Commemorating a Century of Land and Water Reform

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Conmemorando la Reforma

People celebrated the Constitution’s centennial with theater, music, dance, video, and self-congratulating speeches. One hundred years in, and it was still one of the world’s most progressive. It guaranteed not only civil and political rights but social and economic rights, like the right to unionize, an adequate minimum wage, retirement security, equal pay for men and women, and paid maternity leave. Of course, this wasn’t 1887 and it wasn’t the United States’ celebration. In February 2017, the United Mexican States (Mexico’s often forgotten, official name) were busy celebrating their constitution.

Watering the revolutionWe may admire the ambition of the Mexican constitution, but even more important to Mexico’s poor rural majority in 1917 was the right to—and duty to conserve—land and water. Indeed, this was the principal raison d’être of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 for which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans had shed blood and the culmination of their constitution. How Mexico bestowed agricultural land and simultaneously tried to conserve natural resources, principally water, in the emblematic Laguna region is at the core of the story I tell in Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico.

This story changes our understanding of Mexican agrarian reform, Latin America’s longest and most extensive, distributing nearly half of the arable land to millions of campesinos (peasants) from 1917 to 1992. Ostensibly, land reform was the goal, but to the campesinos land was worthless without water. Unlike land, however, water—in all its fascinating, frustrating fluidity—refused to bend to official decrees or be bound by surveyor lines. It still does, and not only in Mexico. The recent controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) only proves the importance of water access and the fights over it. Through mass protest, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe helped popularize the motto that—just as, if not more so than land—“Water is Life.” After all, the DAPL doesn’t actually cross into Sioux land, but goes under the nearby Missouri River on which the Sioux depend. Interestingly, much of the politics, conflicts-of-interest, and corruption involved in building the DAPL resembles the story of hydraulic infrastructure-building in the name of the Mexican Revolution. Though some still believe otherwise, then, as now, water rights and land rights cannot be separated.

This basic fact is illuminated by an envirotech history of water management. Envirotech’s premise is simple: Nature and technology not only impact one another, but become so interdependent that the boundary between them dissolves. A dam is an obvious example. An artificial, invasive structure, a dam creates new ecosystems upstream and down. In short, the envirotech perspective reminds us that people don’t just act on or react to nature, they also recreate it.

Manos de Natura, Fresco, Rivera

Hands of Nature offering water. Diego Rivera’s fresco, 1951. Source: wikiart.org

Envirotech is a new term in Mexican history but not necessarily new to Mexico. As I show in my introduction, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was attuned to envirotech long avant la lettre. From the 1920s Rivera celebrated in many of his murals motifs of putative harmony among humanity, nature, and technology. He depicted scenes in which engineers, or técnicos, adroitly executed land distribution and installed hydraulic infrastructure while a grateful nation applauded.

Brilliantly aspirational, Rivera’s murals didn’t reflect the complications and conflicts Mexicans incurred in making their Constitution’s mandate a reality. This is abundantly clear in the north-central Laguna region watered by the Nazas River, the focus of my book. The locals, or Laguneros, revered the Nazas as their “Nile” and “Father” for the rich sediment it brought to their fields from the Durango Mountains, yet it was a fickle patriarch. Some years it brought a trickle only to be followed by several years’ worth of torrential flows. This extreme irregularity was a source of constant recrimination among the farmers who relied upon the river for their livelihoods. As early as Porfirio Díaz’s presidency (1876-1911), a few water-deprived farmers, including the future president Francisco I. Madero, and government officials agreed upon an envirotechnical solution: damming the Nazas.

Distribución de tierra, Fresco, Rivera

Distribution of land, Diego Rivera’s Fresco, 1924. Source: eurocles.com

The Mexican Revolution, which overthrew Díaz, transformed the social and political landscape of the region and nation, and, with it, the social purpose of the dam, especially during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). If before the Revolution, the dam’s purpose was to make water distribution more equitable, after the Revolution water redistribution had to complement land redistribution. This made the dam appear to many large landowners as a facilitator of land redistribution, which they vehemently opposed.

Large landowners had good reason to oppose the dam. In 1936, Cárdenas decreed Latin America’s hitherto largest land reform in the Laguna, but the dam never actually delivered on its promise of providing a bountiful supply of water. Campesinos found living off the land as difficult after the land reform as before, largely because of insufficient water. Instead, quite literally, the fight went underground. Anyone with enough money to drill a well and install a motorized pump could withdraw groundwater, which meant richer farmers disproportionately benefited while weathering drought. Less controversial didn’t mean less problematic, however: Today the Laguna’s aquifers are among Mexico’s most overexploited and contaminated.

The real tragedy, however, as I argue in the book, is that Laguneros and government officials knew what was happening and had regulations in place to address the problem. Mexico had the authority to regulate surface water as early as the 1917 Constitution and the power to regulate groundwater by 1947. (By contrast, U.S. federal legislation regulating groundwater, primarily for drinking, was passed in 2006.) But despite this power, the government lacked the will to enforce these laws and water users the restraint to comply. People ignored laws and regulations even though they understood—to varying degrees—that they were only harming themselves in the long run. Campesinos, landowners, and even—if only in reputation—the técnicos all suffered from the collective refusal to regulate water use. How and why this happened and its consequences are at the heart of my story.

Note: We want to thank the author and Duke University Press for letting us translate this article. It was originally published on their blog.

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Mikael Wolfe

He is an environmental historian who has focused in water analysis and climate issues in actual Mexico and Latin America. He graduated in West Asian Studies from Columbia University, have a master degree in International History, and a Ph.D in Latin American History from Chicago University. He works in Stanford University as an Assistant Professor of History. He has published many articles and book chapters about water and land reform in Mexico in the 20th century. The project of his second book is Climates of Revolution: A Historical Climatology of the French, Mexican, and Cuban Revolutions, which goes through the scientific, cultural and religious connections between climate variables and the revolution of those three agrarian societies.

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