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MEXICO: “They Don’t Want Their Town to Vanish” – Underwater

Daniela Pastrana

MEXICO CITY, Feb 7 2011 (IPS) - The people of three towns that would be flooded by the El Zapotillo dam to be built in the western Mexican state of Jalisco have refused to be relocated and are fighting to save their homes.

The town of Temacapulín, which lies in the middle of four hills, is putting up the fiercest fight. The federal government’s aqueduct project would involve not only moving them to new homes, but relocating their cemetery and their church, which in 2009 turned 250 years old, and which forms part of the rich cultural and historical heritage that is to disappear under the waters.

“We have shown them, with the support of academics and scientists from the University of Guadalajara, that it is feasible to build the dam elsewhere, where it would not affect the town, but they don’t want to do that,” said Emma Juárez with the “Save Temacapulín, Acasico and Palmarejo” movement, which held a non-binding community vote on Jan. 7-8 in Temacapulín, a town of 500 people.

The vote, in which people from the town who are living in the United States and the city of Guadalajara also participated, was backed by Patricia Vergara, an official at the Citizen Participation and Electoral Institute of Jalisco, and was observed by three local lawmakers, a city councillor, and a representative of the community’s elders.

The result was overwhelming: 643 of the 648 people who voted said “no” to the dam and to the relocation of the town 500 metres away, as required by the aqueduct project, which is to divert the course of the Verde river and carry water to the cities of León, in the neighbouring state of Guanajuato, and Guadalajara.

“They don’t want their town to vanish, it’s that simple,” said Guadalupe Espinoza, a lawyer who has filed a number of injunctions known as “amparo” — an action for the protection of constitutional rights or guarantees in the face of arbitrary action by the authorities — to block the project.

“We have brought 14 lawsuits, which are ongoing,” he said. “And despite that, 15 houses have been built (in the relocation zone), which is illegal because there is a court order for the temporary suspension of the work.”

In a telephone interview with IPS, Raúl Antonio Iglesias, regional director of the national water authority (CONAGUA) in the Cuenca Lerma Santiago Pacífico Basin, said those opposed to the project are a very small group.

“It’s a tiny group of people, six to eight at the most,” he said emphatically. “The results of the vote were because they brought in people who don’t live there.”

The El Zapotillo dam is part of a mega-project to supply drinking water to the people in the Los Altos region in Jalisco. The authorities say the project will benefit 2.5 million people in 14 towns in Los Altos and in the cities of Guadalajara and León.

According to Iglesias, the overall project will cost 835 million dollars, 208 million of which are for the dam itself and reparations to local residents. However, no concrete offer of indemnification has been made, merely a plan to relocate the towns.

The project, to be completed by late 2012, also involves the construction of a 140-km aqueduct from the dam, pumping plants, a disinfection plant, a storage tank and a macro-circuit for drinking water distribution.

“But there will also be indirect benefits, because the project will generate 12,000 jobs operating the entire system,” he said.

In response to Iglesias’ claims, Juárez said “neither the state nor the federal authorities have ever shown up in Temacapulín. And the claim about work is false.

“The people working in construction are earning 80 pesos (seven dollars) for 12-hour workdays, and they’re not even from this region: what kind of benefit is that?” the activist added.

The central problem is that the original project was illegally modified, according to opponents.

In 2006, the Secretariat (ministry) of the Environment and Natural Resources, in charge of the environmental impact report, approved a plan that involved an 80-metre high dam, with a reservoir that would hold 411 million cubic metres of water.

But the call for bids issued in 2007 involved a 105-metre high wall, which would imply the flooding of Temacapulín, Acasico and Palmarejo, including buildings designated as cultural heritage sites and the surrounding farmland, and the forced displacement of the local population.

In September 2009, after a public tender process challenged by companies that were disqualified, the federal government decided in favour of the Peninsular Compañía Constructora firm in association with another Mexican company, Grupo Hermes, and FFC Construcción, a Spanish firm, and the state government launched a campaign to buy the homes of the local residents.

The city council of Cañadas de Obregón, the district where two of the three towns are located, rejected the change in land use implied by the 105-metre high dam. And the towns launched a legal and political battle to block the project, which over the last two years has gained the support of national and international non-governmental organisations.

In November 2009, Catholic priest Gabriel Espinoza brought the case before the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In January 2010, representatives of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Temacapulín, the epicentre of the resistance movement.

And in the first week of October 2010, the Third International Meeting of Dam-Affected People and Their Allies met in Temacapulín, bringing together 330 activists from 60 different countries.

The governor of Jalisco, Emilio González of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) — to which Mexican President Felipe Calderón also belongs — rejected a recommendation against the project by the state Human Rights Commission, which argued that construction of the dam is the responsibility of the federal government.

Los Altos, a region of ravines and valleys, waterfalls and thermal baths — Temacapulín is a name of Nahuatl origin referring to hot springs — is mainly populated by older adults, because the young move away in search of opportunities.

Although the Verde river runs year-round, it is heavily polluted.

Temacapulín is one of Mexico’s longest-inhabited towns.

Local residents say the dam violates their right to property, legal security, housing, food, development, information, consultation prior to projects that affect them, and a clean environment.

In the Jan. 7-8 vote, 90 percent of the people of Temacapulín said they planned to continue the battle.

But the authorities insist that the dam will go ahead. “I have instructions to negotiate until the last minute with each one of the owners, but expropriation is being studied, because we have to consider the benefits to the majority,” Iglesias said.

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