Mazahuas Choose Jail Over Going Without Water
By Diego Cevallos
Indigenous women are at the forefront of a protest in Mexico demanding water. "We won't give up until they give us water," says Beatriz Flores, one of the movement's leaders.
MEXICO CITY, Dec 26 (Tierramérica).- Although they live near a gigantic water distribution system, the indigenous Mazahuas lack access to water and live in deep poverty. Since Dec. 11, when they shut off the valves of one of the system's plants in protest, Mazahua women have kept up the vigil -- and warn that it could turn radical.
"We prefer jail over continuing without water," Beatriz Flores, a member of the "General Command of the Mazahua Women's Army in Defense of Water", told Tierramérica.
The group, despite its name, declares itself to be a peaceful movement. Its protest consists of maintaining an encampment of 50 to 70 people outside "Los Berros" water purification plant in the Mazahua town of Villa Victoria. The plant where the protesters shut off the valves is part of the Cutzamala water system, which supplies the capital and part of the state of Mexico.
Flores, 27, has three young daughters and combines her domestic duties with activism for water rights. Her family gets by thanks to a vegetable garden and the exhausting farm work of her husband.
"We asked them to supply water in our houses, and also an integrated development plan to get out of poverty. That is why we won't leave the plant until they listen to us," Flores said in a Tierramérica interview.
Feeling the pressure, the government of President Felipe Calderón initiated talks with the indigenous women, but some officials claimed that part of the demands had been met in 2004 when the Mazahuas staged their first protests.
There are just over 100,000 Mazahuas living in the state of Mexico, in 13 mostly rural municipalities, nine of which are considered highly impoverished. The Cutzamala water system, built in the 1980s, passes near their communities, but most do not have access to this essential liquid.
According to the non-governmental Latin American Water Tribunal, based in Costa Rica, Cutzamala led to a decline in the environmental, social, cultural and economic conditions of the Mazahua peoples in Mexico, and prompted numerous problems and increasingly organized peasant protests.
Flores, who has to walk two kilometers for a little water for daily use -- a task she shares with her eight-year-old daughter -- spoke with Tierramérica by telephone from Villa Victoria.
TIERRAMERICA: The authorities say they already answered many of your demands in 2004, that they fixed the roads in your communities, among other assistance. Is that true?
FLORES: In these two years that we have been protesting, they haven't really supported us in anything. They provided some assistance, but the leaders we had kept part of the benefits and resources. Everything was left incomplete, roads half finished and even some waterless toilets they gave us were just left about.
TIERRAMERICA: What do you plan to do now? Do you trust the government?
FLORES: Awhile ago we announced that some day we would take over the (Los Berros) plant, and the moment came. We remain at the plant. Until we see the government turn to our side and change our region, we will stay there. Furthermore, if they don't comply, we'll shut the valves again, but this time completely. They tell us by January they'll resolve the problems. We're hoping they aren't misleading us.
TIERRAMERICA: Are you aware that closing the valves at the water plant is a serious federal crime?
FLORES: Our protest will continue in spite of all that. If the government doesn't keep its promises we will take over the system again. We've already said it: we prefer jail to going without water. But it must be clear that we are not just asking for water, but rather an integrated plan to get out of poverty.
TIERRAMERICA: Why are women the ones leading the protests? Where are the men?
FLORES: We women are here fighting for water because we are the ones who suffer most the lack of water in our houses; we are the ones maintaining the household. The men go out to work, but we are the ones carrying the water. But the men do support us.
TIERRAMERICA: How do you deal with the lack of water?
FLORES: The Cutzamala system takes it all, and it's unfair that we don't have water. It's very difficult for us to live this way, because with water we would be able to do many things. But we feel like our hands are tied without it. We have to carry water two kilometers, transporting it with burros and 20-liter containers for cooking and other needs. I go in the morning, and in the afternoon my eight-year-old daughter goes.
TIERRAMERICA: Why do you think the authorities haven't supported you?
FLORES: We don't understand why they've abandoned us. They don't support us Indians. They don't want to see our problems. But we are strong and persistent, and the fight will continue until we are able to change the region and have water for everyone.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.