SIERRA MADRE, Chihuahua, Mexico — As the summer planting season begins, American and Mexican citizens are helping one of Mexico’s most isolated indigenous groups — the Tarahumara of Chihuahua. They face the twin challenges of poverty and corruption; illegal loggers and violent criminal organizations steal their arable land and plunder the mountains.
A tractor donated by a family from Texas tills a field that is 10 hours by road from the U.S.-Mexico border. Corn planting season has started in the Sierra.
The Sierra Madre of Chihuahua is home to Mexico’s lushest pine forests and world-class ultra distance runners. They're renowned for running a hundred miles or more at a time, a skill honed through centuries and made necessary by geography.
Tarahumara ancestral land is epically beautiful but difficult terrain. Its extreme remoteness drew the Tarahumara here five centuries ago, fleeing the Spanish rulers of Mexico. But today, organized crime is present for the same reason, seeking shelter from prying eyes.
Sprinkled across rust colored canyons and the high Sierra Madre, the Tarahumara run in some locations to ferry messages to faraway neighbors.
They can hunt an animal by running with it until the animal falls from fatigue. And they're famed for winning 26 mile marathons with ease.
But the Sierra Madre is also where you find Mexico's most plundered mountains — carpets of broken stumps crown many — its most unrelenting drought, and some of the country’s most barbaric violence.
We’re at the home of Tarahumara Governor Pal Ma. She represents nine indigenous communities. They have seen many changes since NAFTA was passed in 1994, flooding the Mexican market with cheaper US-grown crops. Subsistence farmers like the Tarahumara couldn't sell what they grew. Then came nearly two decades of drought.
Add to the mix illegal loggers and drug traffickers, stealing land with bribes and bullets to grow marijuana destined for the U.S. The lawlessness translates into less and less arable land.
Pal Ma said help pledged during the Mexican election last summer has not materialized.
"The government said we'd get supplies of beans and corn. They said they’d help us with irrigation," she said in Spanish. "But nothing has come."
Beyond government indifference, she said fear haunts many parts of the Sierra.
"We always waiting to see what's on the road because people steal from us. We also don't plant the way we once did," Pal Ma said in Spanish.
A local farmer who is not Tarahumara doesn't want to be named because of security concerns.
"The narcos come here to take the ground, the farms, the tierras and the Tarahumara go and got scared," the farmer said in Spanish.
He said the local government apparatus — police, the military, politicians —is bought and paid for by the cartels.
"Come the army, come the police, federal police, but don't do nothing about this. Tarahumara get hungry," he said.
We arrive at a small plot of land. Tarahumara farmers protected by a another sympathetic farmer are planting corn. The man explains how things work in the Sierra.
He says the drug traffickers force the Tarahumara people to give them acres of land to plant marijuana or poppies, which they use to make heroin or opium. If the Tarahumara don't do what the narco traffickers say, they'll be killed.
A corn field is readied with donated seeds and physical help from Americans and Mexicans in the U.S. Theirs is an irregular but ongoing effort by private citizens in Texas and Arizona to bring in seed and modern equipment to this struggling population.
A 10-year-old Texan whose family came from here explains. "Each week they work, work, work and they don't have enough money to buy food or have a shelter.”
Despite poverty and threats, they remain faithful to their singular culture, a mosaic of Western religion and reverence for nature. There is now a campaign underway to sustain the indigenous language Rarámuri, which means ‘light-footed one.’
Governor Pal Ma says in Rarámuri, "We really value our language."
"Wena tumma juntoa may hoch rah ichara.”
She translates that thought into Spanish.
“Vale mucho nuestra lingua de nosotros la Tarahumara indígena."
Pal Mal said the Tarahumara are hungry in their stomachs, and hungry to maintain a cultural identity that, despite severe stress, survives.
Updated 7/19/2013 at 9:25 p.m.