Case study

DFID Research: Protecting the water rights of indigenous Mexicans

DFID-funded Researchers have helped indigenous communities gain access to water policy discussions.

Rio Huazuntlán, near Veracruz, Mexico

Rio Huazuntlán, near Veracruz, Mexico. Picture: Oscar/Windows Live

In Mexico, the flow of water from mountainous areas to the cities connects a variety of people and businesses. Researchers from the DFID-funded Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability have promoted new relationships based on the common interests of major users of water resources: indigenous ranchers, rural and urban municipalities and the petrochemical industry.

In the hills of Southern Veracruz, where the study was conducted, water bubbles from natural springs and drips from the leaves of the lush vegetation to form the Huazuntlan River. Little of the Huazuntlan’s flow, however, benefits the small farms or cattle owned by the indigenous communities that inhabit the area. Instead, most of the water is diverted by a dam to an aqueduct that carries it to the oil refining town of Coatzacoalcos, 60 kilometers away on the Gulf coast.

For years, indigenous communities have decried the loss of a natural resource they believe is rightfully theirs and have even seized control of the dam on more than one occasion to shut down the aqueduct until their demands for compensation were met. Occasional acts of patronage to the hillside communities - the provision of a new building or road - maintained a delicate peace until environmental degradation began to threaten the livelihoods of the farming communities and the water supply of the city.

“They may be educated people [in the city] but they are ignorant to our problems and to the economic burdens of doing the work that’s required to take care of the forests here in the basin,” said one member of a farming community in the watershed.

Researchers work with indigenous communities

The researchers carried out a joint inquiry with these indigenous communities into the state of affairs.

The work - done in the action-research tradition that believes that the act of seeking change is itself a form of investigation - has resulted in the beginnings of a new relationship of accountability between the communities of the sierra, the water consuming towns of the coast and state officials. The case demonstrates that building accountability and co-responsibility between numerous actors with diverse and contradictory interests requires an ongoing process of negotiation and engagement through both formal and informal channels.

The evidence is clear: the technique has broken the control of client-patron networks. Indigenous communities have more direct access to policy discussions on water management and have been entrusted to manage a multi-million dollar fund for the restoration of the watershed.

Among diverse strategies promoted to achieve the sustainable management of water is ‘inducing social recognition of hydraulic environmental services and to consolidate the participation of organized society in water management.’ On paper, this gives the authorities of the mountain villages the right to participate in the river basin commission corresponding to their region, but in reality they have not been included.

In this case, each cooperative, village and municipality has its own assembly, but these spaces are often rife with conflict sewn by the uneven privatisation of cooperatives, migration, religion and party politics. Interaction between local institutions and federal and state government concerning water and natural resources are regulated by a legal framework, but the framework leaves no room for a negotiated settlement. As an issue of national security, conflicts over water are resolved by top-down mandate. Complicating the matter further, each government ministry defines its own strategy without coordinating with the other actors.

New mechanisms put in place thanks to partipatory research

During three years of participatory research, researchers engaged in dialogue with the local government to generate new concepts and practices for more accountable institutional arrangements over the long term. Through this process of negotiation and dialogue, there are now mechanisms that may lead to greater accountability and sustainable management of the watershed. These include:

  • a shift towards increased dialogue between communities and urban and political institutions, although this does not exclude the possibility of social mobilisations (Meetings were held between urban water authorities and the watershed committee to create an environmental services payment scheme)
  • the creation of a watershed committee involving the local authorities of eight villages; and
  • the elaboration of a plan for the ecological restoration of the watershed

The formation of the committee highlighted the differences of perspective among the various communities, differences that formerly had been hidden by institutional arrangements that gave the head of the municipality the only voice in the region. As a result, they decided that each community should manage its own resources, using the committee as a space for coordination.

Groups of men and women opened discussions at the community level about how to develop an environmental agenda, which led to the creation of a watershed plan for restoration. The newly organized and informed communities have made a major breakthrough; they have been authorized to take charge of a $2.5 million fund for the restoration of the watershed and are in negotiations with state and federal government about the work plan.

The strengthening of alliances between different levels and forms of government was an important first step toward ending the cycle of conflict and environmental degradation. In order to foster integration between environmental management, forestry and water policies, it was also crucial to deepen the relationship with urban water authorities.

What are the key lessons learned?

The case underscores how a more efficient and democratic use of resources directed toward solving environmental and social problems, it is necessary to respect the autonomy of the communities and avoid intermediaries.

Here accountability is not about creating institutional arrangements from above, but about a process that requires new forms of negotiation and institutional arrangements that can benefit indigenous people, especially those living in protected areas.

Accountability issues relate to the difficulty of enforcing existing laws and procedures for a better planned system. Local institutions lack information about their entitlements within this legal framework, and higher authorities lack political will to integrate indigenous people in the existing participation spaces. There is no recipe for creating accountability. Power inequalities need to be confronted and new cultures of accountability nurtured.

Updates to this page

Published 9 March 2009