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'Dying of thirst': The Cucapá in Mexico fight against climate change and oblivion

"It is a fight that seems that we will never win," says Lucía Laguna, as Indigenous Mexicans grapple with geography, the legacy of dams and treaties, narcos and climate change.
Image: A Cucapa man walking near the desert border between Mexico and the United States, in Baja California, April 2021.
A Cucapá man walking near the desert border between Mexico and the United States, in Baja California, April 2021.Alejandro Cegarra

MEXICALI, Mexico — Lucía Laguna carries her fate tattooed on her face — from the corner of her mouth to her chin, black lines surf across her coppery skin — the tribal art honoring her people will also serve an important function later on.

“After my death, it will guide me to my ancestors. With the tattoo, they will recognize me and can take me where they are," she said, as she talks on the banks of the Colorado River.

But under the merciless sun, Laguna, 51, worries about the fate of the river and its impact on the Cucapá, her Indigenous people. A searing drought is exacerbating the deadly heat in a region that long ago saw its river flow diminished, after almost a century of U.S. engineering projects, as well as a focus on water for agriculture.

"Cucapá means people from the river, that's why we are fighting for it," she said, pointing to a decrease in the river's flow she is seeing every year. “We cling to the river and fight because it gives us water so that the fish can arrive and we can earn our livelihood. But it is a fight that seems that we will never win," she said, disheartened.

Mexico is experiencing the worst drought in three decades. NASA images from the recently released Landsat 8 satellite showed the extremely low levels of the Villa Victoria dam, one of the capital's main water reservoirs.

According to meteorologists, three quarters of the country suffers from drought; in 16 of the 32 states, it affects their entire territory. Thus, 60 large reservoirs, especially in the north and the center, are below 25 percent of capacity.

"Over the past 70 years, the temperature in Mexico has a clear and conclusive increasing trend. In the last decade, it increased very rapidly and that rise is even higher than the average for the planet," Jorge Zavala Hidalgo, general coordinator of the National Meteorological Service, said.

Rainfall has always fluctuated, he explained, but now the rain is concentrated in fewer days. "And that is bad because we all want it to rain — but nobody wants it to flood, especially the farmers, because that destroys the crops. That is why we are studying everything that is happening."

Image: Abandoned boats in the areas where the Colorado River used to reach, in Baja California, April 2021.
Abandoned boats in the areas where the Colorado River used to reach in Baja California in April 2021.Alejandro Cegarra

The increase in temperature especially affects the forests, which go from being a paradise of greenery to time bombs for fire risks. As of May 5, 562 forest fires had been registered, 27 percent more than in 2020. And the burned area grew 69 percent, reaching almost 900,000 acres.

"There is more drought and therefore the vegetation is waiting for someone to arrive, light a leaf and from there, the fire begins," said César Robles, deputy manager of the Fire Management Center of Mexico's National Forestry Commission. "The area affected by fires is directly correlated with the increase in temperature and the decrease in rainfall."

An area resident, Imelda Guerra Hurtado, 43, pointed to the barren lands of El Zanjón, an arid, semi-desert enclave that reaches the banks of the Colorado River delta.

She remembers her grandparents taking her fishing — and points to areas that used to have water.

"Sometimes we feel that we are dying of thirst. Although many deny it, the climate has changed," she said. "We have always lived off the fish in the river, since I can remember. Now we can only fish once a year and it is our main livelihood."

Image: A fisherman from the Cucapa indigenous people, during preparations to sail, in El Zanjon, Baja California, April 2021.
A fisherman from the Cucapá Indigenous people, during preparations to sail, in El Zanjón, Baja California,in April 2021. Alejandro Cegarra

U.S. engineering feats — and their consequences

The Cucapá are one of the five native tribes of Baja California, and they descend from the Yuman people, who emigrated to that area around 1000 BC. According to official data, there are now only between 350 and 400 members of the Cucapá people but, in the 19th century, Western colonizers documented between 5,000 and 6,000 nomads who organized into clans.

"You have to understand that these Indigenous people see the entire region, both the part of Mexico and the United States, as their territory. In their traditions, it is remembered that they received a lot of water and, little by little, they were running out of that flow," said Osvel Hinojosa-Huerta, director of the Coastal Solutions Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The history of the Colorado River, and the problems it suffers today, is an ode to progress and engineering that tried to tame nature. It is the most important water system in northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States. As with the Nile River in Egypt, it is essential for farming in a semi-desert region.

In the 19th century, the river reached Mexico with a wild power of about 42,000 cubic feet per second. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, the United States began struggling to convert the arid regions of the Southwest to arable land, thus undertaking engineering works to divert water to the Imperial Valley of California.

"From 1922, everything started badly," Hinojosa-Huerta said. The United States did a study to divide the water from the Colorado River and, coincidentally, it was the 10 wettest years in the basin." Thus, a distribution was made on paper that included more water (16 percent) than there actually is. And then the reservoirs began to be built.

Treaties, dams — and then climate change

In 1936, the Hoover Dam was inaugurated, between Nevada and Arizona, which lowered the flow to 164 cubic meters per second for Mexico. In 1944, a bilateral treaty was signed that guaranteed Mexico about 1.8 million cubic meters of water per year, but most of it goes to agriculture.

The agreement did not consider the rights of the Cucapá people and their ancestral relationship with the river. But it affected their traditional ceremonies, causing a shortage of fruits and grains, and the trees and shrubs used to make houses, boats and clothing.

"Nobody asked us anything, at that time it was as if we did not exist," Guerra said. "There are many companies here that never lack water, one sees the fields of green vegetables and the rest, our land, it is desert."

Image: Abandoned jet skis in a vacant lot in the Mexicali Valley, Baja California, in April 2021.
Abandoned jet skis in a vacant lot in the Mexicali Valley, Baja California, in April 2021.Alejandro Cegarra

In 1966, the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona was erected, and the river's flow decreased to 8 cubic meters per second. But what no one seemed to count on, between treaties and dams, was climate change.

"In Mexicali, it has never rained," Hinojosa-Huerta said, "the flow that reaches the region and that supports agriculture comes from snowfall 2,600 kilometers [1,600 miles] in the Rockies."

It all depends on precipitation in Wyoming and Colorado, but since 2002 snowfall has been below average, depleting the river and resulting in a "desolating panorama," he said.

Mexico's Baja California and California share the same geography and climatic conditions. Years of warmer temperatures, a failed rainy season last summer and low snow cover have combined to cause the region's rivers to decline.

Image: The area near a reservoir in Baja California, Mexico, April 2021.
The area near a reservoir in Baja California, Mexico, in April 2021.Alejandro Cegarra

Hell on Earth

But heat also kills. In 2019 there were at least eight deaths in Mexicali associated with high temperatures; in 2020, they were 83.

"People cannot live with those temperatures, that is, people die", Zavala said, "although they are used to the heat, even small increases break the threshold for the human body to survive."

On Aug. 14, 2020, Mexicali registered 122 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking the record of 121 that dated from August 1981.

Froilán Meza Rivera, a veteran journalist and writer from northern Mexico, consulted the archives of the Secretariat of Hydraulic Resources. It appears that in July 1966, in Riíto, a Mexicali community, a thermometer reached an unprecedented figure of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. And that was its limit: the mercury rose to the top and could not measure any more.

It would be the highest figure in the world: according to the World Meteorological Organization, the highest recorded temperature is 134 degrees Fahrenheit on July 10, 1913, in California's Death Valley.

The region is exposed to the worst possible scenarios in terms of a climate emergency, according to Roberto Sánchez Rodríguez, an academic from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte. "Governments have mismanaged resources, and that is why there is less water available," he said.

The narcos also fish

Since 1993, the fishing territory of the Cucapá has been included in the Upper Gulf of California and the Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve, which has a surface area of ​​2.3 million acres. This protected area was created to preserve the flora and fauna, such as the vaquita porpoises and the totoaba, which are at the brink of extinction.

"We abide by the rules, we know that species have to be protected because we are an Indigenous people, we use the nets and equipment that the government asks of us and we do not go out when it's not our turn," said Rubén Flores, captain of a panga, a boat used for traditional fishing.

An earthquake in 2010 also affected fishing. "It left us huge cracks that got bigger, and that doesn't allow us to fish like before," said Hilda Hurtado Valenzuela, 68, president of the Sociedad Cooperativa Pueblo Indígena Cucapá, one of the associations that groups together the people who are still fishing.

"Now the ocean currents enter where the old banks of the river used to be, they damage it and we are left without part of our territory," said Hurtado, who said she was born on the banks of the Colorado River.

Image: Hilda Hurtado Valenzuela, 68 years old and president of the Sociedad Cooperativa Pueblo Ind?gena Cucap?, one of the associations that groups together people still engaged in fishing, in Baja California, Mexico, April 2021.
Hilda Hurtado Valenzuela, 68, president of the Sociedad Cooperativa Pueblo Indígena Cucapá, one of the associations that groups together people still engaged in fishing.Alejandro Cegarra

Sitting on a plastic chair near the patio of her home in El Indiviso, a semi-desert piece of land, she said she likes to get away from the sun. For a long time, she has not seen the sun as a source of life but as a tough enemy who takes out her tribe, destroys the river and forces them to forces them to do their chores and work at night during the harshest moments of summer.


"The heat here is unbearable, we have never experienced this. There are even people living on the streets who die because they cannot stand the temperatures," Valenzuela said. "And it also affects the animals because less water arrives from the river and the fish breed with the mixture of fresh water and salt, so there are fewer and fewer fish."

The townspeople insist that they do not fish the totoaba, whose swim bladder is considered a delicacy in the Asian market for its supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties (a kilo can cost $5,000 in Mexico, and when it reaches China it rises to $55,000 or $60,000).

But the intense demand leads to fishing with professional nets, thus also trapping the vaquitas and leaving them on the brink of extinction.

Various environmental and journalistic investigations have pointed to the Dragon Cartel, a criminal network with Mexican, American, Chinese and other intermediaries who conspire to exploit and fish the totoaba in that region.

Image: Ruben Flores, captain of one of the fishing boats of the Cucapa town, in El Zanjon, Baja California, April 2021.
Rubén Flores, captain of one of the fishing boats of the Cucapá town, in El Zanjón, Baja California.Alejandro Cegarra

Flores said that just by looking at the sky, he knows what the weather will be like. That's why he shakes his head disapprovingly every time he sees the relentless sun.

"Something strange is happening here. It is as if the sun lasts longer, so the fish do not like that heat. They are born less and weigh less." It used to take them two days to fish for curvina, now it takes them a whole week, he said, looking at the river.

The intense drought also has affected the fish's reproduction, so they must go further and further out, with poorly prepared boats, with small engines and without much fuel.

"We comply with everything, but the people of the surrounding towns also fish and don't (comply) —and many times we're punished for that, said Paco, a veteran fisherman with more than 25 years of experience.

"And we must also be careful because the narco is there, they follow our routes through the area and they fish in order to hide tons of drugs underneath. We tell the police, but nobody does anything," said Paco, whose last name is being withheld for fear of retaliation.

The United States issued a security alert in April for tourists and officials to take great precautions when traveling in and around the city of Mexicali and its rural area due to widespread cartel violence.

"We do not feel safe, we are exposed to everything that is happening because there is a lot of crime. We try to protect ourselves and always be on the lookout for a stranger, because you never know who can attack you," Laguna said, with fear showing on her face.

"I want the river to stay"

Image: A photograph of a Cucapa child, taken in 1900, exhibited at the Cucapa Community Museum, in Baja California, April 2021.
A photograph of a Cucapá child, taken in 1900, exhibited at the Cucapá Community Museum, in Baja California, in April 2021.

Lucia Laguna considers herself a guardian of the Cucapá, keeping alive their language, customs and traditional clothing to preserve them. Her memory is one of the most important reservoirs of the Cucapá past.

Kneeling on the banks of the Colorado River, she touches the dark water with special devotion while reciting an ancient song. Two little girls are with her.

"My tata [grandfather] fishes because without that we cannot eat. I too would like to be a fisherman, because I really like the river and being here," Marleny Sáenz, 10, said.

"I want the river to stay, to have our traditions," she said. "I like to sing because it is part of me, I feel very proud to be part of this town."

Image: Luc?a Laguna with two of her students who learn the traditions and songs of the Cucap? people, in Baja California, Mexico, April 2021.
Lucía Laguna with two of her students who learn the traditions and songs of the Cucapá people. Alejandro Cegarra

It is a ritual that they used to celebrate on the banks of the river. From time immemorial they burned the cachanilla, a wild plant with a fresh aroma, while chanting their songs so that the fishermen would be lucky in their long expeditions at sea.

"It is about opening paths, so that everything goes well," Laguna said.

"We are paying the consequences of the pollution of other people. The people of the cities have to understand that we are affected by what they do. They do not live alone in the world," she said sadly, touching the water and singing to the river.

A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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