Felipe Arreaga is a peasant—a poor farmer. He has spent his whole life in the Petatlán mountains in the Mexican state of Guerrero about 350 kilometers to the southwest of the capital, Mexico City. When Felipe was growing up in the 1950s, life was difficult for the peasants in the mountains. There were few schools or roads, little electrical power, and medical services were very poor.
In the Petatlán mountains—as in the rest of Mexico—most of the land is communally, not privately, owned. In 1917, after the Mexican revolution, parcels of land, called ejidos, were given to every village in the country. This land could not be sold. It belonged to all the villagers, and they, as a group, decided how the land was going to be used.
Up until 1950, the forests covering the Petatlán mountains were almost completely undisturbed, but during that time, commercial logging began. Because they owned the land in the ejidos, the villagers expected that they would be able to use the profits made from selling the trees to improve their lives. They thought they would finally have schools and roads and hospitals and electrical power.
However, that is not how things turned out: The logging industry actually damaged the peasants’ lives. By 2000, forty percent of the forests in the Petatlán mountains had been destroyed by logging. But the peasants still didn’t have good roads or schools, or hospitals, or much electrical power.
The Mexican government and the Guererro state government granted licences to private companies including foreign-owned companies to log the mountains—and allowed them to keep the profits without compensating the peasants. By the 1970s much of the forest had been cut down. This was causing erosion and having a bad effect on water supplies. In addition, some of the cleared land had been planted with marijuana and opium poppies—once again for private profit.
It was during that time that Felipe and some other peasants began working together to protect their mountains and valleys against the inroads of private business. They approached the Governor of Guererro State, Rubén Figueroa, to ask for help. However, as Felipe explained many years later, instead of helping them he sent soldiers to attack them.
In those days there was fighting in the mountains —between rebels and the Mexican army. Because Felipe’s group had asked the government for help, the army thought they must be rebel supporters. So, in 1976, they attacked Felipe’s village, Fresnos de Puerto Rico. His mother, Leonor, and his aunt were killed. Felipe was wounded and captured. He would probably have been hanged if a friend who worked for the government had not managed to persuade an army colonel that he was not connected with the rebels.
During the years that followed, Felipe continued to work to improve the life of the mountain peasants. He tried, as he puts it, to continue being a ‘moral leader’. Despite the efforts of Felipe and others, the logging continued, and the forests continued to disappear.
The peasants blamed the huge American company, Boise Cascade, for much of the damage that was being done to their environment. During the nineties, the company enlarged its mill in Papanoa, on the Guererro coast, and increased the amount of logging they were doing. In 1998, Felipe and other members of a group called the Peasant Environmentalist Organization of Petatlán and Coyuca blockaded Boise Cascade’s logging trucks. As a result, logging was stopped, and Boise Cascade announced that it was leaving Guererro. After this success, Felipe and others had to hide in mountain caves for several months because they were again being hunted by soldiers.
When the army stopped looking for him, Felipe, working with his wife Celsa, concentrated on educating his fellow peasants. He taught them how to prevent pesticide pollution by growing fruit and vegetables organically. He encouraged them to use their land as efficiently as possible by sowing fruit trees in the ravines. He explained the importance of protecting the water supply and preventing erosion.
By 2003, however, logging was increasing again. In the Petatlán mountains, as in many parts of Mexico, country bosses, called caciques, were doing their best to control the peasants on behalf of government, or the army, or big business. One of these bosses, Niño Bautista, was working on behalf of lumber companies and trying to get cancelled logging licences renewed. Felipe spoke out against this at a public meeting.
Shortly after criticizing the renewal of the licences, on November 3, 2004, Felipe was arrested and charged with the murder of one of Niño’s sons, Abel. Abel had been killed in a roadside ambush in 1998. His brother, Priscilliano, who was driving with him at the time, was the only witness. When Felipe appeared in court, Priscilliano testified against him. He said he had hidden under a rock after his brother had been shot and that he had recognized Felipe and twelve others who had ambushed the vehicle. He didn’t remember what any of them was wearing, but he knew all their names. It turned out later that one of the people whose names he gave had been dead for two years when the murder took place.
Felipe told the court that on the day of the murder he had been in a village called Las Mesas three hours’ drive away. He had gone there, he explained to get treatment for a back injury. He had many witnesses to back up his story, but the judge decided that there was enough evidence to keep him in jail. Felipe’s friends say he was framed—to get him out of the way and to frighten people who support him. When he was interviewed in jail Felipe himself said, “The simple truth is that I was working against the interests of the rich and powerful. Everyone who was secretly stealing lumber from the forests was against me.”
- information from: La Jornada (Mexico) 05.02.01, 05.02.02, 05.02.04. (Rosa Rojas); “The Framing of Felipe Arreaga,” Counterpunch 5.01.07 (Kent Paterson)