The cultural integrity of the Guarijío indigenous people is threatened by the proposed LOS PILARES / BICENTENARIO dam project on the upper River Mayo in southeast Sonora state, northwest Mexico. Communities all along the River Mayo basin will experience varying degrees of ecological and socio-cultural impacts from the project. Resettlement plans very rarely restore people’s wherewithals after forced displacement. These include mestizo as well as Pima and Mayo peoples who inhabit this region since prehistoric times, and depend upon the river and associated ecosystems for their livelihood.
The Guarijío people inhabit two separate regions adjacent to the Sonora – Chihuahua state boundaries in an extensive mountainous habitat. Although the 2010 census reports on 2136 Guarijío speakers, other estimates consider 4000 to be more accurate given the 2500 reported Guarijío community members in Chihuahua and 1800 in Sonora. Sonoran Guarijío refers to themselves as the Makurawe (Figure 1). Their language is related to the Mayo (Yoreme), neighbors on the coastal plain to the South and the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) to the mountainous East. Born at the Baseseachic falls in Chihuahua and fed by downstream tributaries, the Mayo flows 350 Km. Southwest, slicing through a corner of southeast Sonora and the most conserved lowland, semi arid deciduous forest in the western hemisphere, before emptying into the Gulf of California.
Figure 1 – Guarijío Settlements in Chihuahua and Sonora
Below the village of San Bernardo, in the municipio of Alamos, the Guarijío’s southern neighbors, the Mayo people, consider the river their ancestral homeland. Downriver, the Mocúzarit dam (commissioned 1954, expanded 1990) has since provided irrigation for 11,000 square kilometers in Irrigation District 038, one of Mexico’s most “tecnified” and productive agricultural regions. The property owners of these irrigated lands, together with Sonoran state government officials, are the prime movers of the Los Pilares dam project.
Guarijío history exhibits the traditional post-Conquest pattern of Jesuit missionary evangelizing throughout the region. Beginning in 1620 among the Mayos to today’s southern Sonora and northern Sinaloa states, several villages were established and missionary “visitas” ensued. The “warlike character” of the neighboring Guarijío was noted, and they were judged to be decimated after a mid 17th century Spanish military action massacred “Guazapares, Témoris and Varohíos”. By the early 18th, Spaniards and mestizos had settled among the surviving Sonoran Guaríjío. Their labor was exploited in the colonial fashion, via forced work on small ranches and mines where money was limited, a pattern that remained static after independence from Spain, until well after the early 20th century’s Mexican Revolution had distributed lands to others elsewhere.
Given their history and location, the Guarijío are one of least known native communities in Mexico. Few archeological studies allow inferences about earlier cultures and their movements. In 1933, the American botanist, Howard Scott Gentry, began his long career with an extensive field trip to the Upper River Mayo. His 1942 masterful botanical monograph, RÍO MAYO PLANTS OF SONORA-CHIHUAHUA, detailed the presence of both Sonora and Chihuahua Guarijío groups, living within the river’s lengthy watershed, between the highland Tarahumara (Rarámuri) and the downriver Mayo, near the coast. However, the Guarijío did not join the social horizon of most Sonorans until the 1970’s, when an independent Canadian researcher, Edmund Faubert, petitioned the federal National Indian Institute to create a “Coordination Center” in the small, upriver town of San Bernardo, Municipio of Alamos, in southeast Sonora.
In 1973, urban guerrillas from the 23rd of September League were discovered hidden in the region. Their presence perhaps influenced a growing demand for ways of escaping debt peonage with local yoris, mestizo ranchers, and subsequent negotiations led to the first, federally authorized ejidos (1973). Guajaray was the first, and included Guarijíos, Mayos and mestizos among the members of this agrarian community who share permanent use rights to land and water resources. While the Guarijío are nominally “católicos”, along with their yori neighbors, tradition still rules among Sonoran Guarijío speakers today. During the 1980’s, thanks to INI initiatives, the federal government authorized two new ejidos for landless Guarijíos: Guarijíos-Burapaco and Guarijíos – Los Conejos. This period is today referred to as the New Slate (la cuenta nueva) involving a process of ethnic, cultural and social revitalization, along with a reordering of property boundaries and their regional space.
The Sonoran Guarijíos today live in four distinct communities, each with its traditional authority, el gobernador. Along with the three above mentioned ejidos, the fourth jurisdiction is anchored in the Colonia Macuragüe, adjacent to San Bernardo. Here they are organized into a formal agricultural production unit without irrigated lands, next to the river and within the mestizo ejido. Guarijío mestizo neighbors surround two aforementioned ejidos, while also possessing their ejidos along with private properties. Guarijío communal lands were never federally recognized as such, and recent agrarian legislation weakens their claims to what was, historically, communal property.
Over the past 30 years of adjustments to community and property boundaries in Sonora, 23 Guarijío localities have formed along the upper River Mayo and its much smaller tributaries, the Guajaray and San Bernardo. The largest, Mesa Colorada, Guajaray, Los Bajíos and the Colonia Macuragüe belong to the municipios of Álamos and Quiriego. Figure 2 indicates population distribution among regional settlements, including other important communities: Mochibampo, Bavícora, Los Estrados and Sototanchaca. In all these villages, strung along the upper River Mayo, housing construction techniques today include a range from traditional to industrial materials. They also have electricity, grade schools, telesecundarias (middle schools receiving instructional content via satellite), drinking water systems (no sewage), first level health clinics (without doctors), cultural and ceremonial centers, churches, dormitories for students, general stores, corrals, family gardens, simple cattle feedlots, cemeteries and, importantly, sacred sites.
The Guarijío region, named Las Barrancas by Gentry, along the upper River Mayo includes two principal tributaries, Arroyo Guajaray and Arroyo San Bernardo (Taymuco). This microregion along with other Guarijío territories and their routine culture would be dramatically transformed by the reservoir of the planned Bicentenario or Los Pilares dam project. Impacts would stem from the dam’s location in the heart of the Guarijío riverine way of life, and their region’s unique ecosystems would be transformed as well. These impacts threaten their livelihood as Guarijío communities.
Figure 2 – Settlements and population density in the Guarijío Region of SE Sonora
The current dam project design includes three technical options affecting the scale of impacts, as per the height of the dam curtain and the size of necessary containment levees or dikes. These impacts include physical displacement of homes and communities within the ample reservoir catchment basin behind the dam (Figure 3). Many yori landowners in this region have already negotiated the sale of their properties to government or project agents. This universe of approximately 50 parcels includes private and ejido plots belonging to mestizos: San Bernardo, Topiyeca, Sejaqui and Chorijoa, lands inside one of the ethnically mixed ejidos (Guarijíos-Burapaco), as well as plots belonging to the Guarijío Rural Production Society at Colonia Macuragüe, next to San Bernardo village, near the proposed damsite. Estimates of total Guarijío lands to be inundated by the proposed dam are: 80 hectares (almost 200 acres) within the Guarijíos-Burapaco ejido (total area: 12.9k hectares, 205 members), and 70 hectares (173 acres) of Colonia Macuragüe lands (on the Toma de Agua parcel). Evidence indicates almost all non-Guarijío ranchers and landowners have entered negotiations for selling their lands. The reported selling price is low: between 10 and 20 centavos per square meter (roughly usd $155/hectare – usd $63/acre).
Figure 3 – Map of proposed Los Pilares dam and reservoir
Fifty four kilometers upriver from the Mocúzarit dam, and five kilometers upriver from San Bernardo is the proposed location for the Bicentenario / Los Pilares dam. With a current estimated total budget of $1,700 million pesos, a 230 meter long dam + levees structures, a curtain 75 meters high (original plan; NAMO 235m), and a storage capacity of 478 million cubic meters of water, the reservoir area is estimated to range between 2300 and 3000 hectares (5680 – 7400 acres). No resettlement action plan (RAP) or budget in accordance with international practice has been made available.
The distinct versions of the project’s limited circulation document indicate a plan to submerge nine localities, once the reservoir is full. Hence, plans call for compensation as indemnification in Las Choyitas, Miramar, Chorijoa, Las Garzas, Setajaqui, La Toma del Agua y Cuchuwerito. The two remaining and largest communities – Mesa Colorada and Mochibampo – belong to the Guarijíos-Burapaco ejido would also face internal displacement. In accordance with Mexico’s traditional,official displacement modus operandi, both communities have been offered new homes in a new town or subdivision located near their cultivated fields and pastures. Nevertheless, the 600+ Guarijíos in these communities as well as those who belong to the Colonia Macuragüe Rural Production Society and farm collectively, have refused to negotiate any terms of sale for their lands and homes.
Guarijío routine culture is based on a long-evolved and very sustainable use of the natural resources occurring in their territory. Their livelihood includes farming maize, beans, squash and other vegetables, in addition to raising cattle and goats. Houses and implements are made with traditional sources and techniques. The habitat provides valuable food and medicinal resources as well. Migration is rate, while sporadic wage labor on neighboring mestizo parcels is common, and hunting, gathering and fishing are important complementary activities.
Figure 4 indicates – by inference – the project impact region’s microclimates and ecological niches, wherein canyons and arroyos converge, and riverside flats and hills of varying indicated altitudes offer a landscape containing a significant biodiversity.
Figure 4 – Guarijío Region Vegetation Types
Honey is harvested in the forests, amole is used as soap, copal is employed in the tuburi ceremony, vara blanca is taken for diarrheas and is also used in musical instruments, palo de Brasil is both kindling and a tincture for woven sleeping mats, palm fronds become handicrafts and house roofs. As well, hierba de la flecha and nesco is employed in fishing, chilicote is used for masks, and chiltepín as a condiment, eaten and sold. Other plants and small game are added to this inventory of food and medicines.
The project’s prime justification states the dam and reservoir are necessary for downstream flood control (“civil protection”). Periodically, within 7-9 year cycles, heavy rains fill the silting Mocúzarit dam and the resulting overflow floods the lower Mayo valley, including rural and urban parcels within the Irrigation District 038; notably, in Navojoa, Huatabampo, Etchojoa and Bacobampo. The project proposes to build 5 levees or dikes within side basins and to “clean” the river channel to allow for 400 cubic meters per second of maximum water flow. Another major argument for the dam is to provide additional irrigation water for District 038 farmers keen to expand their agri-export and industrial enterprises. A 45mw hydroelectric generating station has been included in some project proposals for phase II, although unmentioned in the official draft Environmental Impact Analysis (EIA).1
Guarijío objections to the dam project are on balance twofold: 1) they have not been respectfully informed of detailed project plans and impacts, nor consulted about same; 2) local and regional media (press and television) report they are “opposed to development” and the project’s reputed benefits. They claim the process has been manipulated from its beginning, with clear attempts to divide community opinions and loyalties, administering rumors and disinformation, while creating links and private accords with unofficial parties. Others note: the EIA fails to include significant social and environmental impacts; the source of project financing is confusing; no modeling of long term livelihood risks exists; replacing lost infrastructure is no substitute for lost livelihoods; there is no Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) and budget, coherent with current international criteria; as a consequence, any return on investment calculations may be erroneous.
The Bicentenario / Los Pilares dam project is part of an ambitious Sonora state government plan, Sonora Sí, focusing on 22 water supply projects in this arid state. The initial noteworthy and controversial project, Acueducto Independencia, proposes to bring water from the Novillo dam in southern Sonora to the state capital, Hermosillo. This project would reduce water available for the Yaqui River valley irrigation district. As a consequence, the Yaqui native communities have formed a protest movement and have filed suit against the planned acueduct.
Guarijío leaders and families do not want to be displaced from their traditional territory and way of life. At the same time, they sense amorphous risks affecting their families and integrity as a native group, given the planned reservoir’s flooding of their core, Guajaray arroyo ecosystem. Upstream, the two other Guarijío ejidos, Guajaray (total area: 5024 hectares, 23 members) and Guarijíos-Los Conejos (6355 hectares, 59 members), will also be impacted by social and environmental aspects of the nearby dam reservoir. Microclimates, for example, will be modified by the reservoir water temperature, plus significant contamination from carbon dioxide and methane gas exuded by underwater organic fermentation – eutrofication (underwater organic decomposition), new pests and the probable extinction of endemic flora and fauna species.
These impacts will affect Guarijío routine culture, subsistence practices and wherewithal, given probable habitat changes and loss of key resources, access to cemeteries and sacred sites. In addition, both Mochibampo and Mesa Colorada villages would be displaced, the largest Guarijío settlements enjoying basic services today, and the de facto epicenters of their long struggle to secure land tenure rights and sustain community integrity.
Different versions about project financing are available, suggesting undisclosed strategic options and finance sources for the project. Initially, project budget plans called for half from the federal government, half from the Sonora state treasury. Latest versions relabel the project as “flood control and civil protection”, and consider federal funds to cover the whole project. Little is said about project benefits for the downstream District 038 yoris. Many agri-export and business interests in the lower River Mayo basin actively promote the dam, along with commercial leaders and elected representatives, eager for more water in this desert region.
Public agencies charged with conducting the dam project include the Sonora state Water Commission, especially the Sonora Sí Fund (FOSSI) created to promote this and other large scale water projects. Nevertheless, initial negotiations were led by the Fundación México Sustentable, A.C., a non-profit NGO apparently contracted by private interests to take the lead in convincing both affected mestizos and Guarijíos to accept the project and its reputed benefits. México Sustentable’s actions focused on pressuring landowners and neighbors of the project impact areas to sell their lands using false or fraudulent sales contracts. In addition, the project does not possess the proper environmental permit from the respective Ministry, nor from the National Anthropology Institute, responsible for salvage archeology prior to any large scale flooding. Nor have all agrarian law procedures been respected in a transparent fashion. In short, the dam project has been aggressively promoted while access roads have been built and land purchasing agreements signed, including prepayments made to a good portion of the non Guarijío inhabitants of the affected region.
This particular dam project has been subject to pressure from authorities for fast track treatment. Aspects of construction have been planned since August 2009. Early studies were carried out, including basic engineering, plus cost-benefit studies. In 2010, geophysical and seismic work was carried out along with hydrological and “flooding propensities” (to detect regions subject to flooding during heavy downriver flows). By 2011 the first feasibility report was issued and the project registered at the Investment Unit of the federal treasury (SHCP). That same year the initial Environmental Impact Analysis was crafted (under Mexican law an EIA does not include detailing social and economic impacts on potentially displaced communities). And the first tranche of federal funding for $90 million pesos was authorized for construction to begin in 2012.
Only in December of 2011 did geotechnical studies begin at the site of the projected dam curtain and the required levees. In March 2012, the Sonoran Secretary of Government, Roberto Romero López, noted a hydroelectric generating station would be considered during a second stage. At this writing, the basic project plan (Proyecto Ejecutivo) has been authorized by the federal National Water Commission (CONAGUA), and the appropriate Environment Ministry (SEMARNAT) permits have been requested, although a public hearing is a prerequisite before approval.
The regional press has reported a modification in the height of the dam structure, lowering the curtain from 75 to 68 meters. If so, the reservoir would reduce its volume from 650m cubic meters to 489m. This option would impede the flooding and displacement of the principal Guarijío community, Mesa Colorada, but Mochibampo would still be flooded. Nevertheless, this option still involves serious social and ecological disruptions to the Guarijío. As a consequence, early in 2012 leaders of the Guarijíos-Burapaco ejido and the Consulting Council of the National Indian Development Commission (CDI – heir to the National Indian Institute 1948-2001) notified the CDI Director General their opposition to the dam planning procedures to date.
As a result of this process, in February 2012 a solidarity committee, based in Hermosillo the Sonoran capital, rekindled contacts with the Guarijío communities.2 The confusion about the dam project in their region was quite evident, in light of the numerous inconsistencies in the “convincing process” and press coverage. Imposition is a better term for the observed series of efforts – led by the Fundación México Sustentable – to purchase or negotiate future acquisition of parcels within the projected reservoir or adjacent to the dam and associated levees. The contradictions in project news items published in the regional press plus a dearth of useful information on official websites were confusing and troublesome. Hence, the group formed in order to accompany and advise the Guarijíos, as per their requests expressed since early 2012, when dialogues began with each of the four Guarijío communities.
At this writing (September 2012), the federal CDI – Indian Development Commission – convened an initial “Inter-institutional Dialogue Event with the Guarijío Communities” on 31 July 2012. This action by the CDI’s Coordination and Reconciliation unit was in response to a formal request from the Ejido Guarijío-Burapaco authorities; several state and federal agencies attended.3 During this meeting, it was evident Guarijío communities’ leadership and representatives did not have a clear understanding of the LOS PILARES dam project, nor its probable impacts. Key documents were released for the first time. For this reason, each state and federal agency involved was invited to reanalyze their role in the project, and offer more information and comments at a second dialogue meeting. In addition, community leaders requested a “public hearing” to discuss the Environment Ministry’s (SEMARNAT) Environment Impact Analysis (EIA) presented at the first dialogue in July.4
This second dialogue was held in Hermosillo on August 29, 2012. State government officials, from FOSSI (Fondo de Operación de Obras de Sonora Sí) presented a new dam project design, where the dam’s curtain height was lowered, thus avoiding flooding the Mesa Colorada Guarijío community.5A second community, Mochibampo, was offered different options, ranging from displacement and resettlement in a nearby, new town – with housing to be rebuilt in accordance with Guarijío preferences — to the alternative of a protection levee next to the current village. The new design includes a continuous spillway, guaranteeing a flow downriver. Also, parcels farmed adjacent to the reservoir would only be flooded during exceptional rainy seasons, and otherwise, cultivation there could continue.6
At this meeting several inconsistencies became evident in the dam project’s planning. First off as noted above, $90 million pesos are included in the 2012 federal budget for initial phase contracts, before required prior studies and permit evaluations have been initiated or concluded.7 Secondly, it is now clear the entity actively promoting the dam project is the member farmers of Irrigation District 038 of the River Mayo, composed of private parties and ejidatarios, who in the main have rented their parcels to large, agribusiness firms. In addition, it became evident this group intends to expand the area presently receiving irrigation water. These elements conflict with one official, Sonoran state government, justification for the dam: flooding risk attenuation or “civil protection”.8 The National Institute of Anthropology and History, on the other hand, made manifest the lack of archeological studies required prior to project approval.9
Interviews by Brenda Norrell/Censored News and Alejandro Aguilar with Guarijio at the Second Reunion of Spiritual Guides in Sonora, Mexico. Guarijio are battling a proposed dam that could force them to relocate.
This second dialogue meeting also agreed to a series of future meetings wherein agreed to information would be provided. These meetings will be held in the Guarijío communities between September 24 and 28 of this year. During the first week of November, a public hearing (mesa de consulta) is scheduled for Mesa Colorada, where authorities, representatives and advisors of the four Guarijío groups plus relevant official agencies will be present. As well, an informative session to analyze project issues, pro and con, is scheduled for November in the nearby town of Alamos, Sonora.
It is noteworthy that during this second 29 August meeting, the Sonoran state government’s Undersecretary for Priority Social Issues (Subsecretario de Asuntos Sociales Prioritarios), Edmundo Briceño, along with the FOSSI representative and the head of the state’s Water Commission, Antonio Cruz, rejected – for the record – the proposed dates for public hearings and pressured to shorten the consultation calendar. This was not accepted by the Guarijíos and others, and at this writing, indications point to accords for planned consultations being honored at the agreed upon dates.
In sum, large dams are civil engineering works sharing an enormous cost in public and private resources. They constitute megaprojects with benefits for many technical guilds, in addition to profits for diverse suppliers, contractors, and bankers, including kickbacks for politicians in the decision making chain. In Mexico, as elsewhere, expropriations — the State’s exercise of the right of eminent domain — are rhetorically justified in terms of “public benefits” (“…por causa de utilidad pública”), as occurs in this case wherein a problematic flood risk-reducing “civil protection” benefit argument prevails.
Any analysis of community resistance and conflicts linked to these projects’ timeline must include alleged benefits and estimated profits – starting with their announcement, and including coordination actions of the executing agency (public or private) and the respective, imposing expropriation procedures, until the spillway gates are closed for the first time. This exercise often underscores the absence of designs and their execution plans (including resettlement proposals with appropriate budgets and oversight) that respect the rights and welfare of those to be displaced. Traditional megaproject displacement has not included the affected and afflicted in sharing project benefits. Independent agencies are not invited to monitor the forced displacement process. Evidence from several projects throughout the world confirms they induce more poverty and human rights violations for the displaced or “resettled”. Guarijío communities and others in the upper River Mayo watershed — with its unique biodiversity and cultural patrimony10 — face these risks in the planned LOS PILARES dam project.
1 “The Bicentenario (Pilares) dam’s alledged objective is to control River Mayo flooding and protect lands in the lower river basin. Another stated objective includes the analysis of advantages of building a reservoir upriver from the current Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (Mocúzarit) dam, in order to improve its operation, reduce occasional flooding and contribute to satisfying demand for irrigation water.”
2 This committe has members from several institutions: El Colegio de Sonora, Universidad de Sonora, CIAD – Food and Development Research Center (all in Hermosillo); the National University / UNAM, the Metropolitan University – UAM-I, plus civil society organizations: Foro Para el Desarrollo Sustentable, A.C. and the Red Mexicana de Estudios sobre Poblaciones Indígenas, A.C.
3 CONAGUA, INAH, SEMARNAT, Secretaría de la Reforma Agraria, Secretaría de Gobierno de Sonora, FOSSI, Comisión Estatal para el Desarrollo Indígena de Sonora (CEDIS), Junta de Caminos, SEDESSON,Fundación MéxicoSustentable A.C.; Guarijío representatives and authorities, and ourselves, civil society advisors from (Foro para el Desarrollo Sustentable A. C.) and the research community (El Colegio de Sonora).
4 Other agreements included the CDI Sonora Delegation office organizing a public hearing with authorities and representatives of the downriver Mayo communities, as well as an inter-agency commission charged with analyzing project documents, impacts and designing an Integrated Development Plan for the Guarijío communities.
5 In addition to those agencies in attendance at the first meeting, the CFE (Federal Power Commission), Procuraduría Agraria, Registro Agrario Nacional and the respective state and federal Human Rights Commissions attended the second meeting.
6 Seventeen “productive projects” were also offered (although only two were specified – raising deer and a variety of chile pepper – chiltepín), and concession rights to the future reservoir would be granted to those uses the Guarijíos prefer.
7 An example is the failure to comply with the change of land use procedure – from its current “forested” to “non- forested” designation, without which the project cannot legally proceed.
8 On this occasion, the CEO of the México Sustentable Foundation was introduced as both a future contractor and registered member of Irrigation District 38. This announcement was coherent with the observed actions of numerous southern Sonoran commercial and political interests working with state authorities to obtain benefits from the dam project.
9 INAH indicated the lack of archeological surveys in the proposed dam’s reservoir region. An initial survey would take at least 4-6 months, in order to design a second phase of salvage work whose cost and calendar is impossible to predict without the initial survey. However, after this meeting the INAH Delegate for Sonora told the state’s Undersecretary of Government could reduce the time needed for a conclusive report via an immediate, extensive survey of the region to be flooded by the proposed reservoir. Nevertheless, field archeologists present at this meeting insisted on fulfilling the initial survey work before any official judgment is issued.
10 Several technical and financial feasibility studies for large dams are on file today in Mexico. Some projects have generated significant popular resistance movements who have succeeded, for different reasons, in blocking or detaining dam construction. To name a few: San Juan Tetelcingo (CFE / Guerrero), La Parota (CFE / Guerrero), Paso de la Reina (CFE / Oaxaca), and Las Cruces (CFE / Nayarit). In others, resistance remains in early stages: Boca del Monte / Tenosique (CFE / Chiapas). Chicoasen II / Copainalá (CFE / Chiapas) and Paso Ancho (CONAGUA / Oaxaca), without naming smaller scale projects apparently granted as concessions to private entities on rivers in Chiapas, Puebla and Veracruz. Also, three dams are currently at different construction phases: La Yesca (2012, CFE / Jalisco), Río Moctezuma (2014, CFE / Hidalgo) and Francisco J. Múgica (2012, CONAGUA / Michoacán), all without data indicating significant social or environmental impacts. Other conflictive projects include the water supply and irrigations dams, respectively, El Zapotillo (CONAGUA / Jalisco) and Los Picachos (CONAGUA / Sinaloa). Similarly, compensation for a portion of the single village displaced by the CFE / El Cajón hydropower dam commissioned in 2006 remains pending (Robinson 2012).
Traducción de Scott Robinson Studebaker