- Sixteen Indigenous Zapotec communities in Mexico have created over 579 water infrastructure projects, including absorption wells, small dams and water pans, to conserve water in the Oaxaca Valley – a region impacted by recurrent droughts.
- Significant success in harvesting water has been realized, however, farmers still struggle to have enough water due to lack of rain – making water conservation efforts largely fall to dust.
- Last year, the Mexican government recognized their efforts and gave communities a concession to manage water resources locally. Communities are still waiting to know when they will officially receive the concession.
- Just a few women hold leadership positions in these communities, including Josefina, Esperanza and María. They have been involved in water conservation projects since a severe drought hit the region 17 years ago and hope to enhance gender equality in the region.
OCOTLÁN DE MORELOS – “Look up to the El Peral mountains. That is where we do our ritual ceremony to call for rain,” says Josefina Santiago, 43, a Zapotec Indigenous leader. “We bury chocolate, flowers and a maize beverage called tejate to ask for gentle rainfall. We call ourselves water sowers: [we are] reclaiming our traditional rituals while developing absorption wells, water pans, and small dams.”
Josefina lives on her family’s agroecological farm in El Porvenir, a small village of 600 inhabitants in Oaxaca valley, southwestern Mexico. Along with Esperanza Alonzo, another farmer, and María de Los Ángeles Santiago, a hairdresser, the three women are part of the 16 Indigenous Zapotec communities that decided to take action regarding the region’s water shortage and replenish their underground aquifers.
“When I was a kid, all people had enough water. The water was more than 10 meters deep [in wells]. We didn’t need to use the pump. But now, water levels are really low,” explains Esperanza, 57, while throwing a rock in one of the irrigation wells. She is in San Sebastian Ocotlán, another small village of 500 people.
Their collective struggle began in 2005 with the Coordination of Peoples United for the Defense and Care of Water (COPUDA) and the support of Flor y Canto, an Indigenous rights organization. Josefina, along with Esperanza and María, are one of the few female leaders in COPUDA, and hope to enhance gender equality in the communities’ political spaces.
Mexico has experienced recurring levels of drought in the last few years, including in the Oaxaca Valley. At this time last year, drought affected up to 85% of the country. By mid-May this year, Oaxaca Valley was experiencing moderate drought, low levels of rainfall and a high risk of forest fires, according to the Drought Monitor of the National Water Commission (Conagua). Although the rainy season began at the beginning of May, by the middle of the month, Zapotec communities were still waiting for the first long rain to replenish their farms and gardens. The region remained in a heat wave, with daily temperatures hovering around 35 degrees Celsius. The landscape was dry and dehydrated sunflowers dotted the horizon near Esperanza’s home.
By mid-May, in El Porvenir, it had only lightly rained three times since the beginning of the year. Esperanza’s community, San Sebastian Ocotlán, had not received any rainfall since January. This has led to a flow of migration out of the community, including Esperanza’s son, Martín, and her sister.
“The current situation reminds us of the severe drought that occurred 17 years ago,” says Josephina while braiding her niece’s hair. “At that time, we started our collective work to promote practical alternatives to harvesting water. It was such a [good] moment to start our movement: we have never stopped since.”
Sowing solutions in times of drought
Since 2005, according to Flor y Canto, 579 water infrastructure projects have been created in the entire region. Two hundred and fifty families, along with local municipalities, the Mexican Institute of Technology (IMTA) and the National Institute of Indigenous People (INPI), were directly involved in the projects, from digging holes in the ground for water pans and wells, to putting dams in streams or rivers.
Once rainfall finally arrives, the absorption wells – located along the sides of the street or under rooftops – collect it and ensure that the water goes underground.
“This absorption well has been in operation for two years,” says María, 41, pointing to a well on her patio. She is in charge of the COPUDA committee in San Antonino Castillo Velasco, a few kilometers or miles from Esperanza’s village. “We capture the water from our roof, which is channeled into the well. The well is 25 meters deep, with 20 meters containing sand to filter the water before it goes into the aquifer […] then into the irrigation well.”
These installations raise water levels in the irrigation wells while regenerating the soil. Water resources are also preserved by using small dams located in rivers or streams and water pans that retain water and provide a source for thirsty wildlife. Water pans are large rectangular pits cut into the ground tarping, which retains rainwater by preventing it from seeping into the soil. This water is directly collected by farmers. At the corner of Josephina’s vegetable garden, a water pan still bears water from the last few rainfalls earlier this year.
“Right after the first installations, when the rains started, some neighbors told us that the water level [in their irrigation wells] increased so fast. It was the most significant proof that our ideas were working,” concludes Josefina while walking among opuntia cactus, maize, beans and pumpkins she recently planted, surrounded by fruit trees. For more than two decades, she has been using agroecology techniques, including ancestral seed conservation.
“[COPUDA’s] work to retain water in wells and infiltrate it into the subsoil also helps control erosion and increase water-bearing. Of course, there are still some challenges such as wastewater management, organization among communities and administration,” says Salvator Anta, an Oaxacan biologist of the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry (CCMSS), who has followed their work since the beginning. “The benefits are not for individuals but also for the entire region.”
More water in the subsoils also brings many other benefits to ecosystems in Zapotec Indigenous communities, adds Salvator Anta.
“Those systems created a microclimate that regenerated soils and boosted the return of wild fauna and flora. The farmers told us that they saw more ducks, vultures and eared doves drinking or flying around the water pans,” explains Misael Antonio Martínez, a Flor y Canto technician.
However, some farmers still struggle despite the water conservation projects due to recurrent droughts and lack of rain. If communities don’t receive rainfall in the first place, their water conservation efforts fall to dust. The three female leaders hope more efforts are put in place to help communities secure water and adapt to drought.
“Why is Conagua [the National Water Commission] not doing autonomous perforation or installations to find more water for our communities?” asks Esperanza, who is in charge of the COPUDA committee of San Sebastian Ocotlán.
She works as a farmer and chef during parties, most of the time cooking enchiladas, her specialty. She uses the aromatic herbs on her farm, thyme and chepiche, to prepare mole sauces or sell in the market. In the past, she grew vegetables and ornamental flowers, but now, only aromatic herbs are present in a plot rented from a neighbor.
“I will have to ask my landowner for a discount. Otherwise, this activity is not sustainable for me due to the current drought,” explains Esperanza. At the corner of Esperanza’s garden, two absorbing wells follow the rainwaters’ path.
Salvator Anta says that other efforts to conserve water in the region include maintaining the wells and improving technology needed during the drought epochs.
Local activists are also trying to involve more people in water conservation projects, educate community members to avoid water waste and develop rainfall measurement methods to have a concrete idea of their climate situation.
They are also getting ready for new opportunities. In 2021, after a long communitarian plebiscite, the Mexican government gave the COPUDA-participating communities a concession to autonomously manage their aquifer. For COPUDA and Flor y Canto leaders, this shows their efforts are working, but there are still some challenges they must face.
“We are still waiting for the concession’s delivery date: I feel that the government is scared to give us concrete power. Whoever controls water now rules the world,” says Josefina.
For Indigenous leaders, water activism also means setting an example to others.
“We have a tremendous responsibility [with the concession],” concludes María. “But we are determined to do it well and inspire other communities to follow the same path.”
Female Indigenous leadership
Three kilometers from Esperanza fields, San Antonino Castillo Velasco appears. The town of 6,000 inhabitants has more than 160 absorption wells located close to food stands, houses and Radio Calenda, a radio station that broadcasts in the Zapotec language. In the city center, María works in her hair salon.
“I have been working as a hairdresser for more than two decades. I’m aware that my work contaminates water so I felt the need to contribute to the common good,” explains María.
“In 2010, my father sent me to a COPUDA reunion; then I was elected to the directive committee. We are just a few women in executive positions. When you think about women activists, you always have to consider her multiple roles as a worker, housekeeper and mother,” María tells Mongabay.
Flor y Canto is also female-led. Carmen Santiago, the renowned founder of the Indigenous organization, recently died. Today, her companion Beatriz Salinas is in charge. However, Josefina, Esperanza and María say they still face numerous difficulties while leading water conservation efforts.
“Here, we don’t have the culture of female work in the committee [directive],” explains Josefina. “I was the committee secretary and, well, two colleagues said that I came to this place by being an ofrecida [easy woman].”
As a single mother, Esperanza shares that some companions say that she participates in the reunions only to waste time because she doesn’t have a husband.
“I feel that our work is always judged more than our companions,” adds María, also a single mother. “A lot of men did a worse job in the administration, but they are not as criticized as women.”
Female Indigenous leaders face both patriarchy that is embedded within their communities and discrimination for being Indigenous Zapotec in the public sphere, says Elia Mendéz, professor of sociology of community at the National Polytechnic Institute Oaxaca (CIIDIR). “[However], female [Indigenous] leadership has always been there. I think that it has been a constant in history. But now it is becoming much more visible due to female leadership and the ecological crisis.”
Some male members of COPUDA’s committee hope the organization will address gender equality issues.
“Unfortunately, [in the assembly] we had cases of women silenced or not listened to, but that is changing,” explains Gonzalo Sanchez, 64, leader of the San Pedro Apostol community. Sanchez says he used to be a male chauvinist, but this changed through his life experiences. Securing clean water sources is important to his community. In 2018, a toxic spill from the Cutzcatlán mine, a branch of the Canadian Fortuna Silver Mines, contaminated local streams with iron and fluoride, leading to the death of fish.
Despite their challenges, the three women say they hope their collective efforts will help secure water resources for all communities in the future.
When the morning starts, just a short distance from Josefina’s ranch, Esperanza goes to water her thyme and chepiche garden. She connects the pump to the irrigation well when suddenly, a loudspeaker announces the upcoming municipal reunion for water maintenance.
“Our efforts are for the common good: you don’t know if the water collected will benefit you or your neighbor’s [irrigation wells],” Esperanza explains. “Having water is the most important thing for the farmers. Without water, we lose everything.”
Banner image: Josefina Santiago on her agroecological farm where she grows maize, beans and pumpkins near the water pans. El Porvenir, San José del Progreso, Oaxaca, Mexico, May 2022. Image courtesy of Monica Pelliccia.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that the Cutzcatlán mine contaminated local streams with iron and aluminum, but the contaminants were iron and fluoride, and the text has been updated.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with author and journalist Erica Gies describes humanity’s water harnessing problem outlined in her book Water Always Wins, and how ‘slow water’ solutions can not only help us harness the water we have, but also restore the biodiversity and natural landscapes we’ve lost. Listen here:
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