“Development” and Extraction: Water Scarcity in Chiapas

A play on “Drink Coke” advertising, this graffiti reads “Drink (or take) Consciousness.”

The colors of the May rains. How many greens can there be? The green of the grass reflected in the hanging dewdrops, the shadowy greens of the river cypresses, the purple green, the silent green of the pines, the dignity in the stillness of the fog that surrounds the scene; a mountain slope of conifers and oaks whose roots support the thin soil of the highlands.

How can this be the place where we hear about water problems? How can these greens coincide with water scarcity? Unlike the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, with large deserts, Chiapas is known for its water. While at a national level, Mexico loses 400 square miles per year due to desertification—forcing the migration of 80,000 farmers—Chiapas has long been considered a state far removed from this trend. Approximately 1/3 of the water found in Mexico flows from the Chiapas watersheds, much of which is funneled into dams used to supply 44% of the nation’s hydroelectric power. However, despite abundance, water scarcity is already a terrible problem for many, especially in the countryside.

In the endless irony of “development,” rural communities are experiencing a return to arduous conditions of water transportation and scarcity, as capitalist agriculture and industry continues its march into the countryside. Visiting Chiapas communities, one often hears memories by mothers and grandmothers of the terrible amounts of labor—often women’s labor—that went into carrying clay buckets and hollowed-out squashes long distances from rivers and streams. Today, these women and their communities face an even more dismal present and future: clean water is simply not available. 

The factors involved in the water crisis are complex. A long-term shift in land use from Mayan “swidden” rotational agriculture toward cattle ranching—coinciding with rural out-migration—has impacted large areas in the Selva Region of Chiapas, leaving fewer trees and more solar radiation reaching the soil. In Los Altos, chemical-intensive flower and horticulture production has polluted streams and drainage channels. None of these changes are purely local, as each has downstream and micro-climate impacts. However, it is the combination of these regional factors with global climate change that makes the water crisis hit home. As the pumping of fossil fuels into our atmosphere continues, the climate of Chiapas is changing. It is becoming a hotter, drier place at an accelerated pace. 

The first sign of problems is found in rainfall patterns. From a historical range of 1,200 – 2,000 mm/year, precipitation in Chiapas since 2010 has dropped to a range of 900 – 1,500 mm/year. The loss of rainfall patterns means that the traditional sowing dates of each crop no longer apply, so farmers must be much more attentive to weather in order to plant in the perfect moment. The risk of a poor rainy season implies a risk of losing seed varieties. Agriculture requires more work, more local knowledge and more seed diversity; such requirements mean that farming families must be fully committed to surviving on the land. These issues know no borders. In addition to the anti-peasant policies of bad governments, the lack of water is contributing to the rural exodus manifested in the endless caravans of desperate migrant workers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Lack of rain does not only affect crops. It affects the entire ecosystem. Losing that foot-and-a-half of rain each year is enough to drive many streams underground. That is, the water continues to flow, not as a river, but as groundwater, through the microscopic pores of the subsoil and rocks. Birds and other animals, particularly mammals, face a migration crisis of their own as the water hides underground. The loss of surface water has catastrophic impacts on rural farming communities, where the water infrastructure consists of a filter and an intact valve placed in natural upland springs and headwaters. In these places, in past years, pure mountain water flowed year-round in plastic pipes and hoses that can travel more than 2 kilometers by gravity to reach a community. Now, however, the springs are drying up, and when they work, they require constant maintenance, as less water means more mud enters the system. When the spring does not produce enough water, there is no water for drinking, washing clothes, bathing or cooking.

In this context, capitalist agribusiness and mining interests are taking advantage of the situation to rapidly grab water resources and privatize water access. The soft drink giant Coca-Cola, for example, was granted exclusive rights to remove 150,000 gallons of water per day from the Huitepec aquifer on the mountain above the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Huitepec farmers are running out of water in their wells, and entire neighborhoods of San Cristóbal are running out of water for several days each week. Coca-Cola pays almost no taxes and now sells more water than soft drinks. But privatized bottled water has a high price that rural communities will never be able to pay. At the same time,  in the absence of available drinking water, mass-produced Coca-Cola carbonated beverages are trucked to remote rural communities and towns throughout Chiapas, leading to the phenomenon of the rural population drinking Coca-Cola instead of water. This grave situation has led to a 30% increase in diabetes deaths in just three years, just one way capitalist water grabbing spreads its “model of death” through the Mexican countryside.

Autonomous Zapatista communities are facing this water crisis in the midst of a very difficult national political context. Their solution is to organize themselves and work with nature to find a way to restore water tables and sustainably manage aquifers. Luckily, nature has given us the most effective-possible tool for restore water tables: trees. As Zapatista communities develop water autonomy, the team of Schools for Chiapas has been tasked with supporting the creation of Water Forests, with nature in defense of life and dignity.

All trees interact with soil humidity and atmospheric water, but in different ways. Trees draw water up from deep roots, which sometimes reach down more than 7 meters under the soil level, and distribute that water in leaves, branches and shallow roots. The kind of trees that use shallow roots and distribute water to their leaves and branches, where it is likely to be released as transpiration, may have the effect of lowering water tables. Eucalyptus trees are thought to have this effect, as up to 90% of their roots may be in the top 12 inches of soil. On the other hand, trees with deep roots that distribute water to their shallower roots, particularly at nighttime, where it can be extracted by dry soil and the roots of other plants, can contribute to a rising water table. This effect is known as hydraulic lift, and a well-known example is found in Oak trees (Quercus spp.). 

Hydraulic lift is one of several mechanisms that trees use to protect water resources. Providing shade to limit solar radiation and reduce daytime temperatures is another major contribution to water system conservation. In this sense, the height and darkness of tree shade is highly important, not only to water conservation but also to other agroecological functions, such as providing partial light to shade crops and giving farm animals a place to spend the hot hours of the day. Another important way that trees protect water is by distributing leaf litter—either throughout the year in the case of evergreens, or especially during one season—which physically protects the soil from the sun’s rays, as well as providing carbon and microclimatic conditions that favor the growth of microbial communities which, in turn, support root systems and diverse plant communities. In this way, diverse, native forests are the hands-down best option for recovering aquifers, although a vast range of multi-canopy agroforestry systems may also provide important water-conserving functions. 

This summer, Schools for Chiapas researchers Rosa López and Nils McCune are studying native Chiapas tree species that have the potential to recover groundwater and maintain water supplies to rural communities. Broadening the scope of agroecological work that the organization has done, and working in tandem with the rest our our team in San Cristobal, this research ties directly into its current Food Forest work with the autonomous secondary schools. Using community research methods, vital local knowledge—particularly that of community elders— form the basis for a peasant-based, community-organized efforts to reforest riparian areas and water sources with trees known to replenish aquifers. Our ultimate hope is that these Water Forests might begin as community tree nurseries, cared for by educators and students of the secondary schools. Having been meticulously researched, identified, collected, planted in nursery bags, and nurtured, these trees would then be planted out into the communities around the schools. This would be a substantial contribution to the capacity of Mayan autonomous communities to maintain their own water systems sustainably and autonomously for now and into the future.

¡Jo’ Ja’ Jcuxlejaltic! ~ Water is Life!

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