Social Resistance as Hydrological Pedagogy: The Sowers of Water in the Valles Centrales of Oaxaca

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This is the fifth post in a series on water pedagogies edited by Sritama Chatterjee.


In the summer of 2019, as we walked around San Isidro Zegache in the southern state of Oaxaca in Mexico to observe the stream that crosses the community, Efrén Cruz, a local campesino and the foremost authority of the town, told me proudly: “Years ago the government wanted to deny us water. This river was full but the drought came in 2005 and with the water ban that we have on us, things got difficult, just look at it.”1 He pointed towards what, instead of a river, appeared to be a deep puddle, barely holding afloat a pile of garbage.

According to Cruz, the puddle had become the largest body of water in his town. He added: “That’s why we won’t give up, this and several rivers in the valley will see water because we are going to fight it and we are going to win: against the government, against the mining companies, against everyone.”2 In this region of Oaxaca, social resistance has emerged as an attempt to stop the ecological disruptions caused by public policies and corporate dynamics. People from the region where Cruz lives, produce pedagogies on how to defend water against “the human-centered approaches that reinforce colonizing and extractive views of the world […] These views are extractive because nature is valued primarily for how it can benefit certain humans.”3 These pedagogies of resistance arise as intergenerational processes of social struggle. They are expressed in a world where the ecological components of the landscape are closely related to humans in multiple ways, and where water is defined as a more-than-human being in the Valle de Ocotlán. As Cruz indicates:

If you work for the water, the water will repay you. We have hills,spirits that are our ancestors. They live with us, they have knowledge and wisdom, including water. The water that runs under us, are the veins of our land, it is the blood that we take care of. How? Through our social mobilization that teaches young people how to understand our water resources for the future, how to defend it. For that reason, we called ourselves the sowers of water.4

Cruz and several inhabitants of sixteen neighbouring towns reiterate that fighting against those responsible for the lack of water presents the possibility of collectively recovering a resource that has been historically denied. At the same time, the campesinos demand the recognition of multiple beings, native practices, and new water policies that vindicate their hydrological pedagogies of resistance which entail a way to “activate relational modes of learning.”5 As Cruz indicates, to harvest water in the region, is a value taught to younger generations locally through local practices and social resistance. Nevertheless, this struggle is long-standing.

This story begins on September 25, 1967, when the Mexican president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, decreed the expropriation of water in the Valles Centrales region of Oaxaca, on behalf of the booming state capital, Oaxaca de Juárez. The objective of this measure was to manage hydrological resources in response to an alleged water deficit, which, according to the Mexican government, was created in the wake of campesino labour, and left about twenty municipalities and a hundred and six mestizo and Zapotec communities with a severe shortage in the following decades. However, there were no scientific studies to support such claims. In the Valle de Ocotlán, located within the Valles Centrales region, social resistance began to take shape to fight against this ecological crisis.6

The main problem in the Ocotlán Valley is not the lack of water per se, but the hoarding of it. The Mexican state stockpiles and extracts the resource from the region in order to support public policies focused on the redistribution of water for industrial and urban uses in Oaxaca de Juárez and its surrounding area. In the early 1980s, the lack of access to water as a result of the presidential decree caused agricultural plots to dry up. Additionally, the redirection of water towards the state capital caused a scarcity in the aquifers of the whole valley. These events triggered severe drought in 2005, which aggravated the resource crisis and ignited an organized local resistance.

In 2005, drought led to a series of social mobilizations that resulted in the formation of the Coordinadora de Pueblos Unidospor la Defensa y el Cuidado del Agua (COPUDA), which negotiated with the Mexican State for several years to repeal the 1967 water ban and create a new decree called Xnizaa (“our water” in the Zapotec language).7 The Xnizaa decree was finally promulgated by the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in November 2021, in a historic and paradigmatic measure in the country, guaranteeing that under the recognition of the Mexican State the inhabitants of the region have the autonomy to manage water according to their own practices and ecological and territorial knowledge. In the Valle de Ocotlán, water is presented as an entity that teaches and brings together the inhabitants through organizational schemes for its own defense and conservation. This new water legislation recognizes such regional dynamics.

Parallel to this political process, the specific pedagogical methods derived from COPUDA correspond to the Zapotec practice of tequio, which constitutes collective actions in support of someone in the community or for the benefit of all the inhabitants. Examples of such collective actions include weeding sports fields or cleaning schools and roads. In this case, tequio serves as a pedagogical practice to build a social alternative to capture hydrological resources, as has been done for more than a decade by COPUDA.

In 2008, the year legal challenges to social mobilization began, COPUDA had already created fifty-nine collective projects to gather water through tequio.8 In 2022, there are 579 registered initiatives that the communities have carried out to respond to the objective of acting in the face of the environmental crisis due to water scarcity. Local groups have developed geomembrane and catchment pots, as well as absorption wells and small dams. Although these projects have been financed by municipal and state governments after years of social struggle, they are based on collaborative work among the communities.

Possibly the most significant aspect of COPUDA’s social resistance to protecting water is its call for dialogue with Mexican state, which is a fundamental element in pedagogical terms. The actions taken by campesinos activate extensive native knowledge about how to sow water and involve a large amount of the population in practices, such as tequio. They teach that water and the diverse relationships established with it, are part of a continuous learning process wherein thinking about water means thinking about different ecologies in dispute. The frictions among ecologies are a reflection that “the more-than-human is an active presence and participant” necessary to create new spaces for collective action to generate an inclusive strategy for the defense of this resource.9

The hydrological pedagogy carried out by COPUDA is a precise alternative for this commitment. Within a pedagogical process of learning through political action and the recognition of multifarious perspectives of water, it is how the campesinos of the region defend their water resources to inherit them to the new generations. It is fitting that the members of COPUDA are currently known in Mexico as “the sowers of water.” They act as a relevant response to the crisis and as a way to create alternative ecological, social, and water futures through hydrological pedagogies of resistance.


Notes

  1. E. Cruz, personal communication, June 22, 2019.
    2. Ibid.
    3. For more on this, see Nxumalo, F. (2021). “Decolonial Water Pedagogies: Invitations to Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous World-Making.” Occasional Paper Series, 2021 (45): 1. Retrieved from https://educate.bankstreet.edu/occasional-paper-series/vol2021/iss45/6
    4. E. Cruz, personal communication, July 13, 2019.
    5. See Nxumalo, F. (2021). “Decolonial Water Pedagogies: Invitations to Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous World-Making”. 7.
    6. For more on this, see Orozco, E. & Martínez, J.C. (2017). Disputa por la democracia en los Valles Centrales de Oaxaca: la consulta previa, libre e informada a 16 comunidades zapotecas. Revista Sobre Acesso a Justiça E DireitosNas Américas (2° Ediçao). Retrieved from https://periodicos.unb.br/index.php/abya/article/view/7019
    7. The title Coordinadora de Pueblos Unidospor la Defensa y el Cuidado del Agua in English means Coordinator of United Towns for the Defense and Care of Water.
    8. See Orozco, E. & Martínez, J.C. (2017). Disputa por la democracia en los Valles Centrales de Oaxaca: la consulta previa, libre e informada a 16 comunidades zapotecas. Revista Sobre Acesso a Justiça E DireitosNas Américas (2° Ediçao). Retrieved from https://periodicos.unb.br/index.php/abya/article/view/7019
    9. See Nxumalo, F. (2021). “Decolonial Water Pedagogies: Invitations to Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous World-Making,” 9.

Feature image: Valles Centrales, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by the author.
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Oscar Ulloa-Calzada studied Anthropology at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, and earned his master’s degree in Integrated Watershed Management from the same university. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Social Anthropology at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. His research focuses on social mobilizations for the environment, cosmopolitics, water policy in Mexico, and native ecologies in the context of the Anthropocene.

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