Mexico: The Yaqui Tribe Defend their Right to Water

“The Yaqui River is a structural part of our life and with this theft of our water, they are condemning us to death as a people,” said Mario Luna, secretary of the traditional authorities of the Yaqui tribe, warning that his people are facing the greatest ever threat to their existence: the dispossession of the waters that give them economic and cultural sustenance.

“The Yaqui River is a structural part of our life and with this theft of our water, they are condemning us to death as a people,” said Mario Luna, secretary of the traditional authorities of the Yaqui tribe, warning that his people are facing the greatest ever threat to their existence: the dispossession of the waters that give them economic and cultural sustenance.

The ancestral home of the indigenous Yaqui People is the valley of the Yaqui River, in the state of Sonora in northern Mexico, and the river is their ancestral source of water for drinking, irrigation, and ceremonial purposes. In 2010 the governor of Sonora, Guillermo Padres Elias, announced the construction of the “Independence Aqueduct”, which would extract 75 million cubic metres of water per year from the Yaqui River and carry it 108 miles to the Sonoran capital city of Hermosillo. It is estimated that forty percent of the drinking water in Hermosillo is currently wasted, and the water is destined for industries with high water demands, such as the recently installed Heineken, Ford and Big Cola plants.

The Yaqui people see themselves as the stewards and guardians of the river, but they were not consulted about this project, in clear violation of their rights to free, prior and informed consent, as well as their rights to autonomy and self-determination as indigenous peoples – all laid out in treaties and conventions signed by the Mexican government. The tribe therefore went to court and on May 28, 2012 gained an injunction in the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation saying that the Sonoran government must stop the extraction of water. The Supreme Court ratified this decision on May 8, 2013 saying the rights of the Yaqui people to consultation had been violated. Nevertheless, the work has not stopped, two of the five pumps which make up the aqueduct remain active, and the extraction (or theft) of water from the El Novillo dam on the Yaqui River continues.

The Yaqui say that there is now no water flowing in the river, and they have no water for human consumption, no means to survive in the desert. They cannot grow their crops, because they have no water for irrigation. Sea water is entering the river, causing salinization of farming lands and water supplies. People are becoming ill, the situation is extremely serious, and the whole future of the Yaqui nation is in jeopardy because their most basic and precious resource, the basis of life, is being taken from them.

Protests and Campaigns

Since May 28, 2013 the Yaqui have been maintaining a resistance camp and roadblock at Vicam, the tribe’s main headquarters, on the international highway from Arizona to Sinaloa. As a result, the Mexican government issued criminal charges and arrest warrants against two of the Yaqui indigenous leaders, Mario Luna Romero and Tomás Rojo. On August 7, this action was denounced by Amnesty International in an open letter stating that Amnesty is gravely concerned for the safety and freedom of the two leaders and fears the charges are a reprisal against their legitimate work on behalf of their people’s human rights. “The use of the Mexican justice system to silence those who defend human rights has been a recurrent abuse. Members of indigenous and campesino communities who defend their rights have frequently been victims of the illegitimate use of the justice system to repress those who seek to defend their rights.”(1)

On July 9, 2013 the Zapatista General Command (CCRI-CG of the EZLN), in conjunction with the Mexican Indigenous National Congress (CNI), issued a statement of solidarity and support for the Yaqui, “We believe that the earth is our mother and that the water that runs through her veins is not for sale. The life it gives us is a right, not something that the bad government or the business owners have granted us”. It continues: “We demand the immediate cancellation of the arrest warrants and false accusations against members of the Yaqui Tribe, and we condemn the criminalization of their struggle. To the political party-based bad governments we say that the Yaqui River is the historical carrier of the ancestral continuity of Yaqui culture and territory, and ….that a slight against any of us is a slight against all of us. We will respond accordingly to any attempt to repress this dignified struggle or any other….We make a call to the international community and to our brothers and sisters of the International Sixth to be alert to the events in Yaqui territory and to join in solidarity with the Yaqui Tribe and its demands.”(2)

Following this, at the beginning of August, the Network for Solidarity and against Repression convoked the national and international campaign Namakasia: for the life of the Yaqui Nation, “with the objectives of supporting the fight to stop the theft of the water which belongs to the Yaqui tribe, strengthening the autonomous projects of the Yaqui nation, and spreading the word and the news coming from the traditional authority of the Yaqui Nation.”(3) Namakasia is a Yaqui word representing the dignified struggle of now, and of the ancestors, and that the people should stay strong, living autonomy every day and defending it every moment. It brings all the Yaqui people together under one flag. The campaign held a national and international day of solidarity with the Yaqui tribe on August 30, 2013, with forums and protests held in Mexico City.

The Effects of the Independence Aqueduct on the Yaqui Tribe

The indigenous Yaqui (meaning “one who speaks loudly”) or yoeme (“the true people”) were living in scattered communities in the Yaqui River basin when the invading Spaniards arrived

around 500 years ago, so the area truly represents their ancestral land and territory. They have throughout their history been interconnected with the Yaqui River, not only for their economic survival, but also for their cultural integrity upheld through their stewardship of the river and its waters. The construction of the aqueduct has implications at all levels of their lives: environmental, economic, ecological, health, social, cultural, religious, and ultimately implications for their very survival.

The Yaqui currently live in seven villages in four municipalities. They maintain their traditional social organisation and government through the Traditional Guard, traditional authorities, while decisions are made through consensus in the General Assembly. They see their territory as one and indivisible and therefore the land is under common ownership. The backbone of their traditional land is the Yaqui River, which has a massive symbolic value. The loss of the river makes impossible further distribution of the communal land, because there is no water for irrigation. The social fabric of the nation is thus ripped apart, and the result is destitution or migration. No Yaqui village has drinking water: “this is discrimination against indigenous peoples, specifically the Yaqui people, whose members are treated as second class citizens.”(4)

The Yaqui River also has huge significance in relation to the origin of the world, to the survival of the first people and animals, to the flood, and is an integral part of the mythology of the whole Yaqui worldview. Many of their rituals are associated with their water source, for example private and collective baptism ceremonies. Because the River is so bound up with the Yaqui identity, it can be said that the state government of Sonora has, by violating the Yaqui people’s identity, also violated Article 2 of the Mexican constitution. The same would apply to their rights to autonomy and self-determination, also laid down in the same Article 2, and in other conventions signed and ratified by the Mexican government, such as ILO 169. When Yaqui representatives met with the officers of the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights, they stated “They have built the Independence Aqueduct without consulting the Yaqui people, in clear violation of ILO 169.”

The Struggle Continues

The Yaqui remain firm and alert, and the roadblock continues. The joint actions to defend their water have served to help unite them: “In the fight to save their water, the Yaquis are achieving what years of government intervention has sought to avoid: the unity of the ‘Eight Traditional Peoples’. The Yaqui authorities of Guamúchil Loma who have been pro-government in recent years have now joined the blockades.”(5)  At the roadblock, a young Yaqui affirms: “The smell of rebellion fills the air here in Vícam. In the faces of my fellow brigade members, you can see the signs of our future victory. Namakasia.

But the situation is extremely serious. As the call to protest from the “Defence Brigades of the Yaqui River” says: “All members of the Yaqui tribe …are called to defend your right to a dignified life, and to participate in the protest on the road at Vícam as Guillermo Padres Elias illegally connects a pipe to the Novillo dam, stealing the water that belongs to us.  This is the water that is lacking in our territory, which is needed to irrigate our lands, and for us to consume to stop us getting sick. It is very, very important for us to revive the Yaqui River that is completely dry now.”