The Huichol live in small communities scattered through the canyons and valleys of the western Sierra Madre in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Durango. They live off the land, cultivating corn, beans and chili peppers on the steep mountain slopes.
Descended from the Aztecs, the Huichol believe that the Cerro Quemado (Burnt Hill) at Wirikuta is where their ancestors witnessed the birth of the sun. The first deer hunt also took place here. Out of the deer’s footprint the Peyote, or sacred cactus, grew.
Each year a special group of Huichol makes a pilgrimage to Wirikuta, 500kms to the east in San Luis Potosí state, to eat the Peyote and make offerings to the gods.
Protecting the Huichol’s cultural heritage
For years, people have been stealing the Huichol’s offerings from the Cerro Quemado. The pilgrimage has also become more difficult, with heavily guarded private properties along the route.
In 1994, a road was proposed which was to traverse the heart of the Huichol sacred site. In response to requests from the Huichol, the San Luis Potosí government declared 73,000 hectares of Wirikuta a protected area.
DW reporter Andrea Rönsberg on the Cerro Quemado
Six years later, the reserve almost doubled in size and included about 130 kilometers of the pilgrimage route. In June 2001, the state government decided the reserve should be protected for both its sacred and natural value.
The Governor of San Luis Potosí, Fernando Silva Nieto, says the idea for a reserve was first developed by the previous state government together with the WWF.
“When I became governor, we were keen to complete this concept,” Nieto told DW Radio’s Andrea Rönsberg. “That meant extending the boundaries of the reserve as well as aiming for a more comprehensive protection, not only of the Huichol’s rituals and pilgrimage but also preserving the bio-diversity.”
The Wirikuta reserve in the ecoregion of the Chihuahuan desert is one of the richest deserts in the world, with over three thousand plants, 120 reptiles, 250 birds and even more mammals.
For the Huichol, the Peyote cactus is the most significant of the desert’s native flora. It contains a number of alkaloids which produce a hallucinatory effect when they are consumed. The Huichol use the peyote as a means to communicate with their gods and ancestors.
Former Huichol governor, Andres Bautista, with his son. Photo: Andrea Rönsberg
Andres Bautista, a former Huichol governor, says the Peyote is like a book. “It’s a teacher. We also learn how to cure people and to distinguish between medicinal plants. The Peyote teaches us all of that.”
Eating Peyote is sacred to the Huichol and is permitted only during spiritual ceremonies. On all other occasions, the cactus is an illegal drug. Inevitably, tourists come to eat Peyote in Wirikuta, and many take away more than they need for their own consumption. Drug trafficking has become a problem.
Despite the challenges of protecting the reserve’s diverse flora and fauna, conservationists and government officials believe they have succeeded in several important areas. The Wirikuta reserve is the first ‘sacred natural’ site, and it is the only protected area in Mexico for which a management plan exists.
The state government of San Luis Potosí, the Mexican bank Banamex, and WWF have set up a foundation for the protection of the state’s reserves. As well as making products such as plant-based shampoos and lotions, the foundation has provided several communities with solar panels for electricity.
Martín Martínez, the Foundation’s technical director, is excited about the scope of these projects to improve the lives of local people as well as protecting Wirikuta’s natural resources.
The foundation is trying to bring the Royal Eagle, one of Mexico’s national symbols, back to the reserve, Martínez explains. “The eagle is part of an entire eco-system and so we have to protect many other species like the herb oregano in order to make this environment habitable for the eagle, and in order to make him return here.”
Andrea Rönsberg, DW Radio
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