Water apartheid

Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico
Mikael D Wolfe
2017, Duke University Press
317 pages, plates, paperback

OVER and above the immediate merits of this historical case-study of water-management policies in the north-central Laguna region of Mexico – the agricultural area comprising western Coahuila and eastern Durango that was a crucible of the country’s 1910 revolution – this book provides an almost entirely new disciplinary focus in Latin America by addressing the complex relationship between the environment and development: envirotech history.

Envirotech history is the natural conflation of environmental history and the history of technology that rejects the illusory boundary established between nature and technology in academic and policymaking circles. It is a critically important development in historiography, because that illusory boundary has become a key theme of debate in the sociological analysis of ecologism. Rightly or wrongly, the notion of a separate realm of “nature” somehow existing outside the realm of human development is at the heart of much contemporary environmentalism, and also accounts for the notion of “wilderness” that is central to northern, and particularly Anglo-Saxon, visions of ecology.

As Mikael Wolfe points out, the premise of envirotech history has yet to be fully embraced in Latin America, where the two fields emerged more recently than in Europe and the US but also because of the legacy of imperialism upon Latin American historiography, which perpetuated a narrative that technology was “imported”.

Wolfe writes: “While Latin American historiography definitively revised and repudiated this imperialist narrative decades ago, the illusory boundary between nature and technology that the narrative presupposed generally persists. To be sure, environmental historians and historians of technology of Latin America acknowledge and cite each other’s works, but generally they have yet to fully engage with, much less incorporate, each other’s foci and methodologies.” [p 6]

Accordingly, Wolfe’s book is the first envirotech history of agrarian reform in Mexico and, in that respect, pioneering. Environmental history in Latin America remains largely in its infancy, and the relationship between development and ecological change remains a central, if not the central, focus of this discipline, not least because it is at the very heart of what is happening today in the region, Report after report lays bare the same underlying dilemmas facing developmentalist regimes about how to manage resources sustainably while bringing about an improvement in living standards for the most marginalised groups that rely upon them disproportionately.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the Laguna, the focus of Wolfe’s study where radical agrarian reform policies following the revolution brought the two objectives of land distribution and water conservation into stark conflict.

The author examines the region from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries in terms of both how the land was distributed, and how the water resources crucial to that endeavour were shared. Land distribution itself, especially during the reforms that followed the revolution but were deepened by President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1936, was largely a politico-legal exercise – 500,000 acres from 226 expropriated cotton and wheat estates were handed out to 1,700 small landholders and about 30,000 campesino families in 300 newly created ejidos in a record six weeks. But the distribution of water to make those newly shared lands productive and sustainable was altogether a different challenge.

The author examines the use of invasive hydraulic technologies as the governing principle of Mexican management since before the revolutionary era, in the form of the creation of the ambitious dam on the Nazas River that bears Cárdenas’s name, eventually dedicated in 1946. It asks why, as a result of such technologies, the reparto de aguas in fact ultimately left the majority of land beneficiaries to suffer severe contamination and unequal access to scarce water supplies for decades.

Wolfe notes how this inequality resulted in a form of “water apartheid” in the region that has never been resolved by which wealthier private landholders and neo-latifundistas can afford pumps that reach deep down to groundwater in the region, while ejidatarios unable to afford pumps have relied on what was meant to be the technological linchpin of the Cárdenas reforms: water from the reservoir maintained by the dam. The former has not been regulated, while regulations governing the latter have been heavily enforced by an army of federal técnicos.

Watering the Revolution seeks to explain why this has happened, and as a result provides a fascinating history of the técnicos and their role within the modernising post-revolutionary authoritarian state.

As Wolfe notes, whereas campesinos got to know nature through their labour, técnicos did so through the envirotechnical labour of reconnoitring, measuring and modelling natural processes for fairer distribution – becoming “incidental conservationists” in the process. The author writes: “… some técnicos rapidly discovered and openly admitted the large discrepancy between the hubristic attitude their formal education had instilled in them toward nature and the reality of its finite and fragile boundaries … That is, they came to realize conservation was not a luxury that could wait until Mexico achieved ‘developed’ status, as Mexican and other ‘developing’ nation politicians insisted (and often continue to).” [p 12]

This observation goes to the very heart of contemporary development debates and the apparent trade-off that is being made by Latin American politicians from the leftwing Evo Morales in Bolivia to the rightwing Michel Temer in Brazil as they put economic growth before environmental wellbeing. It is short-sighted and, as this book helps to demonstrate, can have very damaging and, more importantly, costly, longer-term effects that cumulatively negate or cancel out short-term developmental gains. Yet it is usually a highly politicised choice: as Wolfe shows, Mexico’s post-revolutionary governments continued to deploy invasive hydraulic technologies for state development even though they knew it was unsustainable.

The state’s unnatural confidence in these technologies continued into the neoliberal era, when Carlos Salinas de Gortari scrapped elements of constitutional Article 27 that had mandated the reparto in the first place – once again using the Laguna as his template for reform – even while being the first president in Mexico to dress himself in the cloth of environmentalism.

Wolfe writes: “Although he was apparently oblivious to how more subtle, interconnected influences could have enormous impacts, Salinas, like every one of his predecessors, was in awe of grand hydraulic technology … While he congratulated himself on a number of provisions in the 1992 revision of the agrarian reform that protected the natural environment of ejidos via more sustainable land use and forestry practices, when it came to water, Salinas overlooked the dangerous consequences of Mexico’s envirotechnical successes in historical dam and canal building and groundwater pumping. Even at the cusp of the twenty-first century, the former president could not conceive that free-flowing rivers were a form of conserving water resources …” [pp 223–24]