a Biosphere 2 blog by lily house-peters

Acequia Culture: Community Management of Surface Water in Arid Lands

An acequia in Curcupe, Sonora, Mexico

In environments around the world where surface water is limited, communities have developed methods to manage and share scarce water resources so that agriculture and other livelihoods remained possible.  One form of surface water management that can be found in different iterations around the world is the acequia.  In the northern portion of the state of Sonora, Mexico, just south of the Arizona/Mexico border, the environment is harsh – little rain for most of the year, scorching temperatures, and mountainous terrain.  Historically, these factors limited irrigated agriculture to small areas of land directly adjacent to rivers and streams.  To move the water onto the fields, communities built and managed canal systems, called acequias, that controlled where the water flowed.

The history of the acequia culture in Sonora is particularly interesting due to Sonora’s unique status in the history of Mexico.

“The periphery of the periphery” (Historian and anthropologist, Tom Sheridan, referring the marginal status of Sonora in Mexico’s history and development)

In comparison to the rest of Mexico, Sonora has a unique history of economic and water-resources development.  The long standing marginality of the region meant that until very recently the area was never subjected to the full height of colonial exploitation or capitalist penetration.

Before the recent widespread introduction of wells into the watershed (which has occurred only during the last twenty years or less) the only topological location where irrigated agriculture was possible was in the narrow alluvial floodplains.  The climate, characterized by limited precipitation and hot temperatures, also limits irrigation, but a long history of building and maintaining community-managed acequias has allowed farmers and ranchers to utilize the limited surface water to sustain livelihoods based on floodplain agriculture and ranching activities.

There is evidence that as early as 1723 there existed a ‘común de Curcupe’ (Curcupe is one of the towns located along the Rio San Miguel, in Sonora, Mexico) that exercised community control over irrigated lands lying along the Rio San Miguel.  The farmers in the floodplains of the Rio San Miguel rely on the riparian forest, mainly the willow and cottonwood trees, to increase their resilience to floods, including retarding channel cutting, limiting erosion, and trapping floodwater sediment.

 It was Jesuit missionaries, not Spanish colonists, who pioneered initial settlement in Sonora and later acted as agents for the dissemination of European agrarian techniques and technologies.  The Jesuit presence in Sonora prevented the evolution of large private estates and land-holdings during the 17th and 18th centuries, very unlike the history of land tenure development in neighboring Chihuahua state.  Although the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish lands in 1767, they left behind the legacy of community control of land and water resources, a system which still exists today.

However, over the last two decades, new forms of intensive agricultural development in Sonora have focused on the international export-market rather than on local markets and subsistence forms of production.  Since the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in the early 1990s, the expansion of foreign capital in the region, and a shift in Mexican governance models to neoliberal strategies that devolve natural resource management and monitoring to already financially strapped municipalities, fundamental shifts are occurring in the social and economic systems in the region.

Will the widespread introduction of the groundwater well wipe out acequia culture?  Or will acequia management remain, perhaps the water flowing through the canals will be a mix of surface water and ground water from wells? These are questions that our research team is currently trying to answer. Stay tuned….


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