March 19, 2018

Marcos Leyva is a Mexican human rights defender from the state of Oaxaca. He is Director of the NGO EDUCA. EDUCA advises organizations and indigenous communities defending their rights, promotes civic education, empowers indigenous authorities, and pushes for local development projects. The case of Rosalinda Dionicio and the United People’s Network of the Ocatlán Valley is accompanied by EDUCA. The following text is from an interview with Marcos.

On Educa’s work

EDUCA is a non-governmental organization, a civil association that was created in 1994. Most of our work is with indigenous communities in Oaxaca. We accompany communities’ organizational processes to defend and demand their rights. We do this through education and training in several areas, such as in territorial, political, and civil rights.

We also do advocacy work. We see advocacy not just as a way of creating better legal conditions to ensure people’s rights, but also as a way of influencing other organizational and social processes. We have various mechanisms and tools for communication: we do radio programs, the organization has a small newsletter, and we update our website every day. We use these tools to promote the agenda of Oaxacan society and indigenous communities, to generate discussion about what we think are strategic and important issues.

We work autonomously; we don’t have any formal connection with the church or political parties. We don’t belong to a governmental institution. Our work is part of an effort to transform Oaxacan society, Mexican society, to strengthen the democratic processes of our country through respect for human rights, especially the rights of indigenous communities.

On the challenges faced by indigenous peoples in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a state in the south of Mexico with a high percentage of indigenous peoples and communities. The strong organization of the indigenous communities sets it apart from other states. It is also very rich in natural resources: we have water, forests, coast, biodiversity, minerals, oil, etc. Oaxaca is crossed by several mountain ranges, which makes it difficult to access some communities. We are one of the poorest states in the region, together with Chiapas and Guerrero. We are also one of the most unequal: there are few rich and many poor. In Oaxaca there is a strong presence of civil society organizations, so socially it is very active.

One of the greatest challenges for indigenous peoples and communities is the lack of full recognition of their rights. The state is still backwards in this respect. Their territory is threatened by national and transnational companies, projects and megaprojects that come and disrupt the communities. Another issue is that of political representation and autonomy. There is no recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights in this regard and their right to determine their own conditions for development is not respected.

It is also problematic that although we are a multicultural country, the national education system continues to focus on an educational model that doesn’t recognize cultural diversity. Consequently, in indigenous communities, schools do not strengthen processes of identity and organization from a cultural perspective. They follow Western logic and use examples that don’t relate to the lives of indigenous peoples. Health is also an issue. These are some of the obstacles that we face.

On EDUCA’s support for land and resource struggles

As an organization, EDUCA has accompanied the process of the San José mine together with the United Peoples’ Network of the Ocotlán Valley in Defense of Territory. We are following the precautionary measures put forward by Rosalinda and our other colleagues in San José. We have also worked with the civil observation mission in the community of San José since 2013. We have written and published a report and have created a strategy for raising awareness.

We are currently working with the United Peoples’ Network to organize seven other communities near San José. Our actions are preventative because the mine wants to expand its project. We are helping the communities organize and resist the expansion of the San José project. We are also part of the network of defenders in Oaxaca, which brings together different organization from around the state. While we were here in Europe the network held a meeting in one of the regions and carried out several activities with different defenders and organizations belonging to the network.

On the impact of foreign investment in megaprojects

The federal government grants concessions behind the people’s backs and thereby violates the rights of indigenous communities. They say that the national income from mining is about 13.5 thousand million dollars per year. In February last year, the Chief Audit Office of Mexico, which regulates investments and tax, identified 4 companies that were evading taxes. Among these was Frisco, a Canadian consortium. There was no investigation, obviously. Out of 293 foreign mining companies, 203 of them have Canadian capital.

Mexican legislation is flexible to make it easier for this kind of company to invest, whether they are mining companies, hydroelectric companies, infrastructure, or something else. They are exempt from paying taxes, they don’t respect labor or social security laws, and they violate the collective rights of indigenous communities. The role of the federal government in the face of all this is fundamental because it is consolidating an economic project that is solely based on extracting the wealth of communities without giving them or the country anything in return.

On the criminalization of human rights defenders

The Mexican government uses various strategies to criminalize human rights organizations and defenders. Formally, a series of legal and institutional modifications have been carried out which should represent an improvement in terms of human rights. However, these reforms have not done anything to protect the rights of defenders. According to a recent report on human rights in the country, 30 defenders were killed and 8 went missing in 2007 alone. This is proof of criminalization.

Oaxaca is not exempt from this. Although, on an international level, the government expresses its commitment to respecting human rights legislation, on the ground, it makes it very difficult to recognize a human rights defender. They claim that such cases are the result of power struggles and nothing to do with rights defenders. Criminalization is becoming more and more obvious. Unfortunately, it is also beginning to get legal backing. The federal government is reviewing legislation to restrict the actions of human rights defenders. I don’t think the Mexican government respects their rights. On the contrary, defenders are prosecuted, and legislation is created with the purpose of criminalizing their work.

On protection mechanisms and the role of PBI

I think that something that helps a lot in the field is being part of a community. When the community takes on the task of defending and protecting defenders, it really strengthens our work. This way, when we are faced with violence, we have the support of the community. On the other hand, international advocacy is also important. It is not enough on its own, but it is necessary to draw attention to situations where human rights are violated and where defenders are persecuted. This is where the work of PBI and other organizations is so important. They help us open doors that would otherwise not be available to us.

PBI Mexico has accompanied EDUCA since 2013. We’ve received threats because of the work we do, not just with the United Peoples’ Network, but also with other organizations on a regional level, such as the Council of Peoples in Defense of the Rio Verde, in Magdalena, and other organizations in the Oaxaca valley. PBI supports us with physical accompaniment and they also have a role in advocacy. We are currently on a tour with PBI around different countries in Europe to draw attention to the situation of defenders in Oaxaca, the invasion of megaprojects and the impact of these projects on indigenous communities.