The Huave people's demographics and lands

Discover more about the territories and population makeup of the Huave people in Mexico.

The Huave people's demographics and lands
Details about the population and geography of the Huave people. Credit: INPI

Changes in fishing activities have had different effects on the populations along the coast, even though their effects are local. The cities of San Francisco and San Dionisio del Mar have added different rainfed crops to their production systems to make them more diverse.

The same thing doesn't hold for San Mateo del Mar, which doesn't make enough extras to be able to sell on the market. Land conditions make it hard to grow corn, but Zapotec traders still bring it in. They have turned the local market into a place where they buy fish production in exchange for agricultural and industrial goods.

In this situation, fishing is no longer enough to support a town where 67 percent of the Huave people live. The population pressure on the land is proportionally opposite at each end of the coast. This means that the number of land and water hectares is much lower where the Huave population is the largest.

The growing number of people in the three municipalities made it more likely that the land would be broken up by large numbers of people moving away from the center. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the Huaves of San Dionisio started to move from their old town, which was on a narrow sandbar, to the other side of the river.

During the 1960s, the same thing happened in San Francisco del Mar, where state officials encouraged people to move inland to get away from the dunes that were moving quickly toward the town. The community had to move to farmland that had once belonged to the Huaves but was now occupied by Zapotec settlers from San Francisco Ixhuatán and Reforma de Pineda. This was how the community was moved.

The Huaves of San Francisco del Mar

In 1972, however, a presidential resolution gave the Huaves of San Francisco del Mar an area of nearly 50,000 hectares of communal lands, which constituted an increase of 50 percent of the occupied territory, compared to the previous decades.

San Mateo del Mar's communal lands have slowly shrunk over time, especially in the cultivated areas to the west of the municipality. This is different from what happened in neighboring municipalities, which were able to grow. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Huaves who lived between the Tehuantepec River and Salina Cruz had to leave their ranches and move to the left side of the river.

This movement, which shows that farmland wasn't very important to a population that mostly fished at the time, led to a steady flow of Zapotec settlers into the area between Boca del Ro and San Pedro Huilotepec.

The Huaves of San Mateo del Mar responded with a policy of repopulation that was meant to stop the Zapotec invasion and protect the borders of Huazantlán. Huazantlán was built on land that used to be part of the "Guazantlán" hacienda, which belonged to the Marquesado del Valle.

Huazantlán is the most important municipal agency in San Mateo del Mar because of its size and strategic location. It is also the area with the most population growth in the area. It is home to more and more Huave fishermen, who, because there aren't as many fish and shrimp as there used to be, have turned to small-scale rain-fed agriculture.

This is only possible because of the humidity from the Tehuantepec River and the rains that fall from June to September. But these are happening less and less often in the area because Irrigation District 19 was made, which meant that 53,000 hectares of lowland jungle in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec plain had to be cut down. This left the area exposed to the northern winds that dry out the area in a few months.

The Huave zone was not only left out of the irrigation system, which mostly helped the agro-industrial cultivation areas, but its natural environment also slowly got worse, causing the land to become saltier and saltier and the lagoons to fill up over time. Before the Benito Juárez dam was built in the 1970s, which was the hydraulic project that had the most effect on the Oaxacan Isthmus, it was thought that 90 percent of the lagoon system came from freshwater rivers.

At the moment, half of every cubic meter of water that comes out of this dam in Jalapa del Marqués and is fed by the Tehuantepec River goes to the industrial port of Salina Cruz, 25% goes to Irrigation District 19, and the rest usually just evaporates. In the early 1980s, a government study warned about how bad the environment was getting by saying, "When the Tehuantepec River stopped flowing, the humidity it brought turned this area into a huge dune, which is bad for the environment."

Source: Huaves, by Saúl Millán, pages 12-15. Saúl Millán is Dr. in Anthropological Sciences. He is a professor-researcher at the National School of Anthropology and History of the National Institute of Anthropology and History. National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas)