Agua es Vida

By Connie Bransilver for NWNL
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

Photographs by Connie Bransilver

Connie is a Founding Senior Fellow at International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP, NWNL’s Fiscal Sponsor). She  recently returned to her native New Mexico from Naples, FL. Connie has been a professional nature photographer for 26 years, working in all seven continents. Her major work has been with rare lemurs in Madagascar, and human-wildlife interactions throughout Indonesia. See more of her work on her website.

IMG_6579 Rio Grande north of Montano.jpgRio Grande north of Montano, New Mexico

Throughout the middle Rio Grande Basin acequias (ditches) and the public paths on either side, connect neighbors, knit communities, irrigate agricultural fields in season, and are now caught in a Gordian Knot of rights to scarce water. Their cultural and social significance for traditional Hispanic and tribal communities are deep. But after the mid 1800s, when the United States acquired the southwest from Mexico, the value of water, always scarce, ran counter to those values.

Understanding the centrality of the acequias in traditional agrarian life along the Rio Grande is understanding the dependence of Native American, Spanish and eventually, even Anglo lives in honoring, beneficially using, and exploiting the waters. Traditionally, acequias provided water for all uses, along with communal obligations for their care and maintenance. They endure because of “querencia,” meaning attachment to place and respect for the land, nature and the miraculous water that sustains body, mind and spirit. The questions of who, if anyone, owns the rights to what water usage has split villages and cultures, and clogged courtrooms for hundreds of years.

IMG_4314 Acequia path dogwalker.jpgAcequia path dog-walker 

Rio Grande headwaters lie in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Passing through New Mexico the Rio Grande trickles along 1,885 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the Texas-Mexico border and making the Rio Grande the fourth longest river system in North America. Agua es Vida; so custody battles between Colorado, California, the Navajo Nation, pueblos along the river, burgeoning cities (like Albuquerque), and dams (like Elephant Butte holding water for Texas and Mexico) result in traditions butting against new laws and regulations, and fierce court battles without clear resolution.  Demands grow as water becomes increasingly scarce.

Once alive and sacred, the Rio Grande formed the centerpiece of the Puebloan world. Wide, muddy, meandering, shifting braids of water, sometimes drying to a trickle, other times widening into a broad swamp (or cienega), taking homes and fields hostage, are now harnessed by technology, governed by an elaborate web of laws and uses for economic growth.  Therein lies the essential conflict: competing claims challenging ownership of the flow.

IMG_4358 Weir open for flow.jpgWeir open for flow

The first Spaniards reached the middle Rio Grande around 1541, but did not find the gold they sought. Instead they found, and used, the natives who suffered at their hands until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. By 1692 Spain had sent armed soldiers, settlers (including, we now know, many Jewish “conversos” fleeing the Inquisition) and priests to tame the Indians.  With Juan de Oñate and his men came the systems of acequias and land rights via massive land grants from the King and Queen of Spain to secure settlement. Foreign to the native populations living along the river, this Iberian mastery of controlling and distributing water was rooted in the Moorish occupation of Iberia, and also in ancient Rome and the Middle East. Native Americans had instead lived with the rhythms of the river, never aiming to master it. Those who survived, and whose pueblos remained viable, soon adopted the network of acequias to maintain their agriculture, still based on the golden triangle of corn, beans and squash that provide a nearly complete human diet while simultaneously regenerating the soil.  Spanish recipients of huge land grants applied their own brand of subsistence agriculture. Both communities honored the land and the water.

IMG_4359 Acequia, paths and adobe home.jpgAcequia, paths and adobe home

Spain yielded to Mexico, then Mexico lost this land to the United States in 1847 in the Mexican-American War.  Then followed a wave of Anglos arriving from the East who sought fortune. They also brought a profound ignorance of the indigenous, irrigation-based culture that had sustained this fragile land for centuries.

Now the mighty Rio Grande’s life-giving waters are shrinking. Warmer winters yield less moisture, increasingly delivered as rain rather than snow in the headwaters. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that the San Juan Mountains are “at the bull’s eye of the future drought region.”1 While Anglo technocrats consider the acequias as anachronisms, the acequias have recently joined into a state-wide umbrella organization to push back against unrestricted transfers of water rights.  In this part of the world, water rights, or the right to use water transfer separately from surface rights.

IMG_4323 Weir releasing irrigation water.jpgWeir releasing irrigation water 

And what of the competing needs for water? Increasingly the courts are looking at Queen Isabella’s 1492 will, forming the basis of Pueblo, Spanish and Mexican claims to water. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the war with Mexico, acquired Nuevo Mexico and other lands in the West, and honored existing claims to water that were in place at the time. Those rights extend back to the 1492 will. Thus the claims to precious water in the Middle Rio Grande — between Cochiti Dam to the north and Elephant Butte Dam to the south, where half the state’s population resides — may ultimately be defined by that 500-year-old Spanish document.

In the meantime, my village, Los Ranchos, and all the adjacent villages along the Middle Rio Grande, share the pathways and rural culture of the web of acequias. Neighbors greet neighbors and work together to maintain the water flow – Hispanics, Anglos, Indians and all the mixtures among them. Questions about how the river can meet all the demands of its people might even be turned around. Maybe current residents value the agricultural ambiance and natural environment supported by the water and the acequia systems more than continued growth. A broader conversation on the value of water might begin now.

IMG_6578 Rio Grande north of Montano from balloon.jpgRio Grande north of Montano from balloon

Footnotes

 

  1. Reining in the Rio Grande – People, Land and Water, Fred M Phillips, G. Emlen Hall, Mary E. Black. University of New Mexico Press, 2011.

Other Sources

Iberian Origins of New Mexico’s Community Acequias, Jose A. Rivera, University of New Mexico and Thomas F. Glick, Boston University. NewMexicoHistory.org.
Prior-appropriation water rights,” Wikipedia.
“New Mexico files counterclaim in water suit: Texas accused of mismanaging water, hurting farmers in NM,” Michael Coleman, Albuquerque Journal Washington Bureau, Albuquerque Journal, May 24, 2018.

 

On the banks of the Omo River

Ethiopia:  Omo River Basin, Karo tribal farm (with irrigation) called Kundama, young girl displaying 3 catfish just caught, standing against field of sorghum
Ethiopia: Omo River Basin, Karo tribal farm (with irrigation) called Kundama, young girl displaying 3 catfish just caught, standing against field of sorghum
Ethiopia:  Lower Omo River Basin, Lebuk, a Karo village, dance ceremony
Ethiopia: Lower Omo River Basin, Lebuk, a Karo village, dance ceremony
Ethiopia: Omo Valley, Karo painting, bird's eye view of Omo River, trees, snake, chicken, jug of water
Ethiopia: Omo Valley, Karo painting, bird’s eye view of Omo River, trees, snake, chicken, jug of water

These photos were selected in response to a weekly photo challenge – the theme is HAPPY.

Click here to view more images of Omo Valley cultures in Ethiopia.

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director

Ethiopia: Dams threaten Indigenous communities, Omo Valley, Lake Turkana

A Cascade of Development on the Omo River by International Rivers, with photos by Alison M. Jones, 2014 (11:19).

This film outlines how Ethiopia’s new Gibe Dams will cause a 70% water-level reduction over the next 3 years – and thus drastically impact Ethiopia’s Omo River, its Lake Turkana terminus in Kenya, and ½ million residents in this Rift Valley’s Cradle of Humankind. These hydro-dams – and the new commercial agricultural plantations they will irrigate – threaten the livelihoods of local indigenous tribes and their ecosystems. The Gibe Dams will also imperil the Omo-Turkana Basin’s migrating birds, fish and crocodile populations, and the scant amount of wildlife left.

The film pleads that water flows be managed so as to maintain the sustainability of the Omo River, Lake Turkana, and today’s indigenous communities who represent 6000 years of self-sustaining flood-recession farmers and fishermen. For more information on the Omo River :
 Download the factsheet on Gibe III Dam by International Rivers.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS FROM NWNL:  For many millennia, the Omo’s annual 60 foot floods from the highlands’ monsoonal rains have supplied nutrient-rich silt and irrigation for the crops of the Mursi, Suri, Karo, Hamar, Nyangatom, Dassanech and other
unique indigenous cultures. In a 2008 NWNL interview…. Read the full story here.

NWNL Interview with Ray Gardner featured in Terralingua Langscape

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 4.32.58 PM

NWNL’s Alison M. Jones interviewed Ray Gardner, Chairman of the five tribes of the Chinook Nation, in June 2007. The interview describes the historic ties the Chinook people have had with the Columbia River, their practices to keep the river healthy, and effects of dams and other infrastructure placed along our rivers. You can read the interview here.

Terralingua featured the interview in their Winter 2013 issue of Langscape, pages 54–57.

beautiful painted faces in the spirit of Halloween

United Nations Commemoration of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Today NWNL and NYC welcomes the arrival of Native Americans and Allies paddling from Albany to NYC along the Hudson River in the spirit of environmental responsibility.

The Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign is a partnership between six Native American Haudenosaunee Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora) and the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON). After paddling for 9 days, hundreds of canoers and kayakers expect to reach Pier 96 organized in 2 rows symbolizing “two peoples traveling side-by-side down the river of life in peace and friendship.” Their march from the pier to the United Nations is part of several events in a yearlong awareness campaign on indigenous and environmental issues.

Hickory Edwards of the Onondaga Nation is leading the pack and said, “I feel really close to the water. It’s life-giving, and to be so close to water is to be close to nature.” Read more about this story.

NWNL documentation in U.S., Canadian and African watersheds has shown that today’s Indigenous Peoples continue to be passionately-committed stewards of our river basins. Read NWNL’s interview with Ray Gardener, Chief of the Chinook Nation, as he shares his wisdom on the preservation of nature and culture and taking action.

Peace in Kenyan Watersheds

mural on bldg.
The juxtaposition of posters in Kenya last month showing movie violence and election candidates mirrors the country’s past pattern of violence during elections.
Pokot woman
This Pokot woman has placed a beaded version of the Kenyan flag on top of her traditional tribal garb to emphasize her wish that Kenyans unite together in peace.

YESTERDAY 70% of Kenya went to the polls to vote for their new governors and next president, undaunted by blazing heat, long lines and nagging memories of the election violence Kenyans suffered 5 years ago. As I write this, only 40% of the votes have been counted and thus the winners are uncertain and violence could still be a sad outcome if results are disputed.

What is certain is that the last 5 years have prompted many efforts by Kenyans to move past their history of ethnic strife and become a country of diversity that honors peace. So many people I’ve met in Kenya over the last 5 years are now calling themselves “Kenyans” first and only later mentioning their tribal affiliation.

flag on tree
New peace effort to bring rivals together over a meal.

One such effort, witnessed in January this year by team members of the NWNL Lake Turkana Expedition, is the opening of a “Kitchen Without Borders” on the boundary of Turkana and Pokot Lands. Kitchen Without Borders, or “Cuisine Sans Frontieres,” is a global effort begun in Switzerland to encourage warring clans to begin the process of peace by simply sitting down together to eat.

cattle herder
A Pokot herder walks his herd towards Marich Pass.

The northern Kenyan Pokot and Turkana tribes, like too many others in Kenya and neighboring Sudan and Ethiopia, have been fighting for generations over grazing lands, livestock, water access and retribution for past offenses. The problem is obvious when one learns that the literal derivation of the word “rival” is “the person who wants access to the same water resource you use.”

checkers game
These Pokot are playing checkers with beer bottle tops.

In Orwa, on the road between Kapenguria (Pokot Country) and Lodwar (Turkana Country), a restaurant called “Calabash” has opened for local travelers, offering local food (much of which comes from their backyard garden), drink, lodging – or just a friendly game of checkers.

children
Playing fairly with others in games, as in life, is a skill to be learned while young.

At this roadside oasis, elders teach their youngsters how to play the traditional game of “bao,” in which each stone captured on the board represents the acquisition of a cow. Hopefully old animosities will be unknown by these children; just as Kenyans today are hoping the past atrocities that accompanied their elections are now past history.

children
Shared relaxation between Kenyans of all tribes is a good first step in national unity and progress.

The Orwa peace effort, similar to other Kitchens Without Borders in South America, represents nothing political. Kenya’s Kitchens without Borders offers a low-key opportunity to share the daily basics of life for an afternoon. Sitting down for a meal and sharing some quiet moments offers a break from the dusty road. It’s a chance to relax and meet others who share the same road.

Those visionaries, who have created this roadside respite of camaraderie as an escape from anger and bitterness, cheerfully hand out ripe mangoes to all who pass by – as well as best wishes for one’s journey.

“If people can sit down to eat together, peace will come,” according to Rolf Gloor, our host in Kapenguria and founder of CABESI, a project offering alternative livelihoods to pastoralists who find their old traditions must adapt to future needs and climatic situations.

man with mangoes
The hope is that a welcome gift of mangoes can disarm AK-47s.