Mining as a Development Factor in The Sierra Juárez in Oaxaca:
an Ethical Evaluation
Mario Enrique Fuente and David Barkin

Capulálpam de Méndez, located in Sierra Juárez, Oaxaca, has a population of less than 1,500 inhabitants. Their electoral processes are governed by common law (usual and customary). In other words, a system of collective institutions and rules that have been built in the communities based on Mesoamerican culture over many years. One of the main principles for decision-making is direct democracy through the Citizen or Community Assembly, which have been established as the supreme bodies of governance. One of the concepts that holds this community organization together and its relationship with identity, territory and autonomy is communality.

Communality is an epistemic contribution that is characteristic of the community praxis of Sierra Juárez. The notion of communality was developed in the 1980s by various intellectuals with indigenous backgrounds in the region in the context of fighting to recover forest resources and promote autonomous forms of community (Fuente and Barkin, 2011).

Díaz (2007) has a few different approaches to the notion of communality. To start, he distinguishes between western and indigenous communities, and later describes the latter as: a) a territorial space, demarcated and defined by possession; b) a common history that circulates mouth to mouth and from one generation to the next; c) a variation of the language of the people, from which they identify a common tongue; d) an organization that defines political, cultural, social, civil, economic and religious issues, and e) a community system to administer justice. Later, he indicates that the indigenous community is not only understood as “a set of houses with people, but rather people with history, past, present and future, that cannot be defined only in concrete and physical terms, but also spiritually in terms of their relationship with nature” (Díaz, 2007: 38-39).

Once this level of community is reached, then land also takes on communality. It indicates that community is a phenomenon, while communality is the essence. Based on this categorical differentiation, some of the components of communality are as follows: a) the land, as mother and as territory; b) consensus in the assemblies to make decisions; c) free service, as an exercise of authority; d) collective labor, as an act of recreation; and e) rituals and ceremonies, as an expression of the communal gift (Díaz, 2007: 39-40).

Along with this category, Martínez Luna (2003) reaffirms the role of the territory and authority in assemblies, but also goes further to define the renovating role and the process of appropriation of what is their own with what is not.6 For this author, communality means:

It is the thought and actions of a community life. It is the result of the social appropriation of land and the codes of the relationships decided by comunalicracia …it is the substantive thought of regional and extra-regional education and common agreements in their own lands. It is the sum of values of exchange within and outside of their communities, it includes individuality but is something more than the sum of individualities…it is authority but it is something more than the power of consensual decisions. External power is confronted in various fields: education, technology, religion or gatherings. It is a comprehensive concept that they manage to reproduce even in urban environments…it is the daily exercise of communality (Martínez, 2003: 51).

There are other daily aspects involved in the conformation of communality, such as the presence of diverse organizational and cultural devices that limit the accumulation of individual wealth at the cost of community labor. Other mechanisms also stand out, such as directing economic resources towards infrastructure works and service to the community, as well as spending on ritual cycles and symbolic consumption. On the other hand, there is a complex system of counterweights and mutual supervision that prevents the accumulation of political power and the consequences it would have on transforming economic accumulation.

In principle, no one that reaches a position of community power can accumulate wealth, as they are not paid a salary that would allow this. Thus, for the group there is no acceptable explanation that could legitimize the purchase of a new truck or house in the city of Oaxaca. And the community ethos is not that of accumulating economic wealth, but rather that of accumulating prestige that allows for the exercise of power (Garibay, 2005: 133).

All of these mechanisms of communality have been strengthened with the process to defend resources against mining concessions, but at the same time they have resulted in strategies not only to increase local identity, but also on the regional level. This has been done through a variety of means such as the “Free Union of Local Governments,” made up of 26 municipalities in the district of Ixtlán and the “Union of Agricultural Communities of the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca.”

6 This is a conceptual school of thought derived from Bonfil’s (1982) proposal of cultural control.