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What the River Knows: Yaqui River, Sonora, Mexico

In this series, “What the River Knows,” by Basia Irland, the artist and water activist writes from the perspective of each river, using the first person. Installments are published in Water Currents every other week on Mondays. The first post is about the Ping River in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Other posts include the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok;...

In this series, “What the River Knows,” by Basia Irland, the artist and water activist writes from the perspective of each river, using the first person. Installments are published in Water Currents every other week on Mondays. The first post is about the Ping River in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Other posts include the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok; Kamo-gawa River, Kyoto; Siem Reap River, Cambodia; Yaqui River, Mexico, where the eight Yaqui tribal villages do not have water due to agricultural corporations; the superfund site on the Eagle River in Colorado, polluted with heavy metal runoff from a mine; and the Virgin River as it flows through Zion National Park.

Please feel free to add your comments at the end of each post.

Yaqui River, Sonora, Mexico, as it flows (or not) through the Yaqui Nation

(Jíak Batwe, Yaqui or Yoeme language) (Río Yaqui, Spanish)

Photographs by Basia Irland

Compare and contrast:

1.a. Irrigation ditch with corporate water coming from the Obregón Dam to grow wheat for export.
Irrigation ditch with corporate water coming from the Obregón Dam to grow wheat for export.
1.b. Toxic pesticide runoff from the large agribusiness fields nearby slugs along in a ditch that flows into the stagnant Río in the Yaqui Village of Tórim.
Toxic pesticide runoff from the large agribusiness fields nearby slugs along in a ditch that flows into the stagnant Río in the Yaqui Village of Tórim.

 

My struggle as a river is interconnected with the struggle of my people, the Yaqui Indigenous Community of Mexico in the Sonoran desert, as I try to provide the ancestral source of water for drinking, everyday use, irrigation, and ceremonial purposes. Together we have had a long and complex history. Manuel Esquer Nieblas, a member of the Yaqui Defense Brigade, grew up playing in my waters during a time when there was still some flow. His relatives live in several of the eight remaining Yaqui villages along my northern banks as I move south and empty into the Gulf of California 28 miles (45 km) southeast of Guaymas.

 

2. Manuel Esquer Nieblas standing next to the Río where he used to play as a child, but now is stagnant and polluted
Manuel Esquer Nieblas standing next to the Río where he used to play as a child, but now is stagnant and polluted.

 

My water that is destined for Yaqui land is diverted for the cultivating of hybrid wheat, corn, and rice impregnated with synthetic fertilizers. Utilizing high-tech farming methods, the crop yields have been impressive, but little, if any, of the money made from these fields goes to the Tribes, and most of the noxious pesticide runoff is funneled into channels that dump directly into my body. Ugh. It makes me ashamed to tell you this, and for you to hear about what shape I am in these days.

 

A Yaqui family washes clothes in the pesticide-clogged Río since there is no running water in their village of Tórim.
A Yaqui family washes clothes in the pesticide-clogged Río since there is no running water in their village of Tórim.

 

In 2015, Manuel stands beside me and chats with a family who must wash their clothes in this putrid mess, because they have no running water in the village of Tórim. And when I slog on to the village of Bakum, I have to witness poor families forced to purchase drinking water since none is available within the homes. Four gallons of bottled water costs around thirteen or fourteen pesos, or about one dollar in U.S. currency. Four gallons is not much water, and with so few pesos coming into the household, this is an extravagant amount of money for a necessity that should be free, and a given right for all people.

 

Here in Bakum, drinking water must be bought since there is no potable water within any of the eight Yaqui villages. A necessity that should be free is expensive and sometimes prohibitively so. A water purification plant was promised by the Mexican government to aide all the villages, but was never built.
Here in Bakum, drinking water must be bought since there is no potable water within any of the eight Yaqui villages. A necessity that should be free is expensive and sometimes prohibitively so. A water purification plant was promised by the Mexican government to aide all the villages, but was never built.

 

There are regularly scheduled Tribal council meetings about what to do concerning the water situation. Since May 2013 one form of protest has been to maintain a resistance camp and roadblock at Vicam (the Tribe’s main headquarters) to stop large transport trucks along the Mexico City to Nogales Federal Highway #15. As a result of this action, the Mexican government issued criminal charges and arrest warrants against two of the Yaqui leaders. Amnesty International has denounced this action in an open letter stating that Amnesty fears the charges are a “reprisal against their legitimate work on behalf of their people’s human rights.”

 

Yaqui Resistance Brigade stops trucks entering their land in protest about indigenous water rights.
Yaqui Resistance Brigade stops trucks entering their land in protest about indigenous water rights.

 

A brief history of me and my people is important in order to put into perspective what is happening today. As early as 500 AD, native inhabitants known as the Yoem Vatwe or Yaqui were living along my shores in small family units. The Yaqui used simple irrigation techniques to transport me for the growing of squash, corn, and beans. In 1533 a Spanish military expedition searching for slaves began a war. They were defeated, but killed thousands of Yaqui people. Even in the early 1600’s, the Spanish repeatedly attacked Yaqui settlements. Then again around 1684, when silver was found near my banks, the Spanish attempted to move into the region. But throughout the turbulence, the Tribes continuously attempted to defend me, the land, and their culture.

The villages were fairly independent until the late 1800’s, when a different enemy appeared. The Mexican Army forced families to flee to other areas, with some groups relocating to Yaqui communities in Arizona. By the late 1880s, warfare with the Mexican Army had killed off many members of the Yaqui Tribe.

In the early 1900s, after a series of conflicts with the Mexican Army, numerous remaining Yaqui were arrested and dispersed to plantations in the Yucatán Peninsula. The survivors continued resisting until the late 1920s, when Mexican authorities overcame resistance by employing heavy artillery, and even dropped bombs on Yaqui villages.

Mexican troops occupied Pueblos to keep watch over them, and deported many to work as slaves in distant areas within Mexico, and abroad. In 1939, Mexican President Cardenas tried to change the attitude about the Yaquis by granting the Tribe official recognition and title to their land.

But the struggle is not over, because land and water rights issues remain contentious to this day. The most recent obstacle has been the building of the Independence Aqueduct, which was built to transport water from my body to Sonora’s capital, Hermosillo, a manufacturing hub with high-water use plants such as Heineken, Ford, and Big Cola. Yaqui leaders have stated that about 40 percent of the municipal water supply in the capital city is being lost to faulty infrastructure. The diversion began operating in April 2013 in spite of protests, injunctions, and court orders from the Tribe, who have first rights to my water.

On July 9, 2013 the Zapatista General Command, together with the Mexican Indigenous National Congress, issued a statement of solidarity and support for the Yaqui, condemning the “theft” of water and the “criminalization of their struggle.” In December of 2014 a conference titled “Pillage of the Water of the Pueblos: New Challenges” took place in Mexico City. Many speakers described how even with all the legal injunctions against the building of the aqueduct, the project proceeded, and even with all the promises of wells from the government, nothing still has been done to provide clean water to the Yaqui People.

There are now sections where I dry up and disappear entirely, with nothing in the riverbed but dust. So, the struggle for my survival and that of my people continues!

 

Dry Yaqui Riverbed outside Cocorit, Mexico.
Dry Yaqui Riverbed outside Cocorit, Mexico.

 

Basia Irland is a sculptor, poet, and installation artist who has focused her creativity on rivers for 30 years. Her aim is to connect people to their local waters and watersheds in ways that will motivate concern, caring, appreciation, and stewardship. You may read more about her and her work on her website.

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Meet the Author

Basia Irland
Fulbright Scholar, Basia Irland is an author, poet, sculptor, installation artist, and activist who creates global water projects. She is Professor Emerita, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico, where she established the Arts and Ecology Program. Irland works with scholars from diverse disciplines building rainwater harvesting systems; connecting communities and fostering dialogue along the entire length of rivers; filming and producing water documentaries; and creating waterborne disease projects around the world. She lectures and exhibits internationally and is regularly commissioned to do artistic river restoration projects. Check out her work at basiairland.com