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ALEJANDRO DE AVILA is a doctoral student at University of California, Berkeley. He is also Professor, Instituto Tecnologico de Oaxaca (Mexico), and Co-founder, Sociedad para el Estudio de los Recursos Bioticos de Oaxaca (SERBO). His main lines of work are: comparative ethnobiology of Otomanguean (especially Mixtecan) and Uto-Aztecan peoples of Mexico; historical reconstruction of ethnobiological classification systems; traditional use of non-cultivated food plants and textile fibers and dyes in Mesoamerica. Among his publications is: "Estudios etnobotánicos en Oaxaca" (with G.J. Martin; in: E. Leff, J. Carabias and A.I. Batiz (eds.), Recursos Naturales, Tecnicos, y Cultura: Estudios y Experiencia Para el Desarrollo Alternativo, 1990).
The state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico represents the area of greatest biological and linguistic diversity in Mesoamerica, itself one of the foci of ecological and cultural complexity on the planet. Various community-initiated efforts to conserve their natural and cultural resources, including the indigenous languages, are underway in Oaxaca. In this paper I review the experiences of three initiatives that have skillfully married the interests of urban environmentalists with communal concerns to bolster cultural autonomy and reaffirm sovereignty over indigenous lands and resources.
Santiago Tamazola, a Mixtec community in the pine-oak highlands, succeeded in the early 1980s in getting the state government to recognize legally a set of local regulations that include specific measures to control the use of natural resources. The regulations spell out obligations of all communal heads-of-household towards the conservation of forests, soils and water, at the same time that they affirm the exclusive rights of the community over those resources. Furthermore, Tamazola's communal legislation asserts forcefully the cultural and linguistic rights of the Mixtec citizenry. It legitimizes the use of the Mixtec language in all legal procedures at the level of the municipal government, including judiciary hearings and declarations taken under oath. It sets forth emphatically the right of community members to primary education in the indigenous language, and it translates carefully into legal code the traditional observances of respect and deference towards the elders and their knowledge.
Other communities in Oaxaca have followed in the footsteps of Tamazola in drafting and implementing communal regulations that link cultural rights and environmental conservation. Santiago Comaltepec, a Chinantec community with one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes in the region, obtained funds from an international environmentalist organization to support a lengthy and controversy-ridden process of internal consultation that eventually produced a set of communal regulations. As a result of this process, Comaltepec has set aside an area of cloud forest as a natural protected area, declared unilaterally and actively protected by the community. Santa Maria Chimalapa, a Zoque community on the Isthmus that owns the largest tract of primary moist forests left in southern Mexico, considered by environmentalists to be the most important area for conservation in the country, has similarly approached US-based foundations to finance the logistic and legal costs of developing a communal legislation that safeguards the cultural and agrarian rights of the indigenous peoples.
A discussion of the particular experiences and problems of the three initiatives leads me to propose some general recommendations for actions seeking to foster closer alliances between local communities, activist organizations and the academic community in this field. Based on these experiences, I argue that effective work in cultural promotion and environmental protection requires a sophisticated understanding of political process at the local, regional and national levels. I stress the importance of approaching endangered languages, knowledge and environments in the wider context of endangered human rights.
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