The rights of cenotes: The last attempt to rescue Mexico’s sacred sites

Mayan Indians from the Yucatan Peninsula are demanding that the bodies of water be recognized as subjects of law to prevent further pollution

The Balmil cenote, in Homún, Yucatán.
The Balmil cenote, in Homún, Yucatán.INDIGNACIÓN

When José May decided to begin accepting tourists at the cenote on his land in Homún, Yucatán, he first had to ask permission with a ceremony. His family cooked for several days to prepare. They summoned the jmeen, the Mayan priest, to officiate the ritual. After sacrificing chickens and installing an altar, the jmeen pronounced the words that the Mayans have repeated for generations over the sacred bodies of water. “We have the belief that we can get sick by invading space that does not belong to us. There is an energy inside the cenote that tells you that there is an owner. That is why we always ask permission to work it,” May says. And if humans have to request permission to drink its water, and for tourists to visit it and swim, why shouldn’t the cenote have its own rights–like not being polluted?

The question resonates with May, one of the indigenous people of Homún who is fighting for the Cenotes Ring of Yucatan to be recognized by the Mexican authorities as a subject of law. It is the latest legal offensive undertaken by the indigenous group Kana’an Ts’onot which translates as Guardians of the Cenotes, to try to stop the underground lakes’ rapid deterioration. The causes of pollution are multiplying. In addition to the longtime threats, such as hotel developments or the lack of wastewater treatment, new contaminants have appeared, such as soybean monocultures, the indiscriminate use of pesticides, the proliferation of pig farms and, more recently, the Maya Train megaproject. In a region where the karstic soil, made of porous limestone, allows most of the surface waste to pass into the aquifer, the factors are a perfect storm.

The Guardians of the Cenotes sent a letter of demands to president Andrés Manuel López Obrador last February. The letter was also addressed to local and state authorities and the federal secretariats in charge of ensuring the environment and water quality. Only the latter, the National Water Commission, has responded to the letter three months later. Lourdes Medina, a lawyer with the NGO Indignación, which has accompanied the indigenous group in the process, explains that the authorities are obliged to respond to this type of request. Their failure to respond is a “de facto denial.” So the group has taken the next step: preparing an injunction that they will present later this month in federal court in the city of Mérida.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of cases that have recognized the rights of nature in other parts of the world, including the Mar Menor in Spain and the Atrato River in Colombia. The key to this kind of initiative, explains Medina, is that “they give nature legal status, which means that its rights can be defended directly in a court of law.” Although the injunction is “ecocentric” – that is, it focuses on the importance of cenotes beyond the benefits they offer people–the figure of the “guardian” is key: there must be a group responsible for the ecosystem’s interests. José May translates those legal terms into his own words: “The cenote cannot speak. It cannot say anything. We have to speak for it.”

And they already have done so. His organization was born in Homún when they rejected a 49,000-pig industrial farm intended to be installed in their territory in 2017. A year later, the movement managed to end the project, thanks to an injunction filed by six children from the community who alleged, through their mothers, that it would violate their right to a healthy environment, to a dignified life, to their right to water, to development and to their autonomy as indigenous Mayan people. The judge agreed with them. The case reached the Supreme Court of Justice, which ratified the decision to suspend the project until the trial is resolved, but the company continues to try to reverse the decision.

The case led other communities in the Yucatan Peninsula to rise up against the pig farms. Over 20 communities have begun litigation, according to the lawyer from Indignación. But granting legal personhood to the Ring of Cenotes in Yucatan could unify the different efforts for its protection, leading to more efficient measures, such as policies for the treatment of wastewater or improvement in drainage, says Lourdes Medina. “The requirement is that the authorities take certain measures for their protection, not just that they issue a declaration of recognition. The issue is what measures are going to be implemented to be able to protect them, conserve them, even restore them.”

The cenotes of Yucatan are becoming more polluted every day. The Foundation for Due Process, a Washington-based NGO that has also accompanied the Homún community in their struggle, published in June last year an extensive report entitled “Contamination of the Maya Aquifer,” which reveals concerning data about the enormous reserve of fresh water known as “the cistern of Mexico.” The study reports “high concentrations of heptachlor, lindane, endosulfan and DDT,” pesticides classified as potentially dangerous, in the municipalities of the Ring of the Cenotes of Yucatan, including Homún. “These factors may explain why, in the last 15 years, the state of Yucatan has presented a high prevalence of deaths in women caused by cervical-uterine cancer, breast cancer, as well as a high prevalence of congenital malformations and fetal and child mortality,” the report says.

30% of the rural population of Yucatan drinks water from contaminated wells or cenotes, and only 4.2% of wastewater is treated in the state. It is a disaster waiting to happen. Now, Lourdes Medina, the legal team of Indignación and the Guardians of the Cenotes are working to collect all possible evidence of the pollution’s environmental and social impact, in order to convince the judges to recognize their rights. If achieved, the recognition would be a new milestone on the road to granting legal personhood to nature in Mexico, where small steps have already been taken in that direction. The idea has already been incorporated into the constitutions of Mexico City and the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, although no particular ecosystem has yet been recognized as a subject of law in the country.

The Ring of the Cenotes of Yucatan would be a paradigmatic case. Tes ecosystem, located in the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula and designated as a Geohydrological Reserve and Ramsar site, supplies 42% of the volume of water in the state of Yucatan and 19% of the total volume of the peninsula. In addition, its underground lakes, known throughout the world for their crystal-clear waters, provide the main livelihood for hundreds of families who, like José May’s, work with them sustainably. “Our grandparents have told us that they are sacred and we have to be very careful with them,” he says. “If we hadn’t faced this farm problem like in many municipalities, the businessmen would have done what they wanted.” With their new legal offensive, they have made it clear that their fight is not going to stop.

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