He blames untrained people who are not under the supervision of mara’akames (Wixárika shamans): “People come here and plunder the plants of the Gods.” Under Mexican law, only a few indigenous groups are allowed to harvest peyote, but the law is not consistently enforced in Wirikuta.
Nájera says some of the land cleared for agriculture was abandoned due to harsh weather conditions, but the peyote has not returned even after decades. “It’s heartbreaking. One of the main threats to peyote is changing land use. The cactus does not return to these places.
It’s hard to gauge how much peyote is harvested each year (or how much it grows), but the biggest buyer is thought to be the Native American Church. She buys hundreds of thousands of peyote “buttons” every year from peyoteros in the United States and is exempt from drug laws because the psychoactive cactus is for religious use.
Here, the conundrum facing peyote enthusiasts becomes ever more acute: it is central to religious use inside and outside Mexico, but, amid conservation concerns in Texas as well as in Mexico, can nature meet the demand in the absence of organized culture? ?
The Wixárika community has rarely had decision-making power despite the cultural importance of the land to their very existence, which relies on the sacramental consumption of peyote. They are said to number around 50,000 and many live in poverty.
Their annual, age-old pilgrimage from neighboring states to the desert has been complicated in recent decades by the establishment of roads and the erection of fences by herders, as the BBC documentary shows. Peyote: The Last of the Healers – Huichol People of Mexico. Some ranchers oppose the picking of peyote on their land, but the Wixárika claim a historic right to do so.
In May, hundreds of people marched 900 kilometers to Mexico City to demand the return of their land. “Our feet are tired, but we are more tired of waiting for justice, for our lands to be returned to us. It’s really exhausting,” said Ubaldo Valdez Castañeda.
Conservation and regeneration
A perfect storm of trouble faces the beleaguered community of Wixárika, the primary guardians of the peyote. The first step in protecting the plant, it seems, is to ask those attending the ceremony to collect the seeds from the peyote, so that they can be replanted in the desert. “People don’t realize that it takes 15 years to grow up,” says Nájera. Some are campaigning to exempt peyote from drug decriminalization measures in the United States and to enforce Mexican law that says only Wixárika can harvest peyote.
If peyote is to be conserved, the status of parts of the desert as a sacred natural site recognized by UNESCO must be respected. “The designation has been in place for many years, but nothing has been done to really strengthen peyote protection and conservation,” says Ruiz Smith. “Wirikuta must be recognized as a protected natural area at the federal level to better guarantee its protection and conservation.
Conservation projects are underway. A new grassroots agro-ecological project coordinated by the Wixarika Research Center seeks to regenerate the wider ecosystem after overgrazing and plowing have destroyed wildlife.
Carrillo Lopez, a member of the team behind the new project, stresses the importance of developing regenerative models. “To destroy Wirikuta is to destroy the ways of life of the Wixárika peoples and the invaluable ancestral knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation.”