A sawmill in the indigenous community of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro, Michoacán, Mexico.
Credit: Courtesy of the community.
Indigenous Enterprises Unite
By Emilio Godoy
In two years an inventory will be complete, tracking the economic and social status of indigenous businesses in Mexico, which will soon have their own umbrella organization.
MEXICO CITY, Oct 12 (Tierramérica).- Mexico is about to become the first Latin American country with an indigenous chamber of commerce, dedicated to promoting and representing a sector of more than a million micro and small enterprises that are on the frontline in the fight against poverty.
Residents of four municipalities in the southern Mexican state of Puebla in 2005 formed the Totaltikpak Alternative Tourism Network of small, community-based companies that offer environmental, adventure and rural tours, lodging and food in the Sierra Norte region in the northeast of the state.
"Our main objective was to integrate the products of different enterprises. It has been a good initiative because we have been able to disseminate otherwise unknown projects that the members, if working on their own, would not be able to carry out," Misael Morales, secretary of Totaltikpak (which means "our land" in the Náhuatl language), told Tierramérica.
This is one of the many indigenous enterprises that operate in Mexico, but which so far have not had a larger association that can act on their behalf.
That is why a group of investors drew up a plan to create the Indigenous Business Chamber of Mexico, which will be legally established in May 2010.
"It's a very interesting challenge for us to join an initiative of this nature, with our own companies, then to see how these small initiatives connect with other members of the community itself, as members or employees," said the director of the Mexican Indigenous Tourism Network (RITA), Cecilio Solís, one of the promoters of the future chamber.
RITA itself was established in 2002. The workers in the 155 microenterprise-members come from 17 indigenous communities with a presence in 15 of Mexico's 32 states.
There are an estimated 1.2 million micro and small enterprises located in indigenous areas of Mexico, dedicated to an array of activities, from ecotourism to mining, but figures are not available about their contribution to the national economy.
Of Mexico's population of 107 million, about 12 million are indigenous peoples, according to official data.
The indigenous business chamber has the backing of specialized institutions. The idea was presented before the eighth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, held May 18-29 in New York, by the International Indigenous Women's Forum (IIWF) and the Mexico Multicultural Nation program of the public Autonomous National University, which researches native and Afro-Mestizo peoples.
The IIWF is a network of indigenous leaders from the Americas, Asia and Africa, which emerged in 1995 out of the 4th World Conference on Women, in Beijing.
The Permanent Forum, made up of 16 independent experts, half named by governments and the other half by indigenous organizations, was established in 2000 and met for the first time in 2002 to analyze the problems of native peoples and recommend actions to the international community.
"We are convinced that what they are doing is a fundamental change so that indigenous peoples participate in development. The tourism companies are the best organized at this time," José del Val, director of the Mexico Multicultural Nation, told Tierramérica.
The program initiated work to produce a status report on indigenous enterprises, to know how many there are, what they do, how many people they employ, and what difficulties they face. The inventory is slated for completion in two years and will serve as a basis for specific policies.
But already there are some results: many of them set up as civil associations. They often reinvest their earnings to improve technology and practices. There is an explicit interest in sustainable use of resources. However, there is an apparent lack of gender balance, as few women hold top positions.
Mexico's indigenous chamber will be the first of its kind in Latin America. In the southeastern U.S. state of New Mexico - bordering Mexico -, Navajo Indians created a similar entity, and others exist in Canada and New Zealand.
In March, a Mexican delegation visited the Navajo to observe firsthand how it operated.
"In Mexico we are challenging ourselves, not only in terms of the possibility of creating it, but also in generating the entire process, because there are no instructions for how to do this," said Solís.
"The change in relation to the indigenous peoples is to consider them as project partners. In that way we all develop. If not, the only ones to develop are the rich, and the poor would disappear. What we want to see is how these organized groups can improve their conditions," said Del Val.
Although the small and medium companies may aspire to government financial support, the partnerships with an indigenous identity lack a specific institution to gain access to those resources.
"In the indigenous territories there are vast natural resources that for many decades have been exploited or used by foreign companies that come here and set up shop, and the region's residents only supply labor," said Solís.
Totaltikpak, for example, integrates six community enterprises that provide work to 70 people in the Puebla municipalities of Xochitlán, Zapotitlán, Cuetzalan and Tenampulco.
"One idea could be setting up business training centers in different regions, and that the companies themselves build their own processes," suggested Del Val.