Major Indigenous water rights victory in Oaxaca (Mexico)

Alejandro and OHCHR staff recall their court victory. © Consuelo Pagaza

The lush green fields of Oaxaca’s Central Valleys mask signs of the 2005 drought that dried up riverbeds, caused the plants and trees to wither and drove much of the population away.

Historically, the area was populated by Indigenous Zapotec farmers, who were subject to abuse and discrimination. Through government concessions, they have used local water for decades to eke out subsistence from the land.

As water became scarcer and rainfall less reliable, the campesinos dug wells that use motors to draw water. Second pumps were soon required to retrieve the same amount of water. When the drought hit in 2005, water was in dangerously short supply.

The National Water Commission, Conagua, learned of the excess electricity being used for the second pumps and concluded the farmers were drawing more water than their meager allotted concessions. Many received bills that would take a lifetime to pay.

The situation was confused by a 1967 presidential decree that prohibited the extraction of water on their lands, despite the fact that much of the valley’s water was being used by urban areas and by industry.

Time to act

“We kept looking for solutions, but the authorities didn’t think we had any rights,” said Alejandro Ricardo Pérez Antón, a local farmer. Fed up, they created an association (Copuda) to defend the water rights of Indigenous communities.

They also appealed to experts and undertook water-related research with the support of Flor y Canto, a local Indigenous rights group, the Mexican Institute of Water Technology (IMTA) and the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI).

Armed with new knowledge, the farmers took Conagua to court to claim their traditional water rights, emphasizing that the Constitution guarantees the supremacy of international treaties where greater protection is provided. Reference was made to ILO Convention No. 169 and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The court ruled in their favour and their right to be consulted was upheld.

Enforcing standards

Ensuring the recognition of Indigenous rights is an ongoing priority for the Office in Mexico. In its ruling, the court “concluded the earlier presidential decree was not valid and ordered authorities to undertake a consultation to determine water rights,” stated Jesus Peña, Deputy Representative of OHCHR-Mexico.

The Office participated in the consultation process as an international observer and provided the farmers with materials to advocate for their rights.

In 2021, Mexico’s president issued a new decree that recognizes Indigenous water rights, secures their participation in future water decisions and provides the country’s first collective water concessions.

Further, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation called on the Government to repeal the discriminatory legislation to ensure it can no longer be invoked.

Lessons learned

In addition to the court victory, the case demonstrated the organizational and resource management skills of the Zapotec communities and empowered many of its members.

“No one believed we could win against the Government. But joining together gives you strength,” said Pérez Antón.

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