In 2013, Enrique Peña Nieto’s government deregulated Mexico’s energy sector, opening it up to foreign investors for the first time 75 years. In what he called an “historic opportunity”, the Mexican President proclaimed “This profound reform can lift the standards of living for all Mexicans.”
But not everyone stands to see their quality of life materially improve from the deregulated sector. Such is the case for the Yaquí Peoples in Sonora state, Mexico, whose territory is currently home to an 84-kilometre stretch of natural gas pipeline.
The Aguaprieta (Agua Prieta) pipeline starts out in Arizona and stretches down 833km to Agua Prieta, in the northeastern corner of the Mexican state of Sonora—cutting through Yaqui territory along the way.
Once completed, the pipeline would also cross Yaqui River (Río Yaqui), the Yaqui’s main source of water.
More than a few Yaqui are adamant that they will see no benefits from the project. “The gas pipeline doesn’t help us, it only benefits businessmen, factory owners, but not the Yaqui” said Francisca Vásquez Molina, a Yaquí from the Loma de Bacúm community.
As with Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, the Aguaprieta project comes with its own share of risks.
In addition to the considerable environmental impact that stems from the pipeline’s construction, the high methane content of natural gas could bring on disaster. Rodrigo Gonzalez, natural resources and environmental impact expert, maintains that in the event of a gas explosion all human, plant and animal life within a one-kilometre radius surrounding the explosion would be lost. Anyone within the second kilometre would risk second and third-degree burns.
In the community of Loma de Bacúm, the gas pipeline is just 700 m from houses. In nearby Estación Oroz, it is 591m from a primary school.
Gonzalez has pointed out that another viable route for the pipeline was initially considered by the company that could have avoided Yaqui territory altogether. He suggests this route was ultimately rejected to save costs. “At the beginning of the project, two routes were mooted. That which didn’t cross indigenous territory cost 400 million pesos whilst that which puts Yaquí lives at risk costs 100 million pesos.”
IEnova, the company behind the pipeline, has repeatedly made assurances that all due safety procedures have been followed in construction and that the risk of accidents is minimal but this has not been enough to assuage the fear or anger of everyone opposing the gas pipeline.
In a public statement last year, the group Solidaridad Tribu Yaquí said, “This is a people that say no to a megaproject of death, dispossession and destruction[…]These rich men don’t care about the life of one, two, or three people, much less if they are indigenous… [they] don’t care if the Yaqui culture is exterminated. What is important to these rich men is to conclude the work and pocket all the profits to be brought about by the appropriation of the Yaqui territory.”
Not all Yaquí communities are united in rejecting the gas pipeline, however. Indeed, of the eight Yaquí communities consulted, only the Loma de Bacúm community refused to give their consent to the project. The other seven communities chose to accept the compensation offered. This decision has sadly resulted in tensions between Loma de Bacúm and the other communities. Things reached a critical point in October 2016 where one Yaquí member died and thirty injured in a confrontation involving different Yaquí communities.
Seemingly alone in their struggle, the Loma de Bacúm Yaquí have consistently resisted the Aguaprieta pipeline. In April 2016, they successfully fought to be granted a moratorium on its construction. When, in 2017, it became clear that IEnova, would carry on regardless and that neither federal nor state or authorities could be counted on for support, the Loma de Bacúm community resorted to more drastic measures. On May 21, community members removed cables which had been laid down in the preliminary stages of the gas pipeline construction. Then, after another court ruling that IEnova should remove all infrastructure within 24 hours fell on deaf ears, on August 22 the community went ahead and cut a 25-foot section out of the live gas pipeline, despite the grave risks they ran in doing so. As a result of the community’s actions in August, IEnova was forced to cut off the gas flow in the area and it has remained out of service ever since.
The community has been accused of sabotage and vandalism to IEnova property but the community maintains that IEnova, a company owned by US-based Sempra Energy, is trespassing on their land and holds them responsible for all damage brought on by the construction of a pipeline to which they never consented.
In a video shared on Facebook, one community member explained “If you want to have us killed, there’s no problem. We’re not scared of that… We’re not scared of this company nor this project…All that the Yaquí tribe is asking for is that the law is upheld and that federal and state government respect it. If you want to have us killed, go ahead there’s no problem but we’ll defend our land and that is our right.”
In September 2017, a judge once again found in favour of the Yaquí community ruling that IEnova did not have the right to enter Yaquí territory to repair the gas pipeline. Whether this latest ruling will carry more weight with both local and state authorities than the previous ones remains to be seen.
For the time-being, the stand-off looks set to continue. Loma de Bacúm has made it clear it will not back down until the pipeline is removed or rerouted. “If they want to build a pipeline. that’s fine”, said community spokesperson Guadalupe Flores, “but it will not pass through here.” At the same time, IEnova refuses to accept that one small community can curtail their plan to use Yaquí territory in order to provide electricity to the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), the country’s largest electric utility. Nor does it seem willing to brazenly defy the court’s latest ruling, at least for the time-being.
The struggle in Loma de Bacúm echoes loudly among all Indigenous Peoples who are grappling to make sure the resource sector cannot run roughshod over human rights and environmental concerns; but it is perhaps loudest in Mexico. Since the new energy policy went into effect, four other pipeline projects have been suspended. Looking ahead, a “shale offensive” is now set to begin later this year should the PRI retain power in July, leading to a proliferation of similar conflicts.