Mexico’s water protectors: The communities caring for their rivers

A healthy river basin can ensure the long-term protection of communities, natural systems and biodiversity.
The Copalita River basin in the southern state of Oaxaca is one of the richest areas for biodiversity in Mexico, and is home to indigenous, mainly Zapotec, communities from large families to towns of a few thousand. High in the mountains, their livelihoods depend on the forests. From under its canopy, they grow coffee to sell, and grain for food. The river descends steeply through the Mexican dry forest to the sea, where coastal communities fish chacals – crayfish – that live in the estuary and migrate along the river, besides other marine species.
Twenty years ago, this region was seen as pristine, says Eugenio Barrios, director of water at Gonzalo Rio Arronte Foundation (FGRA), a non-profit foundation that provides funding for social development. The local people had access to clean drinking water, mainly from springs, but not to sanitation and living conditions were deteriorating he says. In the past 15 years, residents noticed increases in temperatures, more dry periods, torrential and erratic rains, and strong winds. In some areas of the basin rainfall is decreasing year on year, while in others it is so erratic that crops are failing.
Coming together
In 2004 the FGRA and the Mexican programme of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) formed an alliance. Its purpose was to help to bring in investment and work with local communities to improve access to clean water and sanitation, to conserve the natural environment and biodiversity around the region's river basins, and to provide sustainable sources of income which don’t deplete the environment.
As the region comes under increasing economic pressure from external developments, their work looks to protect livelihoods, to reduce poverty, and to protect biodiversity in the Copalita basin. “Around 20 years ago, pressure from a big local tourist resort, increased,” says Barrios. “This model of development created conflicts with the local indigenous communities, because they own the land, and then the land was bought by [developers].”
The alliance aims to preserve natural water sources, be considerate with wastewater and efficient with agriculture, and educate the local community. Starting from the upper basin and working their way down, they began to engage with the local indigenous communities to find out how they use water and what could be improved.
One opportunity presented itself early on. A teacher at Technical Secondary School 131 in the small town of San Miguel Suchixtepec, high in the Copalita watershed, heard about the initiative and invited the FGRA to visit. Their toilet system had stopped working and without the means to repair it, the children were having to use the nearby forest. Barrios explains this was off-putting for students and some – particularly the girls – started to avoid going to school when faced with insufficient toilet facilities. It also meant waste was filtering into spring water, which is damaging to both the ecosystem and their main water supply.
The solution put forward by the FGRA was to install dry toilets, which did not rely on water from the river and could generate fertiliser from the waste. The project was such a success that children asked their parents to install similar toilets at home. The school toilet quickly filled, which provided a visual reminder of the amount of waste that previously was being left to pollute the river, says Barrios.
“It was difficult to start talking with the people about the value of the river, how to protect the river, if they have no access to water supply and sanitation,” he says. Particularly when rural communities in Mexico have the lowest levels of domestic sewage treatment. But after the success of this project, relationships started to build.
Some students from the school later founded an environmental advocacy group. After leaving to study at different universities, some of them returned to their towns and became involved again with the alliance. They now provide technical services for sustainable water use in Copalita and other places along the Oaxaca coast.
Economic opportunities
At the same time, the WWF-FGRA alliance started working with coffee plantations with the same ambition of reducing wastewater entering the rivers. Water is used to wash the pulp from coffee cherries before they are roasted, but this process can be done without water by leaving them to dry in the sun so that the pulp flakes off. By combining their outreach with educating locals in how to access international coffee markets online, they could also earn more money.
Creating an economic incentive proved a successful strategy. An organic market was created to bring local producers from the basin to the tourist resort to sell their products to visitors. This has been replicated in other river basins along the Oaxaca coast, says Barrios.  
But some economic pressures remain. The population from the US and Canada is growing, which is increasing the price of land, says Barrios. “There's economic pressure there, weakening the social structure. That's one of the reasons why it's very important that the communities are strong enough to take advantage of this situation.” The work of the FGRA has created benefits for up to 20,000 people in the basin – or roughly one in five local persons.  
Explaining to the communities how they are connected to other people along the river helped to build bridges, says Barrios. In the upper parts of the basin, especially around Ozolotepec and the communities of the Hondo River, unauthorised loggers have caused significant damage to the forest. Logging upstream can cause landslides further downstream, as the forest retains less water and the structural integrity of the earth is compromised.
But people in the upper watershed might not have direct contact with the river, because this part is made up of small creeks, so how do you explain the consequences of wastewater pollution?
One tactic was to empower women since they are responsible for using water in the home, community and schools, but had previously been excluded from decision-making. A workshop was held in 2012 to specifically engage more women in water security. “After many years, they know that they are part of a [whole] river basin,” says Barrios. “And that's very important.”
Weathering the storm
Climate change is increasing the number of extreme natural disasters globally and stressing threatened ecosystems. Hurricanes are extremely unusual in Oaxaca, but in 2022 Hurricane Agatha struck the region. The storm caused widespread damage, and also prevented this series’ film crew from reaching the basin. We hope to be able to return to the region in autumn 2022.
Barrios hopes that a socially and environmentally resilient river system will be better able to support the people who depend on it after a disaster. There is some evidence that more ecologically stable environments suffer fewer economic losses after a hurricane, and better forest management can protect river basins from the effects of storms.
Though worldwide tropical storms are increasing in frequency, Barrios hopes that Agatha remains an unusual event for Oaxaca. For now, he is looking forward to returning to work with the Zapotec communities to continue building a resilient river.
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