Water and indigenous peoples

Coca Cola plant in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Bottling plants are sucking the water away from indigenous Chiapas communities.

By: Francisco López Bárcenas

Last March 22 we celebrated World Water Day, so declared by the United Nations Organization to foment awareness in humanity about the importance of the vital liquid for the continuity of life on the planet. It is for nothing less. Water is an element that only exists on planet earth and is also indispensable for all life, because without it life is unimaginable. Contrary to this reality, capital has managed to convert it into merchandise, a good coveted by private companies so they can offer it to those who have the money to buy it. That is generating many of the conflicts in Mexican society because, before satisfying the necessities for life, it is used to feed industry, maintain the big agricultural cattle emporia, and for the export and extraction of minerals, hydrocarbons and gas from the Mexican subsoil.

From another point of view, to the indigenous peoples, besides being indispensable for life, or perhaps because of that, water contains sacred elements, because in its natural state, whether in places where it flows, through the rivers and ravines where it runs or the seas where it arrives, it’s linked to myths about origin and communication with their gods, so much so that in the pre-Hispanic epoch the priests administered it, a fact that, with the necessary transformations, is preserved today. This situation clashes openly with the mercantile use that has been its fate in recent years because of capital, a situation that openly confronts them, because many of the indigenous peoples inhabit sources of watersheds, to the extent that in the 12.4 percent of the national territory that indigenous peoples occupy 24.69 percent of all the country’s water is captured. Consequently, it is in the indigenous territories where more conflicts are presented over the use and enjoyment of the vital liquid.

Paradoxically in all the legislation on indigenous rights that has been issued in our country, not one piece of legislation exists that refers to their right of access to and enjoyment of water. What may be most related to this matter is in the provision of the second article of the Political Constitution of the United Mexican States, which in its Section VI of its part A, determines that, as part of their autonomy, indigenous peoples have the right “to the use and preferential enjoyment of the natural resources of the places that the communities inhabit and occupy, except those that correspond to strategic areas, in the terms of this Constitution.” Given that water is a natural resource, the indigenous peoples that live inside the country’s watersheds have the preferential right to the use and enjoyment of those waters, a right that the authorities violate daily by extending concessions for use to private parties without even notifying them (the indigenous peoples).

The right does not remain as a preference for their use and enjoyment in front of third parties. Articles 15 and 16 of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) on indigenous peoples, prescribes that the rights of indigenous peoples about the natural resources must be specially protected, which includes the obligation of state authorities to create mechanisms so that they participate in the utilization, administration and conservation of said resources, in this case water; besides, when the resources belong to the State, as in the Mexican case, adequate procedures must be established for consulting them before exploration or exploitation of said resources are undertaken or authorized; as well as participating in the benefits that such activities report, and perceiving an equitable indemnification for any damage that they may suffer as a result of those activities.

Several centuries ago, it was established in the Laws of the Indies: “that where there were regions and a proposal to found populations and some people want to do it, they were given lands, urban plots and waters” establishing “that lands would not be given or sold to the Spaniards with prejudice to the Indians, but rather that they were left with all the remaining lands belonging to them, and the waters and irrigations for their seed orchards and so that they can water their cattle, distributing to them and giving them what they would need.” Now, on the occasion of World Water Day, the UN’s representation lamented that: “for a long time, the world has resorted in the first place to constructed infrastructure or ‘gray’ for improving the management of water resources. By doing so, it has frequently set aside traditional and indigenous knowledge that adopts more ecological approaches.”

The Spanish State was right and the UN was right, but we must not only take advantage of the knowledge of the indigenous peoples in the management of water, we must also fully recognize their rights. Not only would they win with this. We would all win.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Thursday, March 29, 2018


Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee






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