The Yaqui Tribe’s Fight for Survival: A Story of Water Rights and Resistance

The Yaqui River by Tomas Castelazo

The purpose of the state is to protect the livelihoods and wellbeing of the public, to enhance social and economic prosperity, and to promote equity and justice. However, it may not come as a surprise that some governments neglect one or more of these central duties, with disastrous effects on social, economic, and environmental welfare. What would you do if your government took your central source of livelihood and sustenance? If your state were to abandon you, your traditional way of life and cultural values, how might you react? For centuries, indigenous people of the Yaqui River Valley in Sonora, Mexico have suffered these persecutions by their Mexican government. As Mexico’s most prolific center of agricultural productivity, Sonora has been the venue of fierce conflicts over natural resources between indigenous groups and Mexican government officials. The Yaqui tribe of the Yaqui River Basin in Northwestern Mexico has been at the heart of historical natural resource conflicts in Sonora, struggling tirelessly throughout history to protect the sacred Yaqui River from overexploitation by the Mexican government.

With the modern advancement of climate change, the Sonoran Desert region has been plagued by increasingly severe water scarcity, with calamitous effects on Yaqui water access¹. In 2010, the Sonoran government proposed the construction of a 145-kilometer long aqueduct which would transport water from the Yaqui River to the water-stressed city of Hermosillo. In pursuing this hydraulic megaproject, the Mexican government failed to consult the Yaqui people as relevant stakeholders and disregarded legal protections assured to the tribe by federal and state court systems². The Independencia Aqueduct was born out of privileged accounts and contributes to the growing resource disproportionality in Sonora between residents of the Yaqui Valley and citizens of Hermosillo. The aqueduct stands as the most recent manifestation of historically-prevalent environmental racism towards the Yaqui tribe, exacerbating their struggles against contemporary structural oppression, environmental violence, and unjust resource diversions in Sonora.

The Mexican government has perpetuated environmental violence and institutionalized racism against the indigenous Yaqui tribe throughout history. Sociologists conceptualize environmental violence as “how power differentials influence unequal distribution of environmental entitlements and precipitate violent conflict.”³ Environmental violence is produced through struggles to control resources and environmental transformations which disproportionally harm oppressed communities³. Hydraulic developments of the Yaqui River and subsequent socio-economic turmoil and governmental conflicts with the Yaqui tribe demonstrate the environmental violence they have suffered. Environmental racism has been a driver of historical and present-day environmental violence against Yaqui people. Environmental racism can be thought of as radical socio-economic disparities in the inheritance of environmental harms and benefits across ethnic groups⁵. In the case of the Yaqui tribe, environmental racism has manifested as institutionalized racism, reflecting how Mexican institutional procedures and legislative policies have repeatedly produced inequitable and unjust conditions for Yaqui communities⁶. Environmental violence and racism have maintained the structural oppression of the Yaqui tribe, in which Yaqui health and culture are framed as opposing government policies and public progress.

The Yaqui people demonstrate a strong connection to the natural world and hold traditional territories central to their cultural identity. They envision ancestral resources as ethnic territories, natural areas that they rely on for sustenance, livelihoods, cultural traditions, and community harmony⁷. The Yaqui worldview contends that each parcel of tribal territory occupies an irreplaceable link in a chain which connects their present existence to their ancestral traditions. Geologic features of the Yaqui territory, particularly the Yaqui River, have come to embody sacred significance for the tribe. Defense of these ethnic territories and the natural resources they harbor is, for the Yaquis, defense of their culture, ancestry, and traditional ways of life⁷. As a result, the interests of the Yaqui people have always lied in their principles of cultural and environmental preservation.

The sacred Yaqui River flows North to South in central-Northwestern Mexico, curving sharply into the Mar de Cortes off the Southern Coast. The Yaqui tribe has historically inhabited the north side of the southern end of the Yaqui River. Prior to Spanish colonization of Mexico, the Yaqui River supported a rich and diverse ecosystem, which sustained roughly half of the dietary needs of all 60,000 members of the tribe⁷. Through flood inundation, the extremely fertile Yaqui River Basin could support up to three harvests per year for Yaqui farmers³. As Spanish settlers came to understand the economic potential of the Yaqui River, Jesuit priests established eight Yaqui missions to divert resources and agricultural production in support of Spanish colonization. The manipulation of Yaqui resources by Spanish intruders bred the first Yaqui rebellion in 1740. However, it wasn’t until 1767, after several decades of blended Yaqui and Spanish cultures, that the Yaqui people expelled the Jesuits from their territories, reaffirming their cultural autonomy, traditional social organization, and previsionary resources⁷. This was the first recorded instance of environmental discrimination and cultural oppression of the Yaqui people. As Mexico has transformed into an influential economic force in the global economy, its state and federal governments have adopted free market principles of capitalism that support private industry, large-scale agriculture, domestic development, and economic globalization. As you will see, this neoliberal perspective has served to perpetuate and naturalize the severe resource disproportionalities and subsequent cultural oppression of the Yaqui indigenous people.

Throughout Mexican history, the traditional rights of the Yaqui people to their ancestral resources have been under attack. During the authoritarian regime of Mexican President Porfirio Diaz (1876–1911), newly constructed dams and canals diverted Yaqui water resources from the Yaqui River to Mexican cities and private agricultural endeavors. Employing a prejudiced campaign motto of “order and progress,” Diaz took control of the Yaqui’s water as a means of oppressing and civilizing the indigenous people, who were largely perceived as barbaric savages living in the heart of Mexico’s most productive agricultural land³. Diaz’s manipulation of public sentiments towards the Yaqui demonstrates what sociologists term “privileged accounts.” A privileged account reinforces social inequalities and established power dynamics by providing benefits for socio-economic elites at the expense of the economically less fortunate. Privileged accounts naturalize socio-political inequalities and dominant social paradigms that attribute resource wealth to some and resource poverty to others, thereby legitimizing privileged access⁸. By reinforcing dominant power structures, privileged accounts have perpetuated the resource poverty, socio-economic turmoil, and cultural oppression of the Yaqui tribe throughout Mexican history.

Sonoran state policies encouraged private investments in industrial agrarian society in the Yaqui Valley throughout the 19th century. The government gave large swaths of Yaqui territories to developers, as all uncultivated Yaqui lands were deemed vacant. By stealing and redistributing land and water resources from the Yaqui people, the Mexican government solidified their environmental violence and structural oppression of the tribe⁸. The tense historical relationship between the Yaqui tribe and the Mexican government has forged current resource disproportionalities and environmental racism in Sonora, whereby traditional resources of the Yaqui people have been transferred to remote economic elites.

By the end of the 19th century, after decades of oppressive environmental racism, a violent war erupted between the Mexican government and the Yaqui people. With a meager 3,000-member army, the Yaqui had begun an elusive campaign of persistent guerilla warfare against Mexican forces⁹. In response to the Yaqui’s military opposition, the Mexican government employed a program of indigenous elimination, in which Yaqui people were captured and deported, as indentured servants, to sugar plantations in southern Mexico. Approximatey 7,000 Yaquis were deported as refugees between 1898 and 1910, dislocated from their ancestral territories and cultural identities³. The Yaqui Wars continued until 1910, when, after the widespread persecution and execution of Yaqui leaders, a peace treaty was signed. The tension between this indigenous tribe and the Mexican government was temporarily resolved⁹. But, alas, this momentary truce proved to be brief and inconsequential. Within decades, new socio-economic and environmental aggressions towards Yaqui people would stoke the flame of discontent and injustice which has forever scorched this indigenous tribe.

Over the course of the war, the Yaqui lost significant land and water resources to the prejudicial Mexican government. With the strain between tribal leaders and government officials temporarily relieved, the Yaqui demanded that their traditional land and water rights be restored as intrinsic components to their cultural identity. In 1937, Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas addressed the injustice suffered by the Yaqui tribe³. In a presidential decree, President Cárdenas granted the tribe exclusive communal ownership of 485,235 acres of their traditional territory along the North Bank of the Yaqui River, as well as the rights to all water necessary to cultivate this area. Just two years later, in 1939, the President offered a second decree which promised the Yaqui tribe half of the water in the only dam on the Yaqui River, La Angostura³. This was a massive victory for the Yaqui people — their rights to self-determination and traditional resources were granted by an official government decree and their struggle was over; or so it seemed. Indeed, the Yaqui’s struggle to maintain traditional resources and cultural identity in the face of neoliberal government interest would never cease.

Despite President Cárdenas’ presidential decrees, the Yaqui people were never granted propriety over their traditional resources. In subsequent decades, the construction of new hydraulic infrastructure on the Yaqui River perpetuated the diversion of water away from the tribe, sending the Yaqui community into a state of extreme vulnerability. The Oviáchic Dam (1952) and the Novillo Dam (1964) both took control over water resources that, through President Cárdenas’ 1939 decree, were legally entitled to the Yaqui people³. The dams diverted water from the Yaqui tribe to Mexican developers, private investors, and agricultural operations on the south side of the Yaqui River. Despite the seemingly peaceful resolve between indigenous and government forces in 1910 and the generous presidential decrees of the 1930s, the continued diversion of resources away from Yaqui people served to perpetuate the structural oppression of the Yaquis while advancing the government’s founding, neoliberal interests of private agrarian expansion in Sonora.

Through the end of the 20th century, large-scale, private agricultural operations expanded throughout the Yaqui Valley as Yaqui smallholders struggled to meet adequate levels of production. Forced to take up wage labor and to rent out their lands, the Yaqui tribe was faced with structural socio-economic vulnerability and developed severely disproportional health issues, including widespread malnutrition, intestinal parasites, and obesity³. The longstanding political objective of the Yaqui tribe has subsequently become the expansion of their irrigation areas to the extent granted by President Cárdenas in 1939¹⁰. Currently only 24,000 of the tribe’s 100,000 hectares of farmland can be irrigated; the remaining water is diverted to the sector of large-scale, private agriculture and to distant communities like Hermosillo³.

Rising temperatures, increased prevalence of droughts, and reduced precipitation characteristic of modern climate change have exacerbated resource disproportionalities in Sonora and intensified the Yaqui tribe’s desperation. In response to rising regional water stress, Mexican Governor Guillermo Padrés initiated Sonora SI, a comprehensive hydraulic development program which included the construction of over 20 different water infrastructure projects around Sonora.[24] Perhaps the most controversial of these projects was the Independencia Aqueduct, a 145-kilometer long, 48-inch diameter pipe that would transport roughly 75 million cubic meters of water per year from the Yaqui River to the desert city of Hermosillo¹⁰. This 300-million-dollar megaproject catered to the neoliberal interests of the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) of the Sonoran government, whose priorities involve economic growth, private investments, and perpetuating the dominant political regime. While citizens of Hermosillo, who practice water rationing to cope with regional scarcity, support the aqueduct project, the Yaqui people and Mexican farmers of the Yaqui Valley stand to lose more of the increasingly valuable water of the Yaqui River¹⁰. The Independencia Aqueduct, however, would not just transfer water, but also capital, culture, and livelihoods away from the Yaqui Valley and into Hermosillo, the new heart of Sonora, thereby contributing to the robust Mexican history of environmental violence against Yaqui people.

Despite the enormous environmental damages and unavoidable socio-economic impacts on the Yaqui Valley, the Sonoran government preceded with the aqueduct project in 2010 without consulting relevant stakeholders. With resistance ingrained in their culture, the Yaqui defended their rights to the river and demonstrated their opposition to the government’s plans. In 2010 and 2011, the Yaqui tribe filed for two separate legal protections against the Mexican government for “neglecting their right to prior consultation and dismissing their historical water rights.”³ On August 24, 2010, a Mexican federal court ordered “the precautionary suspension of the construction” of the aqueduct¹⁰. The state government of Sonora, however, disregarded the court order and continued their construction plans. In response to the government’s neglect, Yaqui authorities filed a second suit in April of 2011. The Tenth Judicial District of Sonora ruled in favor of the Yaqui people for a second suspension of construction on May 2, 2011, yet the construction continued unabated. These lawsuits were accompanied by numerous oppositional press inserts as well as active protests by the Movimiento Ciudadano por el Agua¹⁰. Despite the Yaqui’s incredible, highly organized resistance, the Sonoran government proceeded with its development plans.

In response to the Sonoran government’s malicious indifference regarding the welfare of the Yaqui Valley, Yaqui organizers started a large blockade on the International México-Nogales Highway in the town of Vicam in September of 2011. Though the blockade was forcibly dispersed, it continued erratically for a year, causing traffic jams and delays and receiving national and international media attention. Despite the Yaqui’s appeals to the Sonoran government, federal and state court systems, and the Mexican public, their pleas were ignored and the Independencia Aqueduct began transporting water from the Yaqui River to Hermosillo in April of 2013¹⁰.Today, the Yaqui people are trapped in a crisis of resource scarcity. They suffer from intergenerational poverty and political disenfranchisement — their government has abandoned them.

Privileged accounts in favor of the Independencia Aqueduct drove development forward despite fierce opposition from the Yaqui Valley region. The Yaqui people have been discredited as selfish and greedy opponents to state development despite their just demands and historical oppression. In 2012, Governor Pádres claimed that the Yaqui opponents to the aqueduct simply “do not want the good for the people.”¹⁰ The economic elites of Hermosillo have also created privileged accounts in favor of the aqueduct through the Agrupación Unidos por el Agua. In 2013, 28 Hermosillo business elites signed a petition which defended the aqueduct in the name of the whole city. “These influential businessmen are framed as entitled to…benefits and their interests are said to be coincident with the public welfare,” whereas the Yaqui are portrayed as undeserving opponents to the public good, reflecting naturalized environmental racism against these indigenous people¹⁰. Despite fierce resistance from the Yaqui tribe, publicly-accepted privileged accounts have driven the immense disproportionality of water resources in Sonora, Mexico and have compromised Yaqui cultural survival.

The Independencia Aqueduct reflects the Mexican government’s most recent, environmentally violent attack on Yaqui culture and socio-economic prosperity. The Yaqui River holds immense spiritual and provisioning significance for the indigenous Yaqui people, serving tribal needs of agricultural irrigation, drinking water, and various cultural and spiritual traditions, including ceremonial baptisms¹¹. The diversion of water away from these indigenous people has compromised their culture and their very survival. Today, with the Independencia Aqueduct in operation, the Yaqui River runs dry for much of the year. When water does flow, it is highly polluted and salinized, completely inadequate for irrigation and unsafe to drink. The Yaqui people are physically and socially malnourished, as the basis of their entire cultural and socio-economic life has been stolen by tyrannical government forces. As Mario Luna, secretary of traditional Yaqui authorities explained, “the Yaqui River is a structural part of our life and with this theft of our water, they are condemning us to death as a people.”¹¹ The Independencia Aqueduct violently infringes upon Yaqui identity and rights to autonomy and self-determination ascribed by the Mexican Constitution, constituting a modern manifestation of environmental violence. Today, the average education level of the roughly 36,000 remaining Yaqui people is a meager 6.2 years. Their quality of life is low. Yaqui houses are exceedingly precarious — over a quarter of Yaqui homes have earthen floors, over one half lack wastewater drainage, and less than one third of Yaqui homes have all three basic services of electricity, potable water, and drainage¹⁰. The construction of the Independencia Aqueduct by the Mexican government demonstrates a contemporary expression of naturalized oppression and environmental violence against the indigenous Yaqui people.

So, I ask you again: what would you do if you were in the Yaqui’s shoes? Throughout history, this indigenous tribe has tried every apparent form of resistance, from guerilla warfare to public protests, media presence, and judicial litigation. And yet, they still suffer from environmental persecution and structural oppression. The privileged accounts, resource disproportionalities, political disenfranchisement, and environmental violence, which have shaped the Yaqui’s desperate condition, are exacerbated daily by the Independencia Aqueduct. Today, the flow of the Yaqui River is completely inadequate for the survival of the Yaqui people and their culture of sustainability and natural stewardship. Yet the Yaqui tribe persists; they have not given up their resistance and continue to seek justice from the Mexican government. As conscientious, informed citizens of the world, it is our responsibility to support Yaqui people by raising awareness of their plight in our institutional circles and local governments. Sufficient global outrage and legal support for the Yaqui may represent their last opportunity at socio-economic prosperity, cultural preservation, and justice.


  1. “Water Conflict over Acueducto Independencia in Mexico | ECC Factbook.” 2015. ECC Library. March 11, 2015.

2. Pablos, Nicolás Pineda. “Who Gets What with the Independencia Aqueduct in Sonora, Mexico.” Journal of the Southwest 59, no. 1 (July 13, 2017): 227–244.

3. Radonic, Lucero. “Environmental Violence, Water Rights, and (Un) Due Process in Northwestern Mexico.” Latin American Perspectives 42, no. 5 (September 1, 2015): 27–47.

4. Bell, Michael Mayerfeld, and Loka L. Ashwood. An Invitation to Environmental Sociology. 31. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

5. Reynolds, Kristin, and Nevin Cohen. Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice in New York City. 10. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2016.

7. Ramos, Raquel Padilla, and José Luis Moctezuma Zamarrón. “The Yaquis, a Historical Struggle for Water.” Water History 9, no. 1 (March 1, 2017): 38.

8. Freudenburg, W. R. “Privileged Access, Privileged Accounts: Toward a Socially Structured Theory of Resources and Discourses.” Social Forces 84, no. 1 (September 1, 2005): 89–114.

9. “The Yaqui: A Native American Struggle — Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room (Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress).” Accessed April 9, 2018.

10. Pablos, Nicolás Pineda. “Who Gets What with the Independencia Aqueduct in Sonora, Mexico.” Journal of the Southwest 59, no. 1 (July 13, 2017): 227–244.

11. Davies, Jessica. “Mexico: The Yaqui Tribe Defend Their Right to Water.” Upside Down World, September 9, 2013.




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