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Bioregionalism Meets Local Autonomy in Mexico

Peter Berg

She squatted over another woman lying on the grass beside the parking area. The blood red cloth holding back her black hair was exactly the same color as her blouse, a long black skirt matched her hair. She chanted and passed her hands a few inches from the sides of the prostrate woman while smoke rose thinly in the sunny morning air from incense sticks stuck in the ground beside her patient's head. Hunched forward and jerking her elbows vigorously outward, all of the curandera's energy seemed to be concentrated on the task of pulling some invisible entity from the other woman. It was too embarrassingly private and mysterious a scene to witness as an uninvited spectator except that a little girl stood several feet apart and watched with such rapt attention that it became a curiously public event.

A few minutes later, more than three hundred people standing for the opening ceremony of the day's program at the November 1996 Turtle Island Bioregional Gathering (TIBG) in Tepoztlán, Mexico watched the same curandera enter the open-sided main meeting tent. She held a goblet fuming with large chunks of incense and was followed by two male assistants. After an incantation that included a request for a beam of the light of truth and understanding from the center of the universe, she approached each person in the assembly, moved the goblet up and down in front of their bodies, and intoned thanks to Tonantzin, Aztec deity of the earth. Blessing each person this way took a long time but the curendera maintained the same quick athletic intensity as when she squatted over her patient like a wrestler. She continued to chant "Gracias, Tonantzin." To conclude, the attendants dipped large bouquets of branches into pails of water and whipped bursts of spray into the air above the crowd. Then the curandera and her crew walked out as promptly as they had appeared.

This visitation by a folk healer from a barrio in Puebla was the kind of illuminating incident that gave a portentous air to the week-long encampment that in addition to being the seventh TIBG was also known as the sixth Consejo de Visiones (Vision Council) and first Bioregional Gathering of "The Americas." In spite of the multiplicity of titles (or maybe because of it), with about eight hundred attendees it was by far the largest bioregional gathering to date. It also produced precedent-making foundations for future continental gatherings and provided definite guides for the bioregional movement in general.

Three distinct streams of activism blended together in the Meztitla camp site where the Gathering was held beneath the vegetated cliffs that ring the town of Tepoztlán. Bioregionalists who base their concerns in harmonizing with the natural ecology of the places where they live were there to create a "ceremonial village" so that ecocentric values, all-species representation, sustainable living techniques, gender balance, consensus decision-making, and other aspects of previous local and continental gatherings could be manifested. They came from such diverse places in the Western Hemisphere as Canada, U.S., Guatemala, Costa Rica, Belize, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Some European representatives from England, Denmark, Germany, and Catalonia were welcomed as well.

A different current of activism, the Consejo de Visiones, Mexican "earth guardians" range from a nation-wide network of local environmental organizations to cultural and spiritual revivalists including costumed conchero ritual dancers. Besides co-sponsoring the Gathering, the Consejo was responsible for staging it in Mexico for the first time and generated most of the attendance through various kinds of publicity including a bus tour with stops as far away as Chiapas and Guatemala. The Consejo worked on all aspects of the Gathering, but some unique contributions were sunrise conch shell blowing rituals, shamans leading sweat lodge ceremonies, workshops on environmental conditions in Oaxaca, Vera Cruz and Yucatan, native healing plants identification walks, and a medical team that included acupressure, massage, and the curandera from Puebla in addition to medical doctors.

The third partner in this union was the courageous town of Tepoztlán representing the place itself. This community carried out successful resistance to outsider-led corporate land developments centered around a planned golf course resort that has been dubbed, "The Golf War." It was an intense campaign that involved many demonstrations, killing and wounding of some townspeople, removal of corrupt officials from the town council, and eventual secession from the State of Morelos.

Participants at the Gathering hailed Tepoztlán for the first bioregional rebellion carried out by a whole community. Residents unstintingly declare that their revolt had a primarily ecological basis stemming from unreasonable water requirements for the proposed developments, threats to agricultural use of the land, the overall impact of greater human numbers on native ecosystems, and loss of the traditional lifestyle of the local people. Members of the newly elected "Free, Constitutional and Popular Municipal" council, farmers from Cuauhnahuac Bioregion where Tepoztlán is located, and other veterans of the struggle made several presentations. They told how they had fought and where the town now stood in main circles and workshops at the Gathering. An alliance with Tepoztlán townspeople was initiated both in public statements and practical ways such as the creation of teams of dozens of participants from the Gathering that went out to assist work at a local ecologically oriented school and planting native vegetation at a watershed restoration project.

Several hundred additional attendees ranged from New Agers and Rainbow Family members to "gypsy" entertainers, inner city youth, students, and political representatives from both the zapatistas and the liberal electoral reform party. They added fiesta-like elements of nearly constant drumming circles, political banners, Middle Eastern style costumes, a market place selling jewelry and folk art, spontaneous dancing, stilt-walking performances, and propaganda films.

A vast amount of valuable information about useful resistance techniques and new methods of achieving sustainability was exchanged at this singular event (despite a few inevitable collisions of style or content), and a new dimension of contemporary political culture was revealed. The first Bioregional Gathering of "The Americas" showed that deeply ecological bioregionalists, Earth-spirit revivalists, and land-defending townspeople are integral to a larger worldwide trend.

Without the arguesome baggage of a political ideology, new forces for change in political-cultural consciousness have begun operating in response to present world realities. Principal among the new facts of political life is that the previously unquestioned importance of the nation-state as a governing force is fading. Some powers formerly reserved for national governments have begun flowing upward to supra-national economic and political configurations ranging from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the European Union (EU). Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spoke the practical truth regardless of her party affiliation when she said that Britain's entry into the EU meant surrendering its national sovereignty.

At the same time that authority regarding trade and legal jurisdictions is being taken over by larger entities such as GATT, NAFTA and EU, national governments are losing their grip on internal populations and local governments. Smaller forms of governance of the type that existed before modern nation-states gobbled them up are re-emerging. Headlines report the harshest versions of this worldwide process as it is played out by ethnic groups in the Balkans, Russia and Africa, but there is actually a much broader movement in the same decentralist direction that takes on many different forms.

A thick slanted column of black smoke persisted in the dirty blue sky above Mexico City for days before the Gathering. It might have been from a volcano given the large size of the smoke plume, the geological history of the region, and reports of a few puffs from some lava peaks surrounding the city earlier in the month. But the odor of the smoke gave away this latest addition to what is possibly the worst average air pollution on the planet as an oil fire. Unbelievably, on the tenth anniversary to the exact day of a similar explosion and fire in the same location, two huge holding tanks in a Pemex national petroleum company refinery had begun to burn, and the fires continued unchecked for the greater part of a week. The column of smoke was a symbolic proclamation of the present Mexican regime's inability to deal with the country's acute social and ecological problems.

Confusion over whether the calamity was a natural event or caused by humans is typical in Mexico. The sheer pressure of human numbers alone causes effects that can simulate forces of the earth. For example, water mining from beneath Mexico City with its population of around 25 million causes buildings to tilt as though they were pushed by an earthquake. At a time when ecological considerations in general have an increasingly high profile everywhere, in Mexico they have become utterly urgent and inseparable from other social considerations. This country presently hosts at least a half-dozen active locally-based uprisings against the highly centralized national government. Since its inception, the nation has been controlled by a single, increasingly remote, political party.

The Turtle Island Consejo Bioregional Gathering of "the Americas" that inaugurated an appreciation of common values between three branches of the decentralist movement also changed the direction of bioregionalism in significant ways. The practice of holding all workshops and meetings bilingually in English and Spanish, although it seemed a small and obvious alteration when first suggested, had a surprisingly major effect on speakers of both languages. "Northerners" waited for translations in equality with "southerners" rather than enjoying the tourists' privilege of speaking English that has previously lent an air of superiority even to progressive meetings. A high level of participation by everyone resulted, sometimes in refreshingly unexpected ways such as a moving address by farmers who supplied food for the Gathering and wanted to attend more of the meetings but had to return to mind their crops. "Northerners" experienced the wealth of human and cultural values that abounds in the Spanish-speaking Americas in a direct way undistorted by economic or social lenses. "Southerners" were released from restrictions on speaking their own language and expressed themselves as fully as they wished. No future continent-wide assembly of bioregionalists can fail to accommodate both languages and have any claim to legitimacy.

The most important development for the bioregional movement is that it has started to advance beyond its initial circle of adherents and is becoming more mainstream. Previously, the concept of a bioregion (in its contemporary expression) was more or less restricted to activists who had been exposed to various other forms of ecological thinking. Bioregionalists deliberately chose this holistic view of the place where they lived to inform their work of bringing about beneficial changes. Some Gathering participants certainly fit this description. Many others, though, came to learn about bioregionalism. Incidentally, they brought some significant new aspects of it with them. Tepoztlán townspeople provided an excellent example of this when they saw a new use for a rudimentary map-making exercise that has been a staple of the bioregional movement in the U.S. and Canada. Map-makers in workshops are asked to use different colors to draw simple natural features such as land forms, watersheds, soils, and native plants and animals. They are also required to include the best and worst things humans are doing in regard to these features. The individual maps are invariably unique personal creations but they usually exhibit a general sense and view of local places as well. Besides causing "aha" reactions of revelation from their makers, these drawings have often served as a useful basis of common understanding for initial bioregional organizing by local groups. The Tepoztlán activists watched a Mexican volunteer who had never been exposed to this exercise draw a map during a demonstration. They immediately seized on map-making as a way for those local people who do not read and write to express themselves. It was an effective way to identify what they knew and the problems they thought were most important. This adaptive leap was obvious to them because of their practical sense of bioregionalism. However, it had never before been stated (or recognized, probably) as a valuable use by any of the thousands of people who have participated in the map-making workshop.

Tepoztlán isn't "mainstream" in major respects, but it does closely mirror cultural traditions and land-use conflicts that exist in much of the Western Hemisphere, north and south. The fact that Tepoztlán townspeople and farmers easily accept and use bioregional ideas and language signals the inception of a much wider popularity and usefulness for the bioregional movement than existed before. The concept of a bioregion is proving to be a practical tool that can communicate older concerns in contemporary terms. It represents a life-raft for survival and a new basis for alliances between land-based groups to counter a rising tide of global monoculture.