‘Guajirio culture is dying’: Mexican dam poised to displace living and flood ancestors’ graves

High in the Sierra de Alamos of Mexico’s northern Sonora state, towering pillars of rock loom above thermal springs where for thousands of years, the indigenous Guarijio people would gather to commune with their ancestors.

Now the springs – and the land around them – have been submerged beneath rising waters trapped behind an enormous dam across the Mayo River. The 25-storey Bicentenario-Los Pilares barrier threatens to displace the living, and leave the graves of their forefathers deep under water.

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“The government are leaving us with nothing,” said Wilfrido, a member of the Guarijio community in the village of Macarahui, and the leader of one of 53 families who are resisting the dam. “They’re not taking us into account. They say that negotiations should be government-to-government – but they’re not talking to our traditional leader.”

The Sonora state government first presented the plan in 2011: an ambitious project that would involve building a 78-meter-high barrier and would flood nine villages.

Local residents say that the government and other supporters of the project pressured them to hand over their lands, creating fierce divisions among the 3,000-strong Guarijio community. Some have supported the dam, but the group’s traditional leaders remain opposed to the project.

Despite the opposition, work began at the site in 2013, with an initial investment of some US$67m. The Guarijios launched a legal attempt to block the project, arguing that their collective rights had been violated and that the dam threatened the group’s survival, but construction continued.

Opponents of the dam had hoped that the election of a leftwing president could change things: when Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took power in December 2018, 68 indigenous groups awarded him a ceremonial staff, in an unprecedented vote of confidence in the leader.

But the president, popularly known as Amlo, has thrown his support behind a string of controversial megaprojects on or near indigenous land, including highways, reservoirs, mining projects, oil refineries, housing projects and a 1,460km “Mayan Train” railway which critics say threatens unique jungle ecosystems in southern Mexico.

The only Guajirios invited to an event titled Dialogues with the Indigenous Peoples were those who already supported the project.

After a six-year legal fight, opponents of the dam won a court ruling in their favour in February 2019, but three months later, Amlo declared that federal funding would be released in order to finish the dam “as soon as possible”.

In October, Amlo announced a consultation process with the Guajirios – but also released 600m pesos of funding for the project and said the government would approve the necessary licenses to complete it.

Speaking at an event titled Dialogues with the Indigenous Peoples, Amlo said: “This will all depend on you, the Guarijios, because nothing will be imposed,” before quoting Mexico’s only indigenous president, Benito Juarez: “Nothing by force, all by reason and law.

But the only Guajirios invited to the event were those who already supported the project; opponents of the project were left protesting outside.

“The whole process has been riddled with irregularities,” said the anthropologist Armando Haro, an advisor to the Guarijios since 2011. “The Guarijios have been pressured and cheated into surrendering their land rights and signing sales contracts through promises which have not been kept.”

Speaking by telephone from the village of Macarahui, Wilfrido, 49, a farmer with four children, said local residents were under pressure not to speak out against the project. “We’ve had threats; they say they’re going to run us out of here. People are scared to stay here.”

Some 3,000 Guarajios live in a handful of remote villages scattered across the Sierra Madre Occidental. They have survived conquest, drought, hunger, government neglect and incursions by drug traffickers who cultivate marijuana in the deep valleys of the mountain range.

But the dam is perhaps the greatest challenge they have faced so far.

The rising water has already cut off the Guajirios' route to their herds of cattle and nearby roads.

“We want the president to listen to our traditional governors – to hear what state this megaproject will leave us in,” said Wilfrido. “If they set out to destroy us, they’re already succeeding. They’re destroying our land, our culture, our people.”

As the tribe waited for a response from the government, work on the dam continued, and the floodgates on the dam were closed in early July. On Thursday, Amlo will head to Sonora, where first he will officially apologize to the indigenous Yaqui people who were subjected to a genocide in the 19th century – and then to officially inaugurate the Bicentenario-Los Pilares dam.

The rising water has already cut off the Guajirios’ route to their herds of cattle and nearby roads.

But alongside farmland and homes, the Guarijios history and heritage also faces obliteration: pre-Columbian petroglyphs, ceremonial sites and a swathe of riverside territory rich in medicinal plants will all be lost beneath the rising waters.

“Our holy places have already been flooded,” said Wilfrido. “Our village is dying, our culture is dying – and our hope is dying.”

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