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Native Sun News: Yaqui Tribe fights Mexico over water rights

Filed Under: Environment | Law | World
More on: mexico, native sun news, water, yaqui

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Yaqui authorities hold meeting to explain Supreme Court water rights defense. Photo Courtesy Kenya Cuén.

Yaqui Tribe fights Mexico for water rights
World Water Day serves as jumping off point
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

VICAM, Sonora, Mexico - While conservationists have been busy as beavers building micro dams to restore the boundary watershed that feeds the Yaqui River, officials just south of the U.S.-Mexico border have been busy trying to siphon off the flow for the purpose of industry and urban uses. But now representatives of the Yaqui Tribe, heir to the water rights here in the Great Sonora Desert, are stepping up to protect the binational basin.

On World Water Day March 22, Yaqui traditional authorities launched an international petition drive to catch the eyes of Mexican Supreme Court justices who face a decision on the tribe’s standing to intervene in an aqueduct construction dispute now two years old.

“World Water Day is a very opportune date to recall that access to drinking water is a human right recognized by the Constitution, which should be guaranteed by the Mexican state. In this context, we call upon the justices of the court to make a decision that assures our access to water, as well as respect for the right of indigenous peoples and other communities to information and consultation,” the authorities of Vicam said in a written declaration.

Vicam is one of eight seats of traditional government that historically oversee the Yaqui domain in the Arizona border state of Sonora, where history books concede, the tribe was the only one out of dozens in present-day Mexico that the Spanish colonists never conquered.

“It bears mentioning that the Yaqui Tribe has recognized rights to the mentioned resource, since President Lázaro Cardenas signed a decree restoring territory and creating a title for the Yaqui Tribe, authorizing the right to retain 50 percent of the water in the channel of the stated river,” the declaration notes.

The Yaqui Basin is the largest river system in Sonora. The riverbed snakes through approximately 200 miles of the state to meet the Gulf of California.

Along much of the length of the binational river, no water can be seen in its sandy bed. What’s there is only enough to flow underground in the channel. Evidence of desertification is clear in the many dead trees standing and fallen along the river banks.

“The river is dry because everybody’s taking water out,” says Valer Austin, co-founder of the non-profit Cuenca Los Ojos (CLO) Foundation, high in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona. She has been working feverishly for 30 years to replenish the headwaters of the Yaqui River by building thousands of small dams.

Austin has forged links with 25 organizations in the Yaqui-Gila Watershed Alliance with the stated objective of protecting migratory routes for animals and birds that travel between Costa Rica and Canada. “We’re putting water in,” she told Native Sun News.

The Yaquis see themselves as the stewards of the watershed at the other end of the river, near its mouth.

“The history of our people has been linked with the Yaqui River water for our cultural and economic survival,” they said in the World Water Day missive. “The river is part of our rituals and cosmovision; it is the main productive element, it is connected to creation and is a symbol in the mythical world of the “Huya Ania” where both benign and malignant beings give meaning and identity to our existence,” they said.

The proposed Independence Aqueduct would take 634 gallons of water per second out of the Yaqui River and divert it through 81 miles of pipeline between El Novillo Dam and the Sonora state capital of Hermosillo, which is located in a different watershed. The volume is equivalent to 30,000 Olympic swimming pools per year.

The Yaquis and other farmers in the Yaqui River Valley have filed several lawsuits to bar the construction of the aqueduct, a project of Sonora Gov. Guillermo Padrés, who hopes to help out the Ford Motor plant in his city and gain favor with the largest population concentration in the state.

When courts have ruled in favor of the aqueduct’s opponents, Padrés’ contractors have defied injunctions and continued building the water line with impunity. It is the largest engineering project in state history.

“I see it as an emblematic project, historic for Sonora, and now moving forward, without any doubt, very important for the development and growth of Sonora, for the capital, not just of the municipality, but for Sonora,” Padres says.

Several protest demonstrations on the Pan American Highway have drawn attention to the dissent over the project.

“For three years we have seen our very survival seriously threatened by the building of the Independence Aqueduct in Sonora State, which diverts water to the city of Hermosillo, depriving us of the most valuable resource we have for subsistence,” the Yaqui petition states.

Meanwhile, Yaqui leaders note, it’s no secret that 40 percent of the municipal water supply in the capital city is being lost to leaky fixtures.

Tomás Rojo, coordinator of the Yaqui Defense Brigade, says the purpose of the project is not only to serve the interests of Padrés, but also foreign economic interests.

“As long as there is a scarcity of water in the Yaqui Valley, foreigners will have the opportunity to export their products to Mexico,” he told the Native Sun News, referring to the fact that the valley is one of the Mexico’s main agricultural areas.

On the premise that Yaqui tribal members have first rights to the water from the Yaqui River, the tribal authority filed for legal protection, according to Yaqui Tribal Defense Secretary Mario Luna.

The Yaqui River area used to be an oasis. The lack of water today is shameful, he says. Completing the construction of the Independence Aqueduct will make the situation worse, he adds.

In previous years, the tribe tried to help the Sonoran towns of Empalme and Guaymas by allowing the construction of an aqueduct to supply the needs of the populations of these communities, he recalls.

However, that construction benefited only the tourist area of San Carlos. This is one of many reasons that 98 percent of the Yaqui people are not willing to accept the project, he told the Native Sun News.

Padrés stresses that the coordination and support of the mayor of Hermosillo and federal government representatives have helped to advance the centerpiece project of his administration. By contrast, Luna states, “They never sought dialog with us.”

The tribal authorities were not consulted on the federal water concession, the bid letting for the infrastructure or the environmental impact statement, according to the petition. It continues:

“The contempt and indifference with which we have been treated by the governor of Sonora, Guillermo Padrés Elias, as well as by federal agencies such as the Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat) – who have endorsed and carried on the project despite legal orders to halt it --, prompted us to submit an appeal last year, which was decided in our favor.

“The Supreme Court chose to rule on the case because of the importance of indigenous communities’ right to autonomously and preferentially use and enjoy natural resources, as well as be informed and consulted in advance about actions that impact those resources.”

(Contact Talli Nauman, Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun News at

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