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1. The economic base that allows the perpetuation and reproduction of the indigenous communities is an area of territory destined for the production of maize, bean, squash, pepper, etc. These territories are divided into as many plots as there are households in the community. The use of plots by each household is possible as long as they are cultivated and households lose their right to the plots if these are left uncultivated for a period of time determined by the community (between two and four years). In the case of irrigated plots the period may be shorter. The work invested in the plots, rather than their possession is what determines the right of use.

2. In spite of the introduction of new forms of production in the indigenous communities, including concepts of private property and private use of land, and the commercialization of goods, the indigenous communities subsist on an agrarian base. A significant variable, however, is the concept of the land as a sacred good rather than a material good to be possessed or exchanged. The cultivation of the household plot (milpa) with an average of between 3 to 5 hectares represents an economic, pragmatic, and rational activity, as well as a magical-religious act without which production is inconceivable. Land then, is the pillar, which maintains the cohesion of the kin group and related extended families forming the community. The attachment and concept of land constitutes the means of social as well as of economic reproduction for the indigenous communities, and it affords them individual security, group cohesion, and cultural continuity.

3. In addition to subsistence production, the majority of indigenous communities also have commercial crops, destined exclusively for the market economy, such as coffee, sugarcane, wheat, tobacco, vanilla, citrus fruits, etc. Commercial crops are an increasing share in the rural indigenous communities and these products are in the first instance distributed between communities in the state or region and subsequently enter the national as well as the international markets.

4. Consumption is based on the level of production obtained in the plots complemented by small-scale livestock production as well as fruits and vegetables of the home gardens. Additional products are obtained through exchange of these products in regional markets. The diversity of this production is impressive. In the five agro-ecological areas of the State of Veracruz, for instance, there are 60 different species produced. In the home gardens of the Chontal area of the State of Tabasco there are 285. A similar diversity is found in the Huasteca region where 185 species were inventoried of which 82 are medicinal plants.

5. The home garden and its associated small livestock production are the responsibility of women. All the products obtained from this household-based activity are used within the household as well as sold in local and regional markets, and are an important source of household income.

6. Depending on the region, hunting and fishing are also important sources of income for the indigenous households, as in the case of Campeche�s Maya municipalities, as are plants from forests.

7. The agricultural and livestock production technologies are relatively simple; however, these have been increasingly modernized in the last few decades through the use of fertilizer, machinery, etc. whose costs are paid out of the products in excess of subsistence needs of the household.

Indigenous Regions

8. It is often thought that the indigenous regions are homogeneous. This is misleading in that each region has particular characteristics and cultural patterns. A shared characteristic is that the indigenous areas are occupied primarily by various indigenous groups plus some mestizo population, which renders them multi-ethnic. An example is the Huasteca area with Nahuas, Teenek, Totonac, and Otomi; Chiapas with nine different linguistic groups all belonging to the Maya language family; or Oaxaca where there are 16 distinct ethnic groups. Other regions, such as Jalisco have a single dominant group, the Huichol.

9. In indigenous areas there are magnet centers controlled by the mestizo population who exert their power in the economic, cultural and social spheres. Examples of such centers are San Cristobal las Casas in Chiapas, with a network that extends to surrounding communities, settlements, and municipalities comprised of indigenous populations. Likewise, there are connected inter-ethnic regions, for example Orizaba, Cordoba, Jalapa, Tehuacan and Tuxtepec, where the relations with communities, and indigenous municipalities are characterized by relations of subordination and dependency in the legal, and political domains. These exert pressure to modify the nature of internal economic community relations and to determine the types of production as well as marketing channels.

10. Another example, significant because of the high population it encompasses, is the network of magnet centers in the Eastern Sierra Madre encompassing the states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosi, Hidalgo, Puebla and Oaxaca. These magnet centers alone influence over three million indigenous people.

  • Veracruz
  • Hidalgo
  • San Luis Potosi
  • Puebla
  • Oaxaca
cities as economic and political axis
small magnet centers
settlements or communities
language groups and 3 million indigenous peoples

The indigenous population of over three million in this region produce the majority of the nation�s crops of coffee, sugarcane, vanilla, fruit (orange, avocado, papaya, banana, etc.).

In addition there is the gathering and collection of barbasco for the chemical industry and an array of forest products because of the extensive forests in this region.

11. All this wealth is taken by the indigenous population to the magnet centers where the mestizo population controls the benefits of the coffee production, rice mills, distilleries, sugar cane mills, fruit packing industries, transport of merchandise and passengers, commerce, and banking. The best land in these areas is concentrated in the hands of this population as well as extensive livestock production and irrigation. All this production and wealth is transferred to larger regional centers and from these to the wider national and international markets.

Map 3. Distribution of the Magnet Centers of the Eastern Sierra Madre

Main Magnet Center

Secondary Magnet Center

Table 7.1 Composite Classification of Magnet Centers in the Eastern Sierra Madre and their relations with Indigenous Populations


Magnet Center
Indigenous Group
Ciudad Valles, S. L.P. Huastecos
Ciudad Santos, S. L. P. Huastecos
Tamazunchales, S. L. P. Nahuas
Huejutla, Hgo. Nahuas
Tantoyuca, Ver. Nahuas y huastecos
Tenango de Doria, Hgo. Otomíes y tepehuas
Tulancingo, Hgo. Nahuas y Otomíes
Acaxochitán, Hgo. Nahuas
Chicontepec, Ver. Nahuas
Huayacocotla, Ver. Nahuas
Huauchinango, Pue. Nahuas y totonacos.
Zacatlán, Pue. Nahua
Xicotepec de Juárez, Pue. Nahuas y totonacos.
Tetela de Ocampo, Pue. Nahuas y totonacos.
Cuetzalan, Pue. Nahuas y totonacos.
Zacapoaltla, Pue. Nahuas.
Teziutlán, Pue. Nahuas.
Huehuetla, Pue. Totonacos.
Papantla, Ver. (Poza Rica) Totonacos.
Altotonga, Ver. Nahuas.
Perote, Ver. Nahuas.
Jalapa, Ver. Nahuas
Huatusco, Ver. Nahuas
Córdova, Ver. Nahuas
Orizaba, Ver. Nahuas
Zongolica, Ver. Nahuas
Tehuacán, Pue. Nahuas
Teotitlán del Camino, Oax. Nahuas
Huautla de Jiménez, Oax. Mazatecos
Tierra Blanca, Ver. Nahuas y mazatecos.
Tuxtepec, Ver. Mazatecos y chinantecos
Valle Nacional, Oax. Chinantecos.
Ixtlán del Río,
Zapotecos y chinantecos
Villa Alta, Oax. Zapotecos y mixes.
Mitla, Oax. Zapotecos y mixes.
Oaxaca, Oax. Zapotecos, mixes, chinantecos
y cuicatecos.
Zacatepec Mixes, Oax. Mixes
Yalalag, Oax. Zapotecos y mixes.
Acayucan, Ver. Nahuas y popolucas.
Matías Romero, Oax. Zapotecos y mixes.

12. It is also important to mention that it is in the same regions where the majority of hydroelectric resources of the country are located, as well as the major mining centers, and petroleum destined in their entirety for the rest of the country and for export.

13. Isolation and marginalization are the persistent characteristics of the indigenous communities within each region and micro-region where caciques or big men hold the power to manipulate each municipality and indigenous community.

14. One can conclude that the system of economic, social, political, and legal relations is totally asymmetric. The 100 larger urban centers of the country control approximately 200 smaller urban centers, which in turn subordinate 25,000 indigenous or campesino communities encompassing over 50 ethnic groups.

Natural Resources


15. The appropriation of the natural resource base by the indigenous communities in the areas they inhabit is characterized by a distinctly non-materialist view of nature inherited from their past. The indigenous vision of nature perceives it as a sacred and living entity with which they interact, dialogue, and negotiate in the process of production. This conception of nature is opposed to that emanating from the urban and commercial areas and the agro-industrial world designed to extract food, raw products, and energy required for the dominant enclaves. The following table shows the characteristics that distinguish indigenous production from agro-industrial production.

Table 7.2 Main Characteristics of Indigenous and Agro-Industrial Production and Natural Resource Use

Indigenous Production
Energy Basic use of solar energy for production Primarily dependent on fossil fuels
Scale Small holder plots (Minifundio) Medium to large properties
Self-sufficiency High use of vegetable fertilizers High use of externally produced inputs for production
Labor force Family and Community based labor Family and or wage labor
Diversity Diversified and multi-crop production Specialized mono-crop production
Productivity Low labor productivity High labor productivity
Wastes Low waste production High waste production
Knowledge Empirically based and orally transmitted Based on specialized knowledge systems with writing and other modern
communication means
Cosmology Nature as a living and sacred entity. Each natural element embodied
as deities with whom it is necessary to negotiate for the processes of
Nature as a system (or machine), separate from society, whose wealth
is exploited through science and technology.

Victor M. Toledo. “An Ecological-Economy Typology of Rural Producers.” In Economia informa, No. 243, 1997.

16. The indigenous peoples exploit the natural resource base through a multiple-use strategy that sustains the ecological processes and natural life cycles. The same diversified strategy is mirrored in the productive systems. For instance, multiple crop production, or aquatic resource use, where the productive systems integrate agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and small-scale livestock production.

Instituto de Ecologia, UNAM

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