Over the last year, at least three Water Defenders of the Yaqui Tribal Nation in Northern Mexico have been murdered or disappeared due to their spirited efforts to prevent the ongoing theft of water by the Sonoran Government which is devastating their community’s health, livelihoods and ecosystems.
The murder of Luis Urbano Dominguez Mendoza and Agustin Valdez along with the disappearance of Tomas Rojo Valencia is part of a larger international trend targeting and oppressing Indigenous Land and Water Defenders who are on the frontlines of environmental struggle.
The Yaqui Tribal Nation has been fighting against the theft of its water for hundreds of years. The Yaqui River is the primary source of the Tribe’s subsistence, livelihoods, and spiritual and cultural traditions. It has been coveted by colonial governments since the Spanish first invaded, due to its provision of great fertility which makes the surrounding region the most agriculturally productive in Mexico.
Over the centuries, in response to repeated thefts and diversions for colonial agriculture, the Yaqui have been forced to fight for their right to honor and subsist with their homeland’s water. They have survived decades of enslavement, deportation, and killings during the course of this long struggle.
A high point seemed to come with the signing of a 1937 Accord, which secured a promise from the Mexican government to not divert any more than half of the River’s output from the Yaqui Nation. Yet today, due to an increasing number of aqueducts and diversion projects which have broken this promise over many decades, the Yaqui do not have even 1/4th of what they need for their agriculture. What water they do receive is regularly polluted and responsible for a growing health crisis among the tribe.
With temperatures rising due to global warming and drought worsening in the region, the Sonoran government’s response has been to steal even more water from the Yaqui people. Despite two federal injunctions prohibiting the construction of a new aqueduct, this project that began in 2010 now diverts 50% of the Yaqui’s water. Altogether, such projects have had a “negative ecological impact … so drastic it provoked a phenomenon of total migration of local fauna.”
Meanwhile, American agribusiness and fossil fuel companies are furthering the crisis by partnering with the Sonoran government and profiting from the dispossession and oppression of the Yaqui. The latest example is San Diego-based Sempra Energy, which has been building a fossil fuel gas pipeline through Yaqui territory, threatening at-risk endemic species.
Despite reassurances from Sempra that the gas pipeline will pose no threat to Yaqui water, one of its domestic subsidiaries Southern California Gas was responsible for the largest methane leak in U.S. history in 2015, displacing 8,000 people from their homes. The executive director responsible, Dennis Arriola, faced no legal or professional consequences and was instead ‘disciplined’ by Sempra Energy via a transfer to the board of a Mexican subsidiary, Sempra Mexico.
The company’s lawlessness was on full display in Mexico when it ignored a federal injunction in 2016 ordering the project to stop. Yaqui Water Defenders were forced to take law enforcement into their own hands and disabled the pipeline which was illegally trespassing across their national territory in 2018. As a result, Arizona’s gas exports to Mexico plunged by 37%.
With Yaqui farming rapidly becoming impossible, endemic health problems rising, resistance leaders being murdered, and the ecological-spiritual foundation of Yaqui culture being increasingly stolen and destroyed, Yaqui leaders have not minced words in naming the parties responsible for this ongoing atrocity as guilty of genocide.
In the words of Rosemary Tona-Aguirre, a member of the Yaqui Tribe in Arizona, “It is genocide because they’re poisoning the river with fertilizer and pesticides from big agribusiness, a lot of them American owned, and they’re stealing the water for use in Hermosillo and other places. That’s money and food taken away from the Yaqui. The Rio Yaqui is just the life of everybody. They use it daily. They need that water and they need it for ceremony.”
As Mario Luna, a secretary of traditional Yaqui authorities, concludes, “the Yaqui River is a structural part of our life and with this theft of our water, they are condemning us to death as a people.”
Make a contribution and join the letter-writing campaign to help free Yaqui Water Defender Fidencio Aldama, who has been a political prisoner in Mexico since 2016.