Faculty Voices

Episode 15: Beyond Water Rights in Mexico

Episode Summary

Beer, water, local governments, and worldwide climate change are all strands that Diane Davis, the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, brings together in her latest project in five Mexican villages.

Episode Notes





Episode Transcription

June:  Diane E. Davis is the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Welcome, Diane.

Diane E. Davis:  Hi, June. Nice to see you again.

June:  I hear you've been working on a new project about Mexico. Could you tell us a bit about it?

Diane E. Davis:  Sure, I'd be happy to. As you know, June, I've spent much of my life studying urbanization problems in huge cities like Mexico City or Guadalajara or Monterey, but currently I'm working on a project in a small town in the state of Hidalgo, which is in the Central Valley of Mexico, right on the other side of the volcanoes that surround Mexico City. The town is called Apan, and I'm looking at questions of climate change, drought, and problems of livelihoods of small farmers who are living in a region where water is drying up and they need to grow barley.

June: Wow! That's really interesting. Could you tell me some more?

Diane E. Davis:   Well, I mentioned the barley dimension of this project because this is focused on a struggle. Actually, there's a case in the Mexican Supreme Court about a controversy related to the state of Hidalgo's granting permission to the Modelo group or Corona brewery to use water from their aquifer to process beer in Apan. What we're looking at are the ways in which their use of water disadvantages that the collective farmers, ejidatarios, as anybody who knows Mexico knows that's what they're called, how the project disadvantages these small farmers.

June:  That's interesting. You're saying that beer is causing water shortage?

Diane E. Davis: Well, it's one of these, what we call in my field, wicked problems. A lot of water is used to process barley to create beer. And as anybody who knows Mexico, Mexican beer is in great demand around the world, even in Mexico, even in the United States. But it is one of these consumer goods that uses a lot of water. To me, the dilemma that we're really trying to unpack is the fact that the farmers in the region where this plant is located produce barley for the brewery, but they also need water, because they need water to grow barley.

Yet the industrialists need water to process the barley to make the beer. And this is happening in a context of ongoing drought and climate change. The issue is how is this arrangement going to continue in a way that's good for everybody? We're motivated, in part, and I'll tell you more about the team involved in the project if you'd like, but let me just say we're motivated in part by looking for a, I don't want to say solution, but a pathway that gets the best outcome.

Maybe we think about it in terms of Pareto optimality, the best outcome for all the stakeholders involved in growing agriculture and processing agricultural goods to create livelihoods.

June:   Mm-hmm (affirmative). You mentioned that you're working with a team. Do you want to tell us a bit about that?

Diane E. Davis:     Sure. I actually am involved with a team of landscape architects and urbanists who are located in a variety of places in Mexico City. Originally the office was in Mexico City, but the lead landscape architect, Gustavo Madrid, is actually from Apan. He comes from a family of ejidatarios. He's a fascinating guy. You should interview him also. He used to be the head of the Casa de Cultura in Oaxaca. He has a PhD in landscape architecture from Barcelona, so he's a global actor.

He was supported by the Harp Helú Foundation in Oaxaca, and he started working on this project with me and a colleague of mine at MIT and several other lawyers, as well as urbanists in Mexico. We have received a huge grant. We won it in a competition from the UK government called the UK PACT for Mexico that supports the project.

It's a, I would say, a global initiative that involves several academics from the United States who worked on Mexico, who worked on landscape issues, or who work on governance issues, which is my dimension, and several important Mexican thinkers and lawyers, as well as landscape architects and urbanists.

June:  Just knowing you and knowing the fact that you tend to be a collaborative person, I imagine that you have some partners here at Harvard too?

Diane E. Davis:   Samuel Tabory, who's writing his dissertation with me, who's got a master's degree in Latin American studies and urban planning and is fluent in Spanish and spent the summer in Apan working with me. I have another quasi-colleague. When I say quasi, she's a faculty at MIT and she worked with me. We talked together about the project that we did on Oaxaca. If you remember, we did a project called Beyond Reconstruction, where we looked at- and something dear to your heart, because I know you've written about it in your own book, June. But her name is Lorena Bello Gomez. She's originally from Spain and she's teaching a studio this semester at the GSD (Harvard Graduate School of Design) focused on this project. So I have collaborators on the Harvard campus, but also in Mexico.

June:  Oh, that's wonderful. So you're really stretching out your tentacles here. I understand though that Mexico ranks high, at least on paper, in water management. So what's going on here? Is there a contradiction between what's written down on the books and what's actually happening?

Diane E. Davis:   Yeah. Great question. I mean, I think there are a couple of ways to think about that. We just had a report from one of the members of our team that's working with a lawyer who used to work for the Supreme Court. Looking a little bit more at the water regulations in the state of Hidalgo, trying to understand a little bit about how water is managed, what the oversight of that is. A lot of that is established in the constitution. And one of the findings that she just shared with us yesterday in a group meeting in a PowerPoint was the ways in which there are good water laws, but they're not all there. Some have been violated. As you know, I work on issues of impunity in Mexico, not with respect to water per se, but I think it's not a surprise. And it's not only a problem in Mexico that there are often laws on the books that are not pursued or followed.

June:  What sort of laws are we talking about, Diane?

Diane E. Davis:  Some of them have to do with who has access to water. For example, and I'm not going to go into great detail about the Supreme Court case, but I'm very happy to share some links for you if any of your listeners are interested in looking more deeply at this project. But so for example, the original permit to use water out of the aquifer in Apan. There is a series of aquifers that are storing water. And again, they've been depleted over time. It's not just the beer industry that's depleting it. Farmers are depleting it and other industrials are depleting it.

But in this particular case, there was permission given to a BMW factory originally. And then they decided they weren't going to build the factory and then the permit. And those permits have to be approved by Conagua, so there is a federal level, and I want to come back to that in a second. It was approved for one usage and then the usage was transferred to another industry, so there's a question. I'm not saying it's illegal, but there is a question about the legality of moving approval that was given for one use to another.

June:  Mmm-hmm (affirmative). So are we basically talking about the facts that water use concessions are being given to private industrial actors in zones designated by prior decrease as exclusively for domestic public use or are there other issues at play?

Diane E. Davis:   Well, that's a really interesting formulation of the problem. I think there are a multiplicity of issues at play, and I'm going to come back to that in just a second, June. But let me just also say one other dimension and answer to your prior question, and that is okay. There's water law and there's the constitution and there's a national agency, Conagua, that is kind of committed to dealing with water. And you're right. There have been a lot of major advances in Mexico with respect to water. Let's not also forget that Mexico is a federal system and the relationship between the central government or the national government, the federal government, and the states has its own history and its own relationship. So one of the issues at stake here is to what extent are decisions that are made on the federal level, either circumvented or maybe modified for the interests of stakeholders in the state by the government of Hildago.

 So I think that the complexity of dealing with something like water, which if anybody knows, it makes constitution. Anything under the ground, the nation owns, so that's oil but that's also water. On the other hand, there's above water rights like rivers, and those are governed by the state. So the domain of water governance is much more complex often than people realize. So I do want to say that that's a part of the issue that's at stake.

June:  So you've really had to cope with very different levels with this project, but I'm just wondering how in Mexico, water is being situated. And that throughout Latin America, there are conflicting visions about whether water is a private commodity or whether it's a public good. And you started to explain what the case is in Mexico. Has there been any transformation of this vision under the government of AMLO, or do you see this vision changing over time?

Diane E. Davis:   Well, I think what you've just underscored is the importance of natural resources like water to understanding governance and the future of cities, regions, nations, and the planet. So I do want to take a step back and say one of the reasons that I'm involved in this project, which may not be obvious to you or even other people listening in, since I am an urban sociologist and I studied governance, kind of the political economy of territorial governance. This becomes a really interesting question about territorial governments who has the right to make decisions about water when it's a national resource, but there are actually very local issues that stay including the livelihoods of the ejidatarios in this particular valley. Then there's, of course, the national and the state desire to bring private investors in to create jobs. So the beer industry will argue we're creating jobs.

So there's kind of a trade off or a balance or there's a kind of tension between both the city and the state and the nation, kind of achieving its development aims with doing so in the context where water is a scarce commodity. That one of the things that I'm doing, because I'm not a landscape architect, I teach governance questions in my classes at the GSD, is to think about what is the most appropriate form and function of water governance in order to deal with these types of problems. Just getting back to the issue of whether the private firms come in. It has been a huge issue all over Latin America, not just Mexico. The issue of private companies coming in and buying up water resources and distributing them. That's true for urban consumption.

I haven't studied as much in the rural areas and this project is more in the rural areas, but that's a huge question and it has been a big issue in Mexico. The issue of who owns water in Mexico City. A lot of the water is piped water, privately distributed because the aquifers are diminishing because of the growth of the city and climate change. But a lot of the work has looked mostly at urban consumption, and I think that what we're trying to do is look as much at industrial production. That brings us back to the will of private industries. However, we have to underscore that this firm is a Mexican firm.

It does have a global partner. It's owned by InBev. But the history of brewing in Mexico isn't one of the success stories of industrial development in Mexico. And these actors feel like they have a right to the national water, just the way the ejidatarios feel like they have a right to the national water. So it's really a dilemma of how do we address the kind of rights and responsibilities of all the actors whose livelihoods are contingent on water consumption.

June:  So within this project, do you see yourselves as being arbiters or neutral observers? Or what are you doing here?

Diane E. Davis:  Yeah. Actually, that's interesting you asked me that question. The other day, I was talking to one of my former students. I have this class called Urban Governance and the Politics of Planning and the Global South. And I mentioned to students that the role of planners is to be the mediator of the mediators. So I keep that in mind when I think I obviously am a scholar, but I'm teaching urban planning and teaching our students of politics. How do we create mechanisms that will produce good outcomes when you have conflicts between different actors? That's what I'm doing in this project. So what we are trying to do, the grounded research work, that's a huge research project that we're involved in, is both working with local communities and meeting with ejidos and other stakeholders. So getting their input on how they understand their rights, what they would like to see with water.

 So we're listening to people and learning from them, how they use water, how they make decisions about how to produce barley, and whether they reduce their practices or change their practices, because of either what the industry is doing with buying their barley or their own understanding of nature. So that's one thing, but what we're also trying to do is come up with some possible new governance mechanisms that could be used to mediate the conflict. So we're not top-down actors trying to solve the problem. We're thinking about mechanisms that can be used by all the stakeholders involved to solve the problem.

June: Could you explain what you mean by these government mechanisms?

Diane E. Davis:   Yeah. Well, I'll say a little bit more about the way we've been thinking about it. We're in the first stages of thinking about the governance responses because the first nine months of the project have been really just documenting the issues with water consumption and ways to kind of push back at drought.

But we're thinking, getting back to the governance structure of Mexico as a federal system. So in Mexico, municipalities have the power to give water permits. They have to get approval from the state and the federal government as well. Just like they have the power to approve housing production, they approved land-use changes at the local scale. But we have, in this region that we're working in, there are five municipalities using the same aquifer. So already you understand that what one municipality might want to do with the water may not be what another municipality wants to do with the water. They might have more farmers or more industrials in a municipality. So one way to think about this is what is the territorial scale of the governance mechanism that should be used to deal with questions of water? It may not be the traditional ones that exist in Mexico, which are the municipality, then the state, which is much larger than the aquifer. And then there's the nation.

So one of the things that we're trying to think about is the possibility of an ecological territory, maybe structured around an aquifer and then seek about creating an assembly or an organization or possibilities for stakeholders in that territorial location to get together and make claims and organize and share knowledge about what they need and what they don't need. So that's a kind of domain that we're working and thinking. And we still have not figured out what would be the juridical or actually social or political status of this new governance mechanism based on ecology. But we believe that with this project, it's not only important for Mexico. This is going to be a challenge for many places as the climate is changing rapidly, and we have either too much water or not enough water. That's just one example that we may not be able to just take a map and draw territorial jurisdictions for decision-making based on kind of a flat 2D map. We may have to understand the ecology of these places to make good decisions.

June:  But you don't think there's going to be a lot of pushback by municipalities who will be giving up some of their power?

Diane E. Davis:   Well, there probably will be pushback, but in every major transformation of governance there's always pushback. One of the things that we're trying to do is think about ways in which a new mechanism, known as we're calling it a mechanism at the moment, how does that interface with those other existing territorial jurisdictions and how does it solve problems for them that their territorial jurisdiction cannot solve? It's not intended to just, by fiat, replace other jurisdictions, but it's intended to deal with problems that those jurisdictions have a hard time addressing. That doesn't mean it will be conflict-free, but right now we're already in a situation with tension and conflict and people are suffering.

June: You mentioned drought and the fact that sometimes there's too much water, sometimes there's not enough water. Could you kind of situate climate change in the context of this project?

Diane E. Davis:  Well, before I situate this project in the context of flat climate change, let me situate this particular project in the context of Mexico and the Mexico City basin, which I've spent most of my life studying because I wrote a book on the growth of Mexico City. So this aquifer is one of a series of three interconnected aquifers that go from Hidalgo all the way over the volcanoes into Xochimilco, which is a UNESCO historic site. And there's a great new book on struggles over water in Xochimilco. We have seen the problems of the growth of Mexico City as destroying the livelihoods in Xochimilco. So this problem that we're looking at in yet another territory of the larger center of Mexico City is absolutely central to the history of Mexico. Mexico City was built on lakes anyway.

So the kind of loss of water in a way is a historic issue that links this contemporary project to the past. So I just want to put that on the table, which is another reason I'm very interested in that. It's not just about a future dilemma. It's about linking changes in the present to the past, the identity, to culture, to history of the past and of this region. Hidalgo is a super interesting region in the history of the revolution, but that's another matter.

June:   Well, why don't you just fill us in just a teeny tiny little bit.

Diane E. Davis: Now, I just want to say it's named after, well, not just the revolution, but the independence of Mexico. So the state of Hidalgo is named after Miguel Hidalgo. It was a place where a lot of ejidatarios were originally developed after the growth of haciendas that emerged after independence. And those haciendas then were the subject of struggle during the revolution, which is one reason why when Mexico started to implement its constitutional protections for collective farmers, this was a region that had some very strong and powerful ejidos. Apan happens to be the world capital of pulque. And June, you know something about pulque, which is kind of, I would say, the pre-yuppie predecessor to mezcal. But what's interesting about pulque, it links to the history of haciendas, is this was something that was grown. Pulque was grown from the maguey plants, so a desert plant. So this is a region, even though all of Mexico City was built on water, a lot of the ejidatarios planted and produced their livelihood through maguey.

With a brewery growing it's demands, these ejidatarios who made this place the world capital pulque early in the century, tore out maguey plants and planted barley. Barley uses up much more water than a cactus like maguey. So there's an interesting history of what used to be there coming, going back to the kind of independence and pre-revolutionary period that in some ways needs to be recovered. I'm not talking about the politics of pre-revolutionary, but the agronomy of the pre-revolutionary period needs to be recovered in order to save the livelihood of these farmers.

June:   So you're saying we should go back to drinking mezcal?

Diane E. Davis:    Maybe. Our pulque, which somebody told us went down there, that pulque the kind of Mexican version of kombucha, because it's a fermented drink. It's not so highly processed and globally consumed as mezcal. It's a more indigenous, shall we say, locally produced drink that doesn't have the shelf life. So, anyway, I know that's a little bit of a side narrative, but it just shows you how much I've loved being involved in this project which allows me to think about governance, but it's also bringing me full speed into thinking about climate change and the relationship of climate change to territorial and political transformations and social transformations in a part of Mexico that I had long studied.

June:  Interesting. Do you find the transition from working in a megacity to a group of little towns difficult?

Diane E. Davis:   Well, it opens up to me in my own experience. Something that I knew from textbooks, because obviously understanding the rural-urban relationships, political, and otherwise is an important part of understanding urbanization. People come into a city because there are no jobs in the countryside. So thinking about rural development has always been kind of sitting on the outside of my work. And now I'm basically, as my great friend, Jeff Rubin, who wrote Decentering the Regime, that great book on Oaxaca, I'm kind of decentering the way I think about urbanization by looking at it from the periphery of the rural area into the urbanization. Because remember, this is just on the other side of Mexico City. Apan is about an hour and a half bus ride from Mexico City.

June:    Ah, I didn't realize it was so close.

Diane E. Davis:  Yes. It's very close.

June:   I know that very often, you and your projects bring students down to where you're researching. Do you have any plans for a design studio or any projects like that?

Diane E. Davis:  Well, we were in discussions with the German Development Agency to do another round of... I mentioned earlier that there is a design studio this fall it's called Agua Incognita and it's looking at gray, green infrastructural innovations for Apan. It's taught in the landscape architecture program and it's got mostly, landscape architects. Although there are a few urban planners involved. We were thinking about doing another studio with other support that looked a little more at the urban planning and then legal dimensions. Right now, that's a bit on hold in part because at Harvard we're not allowed to, even the studio. I don't know what's happening in all those schools, but at the GSD, we have no studio trips this fall because of the pandemic.

 So maybe when things open up, we'll have another opportunity to go down there and do a studio. But if not, I will continue to work with a group of students on these questions of sustainability and whether it's related to water or carbon emissions. Other sets of questions that thinking about climate change puts on the agenda for an urbanist, I'm all committed to looking at in greater detail in the conducts of Mexico over the next couple of years.

June:   Interesting. I know that in other projects you've done in Mexico, particularly your post-earthquake reconstruction work, you've made a super effort to bring in women and other marginalized communities. How does this play out with the ejidos with your new project and even with this concept of the ecological territories?

Diane E. Davis:   Oh, great question. Well, one of the things that is probably no surprise, what we've learned so much is when we hold meetings with the ejidatarios it tends to be the men that come to the meetings more than the women. I mean, there are a variety of reasons for that. There are hierarchical structures in the ejido governance units themselves, but also women are super busy. We have these meetings on Saturdays, et cetera. But we're making a great effort to involve women in the conversation about water. Let's not forget that water, if water is used, if scarce water is used to grow barley, which the family or the household needs and the ejido might need to kind of reproduce itself. That also has some bearing on what water is used for cooking, cleaning, consumption. So understanding if there are even competing uses within households in the ejido will be an important part of this project.

So how do we balance these different kinds of scales of competing uses? The other thing I would mention with respect to gender is I've just read something the other day about Mexico City. They have a new program that it's built around rainwater, harvesting, and other water management practices that they focused on women primarily. And unless you saw this, it came out in maybe La Jornada now that I read a link to it just in the last few days. But I do think that looking at climate change through the lens of targeted users including the gender question is very important. Because yes, when we think about households, we have to look at all the actors involved.

 But I would also say that this project gives me an opportunity to understand a little bit more of the historical and the cultural logic of ejido structures. So not all of the ejidos are what we call indigenous populations in Mexico, but many are. And so that's another way to understand. So the kind of relationship to the physical territory that indigenous peoples all over the Americas have that often the Western earlier urbanized classes and constituents don't have. So I'll have to keep you posted on what I learned about that now, but it's definitely on the agenda.

June: Thank you very much. You've done a lot of work on police violence in Mexico, and it would seem to me, this project is taking you in a completely different direction. Do you see connections between your projects?

Diane E. Davis:  One thing I would say that as you know, I run a small initiative of the GSD called the Mexican Cities Initiative, and we give small amounts of money to students at the GSD to do summer research on any topic that's related to urbanism and particular risk and resilience within urbanism. It was just a general framing of trying to kind of focus the student projects. And this summer, I supported a student who was living and working in Celaya in Guanajuato. He was examining huachicoleo, in other words, the stealing of oil and how oil is stolen and then resold. And believe it or not, I think, is related to the climate change and the water, because we may be in a situation where we're going to start looking at the ways in which is this water being distributed by the law, or is it being so-called "stolen"? or re-sold in more informal ways than the law is suggesting.

So that's one parallel between looking at impunity is how the informal uses of natural resources, whether it's water or oil or informal buying and selling of them is a part and parcel of the problem and then maybe exacerbated by climate change. So I do think there's a parallel there. The second parallel, and I won't say much more, but I'll just stop, is I've been doing a lot of work for this book. This is a historical analysis of the origins of police impunity and corruption in Mexico that traces its origin to the 1910 revolution. I won't give away all the details, but it's not just a contemporary view of the problems of violence and corruption. We all know narco-trafficking, corruption, violence in Mexico is part and parcel of dirty deals made between police and criminals, right? What I've been learning in the development of the historical origins of this problem is looking a little bit more at the Mexican constitution.

And in particular, in 1917, some of the articles in the constitution dealt with issues of policing, trying to change conflicts between police and military. Dealing with problems of police place impunity, which at that time was more filtered through the lens of are police supporting revolutionaries or counter-revolutionaries? The last is that what the constitution has to say about water in ejidos has a lot to do with the present. And that's one element I'm going to look at a little bit more. Well, we're concerned with the present of Apan and Hidalgo and how to create livelihoods and solve this water conflict. Help stakeholders have the tools to kind of negotiate and talk and discuss and solve the problems through governance mechanisms on their own. But I am going to be spending a lot of attention to the ways in which this very incredible constitution that came out of one of the 20th century's most important revolutions may have both enabled, but also constrained problem-solving in the 21st century. And that will be one element that I'll be looking at overtime.

June: Thank you. I've asked you an awful lot of questions. Is there something that I've forgotten that you would like to answer?

Diane E. Davis:  I hope that anybody who listens to this podcast would understand the ways in which work that's focused on the governance of territory, whether it's a city or a countryside, is totally connected to everything that we do at Harvard. History, politics, sociology, anthropology, whether it's the law school, the Kennedy School. So that's one of the things I love about being at DRCLAS is being able to develop projects that I hope will have resonance for my colleagues and students across Harvard.

June:  Thank you. You've been listening to Diane E. Davis. She's the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Thank you, Diane.

Diane E. Davis:  Thank you, June.