Rescuing a River from Ruin

The eyes of the world are on Temacapulin. So declared a banner at an anti-dam rally. Solidarity is probably the single best hope for the 500 residents of this sleepy Mexican town on the brink of being submerged.

It’s a battle of David and Goliath proportions. Father Gabriel, the local priest, tweaked the final words of the Lord’s Prayer, urging, “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from dams. Amen”.

This was Rivers for Life 3, a global gathering of river protectors. I attended as a stringer for American Jewish World Service, which helped fly in representatives from other dam-affected communities from the Thai-Burmese border to Kenya.

Managing our water commons thoughtfully in an age of growing energy demand and climate change is a considerable challenge, especially when the World Bank ignores the advice in its own study to wean ourselves off large dams. That study by the World Commission on Dams finds large dams inconsistent with environmental and human rights standards. A global movement, including activists from OTC’s Our Water Commons, continue to press to rein in the dam industry, invest in truly green solutions and apply common sense principles for how we manage our water.

And so, on the fourth day of the gathering, hundreds of people – townsfolk and national and international activists – marched down hot and dusty switchbacks, past bulldozers, deeper and deeper into a narrowing canyon to the place where the river is to be held back by a mammoth cement wall, a dam called El Zapotillo.

In spite of the rousing chants and flags vigorously waved from many of the 62 countries represented at the forum, I imagine others shared a sickening feeling when we first saw the massive chutes built to channel water into hydroelectric turbines. Even the model homes for a relocation village are already partially built. Can the commons be defended in the face of this huge corporate investment?

Everyone agreed with Father Gabriel that the march to the dam must be non-violent. Yet some seemed unable to stop themselves from giving a swift kick to a construction cone. The previous day, frustrated and increasingly desperate leaders nearly succeeded in getting forum participants to put aside the agenda and occupy the site.

“I just wish that instead of ignoring us, the politicians and water commission would come here and tell us to our face: You know why we can do this to you? Because you’re stinking peasants and you’re not worth shit,” announced one marcher.

“Shhhh,” whispered a woman in a beehive hairdo who I can only guess wasn’t an activist until the dam loomed. “We know there are spies here.”

“Let them hear us!!” others answered. “Let them see that we won’t stop until they stop building the dam.”

A lawyer from Amnesty International gathered testimony to build an international human rights case. Father Gabriel said, “We may be a small town, but our dignity is great.”

Putting aside a spontaneous march for more deliberate action, the community sat together for an entire day to ensure that any action taken might be part of a longer-term strategy. This day’s symbolic act was meant as a healing caress to the scarred canyon walls and strangled river, as well as to buoy the energy and commitment of those townspeople – the ones who will have to struggle on long after the solidarity activists return to their countries.

Temacapulin’s cobblestone streets are lined with whitewashed adobe houses, a stunning rose-rock18th century church, and neighbors chatting from their stoops and doorways. You can’t help but take a deep breath and let time and worries go – even though that peacefulness is splintered by the sound of earth-moving machinery. Christ’s image is etched into a cliff (sadly I couldn’t make it out, which apparently is an unlucky portent) and more than 20 hot springs percolate up from the earth.

Despite its beauty, Temacapulin has not been immune to the bleeding of Mexico’s countryside. Wrongheaded national and international agriculture and trade policies have fed a wave of farm families migrating to the city of Guadalajara and the U.S. Many at the gathering would described these as intentional expulsion policies – with no humans around to protest, it’s easier for the government and transnational firms to pillage and appropriate the natural abundance.

At one point in the meeting, a town resident stood and asked rhetorically, “Why don’t they provide us with the tools, credit and agronomists we need to work our land and live well instead of flooding us out?” Temacapulin’s demography now spikes toward the elderly, many of whom couldn’t participate in the march to the dam site. Youth, however, have resurfaced as the diaspora network of “absent sons and daughters” return home. They have been summoned to fight the dam.

Large dams around the world have displaced more than 40,000,000 people. The World Bank has invested over $60 billion in 600 dams. The environmental movement has put a brake on large dams in the US (in fact is succeeding in dismantling some) but hasn’t shown a similar ability to diminish the American appetite for energy. Many Mexican hydroelectric dams principal purpose is to export energy north through inter-connected grids to air conditioned cities such in the American Southwest. In one of ironies of NAFTA, Mexican electricity is welcomed across the border even the U.S. builds a fence to keep Mexicans out.

I had the pleasure of exploring Temacapulin with one of the town’s characters. At 77, Don Poncho is nothing short of a goat, scampering up a hillside, with a gaggle of people much younger panting behind, to the tomb of his great grandmother . In his cornfield, he machetied back brush to uncover a boulder carved with pre-Hispanic spirals. In the shadows of cliffs, among giant ferns and cactus, a waterfall spitting, we counted over 40 species of butterflies. Describing how he felt viewing the dam site , Don Poncho’s voice trembled, “I’ll defend this valley, my cornfield, my ancestors. The only thing I have to lose is my life. Nothing more.”

The debate among activists was sharp about how to get this mega-project permanently shelved. Many proposed persevering on the legal front – within a terribly compromised legal system. Thus far, a judge’s order to suspend work has been ignored.

Nevertheless, activists who stood upon cranes and excavators at the dam site were happy to hear a federal congressional representative promise to push his colleagues to enforce the construction suspension court order. With Father Gabriel controlling the megaphone – and an angry crowd – people swarmed around a construction supervisor and pressed him to cough up the names of his bosses. Under questioning, he admitted he’d be doing what they were doing if his village was about to be flooded. But still, he couldn’t remember his superiors’ names. He sweated under his hard hat when half a dozen people taunted, “estas chingando la nacion (you’re fucking the nation).” In this tense moment, the crowd’s attention was suddenly drawn to boulders tumbling down from the canyon’s edge, apparently from a work camp above. Father Gabriel asked for calm and reiterated the group’s non-violent intentions. Intentional or not, these landslides are a considerable threat. In one large dam in China, boulders plunging down a denuded rock face produced a giant wave that forced the evacuation of 70,000 people downstream.

Going forward, Temacapulin residents hope to set up a watchdog camp to monitor the construction. Citizen groups in Leon and Guanajuato will advocate with their officials not to buy water coming from this dam. International allies promised to pressure development banks to withdraw financing.

Sounds bleak, eh? Not so! The only pall to the gathering was morning fog that burned off by ten. On two evenings, the town square boomed with music from around the world. The Africans had the whole town spinning and bouncing, the Tajiks and Chinese sang songs that sounded plaintive but were said to be happy, South Asians moved their necks in cobra-like dance. When the MC tried to wind things down around midnight, a knot of local teenage girls chanted, “We’re not tired, we’re not tired.”

I wasn’t the only one to take a late night soak in the hot springs. The town was transformed for the week. The 500 or so delegates slept in people’s homes, most adorned with signs that said, “not for sale, we’re not moving”. A sense of genuine solidarity was born.

Sessions were held under tents in the town’s public spaces – the church plaza, the soccer field, the school, a dead end street. Some workshops described the environmental ravages of dams, their poor efficiency and their contribution to climate change. Many more explored organizing tactics such as local and national referendums, connecting upstream and downstream communities in watershed councils and promoting alternative sources of energy.

An Australian group formed to save the Mary River described how they had legally mandated citizen oversight of new sustainable water management practices, practices which eventually included discarding a proposed dam.

An economist from Mozambique described his organization’s research, which proved that Mozambique didn’t need a proposed dam. Between tightening up inefficiencies in the energy grid and among heavy consumers, Mozambique could meet its needs. Governments and international banks love these capital-intensive boondoggles, which they as symbols of modernization. But, in truth, decentralized biomass, solar and smaller dams could satisfy energy and water needs in a country in Mozambique. For making this claim publicly, the organization’s website has been blocked and the speaker has had to take great care in his movements.

Burmese, Colombian, Ethiopian, Chinese and Mexican activists have been killed for their environmental and human rights work. Still, these threats haven’t succeeded in holding back a wave of citizens advocating that we manage water as a commons, safeguarding its health for everyone, including future generations.

An activist from India got it just right, I think. Cutting through the week’s heady political and economic analysis, he said, simply, “Unless all of us – so connected to water already – can reconnect to that water, we’ll not succeed in managing it sensibly.”


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