Bringing Water to Oaxaca. DEVELOPMENT: MEXICO. Mexican village turns to its own community to redevelop resources

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

OAXACA is the most indigenous and one of the most culturally rich regions of Mexico. There, 16 dialects are spoken. In some areas the brightly embroidered traditional dress is worn daily; many of the people make their living weaving clothes, making straw baskets, and sculpting pottery. Oaxaca is also the poorest and least developed state in Mexico. Past attempts to assist the region have failed for lack of government commitment and for using policies foreign to a culturally unique area. It is not until now that a major indigenous development policy has given Oaxacans the chance to redevelop their deteriorated soils, forests, and water sources with the hope of increasing agricultural production and employment and reducing the highest migration rate in Mexico.

``Lluvia, T'equio y Alimentos'' was the impetus to more than 400 water projects constructed in just seven months in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. The name of the project means ``Rain, Communal Work and Food.'' Sixty percent of the works brought potable water to people who previously sometimes had to walk two miles to obtain it, and 40 percent of the works now irrigate 5,000 hectares of land, allowing not only for healthier crops but also for a second annual harvest. Some 25,000 families from 355 towns benefited.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which has declared the 1980s the Water Decade, contributed $230,000 to finance two International Labor Organization (ILO) consultants, administrative support, and equipment. The labor experts are giving the program an organizational structure that will eventually leave the regional development process in the hands of a federation made up of the rural beneficiaries. The government's funding amounted to $700,000 for the first phase of the program. Its success prompted $3 million in support for the second phase. In addition, six federal government agencies have loaned more than 100 fulltime civil and agricultural engineers.

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In a speech to the people of Ayu, his hometown in the Mixteca, Oaxaca Gov. Heladio Ram'irez L'opez proclaimed, ``I don't want to see my people working from sunrise to sundown to harvest a handful of corn because the weather was bad.''

The rapidity, low cost, and productivity of the project is a result of the beneficiaries' skill in choosing, designing, and building the project, contributing 60 percent of the input. The program sends a Mixtecan civil engineer to give limited technical advice and also provides cement and pipes.

``We all worked, men and women alike,'' said Leonila Santiago, who lives in Yodonoquito, where 30 people, 20 men and 10 widowed women built a water storage tank and placed two kilometers of pipe that will bring water to their homes. ``We hauled the sand on mules from the river a kilometer away, making six trips a day, and we collected the rock near the site of the tank.''

When Santiago's husband died six years ago, she began to wash clothes and clean homes to support her four children. In addition, she had to walk more than a mile for every bucket of water. When asked how she had time to work on the project, she responded:

``What else could we do? Working like this is the only way to get ahead. And besides, carrying water every day from the spring takes more time than putting in 50 days of labor to bring water to the house.''

The form of communal work is key to the project. T'equio is a pre-Hispanic tradition that brings Mixtecans together when their community needs manpower. They cooperate to prepare for religious events, to clean the cemetery, to build and maintain schools and to farm communal land. It is not voluntary work, but rather an obligation that imposes a fine if not met. Normally it is done only on the weekends. The water project, however, expanded t'equio, requiring that different teams work one weekday and that everyone work on Sunday until the project is completed.

Past development initiatives focused on outside assistance rather than on the community itself. Government agencies did not coordinate their activities, and programs were interrupted by changing political administrations.

Water projects focused on a large-scale infrastructure, which did not benefit even one percent of the cultivated land since most farms are spread apart in tiny parcels. Thus, the new strategy of multiple small-scale wells, dams, and storage tanks.

Many of the projects do not benefit directly all of those who work on them, but because of the low cost and simple technology, they can easily be repeated by the communities until everyone's drinking water and irrigation needs are fulfilled.

``Instead of a technician coming from the elite to manage a project, the technology used is brought to a level where it becomes a technology of the masses,'' says Mixtecan civil engineer Octavio Hernandez.

``We believe the indigenous people of Oaxaca are ingenious, but they haven't been given the opportunity to show it,'' says Daniel Guerrero, another engineer. ``This project is giving them the chance to revive their ingeniousness.''

In that spirit, the people of the rural areas are spreading technology among themselves rather than depending on outside technicians. In the program, ``Campesinos Training Campesinos,'' masons who live in the countryside share work experiences with other masons and also teach novices how to do simple cement work required by water projects. The next course will bring construction workers and students together.

The project works by first going to the towns to speak with local leaders about what the program has to offer; then the people who are interested make requests. Last year in the Mixteca, 900 community representatives attended orientation sessions and 750 applied for assistance. The communities then sign a contract with the project, outlining the responsibilities of each party. That creates a trust among the people, who in the past have been disappointed by development attempts coming from the outside.

For Phase Two, which will include other regions in Oaxaca besides the Mixteca, more than 3,000 requests were received. But due to an insufficient budget, only 790 water projects will be funded.

In those towns that have already built water projects, Phase Two activities will include small commercial enterprises such as sandal making, lime production, fish cultivation, soil conservation, and vegetable growing. These will add to the 4,000 permanent jobs already created by Phase One.

Unlike past development efforts, this project will not disappear if funding dries up or if politics change. The enthusiasm, technology, and organization are in the hands of the people. There are now 103 district vigilance committees, which administer their own projects. From these there are 16 representatives, who form a region-wide commission.

``It is a federation of people working for their own development,'' says Guerrero. ``They will continue working when the governor leaves and when the UN leaves. They know how the government agencies work and they will always be capable of intervening in their decisions.''

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