Panoramic view of the Sierra de Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosí © Mercedes Aquino

Ever since the creation of the Wixárika world, our heart, our life, and our ancestors are in Wirikuta. We make a pilgrimage every year to honor and make offerings to our ancestors, so that life will continue and so that the [flames] of life will be renewed, not only for our ancestors, but also for our people and the lives of all people on this planet.

Wirikuta is a sacred place for the indigenous Wixárika (also known as Huichol) people. Wirikuta is located in the municipalities of Villa de Ramos, Charcas, Santo Domingo, Villa de la Paz, Villa de Guadalupe, Matehuala and Real de Catorce, in the state of San Luis Potosí. It is also the place where the Mexican government has granted 22 mining concessions to the Canadian company First Majestic Silver Corp. and their Mexican counterparts, Minera Real Bonanza and Minera Real de Catorce, to explore and extract silver and other minerals.

The Jalisco Association in Support of Indigenous Groups (Asociación Jalisciense de Apoyo a Grupos Indígenas, AJAGI) is one of the organizations that is following this case and supporting the Huichol people. PBI interviewed Tunuary Chávez, coordinator of development, environmental analysis and forest management, for the Wixárika people and other Mexican indigenous communities supported by AJAGI.

“The Huichol people are the indigenous people that have preserved their traditions and ancient ways of living in their purest form. Their ways of self-government are alive; they have traditional authorities that are above public authorities, and they have a strong relationship with the land,” says Tunuary. AJAGI was created in August 1990, entrusted by the Wixárika communities to legally recover and rehabilitate the approximately 85,000 hectares of Huichol territory that had been invaded by mining companies. AJAGI started working in two areas: legal defense to recover the lands, and sustainable development in order to forge the environmental and economic recovery of the land. After 20 years of work, AJAGI has recovered 65,000 of the 85,000 hectares.

Wirikuta was declared a Natural Protected Area in 1994 by the Government of San Luis Potosí; in 2004, it was placed on a tentative list for UNESCO´s World Network of Natural Sacred Sites. In 2008 the Mexican government signed the Hauxa Manaká Pact with the Wixárika Union of Ceremonial Centers in Jalisco, Durango, and Nayarit, and the traditional and agrarian authorities of the Wixárika people, thereby committing to respect, protect, disseminate and preserve their sacred sites. However, the mining concessions granted by the federal government overlap with an important pilgrimage route that has been used by many Wixarika communities from several states for over a thousand years. This route contains many sacred places of great cultural and religious significance where the Huichol do ceremonies and collect peyote for ceremonial use.25

Wirikuta represents the indigenous people´s claim to their ancestral lands that goes beyond political customs of the Government. Their struggle could set a precedent for all indigenous people in Mexico

In August 2010, the Santa Catalina community confirmed that there were concessions already granted in Wirikuta and that they faced an imminent mining threat. AJAGI accompanied the first on site inspection requested by the indigenous community of Santa Catalina and performed an analysis of the environmental and social impact that would be caused by the mining operations by First Majestic. According to information provided by the company, the proposed mining project is a subterranean mine that will use flotation to separate the minerals. However, AJAGI investigations show that this is not strictly true. “It is not possible that they will only do underground mining, given the permits they have in Canada. First Majestic negotiated the extraction of 22 million ounces of silver in Wirikuta, however there are only 16 million ounces of silver in the subsoil: this means that the project would automatically be canceled based on their Canadian permits and if they can only access the subsoil. Approximately 13 million ounces [of silver] are on the surface and another 4 million ounces are in the remains of the tailings dams26 from an old mine.”

AJAGI further states that both subterranean mining and open pit mining have major implications for the environment. “Subterranean mining has a very serious history in the area. In the past, this method diverted all the groundwater channels in the region, and this caused the springs and underground waters that feed the wells to dry up – these wells are used by people living in the lower part of the Sierra.”

The flotation method also has serious environmental consequences due to the emission of dust and toxic waste. Tunuary explains that it “is a method that first involves an initial extraction of all materials from the subsoil, and then the metals are separated. Once the silver is removed, everything else is left in the tailings dams.” The tailings dams contain residue
of toxic waste material that accumulates over the years, and contain extremely dangerous heavy metals such as lead, antimony, or arsenic. Tunuary says that “the official norms and scientific research indicate that healthy limit of antimony is 9 parts per million before it begins to cause damage to a living organism. In a sample of sludge collected in the area of Real de Catorce and analyzed in a laboratory at the University of Guadalajara, we found 54 parts per million of antimony.” AJAGI also conducted a study using a scientific sampling method to analyze the level of contamination of the tailings
dams. “We found that in a place close to Real de Catorce there was widespread contamination of the entire food chain, as evidenced by the amount of antimony and arsenic in different parts of the ecosystem, such as in an eagle feather or in plant leaves. Heavy metal contamination is permanent and it is virtually impossible to remove once it has entered the food chain; it is persistent and irreversible and this is proven in Wirikuta.”

According to AJAGI, the sacred area known as Wirikuta faces the threat of mining by the transnational company First Majestic Silver in the Sierra de Catorce, the place known as the birthplace of the sun. But there are other examples that are just as serious, such as the threat posed by the transnational company West Timmins Mining and its Mexican counterpart, Minera Golondrina. Here they are planning to extract gold in the sacred region known as Kauyumaritsie or Bernalejo, the mainarea where peyote is collected and where the deer, the older brother of the Wixárika people, rests. “This is an attack that ultimately destroys the Wixárika people’s identity and their origin: the elders of this town say that this could be the most profound threat they have faced in history.”


25. “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally
owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their
responsibilities to future generations in this regard.“ Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
26. Tailings dams are also known as mine dumps. These contain the materials that are left over after separating the minerals
from the rest of the soil.