Farmers Take Action to Conserve Water in San Antonino, Oaxaca

15 Jul

 oaxaca 2010 07 03 J cuajimoloyas 028

Small farmers in Oaxaca’s Central Valley used to be able to count on ample water to produce their corn, livestock, and vegetables. But recently, water scarcity has threatened the ability of these farmers, mainly of indigenous Zapotec heritage, to support themselves. The valley is drying up for several reasons. The City of Oaxaca, its population now around 300,000, uses more and more water. Worse, reduced rainfall, due to deforestation and global warming, have caused frequent periods of drought since the 1990s.

Growing water scarcity is a key reason that many Oaxacan farmers have been forced to migrate to other parts of Mexico and to the U.S. in search of work. Oaxacan farmers also say that federal water laws, designed for northern Mexico’s vast expanses of commercial farms, treat Oaxacan farmers in an unnecessarily harsh manner. During recent decades, the government pressured farmers into registering the wells they had dug to irrigate their crops. The government then began metering the farmers’ use of their own wells, and fined them when they exceeded federal limits. These rules made it even harder for the farmers to feed their families.

In response, farmers in the small village of San Antonino have used their own creativity, money, and labor to develop a local water conservation system and recharge their depleted aquifer. They are cooperating with 11 other villages with assistance from Flor y Canto, a local group dedicated to protecting indigenous rights in Oaxaca.

This week, our Witness for Peace delegation traveled to San Antonino to see the project first hand.

Project leaders Delfín Hernandez Sanchez, Elias Santiago Hernández, Claudio Ortiz Reyes, and Teresa Aguílar Serna told us they had to initiate the project on their own, without government support. The work was done on Sundays with téquio (community) labor. Though they had limited formal education, they designed the project using their own ideas and knowledge of local conditions. One of them told us: “We had no engineers to help, so we were the engineers. We didn’t study. We just had a need and we were hungry.” Only after the project proved successful did the municipal government start to assist by building additional wells. Now experts come from far away to see the accomplishments of this tiny group of farmers in San Antonino.

The key element of the project consists of 120 hand-dug filtration wells. The wells collect rainwater and runoff from the fields to recharge the local aquifer and supply water to separate irrigation wells.  An average well 15 meters deep takes around a week to dig. We saw one well under construction. At the bottom, so deep we could barely see them, two men were excavating. The farmers told us that yes, the work was dangerous, and they have to be careful. When they dig deep it is hard to breathe at the bottom of the well. As a workplace safety teacher, I shuddered.


After the digging is complete, concrete tubing is installed to reinforce the walls. The well is filled with rocks and sand to filter the water. Though the government accused the farmers of collecting polluted water, studies by two Mexican universities have shown that the water is not contaminated. Farmers told us that they use no agricultural chemicals to grow their corn, squash, radishes, green beans, parsley, flowers, and other crops. They fertilize their fields with a mixture of local materials, including animal manures and egg shells.

After beginning work on their project in 2006, the farmers had to wait three years for results. Finally, the level of water in the wells began to rise. After the farmers proved that their system was successful, the municipal government installed another 60 wells.

We asked to farmers why they had stayed in San Antonino instead of emigrating. “This is our home,” they told us. “We did it for those who will come after us, for our children. We can’t leave them a desert, we need to leave them water. What will they think if we leave them no water? One day they will approve of what we are doing.”

The farmers of San Antonino are still poor, and they have to work hard to raise their crops. But things are better now. Today, the farmers say, they collect enough water during the rainy season to produce crops year round.

But the staff of Flor y Canto say that villages throughout the Valley of Oaxaca still struggle with water shortage and could be helped by using the methods developed in San Antonino. The farmers of San Antonino need allies to continue their work.


2 Responses to “Farmers Take Action to Conserve Water in San Antonino, Oaxaca”

  1. Mary Pace July 15, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    Hi, I found your email through your colleagues at the Oaxaca conference. I really enjoyed these interesting posts. I am a friend of Sarah Monroe from Evergreen.

  2. stonesister July 17, 2010 at 2:24 am #

    This is a great story. I wish I had been able to find it for my students in Miahuatlan, when we were talking about the effects of emigration on Oaxacan society. Some villages are so depleted of population, and divided by the changes mass emigration has brought, that people have forgotten what they can do when they work together.

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