Water Conflicts and Local Knowledge

January, Thursday, 10th  ; 14h30 – 16h30

Moderator : Carine Chavarochette, CREDA


Territorio y Poder en los Andes: una aproximación a las Luchas de Comunidades Indígenas de los Andes del Norte de Ecuador.
Pablo Ortiz 

The Ecuadorian Andes are part of one of the regions with the greatest environmental and geomorphological diversity in the world. In the case of Cayambe, climate change and agroindustrial capital investments, particularly dairy and floriculture, have altered the water situation, including access problems, either for human consumption or for irrigation. That has posed a set of challenges for the Kayambi people and their economic, social, political and territorial rights.
Water and its administration seem to provide some keys to open spaces for coordination and organizational strengthening, challenging the formal scheme of the State regarding the management of water resources. To what extent has such a change of legal-constitutional paradigm since 2008 been translated into a substantial alteration of power relationships, of asymmetric and excluding post-colonial social structures and of fragile, ethnocentric and monocultural institutions? The text explores some elements present in the history of the Kayambi to identify some keys to the future. The responses provided by indigenous organizations regarding water management are varied and range from an assimilation of the state logic and logic, to a tension with public institutions based on the construction of a special autonomous indigenous regime that defines among its responsibilities the administration of water.

L’eau, la frontière et l’ananas : déplacement des conflits pour l’eau dans le bassin transfrontalier du fleuve San Juan (Costa-Rica-Nicaragua).
Lucile Medina et Tania Rodriguez


The San Juan River basin, shared between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, is one of the most important freshwater reservoirs in the Central American Isthmus, not only because of its surface waters but also because of the importance of the transboundary groundwater table, whose precise dimensions are still poorly studied by both countries. The lack of cross-border cooperation projects to manage this shared basin is a direct consequence of the two countries’ long-standing river-related border conflicts over navigation on the border river and controversial developments. This border area has been neglected in terms of environmental conservation and development policies. Since the 1980s, the Nord Zone of Costa Rica bordering Nicaragua has experienced the unregulated expansion of  pineapple monoculture. According to the latest figures from UNDP through its Mocupp programme (Monitoreo de cambio de uso de la tierra en paisajes productivos) 53% of Costa Rica’s pineapple fields are located in 3 border cantons in the San Juan River basin. However, pineapple production is one of the most polluting agricultural activities, in particular through the use of pesticides and agrochemical products that generate water pollution and very significant impacts on the health of populations via drinking water. Our communication thus seeks to show that the issue of water in the San Juan basin, long addressed by a purely geopolitical approach to interstate conflict, has become more complex and must now also be grasped in its social and environmental dimension in order to understand the emerging conflicts surrounding the use and pollution of water and mobilizing new actors.


From hope to conflict: inequality in access to water by farmers resettled by the São Francisco river in the state of Pernambuco – Brazil.
Ana Carolina Aguerri Borges


The controversial project to transpose the São Francisco river provides access to water for an estimated 12 million people in the semi-arid region of northeastern Brazil. After more than a decade of the beginning of its construction, with part of the work still in progress, we can verify that a portion of the population reached by this project, is also potentially beneficiary of the same. We refer to the farmers resettled in Rural Productive Villages (VPR), the Basic Environmental Project (PBA), a program of responsibility of the Ministry of National Integration that aims to resettle farmers (owners or not) reached along the banks of the two channels of transposition (North Axis and East Axis). There are altogether 18 Rural Productive Villages distributed between the states of Pernambuco, Ceará and Paraíba.
Most of the affected properties and families residing in the expropriated areas, as well as the first implanted villages are in the hinterland of Pernambuco. We delimited our study to analyze a complex socioenvironmental phenomenon linked to a compensatory public policy focused on the resettlement of populations affected, expropriated and potentially beneficiaries of the project of transposition of the São Francisco river in the eight villages of the state of Pernambuco. It is a question of analyzing the situation of the resettled families, as the access of these families to the water and consequently the social reproduction of the population involved. In order to carry out the research, which is qualitative, descriptive and exploratory, we used as a methodological strategy the participatory observation carried out during field work in the villages:. where we applied objective questionnaire and also semi-structured interviews, which allowed us to reconstruct the life trajectory of the resettled families, to understand the political organization of the villages, as well as to build a socio-environmental panorama.
These resettled farmers have historically lived with a reality of water restriction both for human supply, animal feed and especially for the development of agriculture. In this context, the resettlement program has given farmers the expectation of overcoming a cycle of dependency (drought industry) established over generations. However, our research has uncovered a reality with a number of problems and contradictions, especially with regard to the quantity and quality of water available and the emergence of conflicts among villagers. In this respect, the perspective of a change in the conditions of access to water has become the establishment of a new socio-environmental dynamic that does not overcome the old dilemmas (drought industry, inequality, poverty) and places at the center of the problem the generation of new conflicts in addition to the difficulties in the political organization (community) of the towns involved. All these elements lead us to understand that the democratization of access to water, which guarantees the right of communities to obtain this natural good permanently, is far from becoming a reality, what we can observe is a process of inequality and exclusion that perpetuates among the population of the northeastern sertão.


Water, conflicts and patrimony in Mexico: the struggles of peasant communities against urbanization
Jade Latargère


Through the study of two water conflicts linked to urbanization in the State of Morelos, this article shows that water conflicts in Mexico don’t only express demands on water access, but also patrimonial claims: peasant communities mobilize because they want to preserve some water points, some hydraulic infrastructure (water networks, water tanks) that have a special meaning for them. Although in Morelos, water networks have given rise to a specific hydraulic culture, the patrimonial project is not only linked to the will of preserving a cultural heritage that may disappear and has a political and identity relevance for peasant communities that have been deeply shaken up by the land reforms of the nineties. Nevertheless, water public actors do not take patrimonial claims into account, and conflicts are latent.

Women, water and coal: sociocultural transformations in the Wayuu of the Colombian Guajira
Inés Calvo Valenzuela

The Wayuu society living in the department of La Guajira represents the 20% of the Colombian indigenous population. La Guajira is divided into three geographical zones, Upper Guajira in the north, Middle, and Lower Guajira in the south. In 1985, El Cerrejón, the largest open-cast coal mine in the planet was established in the lower Guajira. Since the mine establishment, the coal exploitation by El Cerrejón has had an obvious impact on the environmental level: the projects of rivers’ deviation and the water and groundwater pollution are some of the examples.
In the area of Upper Guajira situated 300 miles north of El Cerrejón, the Wayuu have rarely heard of this mine. The Wayuu from the north have particular water-related meanings: water is protected by a meta-person, guardian of wild animals, living in water sources, called Pulowi. This entity punished the men who squander the water sources. Women are the only ones who can nurture a relationship – especially protection – with this element. As a result, the symbolic practices related to water in this society, such as the rituals dedicated to the deity of the rain, Juyaa, as well as the sacrifices intended for Pulowi, demonstrate how much daily activities are governed by the absence or presence of celestial water and terrestrial water. Thus, water concerns have an economic dimension (agricultural production, survival) and a spiritual one (rituals dedicated to “deities” related to water, baths in the middle of the night as healing techniques after a bad dream, etc.).
However, this relationship with the water has been truncated in Lower Guajira since the installation of the mining enclave. For the majority of Wayuu people living in the south, the access to water is only provided by the large Rancheria River (150km long) that crosses the Middle and Lower Guajira. Nine municipalities of the Lower Guajira are located on this river’s banks. In 2012, the mine has developed a project of 26’2km river deviation in order to extract 500 million tonnes of coal. At present, one of the river’ affluent, the most abundant, called Bruno, is also threatened. Thus, these deviation projects in the south of the region are opposite to the meanings related to the water observed in the northern Wayuu people. The mine apprehends this element as a quantifiable and de-socialized resource. For this reason, large indigenous mobilizations against mining activities took place during the last few years.
In The colombian Constitution it is required that the indigenous people of the south Guajira designate a representative called “Cabildo Gobernador”. The male representatives -following a typical gender model of colombian political representation– are today those who protect the water. Then, the water is seen as an element that has to be defended but not for the same reasons that it is protected in the north related to the entity guardian Pulowi. The wayuu political representatives from the south feel supported by international ecological policies and legislation and reproduce its frame in their struggle against the mine. Infine, these new political forms of struggling modify the identification forms between Wayuu people and the water and, the new identification forms transform the wayuu politics in return.