Dispossession and Resistance in India and Mexico

“They’ve bought it, even though we haven’t sold it”: Reflections on Tourism in the Sierra Tarahumara, Mexico


“We were born here, we do not come from somewhere else. We live here. We were born here. Our great-grandparents were born here, and so were their ancestors. And here we are now.

Before, only Tarahumaras lived here. Not anymore […]

We no longer live by ourselves.”

Teresa Batista, Rarámuri from Mogotavo

The words of Teresa Batista, a member of a community affected by the Copper Canyon Touristic Project (CCTP), reflect the objective of this article: to narrate the experience of some Rarámuri in relation to the tourism industry. In order to achieve this, our goal has been to describe the ways in which, despite the fact that private enterprise has been fundamental to the installation and development of the tourism industry, its presence and impact can only be explained through its articulation with government policies, i.e., through the close and systematic working of the two in the interest of private enterprises. Subsequently, we have problematized notions which have been used by state representatives concerning the conflicts that tourism has generated.

Known in Spanish as Tarahumaras, Rarámuri-speaking people constitute a population of over 70 thousand living in the mountains, summits, and gullies of the northwestern portion of the Sierra Madre Occidental in the state of Chihuahua, known as the Sierra Tarahumara. Due to the violence generated throughout the drug war, which was declared by the Mexican government in the first decade of the 21st century, from 2006 onwards Raramuri presence has also significantly grown in urban areas of the state.

Disposession through privatized tourism

If there is one thing that characterizes tourism in the Sierra Tarahumara, it is its diversity. In this region, local and improvised tourism coexists with million-dollar investments in mega-projects targeted for international elite consumers, with a wide range of intermediate varieties. All types of tourism impact and modify the environment, and its relationship with its inhabitants. In 2016, national tourism industry grew by 2.9% – surpassing national economic growth (2.6% in 2016) – and forecasts predict that this growth will continue for at least 10 more years.

This, of course, is nothing particularly new. In Mexico, tourism as an economic activity was born with the post-revolutionary reconstruction project. As early as 1921, capital gains and international legitimacy which tourism achieved, due to ties with the U.S., helped this activity to be understood as a channel for diplomatic dialogue and as a mechanism for national reconstruction and progress (González and Aura, 2002). During the 1970’s, international organizations, State representatives, and the private sector promoted tourism at the global level in regions characterized by high marginalization and poverty indices. It was assumed that apart from its sustainable character, economic investment and landscape transformations would promote growth in human development indices for the inhabitants of these regions. However, historical and anthropological evidence shows that in the case of the Rarámuri of the Sierra Tarahumara, tourism has produced a reality that bears little resemblance to this initial project.

The interest in exploiting the “attractiveness” of this region for tourism can be traced back to the mid-20th century. In 1957 Glenn Burgess, journalist and correspondent for the construction of the Chihuahua-Pacific railway, described both the mountains in the Sierra and the Pacific coast as two “Meccas for tourism” (Burgess, 1957) [1]. The construction of this railway necessitated expropriation – through eminent domain – of land originally granted by the Mexican state to the Rarámuri people by way of the Agrarian Law. This expropriation was justified on the grounds that the land constituted public utility. In a similar manner, the creation of the San Ignacio de Arareco Ecotourism Complex in 1992 was the product of an attempt to forcefully seize the artificial reservoir known as Arareco Lagoon and its surrounding lands. Here, Chihuahua state government authorities alleged that the land had been abandoned for over two years, which under the Agrarian Law constitutes grounds for expropriation. After negotiating with the sitting state governor, Fernando Baeza Meléndez, and proposing their own alternative project, the Rarámuri people created the “Kuri Sinéwi Busuréwami” (We are beginning to awaken) Social Solidary Society.

An example that can be considered paradigmatic of these processes is the CCTP. Because of it, the Rarámuri village of Mogotavo is currently fighting for the recognition of its territory, threatened by a tourism development trust, consisting of the National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism (FONATUR) and the Chihuahua State Government, and by private investors. Both the trust and investors are determined to displace the Rarámuri, “violating their rights in order to build leisure parks, casinos, hotels and golf courses” (Tierra Nativa, 2014).

In brief, to understand the role of private enterprise in the creation and growth of tourism in the Sierra Tarahumara, we must explain its relationship with the Mexican state, and particularly to the territorial policies and laws that violate the fundamental rights of indigenous populations. Lirio Caraveo, a Rarámuri from Mogotavo, synthetizes this complex relation in the following words: “They’ve bought it, even though we haven’t sold it”.

It is important to remember that in the case of the Rarámuri people, ownership of land pre-dates the existence of the Mexican State. Land use and tenure are organized through links with living relatives as well as dead ones, and non-anthropomorphic entities, which are an essential element for their life in collectivity. In this sense, the presence and the logic of exploitation and management as understood and promoted by the Mexican state has produced profound contradictions. Thus, while some Rarámuri individuals may possess usufructuary rights over the land, the Mexican state reserves proprietary rights over it together with the right to determine its public and private use. This is exemplified in the expropriation and displacement that railway and highway constructions have caused, as well as in the declaration of Rarámuri land as National Land, only to be later auctioned to private interests and exploited for touristic purposes. One consequence of these acts is that commercialization procedures concerning these lands gain a lawful appearance, since the initial dispossession is legalized and backed by the state.

Consequences of tourism

Investments, policies and the processes used to implement tourism have impacted social and natural life in the Sierra Tarahumara. Representatives of the Mexican State have promoted discourses that highlight its benefits. Thus, Héctor Valles, Secretary of Tourism of the state of Chihuahua (2004-2011), made a commitment to guarantee that “in no manner would these developments negatively affect the natural habitat of the Tarahumaras […] on the contrary, they seek to incorporate these communities and provide them with jobs.” (El Siglo de Torreón, 2008). Similarly, when the CCTP Cable Car was inaugurated, the sitting Chihuahua state governor José Reyes Baeza Terrazas (2004-2010), declared, “The idea is to integrate indigenous people from the Sierra to these projects. They will have wealth and well-being. It’s not about excluding them from the benefits, but about incorporating them and letting them be the main beneficiaries of these large infrastructure projects” (Ibavem, 2012).

Nevertheless, specialized studies (Almanza, 2015) have documented that for indigenous and non-indigenous populations in the region, tourism developments have precipitated a series of environmental and social consequences, mostly irreversible and negative. For example, these processes have clearly shown the disadvantageous position under which the state and private initiatives have attempted to place the Rarámuri people, in order to carry out a structural injustice through dispossession and territorial displacement. In a recurrent manner, in state-sponsored initiatives such as the CCTP, Rarámuri people have not been consulted, nor was their consent requested before massive infrastructural developments were implemented in their own land, much less were they invited to participate in the formulation of such initiatives. The state has assumed an equivocal and structurally disadvantageous incorporation of Rarámuri people into these projects. These programs have promoted landscapes of territories in dispute, and reduced the image of the Rarámuri and their social life to folklore. In spite of this, the bulk of the profits has not been for the Rarámuri. Therefore, an important part of the implementation and development of the tourism industry has been based on an asymmetrical relationship that subordinates Rarámuri modes of existence, whose effects are de-politicization, dispossession and displacement of Rarámuri people rather than the “wealth and well-being” that Mexican state representatives have promoted in their discourse. To prove this further, there has been no increase in human development indices in the region.

Beyond their statistical condition, which defines them as “population with high degrees of marginalization”, Rarámuri people belong to a wider collective, heir to the resistances against violent attacks coming from “those that came, those that were not [there] before” for over 400 years. They resist progressive abuse and abusive progress that have been normalized, legalized and institutionalized in these kind of projects and policies. As we have shown, in order to “take them out of poverty” (a condition in which they were initially placed after a long historical process of dispossession), Rarámuri people are forced to leave their territories and/or submit to those who will exploit their land. They are required to leave their way of life behind. As Nazareno Ramírez, of Mogotavo, says: “What will happen when, at some point, tourism runs out? They will have nothing to eat, that’s what I think, because they will not know how to work the land, how to grow corn, how to let the land rest, how to care for the corn”. It is in this framework that we wonder: is there truly no human development model under which the Rarámuri and other inhabitants of the Sierra Tarahumara – poor or not – do not see their dignity compromised, together with their way of life, and their right to difference and self-determination, beyond certain state and private investment proposals that revolve around economic interests?

Final Thoughts

We can conclude that the role of the Mexican state is a structural condition required for private enterprise intervention. Moreover, although state representatives discursively highlight the social and environmental benefits of implementing tourism projects, the realities of dispossession and displacement continue to clash against these objectives. This is the framework within which we wish to highlight the importance of Rarámuri narratives, within which their way of life pre-dates the Mexican state as an administrative form and even its officers and development programs as subjects of relationship. The Rarámuri people are, by right of relationship pre-dating the existence of the state, owners of these lands. This fact poses legal problems to begin with and questions the transience of state administration in the long history of the Rarámuri way of life, which will continue to exist long after tourism disappears. Finally, we suggest that if millions of pesos in investments are planned in order to increase the human development index of the inhabitants of this region, it is indispensable to set aside the policies that the Mexican State has historically implemented over indigenous peoples and propose new symmetrical and co-creative policies.


Almanza, Horacio. (2015). La apropiación de las “tierras vacías”: turismo y despojo a través del Proyecto Turístico Barrancas del Cobre, en el territorio rarámuri de Chihuahua. In Gustavo Marín Guardado (Ed.) Sin tierras no hay paraíso: Turismo, organizaciones agrarias y apropiación territorial en México, 113-153. Tenerife, Spain: PASOS, RTPC.

Apuesta Chihuahua por el turismo para superar crisis. (2008, November, 4). El Siglo de Torreón. Retrieved from: https://www.elsiglodetorreon.com.mx/noticia/390989.apuesta-chihuahua-por-el-turismo-para-superar-crisis.html

González, Mateos and Jimena Aura. (2002). Me lleva el tren: Los albores del turismo en México 1921-934 (Graduate thesis). National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico.

Documentary Films:

Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía (Producer) and Ibavem, Michelle (Director). (2012). No hay lugar lejano.

Tierra Nativa (Director). (2014). Divisadero: Tierra Nativa Mogotavo, Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=943&v=U196JykIsqo


[1Burgess, Glenn, August 20, 1957, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.


Alejandro Fujigaki Lares – He was a postdoctoral fellow in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He has worked with the Raramuri people in Mexico since 2002. His areas of research include persona, death, sacrifice, ritual, epistemology and cosmopolitics.

Maria Isabel Martinez Ramirez – She is a researcher based at Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas at UNAM, Mexico City and is working on a project on the relationship between the Nation-state and indigenous people from the gaze of the Raramuri people in Mexico.