The Town that Refuses to Drown

The small Mexican town of Temaca has become a beacon in the global movement to democratize water and energy management.

IT’S 9 A.M. AND A GREY CLOUD that had been shrouding one of four mountains surrounding Temacapulín, in the highlands of western Mexico, has begun to lift. “SINCE THE SIXTH CENTURY, TEMACAPULÍN WELCOMES YOU.” The bold white letters emblazoned on the side of one of the mountains, Cerro de la Cruz, emerge through the mist, Hollywood-style, as the town’s inhabitants scurry to live up to the promise. It’s the first day of the Tenth Annual Chile de Arból Fair and a steady rain has been threatening to flood the town’s two-day festival of resistance against a mega-dam project nearby. But the townsfolk aren’t about to let a little water get in their way.

Just a few minutes earlier, when the clouds still seemed impenetrable, Beatriz (Bety) and Gabriel Espinoza stood in the doorway of Cielito Lindo, the little community space and occasional café in front of the colonial town’s historic plaza, looking out at the downpour.

“We’ll just have aguachile,” joked Bety, a play on words referring to a popular Mexican dish.

“We’ve overcome much worse than this,” Gabriel reminded his sister.

And indeed they have. It has been five years since Gabriel — Padre Gabriel, or just “Padre,” as the mariachi-singing, marathon-running, organic-farming former priest is known in these parts — hung up his cassock, making the difficult choice to give up his priesthood and dedicate himself to the fight to save his hometown.

El Zapotillo Dam threatens to flood Temaca and two other villages.

And it was two years ago that Bety gave up her teaching job to divide her time between caring for their mother and “the struggle,” as they call their battle against El Zapotillo Dam, which threatens to flood their village and two others. The dam is slated to provide water to the industrial city of León in Guanajuato state, and to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city and the capital of Jalisco state — both of which face serious water shortages in the years ahead. But the project has been fiercely opposed by the people of Temacapulín for more than a decade.

In recent years, this remote pueblo of 400 full-time inhabitants in Jalisco, about two hours from Guadalajara, has stepped into the national spotlight, standing up to a total of eight governors in two different states over the years and taking their fight all the way to Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. If the townsfolk get their way, it will probably be the first time that a mega-dam will be dismantled before it is ever used.

Temaca, as the picturesque colonial town is affectionately known, has had an outsized influence on the global debate around dams, particularly in in this part of the world, where it has become a reference point for the fight to democratize water and energy management. The movement seems to have gained some momentum in Latin America recently with the cancellation of large hydroelectric projects in Chile and Brazil and high-profile dam disasters in Columbia and Brazil, and amid growing evidence that big dams are a short-term and often outrageously overpriced solution for a complex, long-term problem. As developed countries work to dismantle their dams and spend millions of dollars restoring damaged river systems, dam opponents in Temaca hope their own Water Revolution might help Mexico — as well as the rest of the world — embark on a new water management path, one that doesn’t involve the estimated 3,700 mega-dams currently in various stages of planning and construction in developing countries across the globe.

TO AN OUTSIDER WANDERING into Temaca on an average day, it might seem tiny, says Padre Gabriel, but this sleepy picture-postcard of a pueblo is more than what it seems. “Somos pocos, pero picosos,” he says with a mischievous grin, invoking their signature crop: “We are small, but spicy.”

Originally settled by Indigenous tribes in the sixth century or earlier, the town is also known for its hot springs and 260-year-old stone basilica. Most residents are farmers who grow maize, beans, and chiles, though like other poor farming towns of the region, Temaca was devastated by years of drought in the 1950s, when the immigration pipeline to the United States began. What remained of Mexico’s fragile rural economies was further undermined by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) when subsidized crops from the US flooded the Mexican market, putting almost two million small-scale farmers, including many in Temaca, out of work.

photo of a festival, food preparation
Annual events like the Race for the Remedies and the chile fair help keep Temaca’s anti-dam struggle on the international radar. Photo by Tracy Barnett.

Over the years, many residents migrated to faraway lands to make their living and send money to family back home, but instead of dissolving with time, the bonds to their homeland strengthened. The town formed Hijos Ausentes (Absent Sons and Daughters), a committee to coordinate activities, and the absent ones would come back home with their new generations to celebrate fiestas and holidays. The committee is now more than 3,000 strong. When word went out in 2005 about the massive dam being proposed upstream on the Rio Verde by CONAGUA, Mexico’s national water commission, and how it would flood the town, the network went into action.

‘The message from all of them was the same: Don’t let them do it.’

Gabriel and Bety, who grew up in Guadalajara and spent summers and holidays in Temaca with their grandmother, are just two of many for whom the threat to the pueblo shifted the focus in their lives. Others, like businessman and author Martín Rodríguez, moved back to join the effort, leaving behind a comfortable life in the US. Rodríguez, who had left for the US at 18 and worked his way up from being a strawberry picker to having a successful business of his own in Watsonville, California, earned enough to travel back and forth between his two homes when he wanted to. But when the fight against the dam began to heat up, he returned for good and became one of the movement’s mainstays. “I wasn’t going to stay in California while my town was being flooded,” he says.

As plans for the dam began moving forward, Temaca’s residents started connecting with others in the anti-dam movement through MAPDER, the Mexican Movement of Dam-Affected People in Defense of the Rivers. In 2010, two years after construction work on the dam commenced, Temaca hosted Rivers of Life 3: Third International Meeting of Dam-Affected People and Their Allies. People from 54 countries including India, Thailand, China, Peru, Argentina, Japan, Chile, and Bolivia came to this little town to share stories of their fights against dams and to develop networks and strategies for the struggle ahead. “The Eyes of the World Are on Temaca,” was the slogan that emerged in those days, and it has continued to resonate ever since.

“The message from all of them was the same: Don’t let them do it,” said Bety. The meeting was a transformative experience, she recalled. “Suddenly we saw that we were not alone.” The Temaca network also learned how to organize big events — a skill that would come in handy as they worked to keep Temaca on the international radar via events like the Race for the Remedies, named after the town’s miracle-working Virgin of the Remedies, and then the first chile fair.

The Committee to Save Temacapulín, Acasico, and Palmarejo (CSTAP, by its Spanish acronym) is calling for nothing less than a “Water Revolution” — the democratization of a sector that has been rife with corruption and abuse of power since big dams began proliferating throughout Mexico in the 1950s. They are asking their leaders to implement an integrated water resource management policy, one that takes into account the needs of the environment and all the affected parties, not just industries and metropolitan populations.

Padre Gabriel and his compañeros are also cooking up another complementary movement — Volver a la Raiz or Return to the Roots — which calls on their compatriots to come back to their villages and revitalize the rural economy.

The massive, out-of-control growth of Latin America’s megacities has become like a cancer, one that is sucking the resources out of the land, the Padre says. “That’s why for us, the proposal is: Let’s stop migrating to the cities. It’s a historic moment when Temaca proposes: Let’s start migrating towards the small pueblos. That’s where the water is, that’s where the food is, that’s where the resources are — that’s where the quality of life really is.”

Padre Gabriel has been practicing what he preaches. His departure from priesthood compelled him to generate an income, and he returned to the family paleta (popsicle) business in Guadalajara. He also dedicates half his time to agricultural and community development projects in Temaca. On his family farm near the town, he’s gone from five chile de árbol plants when he joined the struggle to 80, plus an acre of corn, beans, and alfalfa. He is also assisting with a little demonstration permaculture project in town, where he helps grow vegetables and maintain goats and a small flock of chickens. A rural ecotourism project he’s working on with other local residents, which includes a campground near the river and hiking tours, has introduced its own line of chile products, as well as a craft beer. “chiltemaca: 100% Resistance,” reads the label of one spicy salsa from the project, which was on sale at the festival. Proceeds will help pay for the legal defense against the dam.

Monti Aguirre, Latin America Coordinator for International Rivers who attended Rivers of Life 3 nearly a decade ago, has high hopes that the proposals the people of Temaca are putting forward will help Mexico turn the page on an era of river destruction. She believes the country is now perfectly primed for such a revolution. With 70 percent of the country’s rivers in seriously contaminated condition, and more than two-thirds of them cut off by dams, awareness is rising, and initiatives are advancing around the country to grant rights to nature and to rivers. Mexico City and the state of Colima have already approved Rights of Nature legislation.

“I would say that the eyes of the world are still on Temaca — and on Mexico, as well,” Aguirre says.

THE SUN IS NOW BEARING DOWN AS Padre Gabriel takes the mic and encourages the assembling multitudes to gather round on the historic village plaza for the first of the festival’s attractions — a children’s relay race. Later in the day there will be a salsa contest, with contestants from across the country lining up to grind their favorite ingredients in their traditional molcajetes (stone mortars and pestles); there will be folk dancing, and a photo exposition and forum on Women in Resistance in Temaca; there’ll be swimming in the town’s famous thermal waters; and on Sunday, the 5- and 10-K race for the Virgin of the Remedies.

“Here we are again, as much as some would like to see us disappear,” the Padre says, addressing an animated crowd. “We’re far from disappearing. In fact, our resistance has become resistant. Just like a plant or an insect that survives the toxic agrochemicals — we have only become stronger, and we’re not going anywhere. The government wants us to go away; they’d like to say we’re a ghost town. But obviously that’s not the case.”

photo of a man, smiling in a cornfield
Padre Gabriel, the mariachi-singing, marathon-running, organic-farming former priest, wants Mexicans to return to their villages and revitalize local economies. Photo by Tracy Barnett.

At the Padre’s urging, the children — surrounded by cheering adults — line up with their teams. The object of the relay: to care for the water. In this case, it means carrying it in plates on top of their heads as quickly as possible and depositing it in a bucket without spilling. The team that ends up with the most water wins. It’s a playful twist on a message that the committee has been transmitting to the government for years. Instead of flooding their villages, destroying their river ecosystem, and endangering some of the country’s most productive farmland, they say, take care of your own watershed.

The nearly $3.6 billion El Zapotillo water project involves the construction of a mega-dam and 140-km-long aqueduct that would siphon off up to 120 million cubic meters of water from the Rio Verde a year to supplement León and Guadalajara’s drinking water supply.

Temaca would be the most visible casualty of El Zapotillo, but the impact on Jalisco’s entire Los Altos region, where Temaca is located, would be felt across the country, say dam opponents. From Aguascalientes to Guadalajara, the Rio Verde waters one of the most productive agricultural regions in Mexico. Seven out of ten eggs and one out of every five kilos of meat produced nationally come from Los Altos. Channeling the water from their river for urban use runs the risk of undercutting a flourishing rural economy, particularly with climate change on the horizon, said Juan Guillermo Márquez of the Jalisco Citizen’s Water Observatory, a coalition of civic groups and academics who advocate for a transition to a more sustainable water policy.

“It will have an impact on a whole way of life,” Márquez said. “It would be lamentable if a social fabric so rooted, so capable, and so high in production were to be lost.”

A native of the Los Altos region, Márquez, a civil engineer, comes from a long line of farmers. He worries about the impacts of climate change on his native land, even without the plan to build a 140-km aqueduct to pipe a large portion of their primary water source to a faraway city. With the decreasing amounts of rainfall that they are already beginning to see, and the predicted increase in temperatures of up to 4 degrees Celsius, the area faces a very real threat of desertification, he said. The rise in temperatures also makes storing water in open reservoirs less practical than groundwater protection, he noted. “It’s much more efficient to distribute water through a natural underground network than a big system of pipes.”

Despite opposition from the three villages and their allies, construction of the dam began late in 2008. Between 2008 and 2014, the Committee to Save Temacapulín, Acasico, and Palmarejo filed 63 lawsuits challenging the project. But it was a 2013 lawsuit by the Jalisco state legislature that led the Supreme Court to halt work on the dam at 80 meters. That suit challenged ex-governor Emilio González Márquez’s authority to sign a pact with the federal government and Guanajuato to raise the height of the dam to 105 meters. Márquez had agreed to raise the height because it would allow the dam to provide water to Guadalajara as well — a decision that was compelled by the cancellation of the Arcediano Dam, another controversial project that was supposed to provide Guadalajara water. The court ruled that only the state legislature had the authority to make such decisions.

As the partially finished dam has not been sealed, the river still runs through a narrow channel. However, in its current state it poses a flooding risk to the people downstream, especially in the case of heavy rainfall, as occurred several years ago, says Claudia Gómez Godoy, the tireless attorney now at the front of the legal fight. That’s one of the reasons why dam opponents insist that the structure must be dismantled. Other reasons include the need to restore the river’s natural course, which has been significantly altered by the construction work, and to let the land heal and the native flora and fauna return.

The nearly $3.6 billion El Zapotillo water project involves the construction of a mega-dam and 140 km long aqueduct that would siphon off up to 120 million cubic meters of water from Rio Verde a year to supplement León and Guadalajara’s drinking water supply. Photo José Esteban Castro / WATERLAT GOBACIT.

With the dam at 80 feet, Temaca and the two smaller villages will be saved from inundation. But León’s government officials say if El Zapotillo is not finished they’ll enter into a crisis and will have to ration water supplies in the coming years. “There is no Plan B,” warned Enrique de Haro Maldonado, director of the Water and Sewerage System of León, in an interview on Multimedios Televisión in August. Without El Zapotillo, the wells the city is using will begin to dry up in about 3.5 years, he said. “We think it is incredible that for just over 400 unhappy people in Jalisco, 6.1 million people from both that state and Guanajuato can be harmed,” José Arturo Sánchez Castellanos, President of the Business Coordinating Council of León, told the newspaper Correo in September. “Such a project, with a benefit of that magnitude, cannot be stopped by a minority.”

Meanwhile, Jalisco Governor Aristóteles Sandoval, who pledged to save Temaca in 2013, reneged on his promise in 2017, saying that due to the increasing demand for water in Guadalajara, “saving Temacapulín is no longer an affordable option.” This past June, new Jalisco Governor Enrique Alfaro Ramírez, who took office in January, and the governor of Guanajuato, Diego Sinhué Rodríguez Vallejo, signed a pact to work together to overcome the barriers to finishing the dam.

Activists, however, say the water needs being reported by dam proponents are deceptive. Citing development plans being touted by León business leaders, including a major industrial expansion of a local inland port that has no water supply, they say that the bulk of the water is not destined for residential use but rather, unsustainable real estate developments and the water-intensive automotive and leather industries.

Arturo Gleason, director of the Institute of Water Technology Research in Guadalajara, maintains that both cities would have adequate water if they employed integrated water resource management practices. In other words: Good water governance.

Gleason proposes beginning with fixing these cities’ leaky water distribution system. He estimates that Guadalajara and León are losing more than 40 percent of their water through faulty pipe systems. Guadalajara could also be using the water from its abundant underground springs instead of piping it into the city drainage system, and could funnel the heavy rainfall in the rainy season into the underground aquifer, instead of enduring months of destructive flooding and channeling all the runoff into the overflowing drainage system. And both cities could do much more to encourage water conservation through measures like industrial water recycling and rainwater catchment, he adds. Instead, he maintains, they have stimulated industrial and real estate development in a semi-arid region as if the water has no limit. In August this year, he outlined his recommendations for better water management in a 58-page document for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Gleason is far from alone in his opinion. For years, organizations like the Citizens’ Water Observatory, the Lerma-Lake Chapala-Santiago Watershed Foundation, the Mexican Institute for Community Development, and many others have been demanding a more equitable and sustainable water use policy. And for years, they say, they have been ignored.

Government agencies in both states as well as Mexico’s national water commission did not respond by the time this went to press despite repeated requests for comment.

DESPITE THE SANDOVAL ABOUT FACE and the mayors’ pact, the defenders of Temaca have a lot going for them. They have an excellent legal team that has worked tirelessly in the courts to stop the project since the beginning. And they have allies in high places. During his multiple campaigns over the past 14 years, President López Obrador visited Temaca no fewer than three times, promising each time to defend the town if he were elected.

‘It would be lamentable if a social fabric so rooted, so capable, and so high in production were to be lost.’

Of course, as Sandoval proved, a promise is far from a guarantee. “When they want our votes, they kiss the children, hug the people, offer miracles,” says white-haired Isaura Gómez, at 82 the sharp-tongued matriarch of the movement. “But after people give them their vote, they run off like cats! Then they do whatever they want.”

But at the end of July, something akin to a miracle occurred. For the first time since the project began in 2005, a federal official paid a visit to Temaca. Greeted with a lei crafted from flowers and the town’s trademark chile de árbol, Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources Victor Toledo spent the day with Isaura Gómez, Padre Gabriel, and other stalwarts of the movement.

He walked the town’s streets. He visited the rose-colored Basilica of the Virgin of Remedies. He perused the community museum, which traces the village’s roots back to the sixth century and to the Indigenous Caxcan and Tecuexe warriors who brought down the Spanish conquistador Pedro Alvarado. He saw the steaming thermal waters at the base of the bluffs where the famous Christ of the Cliffs is said to have appeared before an itinerant priest.

And then he heard them out.

“It took me 15 minutes to realize where I am, in a town full of culture, history, poets, a town of believers and talents …” he said. “The most irrational act that I could register is that this town would disappear … Today dams are a kind of heavy mastodon that no longer work; it is an obsolete technology,” Toledo told a cheering crowd. But ultimately, he said, the president would have the last word.

aerial photo of a town
“The most irrational act that I could register is that this town would disappear,” Mexico’s environment secretary Victor Toledo said when he visited Temaca in July this year. He also called dams “a kind of heavy mastodon that no longer work.” Photo by Tracy Barnett.

President López Obrador, for his part, has been more circumspect about his views since assuming the office. In a meeting with dam opponents in Mexico City this past August, he invited them to present their alternatives in a series of technical work sessions. On the one hand, he said, the dam has already been built, and he would not tear it down. On the other hand, he promised not to use force to impose the dam, and he pledged not to devote any money from the 2020 budget to its completion. Instead, López Obrador and his staff are organizing a series of technical work sessions to examine potential alternatives to the dam, including a possible compromise, such as keeping it at the lower 80-meter height.

Attorney Gómez Godoy says that’s not good enough. “The people will not stop until they achieve dismantlement,” she says. “As it is, the dam is standing in the middle of the river, channeling the water through a small space; it presents a threat to the villagers downstream. It needs to be removed so the people can be safe, the river can flow freely and the fauna can return to its rightful place.”

Back at day two of the Water and Chile games, a faux El Zapotillo Dam made of cardboard boxes emblazoned with phrases like “plunder of our patrimony,” “crimes against the environment,” “relocation,” “political deception,” is assembled. This time, children and adults alike line up on either side of the dam for a chance to pelt it with water balloons. In a matter of seconds, the dam is a jumble of wet boxes under the jubilant feet of the children.

As the town gears up for the marathon, Padre — who has been checking on the animals, grinding the corn for the tortillas, taking a turn here and there at the mic — takes a break to run the 10K, finishes third in his class, then heads back to Cielito Lindo to make quesadillas for the guests. It’s not until late afternoon, in a more intimate gathering, that he finally slows down enough to pull out his guitar. “I belong to the church of the streets,” he cheerfully tells his small flock, before donning his singer-songwriter avatar and sharing a few closing thoughts:

“Cities are growing, without order and without measure / while peasants and rural life are disappearing / The time has come to return to our roots, / we can’t wait until the country is destroyed.”

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