Mexico: Separated by climate change: indigenous migration from Chiapas to Mexico City

By Kirstin Adkinson

Though Mexico’s indigenous population is the largest in Latin America, amounting to around 17 million people, they continue to face discrimination on a daily basis. Indeed, the inequality gap between indigenous peoples and the general population of Mexico is the widest in the world – a stark reality that is especially evident in Mexico City. Few of the capital’s indigenous residents were born there: most were forced to leave their birthplaces due to drug violence, land seizures and, more recently, the effects of climate change on their traditional livelihoods.

In Mexico’s poorest state, Chiapas, indigenous peoples make up more than a third of the population. Walk down the streets of its rural villages and you are more likely to hear an indigenous language than Spanish. Most people here live in extreme poverty in the most basic of shelters and lack essential services such as water and sanitation. Farming, while providing the main source of income for many locals, has already been negatively impacted by the declining price of agricultural products globally. In Chiapas, where the main crop is coffee, farmers earn only a fraction of the wages of their counterparts in the more agriculturally diverse northern regions. As a result, many do not make enough money to feed their families, and a large proportion of indigenous children are malnourished. The region’s marginalization is also reflected in worse health outcomes: for example, mothers are more than twice as likely to die in childbirth in Chiapas than in Mexico as a whole.

The agricultural crisis has been compounded by the effects of climate change in Chiapas: its coastal location makes it particularly vulnerable to these phenomena. Degrading soil quality, rising temperatures and decreased rainfall patterns have ruined much of the land used for cultivation. For farmers with barely enough land to make a living, even the smallest changes can be devastating. When farming is no longer a viable source of income, indigenous families are forced to make the decision to send a family member to the city so that they can seek out better economic opportunities. Men are traditionally the ones who participate in agricultural activities and are therefore often the ones who migrate to urban areas, predominantly Mexico City, when they are affected by soil degradation or lose their harvests.

The move to the capital, though driven by the search for better opportunities there, typically brings new forms of deprivation. Concentrated in the poorer neighbourhoods, indigenous city dwellers are frequently forced into cramped apartments that often consist of only one room. In addition, they face broader social discrimination: there have even been reports of rural indigenous migrants – who often speak very little Spanish – being detained and threatened with deportation while en route to urban centres. Language barriers also prevent newly arrived indigenous migrants from fully integrating into city life. Access to bilingual education is inadequate and of the indigenous people who can speak Spanish, many are illiterate. Low education levels are exacerbated by the fact that indigenous young people who migrate to cities are forced to look for work rather than continuing their education. This leaves indigenous peoples potentially less able to be employed in skilled labour.

The discrimination that indigenous peoples face in Mexico City leaves younger generations less willing to embrace their culture, with higher proportions unable to speak a language other than Spanish. Even those who do participate in indigenous culture in the city face the risk of being cut off from their communities back home. Peoples such as the Triqui and Zapoteac require in-person participation in certain community activities. Failing to take part in these activities can result in losing the privilege to engage in the benefits of the community, such as communal land.

Rural to urban migration has impacts on daily life back home as well. Nearly five times as many males as females emigrate from Chiapas. This has led to a rapid shift in traditional gender roles as women have had to take on new responsibilities within both the household and wider society. While this has typically been driven by economic hardship and social strains, it is also notable that many women have been able to take on more leadership roles within the community: today there are more female ejidatarios, or heads of communal land, than ever before.

Indigenous women have also been able to take greater initiative in the development of business opportunities. Unlike in other migrant communities, the women who are left behind in Chiapas do not necessarily rely on remittances from male family members, but instead some have been able to develop skills that enable them to be financially independent. Rather than spending their days at home and maintaining the house, many women will either go into the fields themselves if their families still have viable farms or find other jobs. Some women have even set up their own small businesses selling tamales and quesadillas.

While these experiences are by no means universal – many women are still subject to the decision-making of their absent husbands and continue to be constrained by the patriarchal norms of their community – they nevertheless illustrate the potential opportunities of progressive social change as an adaptation strategy to climate change. In the meantime, as indigenous families remain separated by migration, a systematic approach is needed that focuses on both the difficulties of integration in urban areas and the challenges of a failing rural economy in areas like Chiapas. Until that occurs, indigenous families will remain in a limbo. 

You can find this case study in MRG’s new report No escape from discrimination: Minorities, indigenous peoples and the crisis of displacement

Photo credit: Mindaugas Danys

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Date: 13/12/2017




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