The Jalisco village of Ahuisculco was one of the few places in Mexico where residents could open their taps and drink fresh, clean water. But an anonymous corporation moved in last September and began digging. After a while, the villagers’ crystal-blue springs ran a muddy brown. That’s when the camp went up.
AHUISCULCO, Jalisco – The grey mists of morning rise in the valley of Ahuisculco, bringing the new day to the roadside encampment where ten hardy villagers have spent the night around the fire, drinking coffee and sharing stories to ward off chill and exhaustion. One by one, reinforcements begin to arrive from the nearby village with chicharrones, chismes and good cheer.
It’s another day in the plantón, the protest encampment blocking the path of the bulldozers – where hundreds of villagers of this town of 5,000 have taken a stand for more than a month to protect their water supply from the excavations of a shadowy corporation that has yet to be identified. Here in the entrance to the construction zone that menaces their springs they’ve blocked the construction with their bodies, building a temporary encampment complete with kitchen, port-a-potties, sound system and now an open-air tent chapel with their beloved “Chaparrita,” the miraculous Virgin of the Ascension.
Here more than 700 people rallied to support the villagers, and supporters have launched a campaign defined by the hashtag #AhuisculcoSeDefiende. Another several hundred arrived in procession from the central plaza on the night of Dec. 11 to celebrate the Day of the Virgin, and now a solidly entrenched core of villagers are preparing to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s here, as well, if necessary – all to prevent this corporation from contaminating their water supply.
Ahuisculco, tucked away in a verdant valley between two great forests that lie to the southwest of Guadalajara, is one of very few places in Mexico where residents can open their taps and drink fresh, clean water –indeed, it may be the only place where that water flows by the natural force of gravity to their kitchens from their mountain springs. The rare blue waters of those crystalline springs are a treasure, and they know it.
Indeed, this valley has been fiercely defended since the precolonial times of the tecuexe warriors who gave this region its name: Ahuisculco, the place of the serpentine river. It’s also the place where, in a region that has come to be known for its contaminated and desiccated rivers and lakes, the river runs freely and cleanly year round. And this narrow strip of land is also the so-called “Paso del Jaguar,” the wildlife corridor that connects the Primavera Forest with the Sierra of Ahuisculco, allowing pumas, jaguarundis,white-tailed deer and other large mammals to move back and forth.
In September a company brought in bulldozers to a sugarcane field just upstream from the springs and right in the center of the wildlife corridor and began digging, and digging, and digging. Residents were concerned; you don’t have to dig very deep to hit water, and as the neighbors know, all the water is connected.
“We began inquiring about the activities and were told it was to be an industrial storage facility for molasses,” said Ignacio Partida, the leader of the local ejidal government, who has taken a lead in the defense movement, working tirelessly to meet with different government officials, university leaders, nonprofits, whoever will listen.
When they heard the word “molasses,” the alarm bells went off. This being a major sugar-producing region, molasses is made in large quantities. Three years ago, an industrial molasses spill downstream from Ahuisculco provoked a massive fish kill in Valencia Lake – a disaster that virtually wiped out the local economy of Valencia until finally, this summer, the life of the lake and of the town began to rebound.
“We went to talk to the leaders of the municipal government to see what was going on, and they told us not to worry,” said Partida. “They said it was just going to be some containers, not a problem.”
But the digging went on, and the villagers began to get more worried. They asked to see the permit, but there was none. That’s when they began to insist.
Finally, on Oct. 13, the construction was shut down for lack of a permit – but a few days later, the municipal government granted the permit and the work began again. They’ve investigated file a lawsuit, said local attorney Ernesto Delgado, but they haven’t been able to figure out who to sue.
One morning after a hard rainfall the crystal-blue springs ran a muddy brown and the citizens had had enough. They set up an encampment on Nov. 6 blocking the entrance to the construction site.
Tradition of protection
“If we didn’t let the French take over our water, how do these fools think we’re going to let them come in and destroy it?” demanded Luz Elena López, one of the two women who have run the kitchen since the encampment began. She’s just served me coffee and a hearty plate of beans with chicharrón; over breakfast I’ve asked the group clustered around to tell me a bit about the history of this village, and they tell me of the various times when their forebears had to step up and protect the resources here; as they see it, they are just following the local tradition.
With more than a month camping out here, for many, it’s begun to feel like home. Luz gave me a quick tour of the installations; she’s a sporty and attractive 40-something with a humorously defiant air. “Here’s the kitchen,” said Luz with a flourish; an enormous tarp hung from the trees keeps the rain from the lineup of tables and the three-burner propane stove that keeps the troops fed; a storage area constructed from pallets is filled with donations of food from supportive grocers, friends and neighbors.
“That’s the game room,” she pointed over to a metal folding table and chairs by a campfire where, sometimes to pass the hours, people play dominoes or lotería or barajas. “There’s the children’s playground – they love to slide down that dirt hill,” she pointed to the dusty slope that would soon fill with children finished with a day at school. “Over there is the reception area – the elders’ council are keeping watch.”
That’s where I’d pulled up earlier and been greeted by a cluster of elderly men. There to the side is the loudspeaker that comes into play at the dinner hour with the upbeat tempo of the banda music so beloved in these parts; it’s also used in the evening, when community leaders come to rally the troops and make announcements, or when musicians come from town to put on a solidarity performance.
“And over here,” Luz was saying, “this is the church.”
You can’t miss it – it’s the largest tent on site, in the Virgin’s colors of baby-blue and white, an altar set with candles and incense and the glass-cased Virgin herself – an apparition of tulle and gold sparkles, she holds court day and night with a tent full of mostly women parishioners, but the local priests have also come to celebrate the occasional Mass.
Today a matronly septuagenarian by the name of Beatriz is leading the singing, and she stops to share stories of the numerous miracles that have been attributed to this Virgin, and the people who have come from other countries to pay their respects and ask for her intercession. Every March, I’m told, she is taken north on tour in California, where there are several colonies of Ahuisculco natives. I’m told she makes appearances in immigrant communities up and down the state and purportedly works miracles and touches the homesick hearts of hundreds who can’t return home because of their immigration status.
As a backdrop to this whole scene, set off with yellow tape, is the construction site: a muddy brown contrast to the green sugar cane fields and forests that stretch beyond. It looks more like a mining operation than a storage area, with excavations so deep they’ve hit the groundwater supply, according to the local residents.
Support from afar
Without the corridor, the Primavera, the largest urban forest in Mexico at 30,000 hectares, will probably lose its puma population and the other large mammals as well, said biologist Francisco Quintero of the nonprofit group Selva Negra, set up by the music group Maná to protect the region.
Members of the music group are keeping an eye on the situation, said Quintero, who has contacted Jalisco Secretary of the Environment Magdalena Ruiz on behalf of the villagers. “It’s a very worrisome situation,” said Quintero. “They probably couldn’t have chosen a worse place to put their industrial containers, in every sense. They’re exactly in the middle of the wildlife corridor, and just 500 meters uphill from the springs.”
Salvador Ortiz, a civil engineering student at the Universidad Politécnica de Guadalajara, said the excavations defied all they had been taught at the university – the need to start by doing an environmental impact statement, going through the permitting process, constructing erosion controls. “This is not what we were taught,” he said pointedly.
A soft-spoken septuagenarian in a dapper straw hat approached me with a wish to share his thoughts. Vicente Alvarado Pérez was his name, and he was a farmer of sugar cane and corn. “We’re defending the past, the present and the future,” he explained. “The past, because our ancestors always cared for these lands and for the springs. The present, because they taught us to love the land and to care for it. And the future, because of the children, who will be the parents and the grandparents of the future, and we hope to teach them to love the land and to care for it, too.”
Alvarado is one of those takes a turn every five nights at the plantón, keeping watch by the fire. “In a war you have to be prepared for everything,”he said. “You don’t feel the cold or the heat or hunger or thirst; you just have to overcome.”
He thinks of his grandfather, who fought in the Revolution, and used to talk about the war. “Sometimes you have to fight for your land, for your people,” he said. “You just have to do it. Now it’s our turn.”
— For more information see the Facebook pages “Ahuisculco Se Defiende” and “Ahuisculco Notitas.”
— Tracy L. Barnett is an independent writer based near Guadalajara in the community of Teopantli Kalpulli, Jalisco, down the road from Ahuisculco. Her web page is www.tracybarnettonline.com