Slivers of Hope in the Neoliberal Forest
At the break of dawn on 15 April 2011, several women red a volley of
reworks at three logging trucks loaded with timber illegally cut from the
village commons of Cherán, Michoacán. Th e clap of “rockets” is nothing
unusual in Purépecha villages like Cherán. People shoot them off to mark
saints’ day celebrations and announce festivals, but they are also used to
raise the alarm in an emergency. A crowd quickly assembled around the
women and began to pelt the trucks with rocks and more reworks. A few
of the drivers were briefl y detained, and soon enough the vehicles beat
a retreat out of town. Th e villagers knew the timber poachers would not
stay away. Th e loggers had ties to narcotraffi ckers and had pillaged timber
from neighboring villages for several years. Th ree elders from Cherán had
already been killed, when they hiked into the woods and asked the narco-
loggers to leave, or at least to spare a treasured stand of ancient trees.
Th e villagers soon learned that they could expect nothing more than
rhetorical support from the authorities. Th e state police ignored the mur-
ders even though local leaders had pressed their case with the governor
himself. Th e army also refused to get involved. So the residents built barri-
cades to keep the trucks away and imposed a curfew on anyone from out of
town. Th ey issued press releases and posted messages on the Internet until
bloggers and the international press took an interest in their story. Finally,
they invoked their constitutional right to impose customary law (usos y
costumbres) in a bid to defend themselves and maintain a degree of political
autonomy. Residents formed a militia (manned in part by migrants who
had returned from the United States) and stood vigil in the roads and hill-
sides, despite warnings from the police that so-called ronda militias were
illegal, and despite the reprisal of narco- loggers, who murdered villagers as
they replanted saplings in the communal woodlot. Some internal divisions
also appeared, as it became clear that a few families had cut deals with the
interlopers. For the most part, however, the villagers insisted on their right
to protect their natural patrimony and collective security.
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