Cultural Genocide and the Assaults on the Rio Yaqui

by James Patrick Jordan

“This is a body of water named for the people themselves…. They’ve been living there since before the invaders showed up. For that to be taken away leaves the people high and dry. It’s immoral.”

Part of the Independencia aqueduct – robbing Yaqui water till there’s hardly any left. Photo JPJ

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Read the People’s Human Rights Observatory Statement of Solidarity with the Yaqui People

Recent events in the Yaqui traditional territory, located in Sonora, México, give us worrisome lessons about neoliberalism and cultural genocide. The Yaqui lands are enduring threats to the Rio Yaqui that put the entire people, ecosystem, and culture at risk. But there are other, more valuable, lessons to be learned, and these are lessons about struggle and solidarity.

The threats include the diversion of water by the Independencia aqueduct to serve big agribusinesses and an industrial zone populated with foreign and transnational factories in the city of Hermosillo. Presently, the traditional agriculture of the Yaquis is so affected that there is the possibility that they will not be able to sow winter crops for the coming year. On February 17, Irrigation District councilor, and president of the 4P8 Irrigation Module, announced that, “We always say that the Independencia aqueduct would affect us, and this is already happening. The drought is hitting us hard, and because of this, we are making this call to care for our water resources. It is possible that the producers and towns that converge with us in the watershed, if it doesn’t rain this summer, will have to forego planting seeds for the winter.”

The other major threat is the Sonora pipeline, a project of the Sempra Energy company, based in San Diego, California. Sempra Energy is trying to finish a natural gas pipeline that passes through Yaqui territory. On February 14, for the second time, there was an explosion during tests of the Sonora pipeline. Fortunately, the tests were with air, not methane, and thus, there was no disaster. However, they damaged the streets, lifting and breaking pavement. If the pipeline had been conducting methane, the situation would have been very different.

Ecological Threats Already Severe

The ecosystem of the Yaqui territory had already been very affected by the construction of three dams between 1942 and 1964, and a series of wells built since 1993 to supply potable water to the cities of Guaymas and Empalme. According to a document by Rodrigo Gonzalez Enriquez and Francisco Alejandro Elias Gonzales Castro, professors at the Technological Institute of Sonora,

“This negative ecological impact was so drastic it provoked a phenomenon of total migration of local fauna…causing with it effects to the rural communities of the region, including some indigenous Yaqui communities that depend on the river’s recharge for the realization of productive activities, cosmologonical rituals, and ancestral medicine….

Just like that, since March 2013, we find another aqueduct called “Independencia” crossing through 75

Dust to dust… beside the Independencia aqueduct. Photo JPJ

million cubic meters annually from the Plutarco Elías Calles Dam to the city of Hermosillo…. Owing to the construction of the big hydraulic works…they have provoked an ecological deterioration of the riparian system and drainage of a large part of the historic riverbed….

The massive extraction of water from the river…has affected important aspects of the tradition, the rituals and the daily life of the tribe, making it the realization of festivals and ceremonies of great importance virtually impossible for the Yaqui ethnicity, such as the celebration in honor of Saint John the Baptist, with a collective baptism in the river, that represents the unity of the Yaqui peoples.

With respect to the gas pipeline, said project intends to cross through approximately 90 kilometers of Yaqui territory…. affecting in a direct, temporary manner around 180 hectares and in a definitive form, 80 hectares, by way of the work to prepare the site and the construction…. noting that within this removal of vegetation cover there were examples of endemic species of flora in a category of risk and special protection. Furthermore, in an indirect manner and permanent way, there would be around 16,000 hectares in the zone in which there could not be realized activities because of questions of security, due to the risk…from accidents in the natural gas tubes with a minimum one-kilometer radius taking the gas pipeline as the center of conduction.”

The Gas Pipeline and Sempra’s Bad Ecological Record

The Sonora pipeline connects with the Kinder-Morgan pipeline in Pima Country, Arizona, that runs alongside the Tohono ‘O’odham reservation and crosses the border in Sasabe. It travels through river systems and beside the Gulf of California through all Sonora till it reaches its terminus in the State of Sinaloa. This pipeline is a project of the IEnova company, a division of Sempra Mexico, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy. (Sempra Energy also includes Southern California Gas, San Diego Gas and Electric, Sempra South American Utilities, Sempra LNG and Midstream, and Sempra Renewables.)

The town of Loma de Bacum, as well as ecological defenders from other Yaqui villages, are rising up against this project, expressing fear for the Rio Yaqui watershed and nearby communities. The people of Loma de Bacum clearly rejected the pipeline in 2015 in response to consultations by authorities about the matter. In April 2016, a court injunction was issued against construction in Yaqui territories. Despite the ruling, the pipeline was finished by April 2017, with its route passing through 90 kilometers of Yaqui lands and crossing the Rio Yaqui. Shortly thereafter, some Yaqui water defenders (separate from the Loma de Bacum traditional authorities) damaged a section of the pipeline in protest. On March 2, 2018, the Seventh District Court of Ciudad Obregon rejected a motion by Mexico’s Energy Secretariat (SENER) for the injunction to be lifted, allowing them to repair the pipeline. For now, the project is on hold.

According to a December 2017 article by Adam Williams for Forbes Magazine, “The impact extends far beyond Loma de Bacum and its 4,500 residents. Arizona’s gas exports to Mexico have plunged 37 percent since the shutdown, hitting an eight-month low in December…. When protest turns to sabotage, there’s a risk that investors will be put off from future phases, like an extensive shale development. It’s also grist to the mill of the leftist frontrunner for next year’s presidential election, who’s vowing to reverse some of the reforms.” Williams is referring to energy reforms by the Mexican government that open the country up to privatization and foreign investment, and to Manuel López Obrador, who is leading polls in advance of July 1, 2018 elections.

Unfortunately, collaborators who support the pipeline have sometimes acted undemocratically and violently. Fidencio Aldama is a Yaqui political prisoner who has been incarcerated since October 2016. He still is in the stages of his trial, detained in the state prison of Ciudad Obregon (Cajeme). He is jailed for the killing of Cruz Buitimea Piña that occurred when the people of Loma de Bacum were attacked by an armed group that tried to take control of the town hall with the goal of overthrowing the traditional leadership in order to sign papers in favor of the gas pipeline. There is no evidence that links Aldama with the killing and, in fact, there are witnesses who say that he only stayed near his house to protect it from the assault.

The Yaqui people have reason to worry about the effects of this pipeline on the river and their communities. Southern California Gas was responsible for the largest methane leak in United States history in October 2015. This leak resulted in the displacement of 8,000 persons from their homes. After this disaster, Sempra Energy removed the Executive Director of Southern California Gas, Dennis Arriola, from his position only to transfer him to another position as their vice president of corporate strategy and foreign affairs, including integrating him into the board of directors of Sempra Mexico.

More than Ecological Threats

These projects, the gas pipeline and the aqueduct, are more than ecological threats, they are forms of cultural genocide. Rosemary Toña-Aguirre is a member of the Yaqui nation in Arizona and part of the board of directors for the Alianza Indígena (Indigenous Alliance). According to her, “It is genocide because they’re poisoning the river with fertilizer and pesticides from big agribusinesses, 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.”

David Jaimez of the Yoeme Human Rights Commission explains that, “This is a body of water named for the people themselves…. They’ve been living there since before the invaders showed up. For that to be taken away leaves the people high and dry. It’s immoral.”

Clearly, the assaults on the Rio Yaqui and its watershed, and against the traditional lands, are assaults against the culture of the Yaquis who live there. But the Rio Yaqui has significance for every Yaqui, wherever they might live, and the threats to the river are threats to the entire Yaqui nation, even in diaspora. Many Yaqui communities were forcibly displaced due to hundreds of years of colonialist wars and repression, including many forced into slavery. There are Yaqui communities outside their traditional territory in places like the Yucatán, California, Texas, and, notably, Arizona, where they have been officially recognized, receiving two reservations in Pima Country. When asked about the importance of the Rio Yaqui for communities outside Sonora, Toña-Aguirre emphasized that, “Everybody says that’s the homeland. Everyone here in the US would like to travel there and see how things are done. It’s a learning experience, a sharing of information – it’s almost a must to go back. Everybody on the American side dreams about going back.”

The destruction of the Rio Yaqui as a living and viable ecosystem would lead to massive displacement of tribal members from their homeland. The effects of that would reverberate throughout the Yaqui world.

Toña-Aguirre talked about the importance of having Yaqui visitors from the traditional lands in Sonora to maintain culture and ceremonies for the Arizona Yaqui.  She tells us that ceremonial leaders “leave their family for all that time from the Sunday before Ash Wednesday to the Sunday after Easter…. It’s very important for them to be here because a lot of the participants here are youth, and don’t all speak the language. Some may understand but don’t speak. All the sermons are in Yaqui. Every community has people that come to them. The only way to teach everything is by doing it. There aren’t books or anything. There’s a lot to be learned, still, and it’s still very guarded by the traditional people.”

Jaimez says that the materially better-off Arizona Yaqui make contributions to the families of the Sonoran ceremonial leaders. He believes that their presence helps youth understand that, “Whatever we may have in material stuff, it can be taken away. But over there, they’ve basically kept our tribe going because they’ve been willing to protect our traditions, our people, our land.”

Members of the Yaqui nation in Sonora meet with Arizona Yaqui’s from the Alianza Indígena and Yoeme (Yaqui) Human Rights Commission. Photo JPJ

Some Rio Yaqui History

If there is one thing one can say regarding the Yaqui people, it is that their most profound character is that of being defenders of the territory and nature. According to historian Paco Ignacio Taibo II, although they have a reputation for fierce and valiant struggle, in their entire history, there are no accounts of the Yaquis ever attacking or invading their neighbors or any other people.

Today they face battles perhaps more damaging than all the others. They do not struggle against an army so much as against neoliberal economic policies, and repression by the state and federal governments in Mexico, with many of the tools of repression provided by the United States.

One of the most important achievements for the Yaqui people was the accord with the Mexican government signed in 1937 by President Lázaro Cárdenas. This accord guaranteed the Yaquis half the Rio Yaqui’s water, a resource they have used and managed sustainably.  The 1937 accord constituted a recognition of the importance of the river to the Yaquis.

Nevertheless, in recent years, the violations of the accord have been constant. The implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) resulted in the rapid construction of foreign industries and the decimation of traditional, sustainable farms by big agricultural industries. To supply the flow of water to these neoliberal encroachments, the State of Sonora built the Independencia aqueduct that illegally results in the diversion of considerably more than 50% of the river’s flow. And although the courts, all the way to Mexico’s Supreme Court, have affirmed the right of the Yaqui nation to half the river’s water, these decisions have been ignored.

Sempra’s Transnational Web

Sempra and IEnova want us to believe that this gas pipeline will be safe and will not constitute a threat to the river or the nearby communities. But when we look at their history, their guarantees seem insincere at best. In addition to the promotion of Dennis Arriola, when we scrutinize Sempra’s and IEnova’s officials, we discover a web of links with transnational corporations well known for their ecological irresponsibility.

Sempra Energy receives profits every year of around $12 billion dollars. Their corporate executive officer is Debra Reed, who is also part of the board of directors of Halliburton and Caterpillar. Dick Cheney, the US vice president during the administration of George W. Bush had been CEO of Halliburton, a company that made billions of dollars building petroleum infrastructures and benefiting from the politics of war and exploitation around the world. Caterpillar is a company that has made profits providing Israel with machinery for the occupation of Palestine, and tools for the construction of the US border wall. Meanwhile, Alan Boeckmann is not only part of the board of directors for Sempra Energy, but also of British Petroleum, or BP, which was responsible for the worst oil spill in world history, the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The president of the board of directors of IEnova is a person by the name of Carlos Ruíz Sacristán, who is also a member of the board of directors of Southern Copper, which is part of Grupo Mexico, which operates mines in Mexico, Peru, Spain, and the US. In each country, Grupo Mexico has a deplorable legacy of environmental damage, including the worst ecological disaster in Mexico’s history, the spill of 10.5 million gallons of sulfuric acid into the Rio Sonora.

It is from this Hellish team that the Yaqui people have received their assurances that, of course, this gas pipeline will be safe for everyone. Is it any wonder that the people of Loma de Bacum and other communities from the Yaqui nation don’t trust them?

It must be mentioned that while the US builds a wall on the border, there is no obstacle to the Sempra gas pipeline in crossing the border into Mexico. In fact, the Sonora pipeline connects with a Kinder Morgan pipeline in Pima Country, Arizona and crosses the border through the binational community of Sasabe. Like Sempra, Kinder Morgan also has a terrible record of ecological violations.

We Must Resist Internationally

The Yaqui people continue to struggle against the Independencia aqueduct and the Sonora pipeline. Since they struggle against international corporations, they deserve internationalist solidarity. One way that we can act in solidarity with this struggle is to join with the campaign for the freedom of Fidencio Aldama. His continued incarceration is meant as a warning to the Yaqui people to intimidate their resistance. Those who would like to support this campaign in the US can learn more by sending an email to the Alliance for Global Justice at [email protected] . By doing this, we do not only struggle for Aldama, we struggle against cultural genocide and for the river. We struggle for nature. As we all know: Water is life.

I would like to dedicate this article to José Matus,Yaqui ceremonial leader and former Director and Founder of the Alianza Indígena (Indigenous Alliance), who passed away December 3, 2017. José taught the Alliance for Global Justice about Yaqui struggles and took us two different times to meet the river and its people, the last time just a little over a month before his passing. José, we won’t give up the fight!