It was one of those heartwarming victories that can renew your faith in the possibility of achieving justice peacefully. Mountain villagers in Ahuisculco, Jalisco, who had camped out for months in front of bulldozers were finally able to broker a land swap with the sugar company that was threatening their water supply. Here’s how they did it.
Church bells clanged, fireworks exploded and a brass band blared as the Virgin of Ahuisculco made her way down the streets of her town Wednesday, part of a procession of hundreds of villagers celebrating the victory of their fight to save their water supply.
After nearly three months camped out in front of bulldozers that threatened their drinking water supply, the villagers celebrated the news of the project’s cancellation with a Mass and one final fiesta in the encampment as they prepared to disassemble it and resume their lives.
Officials of the municipality of Tala, of which Ahuisculco is a part, announced this week that they had brokered a deal with the company, ARN del Occidente, an associate of Pisa Corp., to trade four hectares of land in the recharge zone of the village’s springs for another parcel near the sugar factory in Tala, the second largest in the country.
In a meeting at the encampment with village leaders, Municipal President Aaron Buenrostro Contreras announced that the permits for the construction project, industrial storage containers for molasses, will not be granted, and that the land will be dedicated to public recreation and conservation.
Members of the Committee to Defend the Natural Resources of Ahuisculco, who organized the encampment and have been tirelessly knocking on doors throughout the Guadalajara political establishment, called the deal a step forward but still are withholding judgment until they see the signed deed to the land, which is not only in the recharge zone but also lies in the center of a narrow wildlife corridor connecting the UNESCO-designated Primavera Forest with a network of other forests.
“We’re really happy, after more than 3½ months of this struggle and taking our case to almost every government agency, even to the state legislature,” said Ignacio Partida, president of the Ahuisculco ejido. “Still, we wonder why it took three months for the municipal government to do their jobs.”
The last month, in particular, was difficult with temperatures below freezing, said committee member Juan Carlos Montes. “It’s been difficult to withstand the cold spells, but the people never stopped spending the night,” he said. “It was long, it was difficult, but we feel good because we ended up winning at the end.”
Buenrostro, contacted by phone, said that the encampment was the result of a misunderstanding; that there was no need to camp out in front of the site because the work had been closed down, and the government was not going to grant permits. He clarified that the work had begun in a prior administration, and that his administration had closed it down.
Committee President Jesús Zepeda Orozco scoffed at Buenrostro Contreras’ assertion, saying that the company had proceeded with excavations after the project was shut down, and nothing was done to stop it. “This closure was the result of the encampment, not of the government,” he said.
Buenrosto Contreras said the six hectares that his government is trading for will be divided in half, with one half going to the town of Ahuisculco and the other half being held by the municipality for future environmentally oriented projects.
The committee is still in negotiations with the owners of the property, however, and are hopeful that they will be able to procure the rest of the 26 acres by making a trade with the ejido of Ahuisculco, which they plan to turn into an ecological reserve.
“At this point it’s time to celebrate that we’ve had a happy ending,” said Enrique Buenrostro Ahued, a Tala council member who has been supporting the committee. “This is the first step; now we have to see how things proceed. From this point we have to recognize the firmness, the tenacity of the people of Ahuisculco to defend their natural resources.”
Vicente Alvarado Pérez, a grandfatherly farmer who took his turns maintaining a watch at the encampment from the beginning, joined the procession with an armload of flowers and a big smile.
“This has served as an experience to learn to defend our rights and speak to the authorities who are those who should be resolving these problems, not us,” he said. “They weren’t paying attention.” He stands ready to come back and do it all over again if necessary, he said.
“As many times as it’s necessary you have to defend what’s yours, and keep others from running over you,” he said, “and teach the authorities that they should complete their mission for those who put them in office.”
Tracy L. Barnett is an independent writer living in the Guadalajara area.