Cherán, Mexico is a town of 16,000 indigenous Purepechan Mexicans set up in the western state of Michoacán about 200 miles from Mexico City. For years, illegal loggers, protected by drug cartel gunmen, have ravaged the area's communal forests and murdered a number of townspeople. When the residents of Cherán asked their municipal, state and federal authorities for help, they did nothing, so the community took justice into their own hands. About a year ago, the residents of Cherán rose up in an armed rebellion and kicked out the loggers, cartels, and the corrupt local government. Since then, they’ve implemented self-governance based on traditional customs. They defend the borders of the town with community patrols. In Cherán today, there are no political campaigns, no ballots, no political parties, no elections, and no alcohol.
Isolated in the middle of rainy, cold Michoacán forests, Cherán warms up at night around the barricades. The burning fires are gathering points for the citizens to organize and govern themselves.
During VICE Mexico’s recent trip to the community en rebelde, they spoke to Serafin, a young Purepechan photographer who has spent the last several years covering the conflict:
VICE: Where are you from?
Juan Jose: My name is Juan Jose Estrada Serafin. I’m from the Turicuaro community and am a correspondent for a newspaper called El Cambio de Michoacán [The Michoacán Change]. I cover three local municipalities: Paracho, Cherán, and Nahuatzen.
What’s your experience of the uprising been?
Other communities like Sevina and Turicuaro have defended their forests like Cherán has, but the conflict in Cherán has been different because of the presence of organized crime. It’s similar to the case of Comachuen and Sevina. Sevina accused Comachuen of illegally logging their forest. The truth is that people were actually logging their neighbors' forests because they didn’t have any resources.
How did you approach photographing Cherán?
I’ve always had a thing for these kind of conflicts, so of course Cherán drew my attention. But at first it was very hard to gain access to the community. On the third day of the conflict I managed to sneak inside the community. Everything was done really fast and it was very tense. I sent some pictures back to the paper I was working for but they told me they were too shocking and couldn’t be published. They complained that the images were too graphic, guys with machetes pulling over trucks, but that was what just what my camera was capturing.
After that I got a contact who helped me get acquainted with the people involved in the movement so that I could take some more pictures. I met some old people there and they started asking me questions in Purepechan dialect. When I answered, they said, “Yeah, he can talk Purepechan and has a good accent.” So after that, I ended up going up into the forest to see what was going on. The forest was devastated. I went up with a brigade of about 70 armed people. With my images, they had some material to tell authorities about what was going on in their town.
I told the locals they needed to have some sort of media of their own because after seeing what the other newspapers were writing I realized how misinformed everyone was about the situation. Through help from a friend here, a webpage went up called micheran.com that was eventually shut down due to lack of funding.
You say there was misinformation by part of the mainstream media. What were they writing?
The whole thing was being covered as if it was some internal problem and some government officials started talking about the issue as if it wasn’t a logging issue. As time went by, they started realizing that there was a huge problem involving the cartels and deforestation. The damage that was being done became evident. You could go down the road from Cherán to Carapan and see illegal loggers cutting down trees in broad daylight.
So afterwards you became part of the movement that you were documenting?
I was definitely involved. In a certain way I helped people by giving them ideas and advice on what could be done. I’m now studying Intercultural Communications and we’re seeing this case from an academic point of view. I’m Purepechan and I know that by not having a space to express ourselves, our message will never be considered relevant. For me, it’s important for us to have our own media so we can have our own voice. In this country there are many communication channels but, who has the voice? Politicians are the ones paying for it. We, as natives, should have our own media so we can inform everyone, from the inside, about what’s going on, what we’re doing.
Is the autonomous form of government in Cherán working?
Well yeah, it’s working. Everyone in the community participates instead of just having a few people making all the calls. From the campfire and street corners, entire families contribute their feelings on how things should be done. Those ideas reach the communal assemblies where general agreements are made. Each commission makes decisions to see what will be done in their own areas, but the overall general decisions are made in the communal assemblies. The communal assembly is the highest authority.
What will you do your photographs?
It’s very difficult to find a place to exhibit the pictures because most people say things like, “Sure, I’ll invite you, but you take care of exhibiting them and you pay the prints.” So far I’ve taken my material to Chiapas, three times to Morelia, Mexico City, and Puebla for a meeting of indigenous communicators. I think I shouldn't be taking the exhibition to faraway places, considering the trouble is located right here. The thing is taking it to the communities themselves, so it can resonate locally. Leave it there for two or three days and then take it to a different community. It’s tough due to the economic situation. I have this project but resources are needed to move around and nobody is really willing to contribute with that.