Inside the Water Rights Battle Between the Mexican Government and the Mazahua

The State of Mexico is a nexus for a dispute between the government and the women-led activists of one of the country's largest indigenous groups.
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A Mexican Mazahua girl washes some clothes at La Presita reservoir in Loma de Juarez, Mexico.

A Mexican Mazahua girl washes some clothes at La Presita reservoir in Loma de Juarez, Mexico.

When Margarita Reyes Alvarez was a child, she remembers Mexico's national water commission arriving in her small rural community asking to buy a portion her parents' land. The commission was constructing a new water system to supply Mexico City, now known as the Cutzamala system.

When the water commission arrived, many in this rural community sold their land without much thought. Back then, Reyes Alvarez and her community didn't realize that they would be excluded from the water systems' benefits for the next 30 years.

Mexico City is one of many cities worldwide facing water scarcity. In the 1970s, the Mexican government began addressing the problem with the expansive Cutzamala water system. The system includes seven reservoirs, six pumping plants, 200 miles of canals and tunnels, and one larger water treatment plant. The system elevates water more than 1,100 meters.

The system's water sources are scattered throughout the State of Mexico, one of Mexico's central states, around 74.5 miles outside of Mexico City. This state in particular has historically been home to one of Mexico's largest indigenous ethnic groups, the Mazahua.

Today, Reyes Alvarez lives on the same land that she grew up on, just down the road from the Cutzamala's water treatment plant. Every day, she walks to a well or pumps water from a nearby creek to gather water for the day. Now, as Margarita gets older, her daughters help her with all the tasks of running a home and small business.

"To go to bring the water, it takes one or two hours to have enough water for the whole day." Reyes Alvarez says. "For me it is very difficult. Thanks to God and to my daughters, I do not feel it is the same tiredness of gathering water."

Six years ago, the Reyes Alvarez family began thinking of ways to demand running water and access to the system. They joined the Mazahua Frente, an activist group that originated in the early 2000s. Around 2004, the Frente staged their biggest protest, which included temporarily shutting down the Cutzamala treatment plant.

Anahi Copitzy Gomez-Fuentes, a research professor at the University of Guadalajara, began studying the Mazahua in 2004. Her work specifically focused on the struggle of the Mazahua women.

"In the beginning, when I studied the Mazahua women, the Frente was still forming. There wasn't any organization. The leaders were emerging, they were becoming themselves," Gomez-Fuentes said.

According to Gomez-Fuentes, the Frente first emerged after 300 hectares of their crops flooded due to river overflowing caused by the Villa Victoria dam of the Cutzamala system. The group wanted to demand payment for the damage. After multiple attempts to contact the authorities about their concerns and getting no response, the group decided to hire a lawyer. Their legal counsel advised the group on a list of demands including distribution of drinking water for the communities, restitution of lands expropriated by Mexico's National Water Commission that were not used in the Cutzamala system, payment for damaged lands, and a sustainable development plan for the area.

On February 2nd, 2004, nearly 300 members of the Frente gathered at the Cutzamala water treatment plant with torches and symbolically closed the premises. They then staged a five-day sit-in outside the plant.

Later that month, on February 24th, the group met with the government's Water Resources Commission to discuss their demands. An agreement was made between the Frente and the commission, but the actual arrival of promises took a long time. The slow progress created more frustration among the Frente. In August that same year, the group threatened to shut down the valves of the Cutzamala system if a solution was not made by the federal government.

On September 14th, the Frente retained a chlorine truck near the water treatment plant. Without chlorine, the treatment plant cannot continue supplying water to Mexico City. On September 19th, government officials arrived to meet with the Frente and convince them to release the chlorine truck. Although, after the agreement was made, many members of the Frente were unsatisfied and felt tricked.

Gomez-Fuentes reported that it was on this night that the group decided the women would take a larger role in the movement. They felt the men had been fooled by the authorities. The women would now take charge of all media and public appearances, dressing in traditional Mazahua attire and carrying wooden guns.

The women's increased involvement would create national and international interest in their movement. It has been especially appropriate because the burden of lack of access to water affects the women of the communities most.

"Women are most affected by the water shortage. They are the ones who have to go get the water, water the plants, wash the dishes, bathe their children, and clean their clothes," Gomez-Fuentes said. "So women changed the movement's platform."

Today, Reyes Alvarez and her daughters still feel the burden.

"Despite all the work that is in the house for us as women in the house, it is never done," Reyes Alvarez said.

Over the years, some of the Frente's needs have been met, but families like Reyes Alvarez still lack running water. Additionally, the sustainable development aspect of their demands continues. This idea consists of not only supplying drinking water to communities, but also building health centers and schools, increasing employment opportunities, affordable housing, and efforts for environmental conservation.

"This movement is as much about water as it is about basic needs and human rights," Gomez-Fuentes said.

"The government is never going to fulfill 100 percent of the needs of its population, because you see there's still poverty, lack of education, and many things," Gomez-Fuentes said. "It's not only the water. It's not only electricity. It's not only the roads."

In May of 2018, the Frente occupied outside the treatment plant for a month. Many of the communities within the Frente still feel unsatisfied with the government's actions to address their needs. The group threatened to block all entry to the treatment plant if the government did not take more action.

At the end of May, the Frente's leader, Manuel Araujo met with the government's water commission. Araujo decided that the agreement was satisfactory. Reyes Alvarez and her family have mixed feelings about whether the government will ever fully address their needs.

"They gave us little hope. No, it's not all been solved well. The hopes they gave us don't change anything," Reyes Alvarez said. "Things move very slowly. But we are going to wait and see if God wants them to give us a good solution soon."

This story was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Meg Vatterott is a documentary filmmaker and visual journalist and a Pulitzer Center student fellow from the University of Missouri.

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