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Q&A: A Major Win for Mayan Rights

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is home to one of North America’s largest Indigenous populations. Local Mayan communities rely on the land, water, and natural resources for their livelihoods—including an important ecotourism industry based around the cenotes, large sinkholes or caves filled with groundwater or rainwater. They were a primary source of water for ancient Mayan communities and occupy an important place in their history, culture, and stories.

But giant industrial and agricultural conglomerates have threatened the Mayan peoples’ way of life. The Yucatán Peninsula is now home to more than 250 registered pig farms and factories—and hundreds of smaller unlicensed operations—whose waste run-off contaminates the cenotes and impacts the health of local communities.

This year, Fund grantee Indignación helped organizers in one Mayan town secure a Supreme Court judgement that stopped the construction of a new mega farm with more than 49,000 pigs. We spoke with Indignación about this huge victory for Indigenous rights.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What is the mission of Indignación?

Indignación’s mission is to promote structural changes that ensure respect for the human rights of all people living in the Yucatán Peninsula, especially the Mayan people. Our vision is framed by the peoples’ needs and organized efforts to construct a new society where the human rights of all people are respected.

Indignation accompanies the organization Kanan ts’ono’ot, based in the town of Homún, who have spent more than three years fighting for their rights as an Indigenous people against a huge pig farm owned by Producción Alimentaria Porcícola (PAPO), a subsidiary of Kekén [Mexico’s largest pork producer].

What does “Kanan ts’ono’ot” mean?

Kanan ts’ono’ot is Mayan. It means “Guardians of the Cenotes.”

How was the pig farm in Homún impacting Mayan communities?

Since 2016, the inhabitants of the Mayan town of Homún have resisted the installation of a mega pig farm and factory that would threaten their territory, their ecosystem, and their way of life. The Homún community is the first in the peninsula to oppose and sue the owners of a pig factory in order to defend its own development model—ecotourism in the cenotes—thus claiming their rights as an indigenous people to self-determination, water, health and particularly the right of children to a healthy environment.

Since 2017, the Indignación team has accompanied the case against the pig farm in Homún, from organizing popular opposition to supporting counter-hegemonic litigation. This case is hugely important—it’s the first litigation against a mega pig farm in a region that has more than 257 such farms. These farms cover 31 percent of the surface of the peninsula and have deforested 10,997.01 hectares of forest, according to a report by Greenpeace Mexico.

Mega pig farms and factories have strong negative impacts on health (such as generating respiratory and reproductive diseases), water (they can contaminate groundwater several kilometers away), and the way of life of local communities, many of whom rely on ecological tourism.

For Homún, the farm’s impact on water is most urgent. The farm would be located between two protected natural areas: the Ring of Cenotes—a state geohydrological reserve—and the Lagunas de Yalahau State Park, which is protected by the 1971 Ramsar Convention (an international environmental treaty also known as the Convention on Wetlands). This is a key aquifer for the entire Yucatecan population.

This is a precedent-setting case in the Mayan peoples’ struggle to defend their natural resources, territory, and self-determination in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Tell us about your victory securing the court judgment against the pig farm.

On May 19, 2021, the First Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of Mexico (SCJN) confirmed the suspension of the pig farm. In doing so, they also confirmed the rights of the children of Homún.

Faced with the SCJN ruling, the owner of the pig farm, PAPO, appealed to the second district judge with a document issued by the State Ministry for Sustainable Development. Cleverly presented by the company as a supervening event—a new element that did not exist before—their appeal once again asks the court to overturn the suspension of the mega farm. The hearing, which has been delayed several times, is still pending.

It is important to also mention that after the SCJN ruling, organizers from Kanan ts’ono’ot faced threats.

What does this mean for your work in the future?

The case of Homún has demonstrated several ways to fight back against these problematic farms. One process is organizing self-consultations. The Mayan Councils, K’anan ts’onot, Article 19, Centro Prodh, and more than 2,500 people from the villages of Celestún, San Fernando, and Kinchil participated in such a consultation on July 25. They cast their vote against the farms in Celestún and San Fernando and in favor of Kinchil.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Development Program, who accompanied these consultations, have mentioned that these exercises are a clear example of the practice of peoples’ rights. The affected communities asserted their rights in the development, organization, and convocation of these consultations We hope this can be replicated in other ways.

In addition, as a result of the Homún case, the Mexican Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources has denied permission for the construction of new farms. They said that the people were not consulted, and that the self-determination of the Mayan people must be respected.

Given the accelerated and exponential growth of pig farms in the Yucatán Peninsula, Indignación—in collaboration with Greenpeace, Article 19, Missionaries AC-Guardians of Seeds—presented a popular demand against the environmental impact, water contamination, and violation of Indigenous rights caused by pig farms. The demand was signed by 52 citizens from 21 Mayan towns in Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. The complaint resulted in the suspension of four pig farms in Yucatán that did not comply with regulations.

Photo credit: “Cenote Sagrado” by Ignatius244 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0