Mexico: The Yaqui Tribe’s Struggle for Water

Published 6 October 2014


With the detention of their spokespeople, and rejection of court injunctions in their favor, the Yaqui Tribe of the arid Mexican state of Sonora vow to keep struggling to defend their water and territory.

Members of the Yaqui tribe are calling for a “mega march” on October 10th in the city of Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora to demand the release of activists Mario Luna and Fernando Jimenez and to reject the Independence Aqueduct.

The indigenous group, along with a list of civil organizations, are expecting a turnout of more than 30,000 people to participate.

Luna and Jimenez, spokespeople and elected leaders of the tribe, were detained in September by plain clothed Sonora state officers for the presumed “illegal deprivation of freedom” of community member Francisco Romo and for “auto theft.”

Arrest warrants were issued more than 16 months ago after Romo denounced the indigenous leaders for illegally arresting him in the community of Vicam.

The traditional authorities of Vicam state said that Romo was arrested in accordance with the rules and customs of the Yaqui tribe recognized by the Mexican constitution and international treaties, after he, apparently intoxicated, allegedly attempted to ram his vehicle into a group of community members who were blocking a highway in rejection of the operation of the Independence Aqueduct. But neither Mario Luna or Fernando Jimenez were present during the arrest of Romo, and they deny that they ordered his detention.

For the Yaqui people, the arrest of their authorities represents an attack on the community by the government of Sonora for the tribes incesant opposition since 2010 to the state sponsored aqueduct, and their overall history in defense of their land, resources and territory.

The 172 km long mega project transports more than 60 million cubic meters of water per year from the Novillo dam, which is fed by the Yaqui river, to supply the growing urban complexes of Hermosillo, and to supply the large agroindustry in the region.

It was proposed and initiated by the current Sonora governor, Guillermo Padres, of the center right National Action Party (PAN).

The project openly violates a 1940 presidential decree by then president Lazaro Cardenas, which guarentees that at least 50 percent of the water from the Yaqui River pertains to the Yaqui Tribe.

The project also was initiated violating the indigenous people’s right to an open and free prior consultation. In 2011, the Environment Secretary (SEMARNAT) approved the Environmental Impact Statement and granted permission to begin the project, which also included the use of 50 million cubic meters of water for construction.

Of the 55 Yaqui communities, only 30 percent currently have access to drinking water.

It is also not just the 40,000 Yaqui people who live in the region and depend heavily on the water supply from river, but also up to 1 million people from the nearby city of Obregon, who are mostly small scale agricultural and livestock producers.

Continued Resistance

For the past four years, the Yaqui have organized strong resistance against the aqueduct.

After filing an injunction in June 2013, the tribe got an Eighth District Court Judge to order the shutdown of the Independence Aqueduct, but the City of Hermosillo filed a complaint to an Appeals Court, which ordered the nulification of the construction suspension.

Thus, the tribe decided to employ a strategy of civil disobedience, blocking highways such as Route 15, which also cuts into the United States. These kinds of actions have seen stiffer responses from the authorities.

“They are fabricating crimes against those of us who struggle,” explained Luna in an interview prior to his arrest on September 11. “This is a recurring strategy so as to divide and control communities that protest,” said the official spokesperson of the movement in defense of water and the Yaqui River.

“We recognize that justice and the law is selective. It tends to work against those who are screwed and acts complacent with politicians and corporations, in this case with the governor and businessmen who want to commercialize and privatize our water,” he added.

However, the activist affirmed that the struggle in defense of water and territory would continue with or without his presence and the presence of other leaders.

“We are just spokespeople, but there are many more from the tribe who could fulfill our role and work, it also needs to be understood that others outside of the tribe are joining our struggle and that we are connected to other similar struggles. We have defended our land for centuries,” he said.

The tribe continues to look for solidarity from other civil organizations and indigenous groups. With Luna and Jimenez’s detentions, organizations such as the indigenous based Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) have expressed their support and denounced the aggressions by the authorities.

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