Lessons from Temaca: Rivers for Life 3

Daniel Moss

Guest blog by Daniel Moss, Consultant for American Jewish World Service

Los OjOs del Mundo están puestos en Temaca
Los OjOs del Mundo están puestos en Temaca
The eyes of the world are on Temacapulín. So declared banners draped around the town, sharing wall space alongside similar pronouncements to save the Mekong River and Narmada valley. Solidarity is probably the best hope for the 500 residents of this sleepy Mexican town on the brink of being submerged by a big dam.

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 the international movement of dam critics and river protectors. I attended for American Jewish World Service, which had the wisdom to support this effort. They helped fly in representatives from dam-affected communities to participate, from the Thai-Burmese border, from Kenya, from all over the world.

On the fourth day, 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 – “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido (the people united will never be defeated)”, and vigorously waved flags and banners from some of the 62 countries represented at the forum – I imagine others shared a pit in the stomach when we came upon massive chutes that will channel water for the dam. Even the model homes for a relocation village are already partially built. Can resistance prevail in the face of this giant investment?

Everyone agreed with Father Gabriel that the march to the dam must be non-violent. 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.” “Get out of your hammocks,” town leaders exhorted their less active neighbors. “The time is now.” 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 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, “to heal it where it’s most hurt,” 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.

Temacapulín’s cobble-stone streets are lined with whitewashed adobe houses, a stunning rose-rock 18th 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. Despite its beauty, Temacapulín has not been immune to the bleeding of Mexico’s countryside. Failed national and international agriculture and trade policies have fed a wave of migration to the US and Guadalajara among the mostly farming families. 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?” Temacapulín’s demography now spikes toward the elderly, many of whom couldn’t participate in the march to the dam site. Youth, however, have resurfaced in a spirited diaspora network of “absent sons and daughters.” They have been summoned to come home and fight. Their list of allies is long.

Don Poncho, Temacapulin activist
Don Poncho, Temacapulin activist
I had the pleasure of exploring Temacapulín’s nooks 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 us panting behind, to the old cemetery and the tomb of his great grandmother. In the shadows of a necklace of cliffs, among giant ferns and cactus and a spitting waterfall, we counted more than 40 species of butterflies. Reflecting on the visit to the dam at an evening meeting, 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 next day, 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 supervisors. Under questioning, he admitted he’d be doing what they were doing if his village was about to be flooded.  

Common Ground

Temacapulín is hardly alone in this struggle to protect local rivers from the insults of big dams. More than 50,000 large dams around the world have displaced 40-80 million people, and harmed the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people living downstream of these river-altering walls.  Globally, hundreds of large dams are being planned on some of the world’s most important rivers. Activists working to change this paradigm flooded Temacapulín for the first week in October, leaving behind a residue of hope and strength.

The town was transformed for the week. The 300+ delegates slept in people’s homes, most adorned with signs that said, “not for sale, no to flooding, we’re not moving.”  A sense of genuine solidarity, based on the beginnings of friendship, was born.

Reality checks were many and powerful. Many meeting participants came from repressive states, where being outspoken about big dams can get you in serious trouble. Burmese, Colombian, Ethiopian, Chinese and Turkish activists have been jailed or even killed for their work to protect their rivers and communities. Still, these threats haven’t succeeded in holding back a wave of activism to manage water resources as a commons, safeguarding their health for future generations.

Besides field trips, working sessions helped participants share their knowledge and experiences. Workshops were held under tents in the town’s public spaces – the church plaza, the soccer field, the school. Some sessions described the environmental ravages of dams, their poor efficiency, or their contribution to climate change. Others 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 described their successful campaign to save the Mary River from a proposed dam. An activist from Mozambique described his organization’s research into energy alternatives that would serve local people better than a proposed dam on the Zambezi. Governments and lenders tend to love these capital-intensive boondoggles, seeing them as symbols of modernization, but decentralized enengy projects such as wind farms, biomass plants, solar power and smaller dams could satisfy Mozambique’s energy needs more equitably.

Temaca cooks
Temaca cooks
Lori Pottinger
The logistics for this meeting were positively mind-boggling and I haven’t even mentioned the food. An outdoor kitchen had been erected in the church courtyard. Colossal pots of beans bubbled and mountains of local corn boiled. The set-up had a Woodstock feel. We washed our dishes in vats of water next to a bicycle-powered blender in front of a compost pile the size of a human grave. Children helped visitors with over-sized suitcases find their hosts’ houses, and volunteers patrolled the streets all night long to ensure our safety.
We gathered in the church plaza for a final picture, an aerial shot snapped from the roof of the church. Visitors and townspeople crowded around a multicolored sawdust mural the size of a basketball court that read Rivers for Life, Not for Death.

After the picture, Marco – a raspy, blond Mexican organizer from the Mexican Network Against Dams led us in a blessing of the four directions, the sky and then the earth. He asked us try to block out the sound of the bulldozers and listen for the river that they seek to drown. I put aside my skepticism, and decided to go with the flow. As I closed my eyes, I swear I could feel a current tugging at my ankles, the rivers from the Catskills to El Salvador to the Sierras, all that water that has carried me along. Even hokier, I swallowed back tears.

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.”

I can drink to that.