Altepelmecalli, the defense for water
Luis Hernández Navarro1
As if it were the work of the devil, seeking to emerge from the depths of hell, a massive hole opened up in the farmlands of Santa María Zacatepec, Puebla. With an unstoppable appetite, the hole grew day after day. It began on May 29, 2021, with a diameter of five meters. In less than a day it reached 30 meters. Soon it reached 100 meters. Now it is almost 130 and 30 meters deep.
In its voracity, the sinkhole swallowed crops and the house of the Sánchez Xalamiahua family. It cracked the walls of other houses and swallowed the puppies Spay and Spike, who were eventually rescued. Seen from above, it looks like a huge moon crater, with orifices in the sides that resemble pipes. In reality, the cavity is not alone. The demon also opened other cavities under the earth, turning the area into a kind of Gruyère cheese.
In his book La Suave Patria, Ramón López Velarde wrote: “Baby Jesus left you a stable, but the devil on his will left you the oil wells.”
In Puebla it was not the exploitation of black gold that the wicked one bestowed, but the extraction of blue gold. And that is what caused the sinkhole to widen. In 1992, the modern Beelzebub gave the springs in usufruct to corporations that settled in San Mateo Cuanalá2. And, first a bottling company and then the transnational Bonafont, milked them irrationally.
Since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the authorities have granted a guarantee for impunity to large companies allowing them to do whatever they wish with the water resources. A common natural resource, such as the blue gold, now privatized3. Instead of building drinking water networks, plastic packaging of water is offered for sale. Three transnationals control 80 percent of this market in our country: Coca Cola (Ciel), Danone (Bonafont) and PepsiCo (E-Pura)4.
With an unquenchable thirst for profit, Bonafont –part of the Danone consortium– extracted 1,640,000 liters of water per day, the consumption of a community of 18,000 inhabitants.
Its ambition depleted the groundwater table, left more than 20 communities in the municipality deprived of vital liquid and dug an invisible series of tunnels, caverns and subway holes which, according to a study by specialists from the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN), largely precipitated the appearance of the sinkhole. In return, it obtained 3.28 million pesos per day.
Since 1992, the Nahua indigenous people of the region have opposed the water extraction. In order to curb their dissent, the state government imposed an illegitimate municipal administration on them. Over the years, time and again, they protested the environmental devastation and the depletion of the artisanal wells. In 2008, they blocked the Mexico-Puebla federal highway and symbolically shut down the company. It was futile. The authorities turned a deaf ear to the protest and aligned themselves with the transnationals.
Day by day, the situation became more and more critical. The wells were drying up, the liquid for crops, animals and even for human consumption grew scarce. Thus, on March 22, 2021, International Water Day, 22 communities gathered together as the United Peoples of the Cholulteca and Volcanoes Region, shut down the plant.
As they were doing so, the devil showed up in the sinkhole. A religious denomination gathered around the security fence of the sinkhole to pray, calling mortals to repent for their sins, read biblical quotes and sing religious songs. Others, more pragmatic, made up a holiday-style bread with the name Souvenir of the Sinkhole.
A little more than four months later, facing State negligence, on August 8, the 142nd anniversary of the birth of General Emiliano Zapata, the indigenous peoples' front occupied the plant, covered the illegal well in which the company stored the water and founded the community center Altepelmecalli (House of the Peoples).
Once the walls of the plant were embellished with the paintings of several artists, a wide range of autonomous community projects flourished: from education, healthcare, chicken, pig and sheep farming, to a communitarian radio station, a library, and other initiatives. Like a miracle, as soon as the wild extraction ceased, the blue gold ceased to be scarce in houses and plots of land.
The Altepelmecalli turned into a major center for social gatherings and assemblies inspired by the environmentalism of the poor. A true crossroads of popular resistance. It adopted as its axis of action the struggle against devastation, dispossession, oppression, exploitation and discrimination. Movements in defense of rivers and water, against open-pit mining, gas pipelines and large hydroelectric plants met there to exchange experiences and refine plans. They honored the memory of community leader Samir Flores, murdered with impunity in Amilcingo three years ago.
The unprecedented experience of indigenous regional self-organization lasted eleven months. Under the cloak of darkness, in the early morning hours of February 15, 2022, the National Guard and state police violently evicted the people and handed the installations back to Bonafont5.
Far from being an act of justice, the police intervention in behalf of the corporation is an invitation to further opening sinkholes and depleting the groundwater table. The State's suppression of the indigenous Nahua people exposes once again the man behind the curtain in conflicts regarding natural resources between originary peoples and large-scale capitalists.
Hernández Navarro, Luis. Altepelmecalli, la defensa del agua. February 22nd, 2022. Originally written for La Jornada Online. Translated by taller ahuehuete.
Municipality of Juan C. Bonila, Puebla.
Solidaridad con Altepelmecalli, Casa de los Pueblos y llamado al boicot a Bonafont. 16 de Febrero de 2022. Colectivo Llegó la Hora de los Pueblos.