University of Manitoba Department of Native Studies

Geographies of Resistance and Political Autonomy: The Production of Territory in the P’urhépecha Forest

The year was 2011 and Mexico was in the midst of a turbulent period. In 2010 the entire country was celebrating what officially came to be known as the ‘Mexico Bicentennial Celebrations’, commemorating 200 years of political Independence from the Spanish colonial empire, a bloody and violent ruling that lasted 300 years. The ‘Bicentennial Celebrations’ were tinted with uneasy and contradictory narratives. The Mexican government exalted and glorified the nation’s social and political achievements against a background of extreme poverty, Indigenous subjugation, mass violence and murdering, both result of the so-called ‘Mexican Drug War’, barely initiated 4 years ago. President Calderón initiated ‘Operation Michoacán’ in 2006, the first large-scale deployment of federal troops in order to combat drug trafficking. The ‘Mexican Drug War’ is an ongoing asymmetric conflict that has lasted 12 years, with a total of 100,000 deaths and unimaginable social consequences and ramifications. As hundreds of bodies continue to be found in mass graves all over the country, and the nation was joining in massive celebrations preparing to host the 2011 soccer FIFA U-17 World Cup, an Indigenous insurrection was quietly taking place in the small town of Cherán, in the state of Michoacán where the ‘Mexican Drug War’ began just few years ago. My paper uses the case of the 2011 Indigenous uprising in Cherán, Michoacán, in order to reflect about Indigeneous political autonomy and self-regulation in the newly installed P’urhépecha self-government, underlining how this particular Indigeneous community positions the forest as a landscape of transgression and resistance.

Cherán is a town located in the Mexican state of Michoacán, mainly composed by Indigenous P’urhépecha people. Like many other P’urhépecha communities, Cherán was under the rule of organized crime, corrupt police force and political power colluded with drug cartels. For many decades they experienced illegal logging, murdering, kidnappings, extortion and bribed politicians. Until an early morning on April 15th, 2011, when a group of P’urhépecha women from Cherán, detained a busload with illegal loggers transporting stolen wood from the Indigenous forest. This group of illegal loggers were commonly associated with the drug cartel ‘La Familia Michoacana’ and freely operated in the community as they were colluded with local politicians. The women did not use any extreme violence, nor did they use weapons of any kind. They did so only with rocks and wood sticks. After this incident, it would take only just few days for the P’urhépecha community to organize and assume political control over the town, expelling police force, politicians, and blocking all entry roads to Cherán. What followed after the confrontation with these illegal loggers was the emergence of a new political structure in the community. An Indigenous collective and autonomous government that articulates ethnic identity and P’urhépecha knowledge as their main political foundation, functioning as the main protectors of the territory, the community and the forest.

In the wake of the massive illegal logging of more than 18,000 acres of forest and the violence of organized crime in everyday life, which included extortion, robbery and kidnapping, on April, 2011, the Indigenous community of Cherán entered into stand-down, blockading all entry points meanwhile surveilling the population. Six barricades built with sacks of sand and logs were installed at all access points to the community. ‘The women were responsible for preparing food while the men took turns to keep as many people on the barricades throughout day and night’ (1). Built from collective action, an ethnic-Indigenous-political movement was self-organized with community control and self-surveillance as the basis for both, the defence of the forest, and the political and social reconstitution of the territory. The main demands from the people of Cherán were social security, justice and the protection of the territory. As such, the town expelled the authorities and all kind of political control and state power. The prevailing feeling in the population was that they did not want to continue with the conventional system of political parties, since from these had arisen the collapse of the sense of community. As constitutional rights were diminished in the process of claiming political autonomy, this suspension of laws became a prolonged state of being. The community was now convinced that they should begin imagining what kind of autonomous political project they should build. What kind of strategies were installed against processes of extractivism and the logic of terror imposed by organized crime? How did they conceive social security built from their relationship with the territory and the natural environment? And which identity practices allowed for the organization, construction and cohesion of an Indigenous-ethnic political insurrection?.

The meseta P’urhépecha is a socially constructed geography originated from distinctive regional traditions and Indigenous culture. Over the last decades, local changes and geopolitical economic reforms, shifted the circulation of objects, people, capital, images and ideas, profoundly modifying the P’urhépecha everyday life and cultural landscape. P’urhépecha is spoken by over 100,000 people all throughout the state of Michoacán in central Mexico, making it one of the most spoken Indigenous languages in the country. P’urhépecha is usually identified as an isolated language, without any established genealogical relationship to any other language in the world. There have been attempts to link P’urhépecha with the Chibchan language family from lower Central America, as well with Quechua and Zuñi from American Southwest, but so far these remain conjectures. Michoacán remains as a distinct homeland for the P’urhépecha language. As such, the 2011 P’urhépecha uprising is an assemblage of distinctive material, social, legal and symbolic elements developed in a specific geography, articulated historically and politically by the own community. This specificity is mainly configured through three particular dimensions. First, the material (resources, management, social actors, forest in everyday life); second, the symbolic dimension (symbolic configuration of the territory, sacred places, entities and rituality); and finally, the social-legal dimension (access to land, practices, norms and discourses around P’urhépecha identity). Not all Indigenous communities in Mexico have this kind of cultural configuration, articulated through geography and territory. These three peculiar dimensions of the P’urhépecha culture consolidated the renewal of regional Indigenous history, resulting from the negotiation between global capitalism and local forms of resistance, intersecting with international activist resilient movements against ecocide, subjugation and social erasure.

The 2011 Indigenous uprising in Cherán had the protection of the forest as its primary goal. One of the main causes that triggered the political insurrection in Cherán was the excessive deforestation done by illegal loggers linked to organized crime. According to data provided by the State and Municipal Database System INEGI, Cherán has only 1.4% of its total territorial extension dedicated to urban areas, 46.7% distributed among agriculture and pasture, and 51.86% corresponds to the forest. More than half of Cherán’s territory is composed of forest, which not only has great value in terms of natural resource, but opposed to western centric values, holds a distinctive meaning. As only a small percentage of the Indigenous population obtains their income from the forest, one of the questions remaining is: What kind of shared meaning holds the community in such great value in order to defend something that doesn’t offer any kind of economical profit? Could be that the notion of community is expressed through the figure of the forest? For the P’urhépecha of Cherán, the relationship with nature is clearly opposed to extractivist conceptions originated in the western world. This layered perception of the landscape makes us realize that there must be something more in our strained relationship with natural environment beyond the logic of extraction, that there are several dimensions in our partial and incomplete understanding of landscape and territory.

The struggle for the protection of the forest in P’urhépecha land is deeply intertwined with notions of identity, culture and society. As Garner said, ‘Trees and their products are intimately woven into the material and social fabric of most societies… central to the daily realities of existence and fundamental in structuring language, identity, beliefs and rituals’ (2). The current conversation of structural violence in Latin American countries is mainly focused on different processes of neo-extractivism, in which Indigenous communities are the main victims. Different forms of ecocide in Mexico and many other Latin American countries are the product of intensified structural violence associated with new regimes of capital accumulation, a constituent part of neoliberal processes. This is what David Harvey called ‘accumulation by dispossession’, a concept which defines diverse neoliberal capitalist policies resulting in a centralization of wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth or land (3). Because the Indigenous P’urhépecha are geographically located in forested areas, they are situated at the center of neoliberal policies aimed at the violent exploitation and dispossession of natural resources. Their situation is complex because of the diffuse limits between the legal and the illegal, and the blurred political power controlling and manufacturing the violent extraction of the forest. They live in a situation where violence and threat prevail, hindering legal processes of defence. The Indigenous P’urhépecha in Cherán experienced the complex metabolism of neoliberal capitalism with its incessant voracity for temporal and geographical expansion.

The P’urhépecha people from Cherán is not the first Indigenous community in Mexico achieving political autonomy. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) 1994 uprising in the state of Chiapas, consolidated one of the most emblematic social movements of democratic autonomy and self-determination in the country. Likewise, many communities in the State of Oaxaca, the Wixarika peoples (more specifically) developed different ways of positioning themselves before the State in order to defend their culture, jurisdiction, and authority as an Indigenous community. The Indigenous Zapatista community in the state of Chiapas created a form of self-government called ‘Caracoles y Juntas de Buen Gobierno’ (snails and good government board). While they share some similarities with the P’urhépecha community of Cherán, they also differ in different ways. The P’urhépecha community of Cherán decided to self-govern under the figure of the ‘sistema de usos y costumbres’ (system of uses and customs). This form of self-government is practiced by many different Indigenous municipalities all over the country, in order to regulate their community, and is legally supported under the second article of the Mexican Political Constitution (4). Even though an important component from their insurrection, opting for the ‘sistema de usos y costumbres’ (system of uses and customs), is not the most relevant. Cherán is more than a political model questioning the foundations of the democratic mode of political organization. The P’urhépecha community of Cherán reformulated their Indigenous identity by reclaiming erased remnants from their culture, shattered by the colonial experience. The notion of autonomy in Cherán was internally constructed in the community, long before it was presented and negotiated before the institutionalized figure of the State.

The notion of autonomy, even if at first is located as a contestatory position before political power, its essence runs deeper. Autonomy operates as a proposition for imagining a future governed by local forms of knowledge, and moved by the desire to take back control of collective powers subtracted from capitalism. We should not think about the autonomy of Indigenous peoples only in terms of their oppositional political relationship with the State. It is necessary to reflect about autonomy as a process in which a community is reversing the complex set of social relationships produced by the colonial experience, such as resource extraction, property relations, state-making and race. New forms of political and social organization are needed beyond the neoliberal model, coming from the already known political structures. The 2011 P’urhépecha uprising of Cherán created a different mode of social organization beyond the colonial experience and the spaces produced by it, meanwhile rewriting a history of living that is guided by intersectionality, self-organizing, pluralism and horizontal self-governance.


(1) Ramírez Trejo, Luis. “Cherán: cinco años inventando lo imposible”. Desinformémonos. Accessed Dec 18th, 2018.

(2) Garner, Andrew. Living History: Trees and Metaphors of Identity in an English Forest. Journal of Material Culture, Vol 9 (1), 2004. P 87.

(3) Harvey, David. The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession. Socialist Register, Vol 40: 63-87. 2004.

(4)éxico_regidos_por_el_sistema_de_Usos_y_Costumbres. Accessed Feb 20th, 2018.