Photo: Tääk ë´mëj (grandmother) cleansing her wooden cane. In Tamazulápam women guide the spiritual life of people in the community and teach younger generations the rituals and forms to interact with nature. Credits: Joselí Martínez-Vidal, Young Ëyuujk man from Tamazulápam del Espíritu Santo, Mixe, Oaxaca.
Short description of the Ëyuujk community
The community is located in the highlands of the Sierra Norte in Oaxaca. The Ëyuujk region is divided into three subregions according to the altitude, my community falls into the high part. My people still preserve the language, the traditional clothes, and the traditional ways of government, and we perform many rituals throughout the year to celebrate or ask for blessings, depending on the occasion. We are approximately 7,000 people even though many of my people have migrated seeking for a better life to other countries. We are strongly linked to nature and many people know us as the ‘Never Conquered People’ referring to the resistance that my people presented during colonial times but also how we remain friendly people whilst defending our sovereignty.
Languages spoken by the community
Location of community
Tamazulapam del Espiritu Santo, Mixe, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Can you explain how your community relates to the environment?
Many of our sacred places are linked to elements of nature, and our rituals involve a dialogue with different entities in space and time. For example, a woman who is known to host the ‘house of the town/community’ is usually a widow. She is in charge of hosting some deities that important for my community for a year and many rituals are performed there. Two of them are linked to maize cultivation (better known as milpa, an intercropping system of maize, beans, squash, fruit trees, among others), one to request for a better yield and other for rain. Also, many of the sacred places that we have preserved to date are linked to water, springs or in the forest. One of our sacred points for all the Ëyuujk people is the sacred mountain of Zempoaltepetl where we make offers at the peak of the mountain, which in a way is the limit of the ‘earth’ or terrenal and ‘gods’. Imagine that the world is an Orange, divided in two parts. We have the underground and the sky. We, as Ëyuujk, live in the limits of the sky and the underground and which we commonly call earth in the ‘western’ world. Our main god, Konk Ey, lives in the peak of the Zempoaltepetl. We praise him because he has protected us for centuries, he defended us not only from the Spanish colonizers but also other groups trying to invade us according to the oral tradition. He lives in the limits of the sky where the gods make rain, winds, sunlight and all the other processes of the earth. The underground, where goddess Tajëëw lives, is the place where we go one day in life to complete our life cycle while our souls go back to the ‘beginning’. Tajëëw is the responsible to make the earth fertile, we get our maize and water from her, she is our mother.
Can you explain how your community relates to water?
This is a difficult question because in the ‘western’ world, we mainly speak about water as it only had ‘instrumental’ values whereas for Indigenous Peoples’, we relate to water in a holistic way and the values are rather ‘relational’. We have specific rituals for water or request water as a central element for life, our maize fields, and our spiritual life. For example, we talk about ‘water productivity’ in crop production, how much we yield per unit of water and how we pay for to extract it and take it to an irrigation field or how much you pay for a bottle of water. In our case, we do not separate things in this way. So, how do we relate to it? It is very complex. We have rituals in sacred places or springs, as the name of community refers to a sacred spring. We think of the forest as the source of water and we know what seeds adapt better to drier soils or more humid lands, depending on where our fields are located. We have many stories of potential invasions where a god/woman comes sitting on a cloud and with rain, fog and wind helps us to defeat the enemy. This story is not only linked to the Ëyuujk people of my town but also in the lower lands when extractist activities or back when the ‘caciques’ still existed wanted to grab more land and displace people.
Tell us about yourself and your relation to water.
If I could choose a name in my native language, I would have chosen water or "Nëë" because it flows everywhere, is strong, and in general, finds a way to move wherever it wants. It is also a source of life. I have two degrees linked to water because as a young girl, I wanted everyone to have access to drinkable water and adequate sanitary systems. I changed my path a bit on the way but still enjoy working on water issues and the social aspects of it. In my community we still enjoy many natural resources but there is also the influence of global policies that sell us different ideas of development. I disagree with these policies because I believe they are killing our languages, our original diets and making us rely on external foods, incorporating concrete in the streets everywhere as if those types of development will make us more sustainable. I have witnessed what has happened to other regions of the world and I am always keeping an eye open to see how policies affect my community. So far, we work to reinforce the language and that people or younger generations take pride on our origins and who we are.
Tell us about your role within your community and if it is related to water, how so?
I do not think I have a specific role beyond trying to learn more about our relationship to water as a researcher or curious person about her history. We have a community-based organization, the maximum authority is the assembly and we have meetings approximately every third month. Each year we appoint new authorities that will make sure that the matters affecting the community are addressed. There are several offices that work on water issues, for example, the Bienes Comunales is in charge of land issues and this includes water issues. This office is important because water is considered a common good, they ensure that no one takes sole ownership of the water and that it remains as a common good. We also have an office on sustainable rural development, water commission and health commissions. The water commission oversee water bodies such as springs and ensure that they are clean and that water is accessible to most of the community. They also make calls for the community to clean the areas surrounding the springs or taking any other action that is needed to keep it clean. The other offices also provide support on these issues as they are connected and ensure that people have access to water resources. I have never been appointed to any of these offices but I might one day when the community decides. Yet, I have to fulfil my duties as any other communero in the community.
Is there an important water body on your land? If so, can you name and describe it?
There are several water bodies that we use to perform cultural and/or religious rituals including cleansing rituals for spiritual purposes, and we perform other types of rituals for various occasions. Beyond physical space, we think of water as something present in different ways and forms.
I think I mentioned this already, but we wash our wooden canes and shower in the springs the day that we received an appointment/take official position in the community. This happens every 1st of January. I do not have pictures of this ritual because it is so normal to us and also private so we do not document it. I am not comfortable sharing ‘sacred’ springs because I might get into trouble as it is a common good, especially if it will be showcased in an official website.
In your or your communities view, what is the most important aspect humanity should act upon with regards to water?
I would point out again the relational values, I think we forget our obligations and demand rights. Rights which are embedded in many Indigenous Peoples' cosmovision but we also have responsibilities, for example, we have the right to water and the responsibility to protect and conserve it. The issue is that we focus on ensuring water security as if the state of insecurity was a ‘given’ and not address the root of the problem which has been land grabbing, insensitive policies and a false idea of development.
I think we should ‘rethink’ development and we should support ‘local development’ based on the values of communities. We should think of relational values and how everything is connected, consider how the activities conducted upstream will affect people in the lower part of the river. Other things to be considered include how deforesting could reduce water, how promoting ‘concrete’ everywhere affects water infiltration, how the promotion of ‘official languages that are legacies of colonization’ erode Indigenous Peoples’ languages and their systems. In the Mayan region of Yucatan, people could predict when to conduct agricultural activities based on the observation of bioindicators. My grandmother could tell the date of the year and if the day tomorrow could be rainy or not based on her observations of the sky. I do not have that knowledge because a main stream educational systems took it away from me. I think we need to reinforce Indigenous Peoples knowledge but also make sure we can include them at policy level where many decisions of what happen in their territories are taken.
How do you ensure access to safe drinking water in the community, today?
The community organization that ensures that as a collective we can enjoy safe drinking water. We have water tanks where we access safe drinking water. We also have an office that deals with water related issues. They oversee maintenance of pipes taking water to the homes and are also responsible for organizing the community to clean the water tanks, springs or areas where water emerges.
What I can tell you is that as the population is growing, there is more pressure on water and land resources. The spring and the little stream where I used to shower and play as a little girl are still there but the stream is becoming smaller everyday as the demand on water is increasing while availability is reduced.
Do you have canalisation, and sanitary facilities in area inhabited by your community? Are community members using them and how satisfied are you with those?
Yes we do, but I feel that as important as it was to ensure that we have access to safe drinking water and sanitary systems, we tried to replicate the models of the cities. I believe that was not the best option due to differences in the ways of living, the topography, and needs of the people. I feel like many of these projects do not take into account the locality and context but just replicate ideas from other regions that might not be suitable for an area with pronounced topography or anything else. What we are missing is how to treat wastewater.
Can you explain how your community relates to space?
A difficult question to answer here but I will go back to the example of the orange which is illustrated below.
Can you explain how your community relates to technology?
We might need to define technology first, if you mean technology as in the western way with mobile phones, computers and tablets, we have access to it. My community is one of the towns with highest migration rates in the Ëyuujk region. Because there is a lot of illegal immigration to the US, people remain connected through mobile phones. In the nineties, when I was a girl, the infrastructure to access my town was poor but at the beginning of the new millenium phone lines started to boom as many immigrants wanted to communicate with their families left in the communities. By 2015, many people could request land lines and have their own phones. Videos became a popular way of documenting the life in the community and they were shared with people on the other side of the border. By 2019, mobile phones were working in my community and now we are pretty much connected. The community documents most of their activities using videos. With social media, people use live sessions to share events in the community. Also, when aid is needed, social media becomes a way to reach out our people living outside to request their support.
How does your community pass on knowledge related to the environment (e.g., via narratives, songs, paintings and murals, cloth prints, sculptures, other forms of art, etc.)?
I guess a lot is linked to oral tradition and many rituals we still perform, there are so many that I would not know where to start.
Within the Ëyuujk region, my town is one of the most ‘religious’ ones in our way. Many of the rituals are linked to oral traditions and those stories are not so widely shared anymore but people still perform the rituals. In my case, I know some of these stories because my grandmother was a Xëë mapyë (a wise woman) whose role was to count the days and guide the spiritual life of my community. She would share the meanings of many sacred places. Also, my mother is an Ëyuujk woman but from another community whose dialectical variation of Ëyuujk is not so widely used anymore and whose people were more influenced culturally by the Spanish colonisation. But since she married my dad and my grandmother was highly religious in our ‘Ëyuujk’ way, she had to learn many stories and she was always intrigued by the why’s and she passed that curiosity to me. Also, my uncles have been politically active in the community and when you do your community service you learn many of this stories because the political life is strongly linked to religion. The men usually take charge in the office and women in the spiritual life, so both are needed to climb the ladder of prestige that will make them lead the community for ‘bigger or more powerful’ positions in their life time.
Which changes in the environment have you or elders in your community observed?
I think we replicated unsustainable models that the governments pushed top down like the idea that cement is good everywhere, but in reality, we are damaging forests, soils, the environment, etc.
I can tell you that my childhood town is not the same anymore, and it makes me sad in a way. Throughout my early education, I wanted to become a scientist because I imagined that we could live with the ‘privileges’ of a city. I was raised showering in the spring, washing my clothes in the spring and walking to the spring to get water to drink or cook. In terms of sanitary access, we had a latrine but also we would defecate in some spots that we were told. The first time I went to the city, I was amazed on how you could open a water tap at home to cook, wash or clean yourself. Also, to go to the toilet, you used water to flush everything. I wanted to be a sanitary engineer because I wanted to take those services not only to my town but to other towns that had poorer infrastructure than mine. But now thinking about it, I cannot drink tap water in Mexico City or in Oaxaca City or any other major city because I could get ill and water tastes differently. But when I go to my town, I run to the spring of my childhood and enjoy the cold and fresh water that I can take from the spring. I feel it is the cleanest water of the world. However, I am not against latrines or WC but I think we have implemented them without thinking if they are suitable to the environments where we propose these solutions. When I was doing my BSc, a group of engineers accepted that I did my social service with them. My work was to do topography studies to project sewage lines and drinkable water lines. We would take water from the springs but also allow people having their water closets (WCs) at home. In the end, the project was implemented and the waste in theory would be treated in the lower part of the town. However, the waste is not treated and it is causing pollution, yet the municipality invested a lot of money in the project, dug wholes and put pipes everywhere. I do not think those sorts of bathrooms were the solution and we could have thought of more sustainable options. This example makes me think how we need to rethink the alternatives we provide to communities.
What are the water-related changes you have observed on the land your community lives on? If you have observed changes detrimental to the environment, what is the community currently doing to counteract these changes?
Water levels and availability have been reduced. The 'false ideas of development' increased the use of concrete and resulted in the loss of forests.
We face issues with:
- Water scarcity
- Water quality in rivers
- Soil moisture
- Lack of sanitation
- Access to drinking water
Have you encountered cases where space technology applications were used for water/environmental monitoring, management etc? (Please provide examples if any: in general, or within your community, in order to understand need for educational workshop, awareness etc)
Not that I am aware of, but I think when the drinking water distribution lines were planned for, the engineers in charge measured the water availability/ flow. I do not think water quality and land use change studies have been performed yet.
If there is something you would like to know about space technology and Earth observation, what would it be?
I would like to know how we can use GIS to monitor land use change and how to raise awareness from it. like and playing with scenarios of "if we continue this, this could turn into". I think I would love to create models and analyse various land use scenarios to understand the impacts and raise awareness on what could happen if we do not act now. Also, I would like to know more about monitoring the flow and quality of water so we can develop local development plans.
What is your favourite aggregate state of water and why is that so?
Liquid! Because it flows everywhere and it reminds me of my childhood. My nice childhood memories are of me walking in the forest and looking for water streams, I like the plants around them and little insects living there. I like the way people would shape the ponds. Also, during the rainy season at my parents’ backyard in the town, water would emerge and make intermittent streams. I remember chasing them and playing there. I grew up climbing trees and picking fruit from them during the rainy season, I was more excited because I could play and drink water up there.
How does Space4Water add value for you?
Space4Water has provided a platform for me to interact with other Indigenous Women and getting to know them and the work they do has been amazing!
I am still exploring the portal, but I would say it is helping me understand land use change analysis by learning how to use different GIS tools to model landscape changes and making inferences on what could happen under different scenarios.