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Voices Issue: 

Recent American anti-drug television commercials hope to prey on the morals of young people by showing how their purchases of illicit drugs may be helping terrorists or lead to the street shooting of another young person. If I had contacts in Hollywood I would suggest that they produce and air a commercial shows how several indigenous people were gunned down in a small mission chapel near Cerro Colorado in northern Mexico while holding a community meeting to discuss the increasing traffic of marijuana and opium in their canyon region. I would extend the commercial's messages and demonstrate how the First World's hunger for raw resources such as wood and minerals are causing some indigenous people to fight increased erosion, loss of habitat and arable land, and outside encroachment and assimilation. Several commercials could easily focus on just one group of indigenous people, my people, the Rarámuri (Tarahumara) of Chihuahua, Mexico.

In northwest Mexico, most indigenous peoples have experienced some degree of assimilation into Mexican culture. Spanish and later Mexican settlement was slower here than in most of Mexico, offering a less dramatic assimilation of indigenous people into the dominant cultures. As a result, Rarámuri language and culture is relatively similar to what it was at contact. But cultural integrity does not act as a shield against the forces of drug trafficking, logging, mining, and habitat loss.

Although the tentacles of assimilation and acculturation will slowly wrap around and squeeze traditions out of the Rarámuri, the more immediate threats of narco-trafficking and environmental change weigh heavily on our people. Narco-traffickers force and coerce indigenous farmers to grow marijuana and opium in their fields in place of the traditional crops of corn, beans, squash, and many other endemic domesticated plants. The illicit plants become new cash crops replacing the land races of domesticated plants that have thrived in the Sierra Tarahumara for centuries. People are often murdered if they refuse to grow the drug related plants. At best, they are forced off their small milpas (small planted plots on the edge of steep canyon walls) and other plots of land and move to urban areas looking for work in an economy that is already suffering.

In their attempt to squash the drug trafficking, the Mexican government often sprays the illicit growing fields with strong herbicides. Unfortunately, from the air in an herbicide spraying plane, a small Rarámuri corn and bean field is difficult to distinguish from a marijuana field. As a result, many cornfields are destroyed along with food for the upcoming winter. In addition, the herbicides enter the water system, polluting the springs and streams from which most of the people's drinking water comes.

Logging and mining in the mountains has resulted in extreme environmental damage. Erosion washes away already-thin topsoil and increases the steep arroyos through which the topsoil makes its way down the slope and thereby removes once-arable lands from possible use. In addition, overgrazing by cattle and goats has resulted in an increase in invader plants. Together these impacts threaten traditional wild-crafting areas with plants that compete with useful endemic plants. Erosion also pollutes the water systems from which many people still acquire their drinking water.

As modern industrialized Americans sit in their living rooms each evening and watch their flickering screens, a war of survival is being fought just south of the border. Nearly 400 Rarámuri have been murdered in the last decade. Hundreds more have been dispossessed of their lands. Each year the land becomes less arable and slowly loses its diversity. Gawi wachi ("the place that nurtures us"), also known as the Sierra Tarahumara, is barely able to nurture itself. It is my hope that modern industrialized people can begin to put as much effort into preserving and protecting the earth's last remaining indigenous cultures as they do into saving the whales.

Enrique Salmon, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He completed his Doctorate in Anthropology and Ethnobotany at Arizona State University. He has directed a field school in Ethnobotany for Fort Lewis College where he presently is conducting research on the Hopi reservation. He is Tarahumara Indian from the Sierra Madres in Mexico.