Thursday, January 17, 2008

Canyon Run

The Tarahumara are the indigenous people of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. They live primarily in Copper Canyon, a system of six canyons that is larger and, in some areas, deeper than the Grand Canyon. Their population is estimated to be between sixty and eighty thousand, and for many years they have been fighting the encroachment of the mining and timber industries on their remaining ancestral land, which now represents the last one percent of old growth forests in the Sierra Madre Occidental.

Many of the Tarahumara continue to practice a traditional lifestyle—inhabiting natural, open-air shelters, farming subsistence crops, herding livestock across steep canyon terrain, observing religious and social ceremonies accompanied by
tesgüino, a mild beer made from fermented corn, and running—they do a lot of running.

The Tarahumara call themselves the Rarámuri, which means runners on foot in their own Uto-Aztecan language. Will Harlan, editor-in-chief of Blue Ridge Outdoor Magazine and himself an ultra-marathon runner, first became interested in the Rarámuri because of their reputation as, in his words, “the world’s greatest distance runners.” Amongst these people, both men and women have been known to travel up to a hundred miles in a single day, sometimes in the process of persistence hunting, the practice of tracking an animal to exhaustion.

In addition to ceremonial athletic competitions, a fifty-mile footrace is held every spring in which members of the indigenous community compete alongside world-class runners in an effort to raise money for clean water initiatives and seeds. In the 2006 race, Scott Jurek, considered one of top distance runners in the world, lost to Arnuflo Quirare, a Tarahumara farmer who was running barefoot.

Hoping to spread awareness about the struggle for indigenous rights, Will invited his cousin and documentary filmmaker, Ryan Wylie, and my friend, Phil Merker, to collaborate on a short film about the Tarahumara. On December 3rd, the three traveled to Chihuahua City and were received by employees of the Sierra Madre Alliance, a non-governmental organization that provides education, legal services and other forms of support to indigenous communities in the region.

Ryan, who co-founded Inner Mission Productions and the Free Form Film Festival, brought his video equipment, initially planning to document the Rarámuri’s efforts to sustain their community in the midst of a twenty-year drought. As it turned out, the rains had finally arrived in 2007 and the December visit placed the film crew in the canyon in the middle of the wet season.

Unfortunately, the much-needed rainfall is only one factor in securing the future of North America’s largest, traditionally practicing indigenous population.

Before traveling six hours to the city of Guachochi, where they would begin their descent into Copper Canyon, the team encountered a group of Rarámuri protesting on the steps of a government building. The demonstrators explained that they were petitioning the Mexican government to take action on a decades-old case for indigenous land rights. The fact that these people had brought their concerns to a state institution, rather than the appropriate federal one, exemplified the challenges they face in navigating a complicated and potentially corrupt bureaucracy.

With two Rarámuri men, Pedro and Santiago, and Valentine, Santiago’s twelve year-old son, as their guides, the Americans would hike for three days into Choreachi, the most traditional of the Rarámuri settlements. The first day’s push brought them to the Sinforosa River at the base of the canyon. On the hike down, they were accompanied by a stray dog that they recognized from town. Her single, protruding tooth gave her away.

The next day, with their donkeys, mules and new mascot, they ascended to the canyon ridge, logging another seven-hour trek.

The guides weren’t following a trail and the terrain was demanding. During the uphill climb, Phil experienced intense cramping in his legs and had to assume a deliberate pace. His frustration may have only been exacerbated by the presence of Valentine, standing by with a concerned look in his traditional footwear—sandals with a rubber sole fashioned from an old tire.

Despite the language barrier, the long hours of hiking established a bond between the filmmakers and their guides. When they arrived at Pedro’s home, a dirt floor structure on the outskirts of Choreachi, he invited them inside. Ryan later learned that this was a significant gesture as the Rarámuri’s shelters are strictly used for cooking and sleeping and are not often shown to outside guests.

This functional relationship to established dwellings was also evident in the center of the Choreachi settlement, which the group reached the following day. Here, a few basic cabins and an abandoned schoolhouse scattered across an open field constituted the heart of the community. During most of the year, the Tarahumara move nomadically throughout the canyon in relative isolation, but encampments like this serve an essential function as sites of congregation.

During their first evening in the camp, Will, Ryan and Phil shared a meal and watched the sunset. As the sky filled with color, Phil began to feel mildly nauseous and decided to boil some garlic water, which he was told would help protect him from parasites. After speaking with the guides, he also drank some tea made from chucaca, an herb native to the canyon. He shared the drink with Ryan, but Will had already retreated to one of the cabins.

The night would be a long one as Will grew violently ill and Ryan was also overcome with intense nausea and stomach pains. The alpine air hovered at freezing and as Will’s body temperature dipped dangerously low, the group had little choice but to place him in the Jeep that Ernesto, the lead attorney for the Sierra Madre Alliance, had driven into camp on the only road connecting Choreachi with the outside world. Gas was limited, but the immediate concern was with Will, who was delirious, shaking and intermittently blacking out.

The original plan was that Ryan and Phil would return to Guachochi by car, while Will ran back, retracing their journey with the guides. The plan would change the following day, but not before Phil, Ryan and even Will, in his desperate state, documented the Rarahippri, a display of athletic prowess during which the Rarámuri gamble lighters, pesos, colorful garments and cassette tapes that they listen to on their runs.

Assisted by Chunel, a university-educated Rarámuri who often works as a translator for his people, Ernesto facilitated a discussion of community matters and asked those present to sign, or at least fingerprint, a petition for the government to suspend logging until the Tarahumara’s land claims could be resolved.

With the formalities out of the way, twelve runners were selected to compete. While the male and female events both involved running and proceeded casually, making it difficult for the film crew to know when the races were starting or finishing, the equipment was different. The men sprinted across the field, kicking a small wooden ball, but the women used a stick to lift a cloth ring and toss it ahead of them.

Having covered the event, attention turned to Will’s condition and the journey out of the canyon. The road back to Guachochi was little more than a pair of tracks. It was dark and raining and the trip would take nearly thirteen hours. For the first two of those hours, the dog, now dubbed Sinforosa after the river, ran behind the Jeep.

Eventually, Will’s delirium seemed to break and he told the group to put the dog in the car. The others were reluctant to welcome a wet, feral animal into an already cramped vehicle, but they agreed to let Will hold her in the back. Never having been in a car, Sinforosa vomited within a few minutes and was released into the rain. She proceeded to chase the Jeep for another hour before being allowed in a second and final time.

With their insanely devoted dog and just enough gas, the beleaguered group reached a paved road and were able to stop for a meal at a local restaurant.

Will (lower right in photo) would be forced to return to the States a few days early and Sinforosa, the fanged stray, would go on to experience other firsts as an adoptee of the Sierra Madre Alliance.

Back in Chihuahua City, just two days before their departure, Ryan and Phil made a final stop. José Iganacio Legarreta Castillo is the federally appointed delegate of SEMARNAT, the Mexican equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency. According to Ryan, Castillo had recently signed off on a fraudulent map, distorting the boundary between Choreachi and Coloradas de los Chávez, a neighboring region.

In Mexico, two major systems of land use and ownership are the ejidos and the agrarian communities. The ejido system was introduced by the Mexican Constitution of 1917, but only formalized in 1934. This involved concessions in the form of cultivation rights to individuals who did not own the land they occupied. The problem was that boundaries were drawn without consideration for unified indigenous communities, such as the Yokivo and the Guapalayna, who were subsequently divided. Agrarian communities were created through recognition and titling of communal lands based on possession.

The Tarahumara’s claim to their ancestral land precedes these systems by centuries and is supported by both international law (ILO Convention 169) and the Mexican Constitution (articles 2 and 27 of section 7). Due to lack of legal knowledge, Choreachi did not apply for its title until 2007, and Castillo’s signature was enough to authorize the self-appointed president of Coloradas de los Chávez, Rumaldo Chavez, to begin logging just under 40,000 acres of Tarahumara land.

Castillo was clearly reluctant to accept responsibility for the falsified maps and, in Ryan’s account, the interview ended with the filmmakers practically chasing the official out of his office.

Recently, two representatives of the Tarahumara traveled to San Carlos to confront Chavez, only to be detained and beaten by his men. Ryan said that the narcotics trade is a major factor in the struggle, considering that growing marijuana and poppy on the cleared land is far more profitable than logging in the depth of the canyon.

In Los Angeles, Ryan is currently editing the video footage he shot during the eleven-day trip to the state of Chihuahua. Current TV has agreed to purchase the ten to twelve minute short. In-depth interviews with members of the Rarámuri community and their advocates, the stunning beauty of Copper Canyon and the heroics of Sinforosa the dog, should be available by the end of February. Middled will do its best to provide a link.

*The fifth, sixth and seventh photos that appear in this article were taken by Alfredo Ramirez Garcia. The rest are courtesy of Phil Merker.


katie brad said...

I can't wait to see the documentary. Thanks for telling this story.

Anonymous said...

then there is
hasta las barrancas....

Caballo Blanco