Top-Down, Bottom-Up, Sideways: How Best to Conserve Mexico’s Rivers?

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 8.42.23 AMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

Elsewhere in this issue, Julie Etra reports on the devastating effects of private “rock mining” on the Copalita River, said rocks then being crushed into gravel and sold, apparently for construction of luxury homes and hotels in the Huatulco resort area.   The private operation has a permit from the local office of Conagua (the national water commission), which is a sub-agency of SEMARNAT (Mexico’s department of environment and natural resources), plus the “complacency” of the municipal president of San Miguel del Puerto, in which the operation is located.

When confronted last October by the municipality’s Commission on Public Goods, Conagua confirmed that it issued the permit, but doesn’t have the staff to monitor compliance with the provisions of the permit. Although the Comité Pro Defensa y Uso Sustentable del Río Copalita has objected to both Conagua and PROFEPA (the environmental protection agency of SEMARNAT), there seems to be little they can do about it.

The Official, Top-Down System

It’s possible that working through the government isn’t the best way to go.   Basically, there’s not enough water to go around in Mexico, and the country sees water as a “strategic matter of national security.” Whether or not local collusion is damaging a riverine ecosystem is not at the top of the country’s Water Agenda for 2030. The Agenda goals for rivers are that they be free from rubbish, pollution, and insufficiently treated wastewater. Watersheds need to be “balanced”: that is, supply and demand for usable water should match.

The Water Agenda shows that Mexico has a clear policy framework for managing its water resources, and the country is “fully committed” to managing water as close to the user level as possible. Conagua has done this since 1992 with 13 Hydrological – Administrative Regions, each managed by a River Basin (cuenca) Organization; these are divided into 37 hydrological regions. There are 1471 river basins, 728 watersheds, and 653 aquifers spread across these regions, each with its own guidelines, plans, and procedures. Each region is run by a council that has to deal with a wide variety of parallel or sub-organizations—the local Conagua office, a couple of Basin Councils, one or more “Technified River Basin Districts,” irrigation districts, clean beach committees, Basin Commissions, Basin Committees, and technical groundwater committees.

Does it work? Sometimes, sometimes not. A 2012 assessment by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found the river-basin approach had still not been fully implemented, and that coordination of the plethora of organizations at all three system levels (federal, state, local) was rocky at best.

The Council for the Oaxaca Coastal Basin (Consejo de Cuenca de la Costa de Oaxaca) includes nine sub-organizations; Río Copalita is covered under the Comité de Cuenca de los Rios Copalita – Tonameca. They don’t appear to have been asked about the rock-crushing conflict on the Río Copalita. (A committee for the Copalita-Zimatán-Huatulco Basin was formed in 2002, but it never really got going.)

The Side-by-Side Approach, Building from the Bottom

While the Copalita-Tonameca Committee has a neglected Facebook page (last post four years ago), they do participate in local environmental efforts and activities; for example, last August, they were collecting funds at the Organic Market in Santa Cruz for a reforestation project (Arbolotón) led by Alternative Agriculture of Suchixtepec. Planting pines along the upper Rí0 Copalita is intended to “guarantee the sustainability of the Copalita-Zimatán-Huatulco basin.”   The project is also sponsored by the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature, used to be the World Wildlife Fund), an international non-governmental organization that has worked in Mexico since 1968, with a specific focus on ecological impacts.

In 2004, WWF got together with the Fundación Gonzalo Río Arronte (FGRA) to develop new models for water management in Mexico.   They identified three watersheds where they would work: the Cuenca Copalita-Zimatán-Huatulco (CZH) is one of them. (Revitalizing the Comité for the CZH is listed as one of WWF-FGRA’s achievements; WWF also works with the Carlos Slim Helú Foundation in the CZH-Manialtepec area, mostly on fishing initiatives.)

One of the fundamental tenets of the WWF approach is to promote community participation, and the chief way they do so is to fund community projects like the Arbolotón in Suchixtepec—WWF may offer advice to such projects, access other resources, etc., but the project belongs to the people with whom it originated. In its first six years, WWF-FGRA directly benefited 660 people (3,800 indirectly), and sponsored demonstration projects in stream restoration, soil conservation, nurseries and reforestation, and ecologically sound sanitation.

Which is not to say, of course, that WWF hasn’t been accused, and is probably guilty, of roiling the waters of community activity with donor “suggestions” and sometimes conflicting alliances—the WWF-FGRA count nearly 50 partners in their activities—among other issues . . . negative impacts of NGOs on host countries is a huge topic, with legions of articles and not a few books to explain it all.

Perhaps the most interesting promotion of community participation in the CZH basin is an educational program for the schools—both mainstream public schools and the rural schools covered by the National Council for Promoting Education (CONAFE). The program is based on a concept developed in the CZH basin—Caudal Ecológico: Salud al ambiente, agua para la gente (Ecological Flow: Health for the environment, water for the people).

Every graduation speech ever tells us our children are the future. If so, the WWF-FGRA educational program designed to “cascade” information on watershed issues through groups of teachers, to their students, and thence to the parents and community at large, may be an environmental lifesaver. And the best response and highest participation came from the rural schools of the CONAFE district surrounding Santa María Huatulco.

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