the idea failed because they were like projects of the state. They lacked a clear vision of what was wanted, like the vision we have to serve the people themselves.
J: The forest guards are something that we do ourselves as the Communal Goods Council. We are protecting—with the same function—but in the forest. If they see a person that is doing something inadequate, he is invited to stop these actions and like that, they learn. This has functioned for us very well, but it is different than RC.
When it gets stronger, the forest guards and the RC join. They can be put in the same tune.
To finalize this dialogue and sharing of experiences, the compañeros solicit all of the participants to shout in unison the following slogans:
CHERÁN LIVES, THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES!
CHERÁN, NOT ONE-STEP BACK!
The people leave.
The doors close.