When Even Water is Not a Human Right

Mexico City.

“Once upon a time, there was a little orphan girl (‘huerfana’) who had to walk over many mountains each day to fetch water (‘itzu’) because the water was very far away” Esperanza Garcia, a Purepecha Indian grandmother in the tiny Michoacan mountain town of Santa Cruz Tanaco tells the story that her mother told her. “One day, the huerfana made friends with a humming bird (“Tzintzun”) and he led her to a secret spring right here in the forest. The women were so happy because now they didn’t have to walk two mountains to fetch the water that they married the huerfana to the spring and when they plunged her in the water, a long serpent leaped up and that was the stream that brought the water to our town.” Esperanza frowned at the dry littered streambed that runs by her house. “Now the stream is dead because they have cut down all the trees and again we have to walk for hours to bring water.” Clear cuts in the Purepecha mountains have devastated forests and water sources.

Women in the third world walk an average of six kilometers each day to fetch water, according to U.S. environmental researcher Talli Newman. But Indian women are not just fetchers of water but its protectors. “Like the corn, we are born from the water” explains Maria de la Cruz, a Tzotzil Mayan mother and community leader from San Felipe Ecatepec just outside San Cristobal de las Casas in the highlands of Chiapas–the Mayans are the People of the Corn according to their sacred book, the Popul Vu.

De la Cruz lives a hundred meters from a Coca Cola bottler that extracts 1.7 million liters of water each year from the local aquifer, leaving 70% of the households in Ecatepec without running water. The bottler’s yearly extractions are equivalent to what five indigenous villages in the highlands are allotted each year. “Yes, we are made from the water but I can’t even bathe” De la Cruz laughs bitterly. Chiapas is home to Mexico’s largest rivers yet 68% of its 1.3 million Indian people do not have potable water.

A quarter of all Mexico’s water has its source on Indian lands yet many indigenous communities have no access to the precious fluid. The Mazahua women of Villa de Allende out in Mexico state are so exercised by these inequities that they have even formed an army–the Zapatista Army of Mazahua Women In Defense of The Water (unrelated to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.)

Mazahua land lines the banks of the Cutzamala river system, the main outside water source for Mexico City 100 miles east. 16,000 cubic liters a second rush by their lands and yet eight of their villages have no water lines, a demand for which the Mazahuas have sought redress since the 1980s when the Cutzamala system was inaugurated. Repeatedly rebuffed by water authorities, the Mazahuas have threatened to shut off the valves that speed water uphill to the Mexican capital. In response, the National Water Commission (CONAGUA) sent 500 state police to occupy their villages.

“They take our men by the hair,” Comandanta Victoria Martinez of the Mazahua Army tells reporters, ” but now they will have to confront the women.”

This month (March), the Zapatista Army of Mazahua Women In Defense of The Water marched up to Mexico City to present their case to the World Water Forum convoked for that bone-dry megalopolis March 16th-22nd.

Mexico City was a pertinent place to hold the fourth World Water Forum (WWF), an every-three-years conclave organized by the World Water Council, the “non-government” creation of industrialists, big agriculture, and water profiteers who preach privatization and mercantilization of water.

Once set in the heart of a five lake system, the Aztec island of Tenochtitlan was a water wonderland, overflowing with canals, fountains, aqueducts, and floating farms (“chinampas.”) But the European conquerors were horse people with little respect for a water-based culture so they cut down the trees on the surrounding hillsides and silted in the lakes.

Today, Tenochtitlan/Mexico City has dried up. What little remains in its aquifers is being pumped out at twice the rate that it can be replenished and the metropolitan area’s 21.3 million residents receive just 184 liters per capita each year, one twenty fourth of the national average. Service is so poor in the ragged colonies at the edge of the city that cockroaches run out when the faucet is turned on. In other impoverished “colonias”, the only available water source is cistern trucks (“pipas”) sent by the political parties and the people are forced to sell their vote for a gulp of clean “agua.”

Water is a class issue in Mexico as well as one of gender and race. While the luxuriant green golf course of the elites receive abundant daily waterings, the poor have a hard time just slaking their thirst.

Indeed, the sprinklers were on at the Banamex convention center in the ritzy Polanco district this March 16th when the WWF opened its doors to the public–Banamex, Mexico’s oldest bank, is now wholly owned by Citigroup. Just to make the corporate tone perfectly patent, among the sponsors of this edition of the WWF was the Coca Cola Corporation of Atlanta, Georgia, which, according to the NGO War On Want, sucks up 282 billion liters of the world’s public water each year.

Mexican president Vicente Fox, once the president of Coca Cola operations here and in Central America, opened the session by paying lip service to the Indian roots of water by quoting from the Popul Vuh and the poetry of Aztec king Nezahualcoytl. Fox was followed to the podium by CONAGUA director Cristobal Jaimes–before Fox appointed him to the CONAGUA job, Jaimes, the owner of Mexico’s largest dairies and a major water bottler, was the nation’s number one industrial consumer of water.

Moving the threads behind the scenes at the fourth World Water Forum was Aquafed, the lobbying front for world water privatizers, representing such conglomerates as the French Suez, Aguas de Barcelona, Biwater, and Thames River. Another powerful lobbyist running the show at the WWF was the Washington-based “public relations” hucksters Bursen & Marsteller, publicists for such bloody dictators as Haiti’s Baby Doc, Guatemala’s Rios Montt, and the killer Argentinean juntas. Bursen & Marsteller organized the accompanying exposition where space was available to water conservation groups for $600 a day. The Great Unwashed were invited to shell out $120 for each day’s admission.

The Zapatista Army of Mazahua Women In Defense of the Water did not bother to pay an admission. Availing themselves of sympathetic souls in the NGO community, they stormed past the ticket takers and went looking for CONAGUA’s Jaimes (“I cannot solve your problem” he had told them once before.) Repelled by security guards, the comandantas formed a picket line and began to shout “Queremos Agua!” (“We Want Water”.) With their wooden rifles, sheathed machetes, long skirts, farmers’ sombreros, and a look so stern that it could stop traffic, the women terrified the organizers. “This is what happens when we let them get away from their ‘metates’ (Indian corn grinders)” CONAGUA sub secretary Cesar Herrera sneered in earshot of a La Jornada reporter.

But for the most part, the defenders of public water stayed on the outside, gathering in marches (20,000 on the WWF opening day), alternative forums, and even a Latin American Water Tribunal. Indigenous peoples from the North and the South of the Americas came together to compare notes. Hopis from New Mexico brought a gourd of their sacred water. “Water is a gift from our mother earth. It does not belong to us” pronounced Josephine Mandanin, an Ojibwa water caretaker. Dine (Navajo) spokesperson Waleigh Jones of the Black Mountain Water Coalition told of how the Peabody Coal Company constructed a 200-mile pipeline that brings massive amounts of Indian water to its strip mine. As in Mazahua territory, 50% of those living along the pipeline have no access to drinking water.

With its giant river systems, Latin America is the world’s most important water source but has the smallest per capita consumption on the planet, according to World Bank data presented at the WWF. The defense of water in the heart of the southern continent crystallized in Indian territory in 2000 when the majority Aymara and Quechua population of Cochabamba, Bolivia rose up against the transnational Bechtel Corporation which had taken over management of the local water system and raised rates 300%. Tens of thousands camped out in the plaza of that Indian city for a month until Bechtel finally packed it in. “The war in defense of our water showed us the power of those down below,” recalled Oscar Oliviera, a director of the movement to defend Cochabamba’s water who testified at the alternative tribunal.

But Oliviera warned that the privatizers of water now have their sights trained on another indigenous water source – Paraguay’s Guarami basin, the earth’s largest reserve of sweet water. Under the pretext of Bush’s Terror War, U.S. troops have established a garrison strategically sited close by the Triple Frontier (Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina) near the spectacular Iguazu falls.

“We must be vigilant of those who would make water into a merchandise. Water is a fundamental human right,” Oliviera emphasized.

The struggle to include water as a fundamental human right in the WWF’s final statement was carried to the forum floor by Bolivia’s water secretary (no other country has a secretary of water) Abel Mamani, a popular leader from the all-Aymara city of El Alto which has been locked in a titanic battle with the French conglom Suez, doing business in Bolivia as Aguas Ilumani, for years. Insisting that he would not sign the final declaration if water was not declared a universal human right, Mamani was joined by Venezuela, Cuba, and Uruguay (and to a lesser extent by Honduras, France, and Spain) but the revolt was quickly squelched. “The right of water is not relevant to this forum,” the World Bank’s Jamal Shagir told the press. Laic Fouchon, president of the World Water Council, labeled Mamani’s remarks as “discourteous and disagreeable” because the Bolivian had pointed out that 2,000,000 babies die every ear from a lack of clean water.

According to the final declaration of the fourth World Water Forum, water is not a fundamental human right for the world’s people in general and Indian people in particular. Although they are the source of so much of the Americas’ water, indigenous peoples received no mention in the forum’s final document.

JOHN ROSS is on deadline for “Making Another World Possible–Zapatista Chronicles 2000-2006” to be published this fall by Nation Books. He has no time to talk.



JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org