Mario Luna Romero.

“For us, the fight to preserve the rights to use the Yaqui River goes beyond economic survival; it is part of our culture and history. For us, this fight is a call to preserve our right to exist in the world,” says Mexican Indigenous activist Mario Luna Romero, who is a guest speaker at the “Mexico + H2O = Challenges, Reckonings, and Opportunities” conference.

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Nation & World

‘In eye of hurricane’

8 min read

Activist coming to Harvard to detail his tribe’s fierce war with big business, government for control of river Yaqui consider sacred birthright

Going to work is a heroic act for Mario Luna Romero. A spokesman for the Yaqui (Yoeme) tribe in the Mexican state of Sonora, Luna Romero has been leading the struggle of his community to protect the Yaqui River, which the Yaqui consider sacred, and preserve their rights to its water. Several such activists, including one of Luna Romero’s colleagues, have been harassed by government officials or killed by criminals.

Luna Romero will join a panel called “Who Owns Mexico’s Water” at 9 a.m. Friday as part of  “Mexico + H2O = Challenges, Reckonings, and Opportunities,” sponsored by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the Department of History of Science.

The Gazette spoke to Luna Romero via WhatsApp. He spoke in Spanish from Vícam, one of eight Yaqui towns in Sonora. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Mario Luna Romero

GAZETTE: What is the significance of the Yaqui River for your community?

LUNA ROMERO: The Yaqui River is essential to the lives of our community not only because it provides water for our farmlands and our own consumption, but also because it is part of our creation myths and our ancestral culture. Without the Yaqui River there are no Yaqui people. Our history tells us that the Yaqui people came out of the Yaqui River, and that our mythical ancestors, the Surems, inhabit the river. For us, the fight to preserve the rights to use the Yaqui River goes beyond economic survival; it is part of our culture and history. For us, this fight is a call to preserve our right to exist in the world.

GAZETTE: People said that the Yaqui tribe has led a historical struggle for water. Can you explain?

LUNA ROMERO: Studies show that our community has been around for 2,000 years inhabiting our ancestral lands in Sonora, northwest Mexico, near the Yaqui River — hence our name. The Yaqui people are the original inhabitants of this region. Sonora is a semi-desert, and the Yaqui River is the largest river system in the state.

The Yaqui tribe led a rebellion against the Spaniards, who took our lands and access to the river, in 1740. In the first years of the Mexican Republic, our tribe also fought against landowners who wanted to take our water to irrigate their farmlands. There were many conflicts throughout the 1800s as state and government officials, colluding with landowners, led a policy of extermination against the Yaqui tribe. Many of our people were killed by state and federal forces, and many others were captured and sent to southern Mexico as indentured servants, but the Yaqui tribe has always fought for our rights to land and water.

In 1937, the government restored, via presidential decree, ownership of our traditional lands, and in 1939, another presidential decree granted us the right to half of the water in La Angostura reservoir, the only one at the time on the Yaqui River. Later, two other dams were built, and in 2010, the state decided to build the Independencia Aqueduct, to draw water from the Yaqui River to supply Hermosillo, Sonora’s state capital.

GAZETTE: How did the aqueduct’s construction set off tensions over the Yaqui’s water rights?

LUNA ROMERO: When the Sonora state government decided to build the aqueduct in Yaqui territory, they did not consult us even though the project puts our livelihoods and existence at risk. We fought against the construction by protesting, blocking highways, and going to court. The courts sided with us, but the authorities didn’t comply with the judicial orders to stop construction, and they did not respect the presidential decrees that grant us rights to land and water.

The Mexican government has launched a campaign to show that they respect the Yaqui tribe’s water rights, but in reality, they are violating our rights and judicial rulings that have confirmed our water rights. They portray us as backward people who are against modernization.

At some point, the Yaqui numbered 60,000, but due to the policies of extermination against us, we now are between 40,000 and 45,000. To justify the construction of the aqueduct, state officials said, “You’re only 40,000, and there are 800,000 people in Hermosillo.” We think that the Mexican government has missed a historic opportunity to solve the Yaqui water struggle, but we are still here, fighting for our rights and our duty to take care of our land.

GAZETTE: What is the current status of the Yaqui struggle for water?

LUNA ROMERO: As of now, we feel besieged by economic and political forces that want to push us away from our ancestral lands. There are many big companies that want to take advantage of the strategic location of our territory, close to the U.S.-Mexico border. They want to make of Sonora a giant industrial corridor for low-cost maquiladoras.

For big businesses, Sonora’s location is strategic and beneficial; they want to capitalize on cheap labor and closer supply chains. Mining companies and automotive industries are looking to open plants in Sonora, and those industries consume a lot of water, not to mention agribusiness. We are in the middle of a struggle against economic interests that want to grab our territory because it is rich in resources and water, but also because of its location.

Those big companies want us to sell our water rights to them as if this is about money, but for us, it’s more than that. They don’t understand our world vision. Our vision, which we have learned from our elders, is that we all are passengers in the world, and we have a mission to take care of our land to pass it on to the future generations. In a way, it’s a confrontation between two different visions of the world.

GAZETTE: How did you become a water activist?

LUNA ROMERO: I live in Vícam, and I am the director and anchor at Namakasia Radio, an independent community radio station. Our goal is to promote our culture and help solidify the Yaqui’s cultural identity among young people. In 2010, in response to the state plan to build the Independencia Aqueduct, the traditional authorities of the Yaqui tribe chose me and Tomas Rojo Valencia as spokesmen for the Yaqui tribe’s water rights. The position of being a spokesperson has put us in the spotlight, in front of television cameras, which is something we were not looking for, and has put us in the eye of the hurricane. [Rojo Valencia was reported missing May 27, 2021, and weeks later his body was found near Vícam, a victim of murder, according to authorities.]

GAZETTE: Several Yaqui water activists have been killed. Why is this activity so risky?

LUNA ROMERO: There are big economic interests at play. They are eyeing our territory and our water, and anyone who opposes them is their enemy. It’s a mix of big agribusiness companies, automotive factories, and now that with the recent discovery of huge lithium deposits in our region, mining companies are also involved. We are aware of the risks, but we also worry about our lives because organized crime is active in Sonora. We don’t know who is doing the dirty work and for whom.

GAZETTE: What do you hope to gain from your visit to Harvard?

LUNA ROMERO: We’d like the audience to be aware of the Yaqui’s precarious situation and the threats to our livelihoods we are confronting. It is hard for a small community like ours to draw attention to our plight. That lack of interest and attention benefits the big companies that want to grab our land. Harvard is a very important forum for us to let people know what is at stake and stir interest among researchers. We have always resisted and fought against attempts to push us out of our land and take our water rights away from us. They haven’t been able to exterminate us. We’ll continue our resistance movement. Our belief is that both the nation’s laws and the country’s economic interests must harmonize with the Yaqui tribe’s right to exist as the original people of these lands.