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Mexico: Zapotec water rights and self-governance – a positive precedent for water justice

20 June 2023

Oaxaca is among the states with the largest indigenous populations in Mexico. According to government statistics published by the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, Oaxaca is also among the states with the highest poverty indices in the country. In this mountainous and highly biodiverse region of southern Mexico, people have been making a living for generations through crafts and subsistence farming, including livestock rearing. Climate change has deeply affected food security and self-sufficiency across Oaxaca, not least in terms of increased pressures on highly threatened water sources.  

This case study highlights recent developments in terms of advancing water governance at a grassroots indigenous level, as part of a broader effort to strengthen community resilience and water justice in the face of the intensifying climate crisis in southern Mexico.

Alejandrino Pérez, representative of San Matías Chilazoa in the fight for water rights, shows a bull he made from the mud around one of the water pans in his village. San Matías Chilazoa, Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit: Noel Rojo.

In 2005, severe droughts hit the Central Valley region of Oaxaca, forcing scores of local farmers to abandon their fields. Environmental challenges in turn triggered significant migration of Zapotecs within Mexico as well as to the United States. And while many people were forced to leave their homelands, Zapotec farmers who stayed in their community defied the various environmental, social and political threats in an effort to develop local water governance.

The local Zapotec community in San Antonino Castillo Velasco is a case in point. San Antonino is a relatively small Oaxacan town known for its crafts, especially embroidery and basketry. Zapotec farmers began a protracted court case against government bodies over water rights and concessions in 2009. Access to water has been a problem for San Antonino farmers since the 1960s due to severe restrictions aimed at benefiting agribusiness and housing divisions. Conflict over water governance flared in 2005 and 2006, sparked by allegations of government corruption. 

Local farmers claimed that various members of their community had received letters from the National Water Commission (CONAGUA), a government water regulation body based in Mexico City, demanding payment of fines for excessive use of water. After approaching a local civil society organization (CSO) known as Centre for Indigenous Rights ‘Flor y Canto’, an investigation into the background and legal validity of these water fines was opened. In due course, the CSO found a number of irregularities. For instance, they found that CONAGUA wanted to charge farmers for water that was not available. Double pumps were introduced, which led to excessive electricity bills. While the communities were trying to gain control over their water, they were also aware that water was becoming increasingly scarce in the area. ‘Water was at a depth of 30–40 metres in local wells and it was only enough for 15 minutes of irrigation,’ explains María de los Angeles Santiago, one of the female leaders of the fight for water from San Antonino Castillo. As a solution, water-capturing projects, including absorption wells, water pans and dams, were proposed.

Carmen Santiago Alonso, an environmental activist who supported 16 Zapotec communities in their fight for control over their water sources. Credit: Noel Rojo.

‘We must raise our voices and take action to heal our planet, because our boys and girls have the right to enjoy it.’

Flor y Canto also realized that CONAGUA was giving away individual concessions to municipalities and businesses, and that there were no collective concessions granted to the farmers themselves. Though the mission of CONAGUA was to regulate and manage the use of aquifers in the locality, Zapotec representatives claimed that this government body was not fulfilling its role and instead was demanding payments for water the farmers had not used since there was not enough water available in the first place. 

After these investigations, Zapotec communities facing similar problems came together under the banner of the Coordinator of People United for the Care and Defence of Water (COPUDA). COPUDA has led a 17-year struggle to gain control over the management of water sources for 16 communities across the Central Valley region of Oaxaca. The underlying demand of this movement was to guarantee a collective water concession to support local communities, as opposed to individual concessions, usually given away to municipalities or companies.  

Between 2005 and 2007, COPUDA was able to cancel the fines issued to Zapotec farmers and subsequently started a legal process against CONAGUA. In 2009, the case was filed at a federal court. After a judgment was pronounced in favour of the Zapotec communities, a Mexico City court mandated CONAGUA to carry out a meaningful consultation. Roundtables were set up between members of CONAGUA and COPUDA representatives, to discuss the conditions of a collective concession.

Participants of the Water Day share their experiences at workshops after the morning ritual. Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca, Mexico. April 2019. Credit: Noel Rojo.

Self-governance by local Zapotec communities formed the basis of COPUDA’s mission. In Oaxaca, almost 80 per cent of the territory is considered communal. What is more, municipalities across Oaxaca are governed by a traditional governance system, known as Usos y Costumbres. Family members typically attend general assemblies to decide on key community issues. Assembly members choose representatives to voice their concerns before state as well as civil service representatives including police, education, health and other public officers. Work conducted by these representatives and civil servants is usually carried out without remuneration.  

Each community represented by COPUDA established their own local committee responsible for the protection of water sources. Representatives of these committees and other emerging leaders were subsequently trained by Flor y Canto to gain awareness of their rights as indigenous people and available legal procedures. Flor y Canto also accompanied COPUDA during the entire process of negotiation with government officials.

Alejandrino Pérez watering recently planted trees for the local community. San Matías Chilazoa, Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit: Noel Rojo.

From its establishment in 1994 until her death from cancer in 2022, Flor y Canto was directed by Zapotec environmental activist Carmen Santiago Alonso. ‘We must raise our voices,’ she would often say, ‘and take action to heal our planet, because our boys and girls have the right to enjoy it.’ Advocating for environmental protection in Mexico, a country renowned for violence committed against activists, meant that threats were a daily part of Carmen’s work. ‘That fear,’ she pointed out, ‘has given me the strength to carry on my way.’

As the legal process went on, Zapotec communities encountered numerous challenges. ‘It was a mistake for CONAGUA to lead the negotiations, since they were the government agency under investigation,’ says Beatriz Salinas, the current leader of Flor y Canto. ‘We also needed to change the mindset of the farmers. Their perspective was that they were helpless in face of the government pressure,’ Salinas adds, as she explains why leadership training for indigenous leaders proved to be so instrumental in the process of water rights reclamation.  

In October 2019, five agreements were signed between CONAGUA and COPUDA. One of these agreements concerned water management. According to the second agreement, CONAGUA was set to grant concessions to each indigenous community. The third agreement established the conditions for community care and administration of water. The fourth agreement concerned indigenous community concession titles and a commitment to carrying out maintenance works. Finally, CONAGUA and COPUDA agreed to work together on the upgrading of irrigation systems. General assembly meetings were held in San Antonino to facilitate the planning.

People from several Zapotec communities met for a ritual on Water Day. Credit: Noel Rojo.

Local committees in all the represented communities continue to take full responsibility for water management in partnership with CONAGUA, which in turn monitor compliance with the national water law. Both parties have agreed to conduct collaborative studies deemed necessary for the collective management of the community’s existing and newly proposed aquifers. Furthermore, CONAGUA has been called to respect both the internal mechanisms for conflict resolution and the sanctions for the violation of norms in place within each community.  

In November 2021, Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador signed a decree establishing a regulated aquifer zone in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. Indigenous community water titles were subsequently delivered to Zapotec communities in 2022.

At the end of the ritual on Water Day, Carmen Santiago Alonso gives a few drops of the local spirit, mezcal, back to the earth, a local custom. Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca, Mexico. April 2019. Credit: Noel Rojo.

Local indigenous communities are now pursuing water sovereignty by taking responsibility over water sources and implementing regulations that each community set for themselves. Implementation is a complicated process that involves cooperation with other local governing bodies, for instance municipal presidents or secretariats of communal resources in nearby communities. It is usually the local committees that receive allegations concerning misuse of water or violations of existing regulations, which are then passed on to the relevant authority in charge of investigation and issuing fines and sanctions.  

Questions remain in terms of how COPUDA will organize itself in future, since each Zapotec community may have a different idea about how to continue working together. According to Beatriz Salinas, various other communities across Mexico have already shown an interest in replicating the negotiation process and water-governance model implemented by COPUDA. In Oaxaca, Flor y Canto is in discussion with other communities currently seeking support in their struggle to govern their water resources. At the time of writing, no new legal processes have commenced. However, it is likely that COPUDA will be an example to follow for other indigenous communities seeking water justice throughout southern Mexico and beyond.

Photo: A water pan in San Matías Chilazoa – one of the community projects capturing water. San Matías Chilazoa, Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit: Noel Rojo.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Magdalena Rojo