The Mexican Government recently announced the formation of a Commission for Dialogue with the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico, to “deal with the historic debt” the country owed to indigenous communities and to create an entity that would maintain a permanent dialogue with the communities.
The announcement came a few weeks after the silent demonstrations of indigenous Zapatistas in Chiapas and the new head of the commission asserted that the agency was created partially in response to those events, and due to the extreme poverty and exploitation of indigenous communities.
On Tuesday, January 15th, the Mexican Secretary of Governance, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, held a press conference in Mexico City to announce the creation of the Commission and the appointment of ex-Senator Jaime Martinez Veloz, as head of the new organization.
“We must reach the point where Indigenous Peoples can exercise the same rights and have the same opportunities as the rest of all Mexicans,” Chong asserted at the press conference.
“We have to guarantee access to justice,” Chong said and added that President Enrique Pena Nieto proposed to pay off the debt owed to Indigenous Peoples through a policy of permanent dialogue.
In introducing Veloz, Chong noted that the former legislator had experience in dialogue with the Zapatistas when he worked for the now defunct Commission for Harmony and Pacification of Chiapas (CHPC), the government’s agency that had negotiated with the Zapatistas in the ’90s.
When asked at the press conference whether President Nieto would be willing to sit at a negotiating table with the Zapatistas Chung said, “The call is to all of us to sit down and resolve the problems through political means, to allow for development in regards to the indigenous communities.”
Chung noted that Veloz “had ample experience and knowledge of the issue” due to his participation in the CHPC. In a press interview with Veloz a few days later, January 17, the new Commissioner recounted some of his pro-indigenous activities since the ’90s as well as current conditions for indigenous people throughout Mexico.
“They listened to us sometimes, without taking us seriously,” Veloz said about his advocacy to government officials in the 90s. “My presence irritated them…Now, in contrast, is the first time a Secretary of Governance sends for me and he asked my opinion; I said he had to take unilateral actions, that they had to reactivate the CHPC in the legislature as an important tool, and I planted the idea of reviewing the processes needed to release the Zapatista prisoners…”
He opined that without the recent Zapatista demonstrations, “the indigenous issue would not have become the focus of a national debate.”
Veloz also asserted that the dialogue had to include other communities and that the relationship with the Zapatistas had national repercussions. He also said that the poverty and exploitation of Indigenous Peoples in Mexico is worse than it was in 1997.
“From 2000 to 2010, they delivered 138,378,800 million acres to mining businesses, a quarter of the whole country,” Veloz said. He also asserted that historical records show that between 1521 and 1830, Spain removed 192 tons of gold from Mexican soil. Between 2000 and 2010, companies more than doubled that figure to 419 tons [or 838,000 pounds]. Veloz noted that more than 70 percent of those businesses are foreign and the majority of those operations are in indigenous lands.
“And considering these facts, the poverty in indigenous territories stands in brutal contrast. I would ask then, to those who hurled insults at the work of the CHPC and demonized the San Andres accords (the peace treaties with the Zapatistas) to explain this historic reality,” Veloz stated.
For these reasons he said he would revisit the already existing Pact With Mexico law that requires mining companies to pay benefits to the communities where they operate, to see that these companies start to pay what was already promised. Veloz also stated that the new Commission would be working with a variety of social movements, indigenous groups and legislators to meet all of their goals.