Written by Sylvia Rodríguez
Faced with too little water to irrigate as usual this spring, many acequia officers are currently holding stream wide meetings to talk about how to share and manage the shortages. This is done according to local custom. Traditional acequia governance is geared to accommodate conditions ranging from the abundance of water to extreme scarcity. Within a single acequia system or association, the Mayordomo allocates water to parciantes in good standing according to principles of equity, proportion, and need. Within a stream system, the river is shared among upstream and downstream acequias according to principles of need and equity as well as a customary proportional or rotational procedure for dividing the water (repartimiento). Such customary agreements have been worked out over generations of recurrent negotiation between neighbors under fluctuating “normal,” plentiful, and adverse conditions. Each is tailored to its own particular history and place. Some ultimately achieve the status of legal decrees while others may remain unwritten but are nonetheless clearly understood by all who inherit and observe them.
For example, in times of abundant or average flow, some acequias adhere to a proportional division of a stream. But when the flow is low, upstream acequias may agree to close their headgates for a designated period of time so that the water can reach those lower on the stream. Parciantes may petition their mayordomo for an auxilio or special dispensation of water for a few hours to water livestock or a small kitchen garden that puts food on their table. There are times, however, when there is too little water in a stream to even reach the headgate. This can happen late in a normal irrigation season, or early on in a drought year such as 1996 or 2018. Preparing for the worst, yet ever hopeful for better times to come, acequia farmer-ranchers may decide to buy less seed, plant less acreage, and sell or butcher livestock during an especially difficult year. Unable to irrigate, resourceful parciantes will instead focus their energies on repairs to headgates, ditches, and desagües, and on clearing property of brush that can fuel wildfire. They can revise or fine-tune their Bylaws to include protective provisions for water banking and that empower commissions to evaluate proposed water right transfers.
Drought tests the integrity and resilience of an acequia community. Acequia farming, management, and governance depend on a combination of subsistence practices as well as principles, values, and attitudes that some scholars call a moral economy. The core principles of the acequia moral economy include reciprocity, mutualism, confianza (trust), and respeto (respect). How well an acequia fares in times of drought depends also on the character, dedication, and personal example of individual officers and parciantes.
onatella Davanzo, Digitally Altered
Acequias have proven a resilient and sustainable system for managing water as a commons during four centuries of adaptation to New Mexico’s unforgiving, semi-arid environment. But today, in addition to the impacts of economic, social, and political forces that escalated during the twentieth century, these small-scale farmer-managed irrigation systems are challenged also by climate change. Scientists and our own perceptions confirm that climate change is upon us. Climatologists’ broad consensus holds that the US Southwest is undergoing not just periodic drought punctuated by unpredictable patterns of precipitation, but an overall process of aridification. No one knows for sure what the future will hold, either for traditional land-based agrarian or concentrated urban populations.
The time has come when we must ask ourselves what practices, values, habits, and policies are more likely to sustain future generations under conditions of increasing pressure on limited resources, especially water. Will public policy favor the privileging of individual advantage over public welfare, harnessing itself to a state-sanctioned engine of continuous growth for private economic profit? Will a top-down, zero-sum game of prior rights to a monetized vital resource totally supplant a moral economy of shared shortages, reciprocity, mutual commitment, and living within our means? Or will the time-tested lessons and deeper wisdom of acequia governance help to illuminate a viable path through the coming uncertain decades?
Sylvia is professor emerita of anthropology and former director of the Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies at the University of New Mexico. Her research and publications have focused on interethnic relations in the Upper Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico and the cultural impact of tourism, identity, and the conflict over land and water. She sits on the board of the Taos Valley Acequia Association and is a commissioner on Acequia de San Antonio de Valdez while conducting research on acequia matters and the politics and anthropology of water. Her publications include prize-winning book Acequia: Water Sharing, Sanctity, and Place.
By Emily Arasim, NMAA Farm Apprentice
The practice of saving and passing down seeds from hand to hand, amongst families and neighbors, has been maintained for countless generations amongst New Mexico’s Indigenous and traditional acequia farming communities.
Over time – economic, social, and other changes at the state and global level have pressured farmers to stop saving their own seeds; and have in many places resulted in fewer exchanges of diversity, knowledge, stories, and skills between elder and younger generations.
However here in New Mexico, roots run deep, and many have quietly held tight to treasured varieties and know-how.
As we look towards a year of stress on our watersheds and acequia systems, it could not be more clear why we need to continue to protect, save, and share local, traditional seeds. Traditional seeds – such as our many place-based types of maíz, habas, beans, sunflowers, and chiles – remember, and grow stronger and more resilient with every year of good care, as they adapt to specific local soils, waters and unpredictable weather conditions.
Saving our own seeds can also reduce yearly farm costs, and bring us the best health and happiness, as we select and save what tastes and works best for our families, businesses and diverse cultural uses.
In case you need a refresher as we prepare for planting – in case you don’t have abuelos or neighbors to advise you – in case you have never tried your hand at saving seeds before – here are a few tips for the year.
- The best seeds are local seeds from fellow farmers and seed exchanges (such as Owingeh Ta in April!). If you need to buy from companies to get started – open pollinated and organic are important terms to look for, and you can also search for traditional NM varieties in several catalogues.
- To maintain the strength of a seed, it is important to grow out at least a small group of the same variety (not just one plant!), and at the end of the year, mix together the seeds from as many individuals as possible. This ensures good diversity for re-planting next year.
- If you are growing multiple varieties of the same crop (such as two different types of squash), and you don’t want them to cross-pollinate – try keeping space between varieties, planting varieties so they flower at different times, and/or planting hedgerows, such as sunflowers, in between varieties.
- Seeds like to mature on the plant and/or in their pods or fruits for as long as possible, before being harvested and laid to dry in an area with shade and good air-flow. Traditional corn braids and chile ristras are both beautiful and functional ways to dry and save seeds long-term.
- After drying, it is important to clean out excess soil and leaf matter, which can cause mold when seeds are stored. Using screens or kitchen strainers will do the trick, or try the wind or a small fan to blow away debris.
- Glass jars are ideal storage containers for keeping moisture and pests out! Cloth sacks, paper bags, envelopes, baskets, clay vessels and metal cans also work – just try to avoid plastic.
- Seeds are happy stored in a cool, dry place – and can last for many years (or even decades or hundreds of years) under optimal conditions. Lucky for New Mexicans, most adobe homes are naturally perfect!
- Remember to label your seeds with as much information as possible – What is it called? What year was it last grown and where? What were the growing conditions, and what was learned about this variety? Who gave you the original seed? What is the origin story or history of the seed? What is its history within your family or community? What are favorite ways to enjoy eating or making medicine with it?
- If you have old seeds and are not sure if they’re still good for planting – a germination test can help check before spending time and energy in the field. Simply fold a paper towel in half a few times; lay out a row of seeds on the towel and fold them in; label the outside (seed name, date, total number of seeds); thoroughly wet with a spray bottle; put in a plastic baggie; seal it closed; and place in a warm place. After a week or so, carefully open up the towel and check out your (hopefully!) sprouted seeds. You can count the number of sprouts, and divide this by the total number of seeds to find your germination rate (15 sprouted / 20 seeds = 75% germination).
- At the end of the season, share your seeds and stories! If you can, pass these precious gifts on to the next generation of young farmers.
The deepest thanks go to the mentors who have shared seeds, teachings, and encouragement with me; to every farmer and family across the state saving their heritage; and to the New Mexico Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance (of which NMAA is a part), which works to protect our right to continue these vital practices.
I hope these tips will encourage you to reclaim your relationship with the seeds which sustain us.
Interviewed and written by Olivia Romo, NMAA Staff
“The Acequia does not let me want for nothing! The acequia feeds our friendships, people, animals and crops. You don’t have to work hard at it just make yourself available for the land and your neighbor and the acequia will continue to take care of us!”
-Cordelia Coronado 84 years old, Parciante of Acequia del Rio Chama
Cordelia Coronado was born on January 8th 1933 in the Chama Valley to Agueda Martinez and Eusebio Martinez. Eusebio was originally from Chimayo of the greater Ortega weaving family and Agueda learned her weaving skills from the Ortega’s. Agueda supported her family by selling her woven goods and subsistence farming. Eusebio was a school teacher for many years until 1945 when he became the Post Master in Medanales, NM where he moved his family and they began their new life. Agueda taught all her daughters how to weave and became a nationally renowned weaver who was featured in National Geographic and Smithsonian Museum. Agueda has been acknowledged as the matriarch of the weaving community in Northern New Mexico as she continued this cultural tradition of weaving and passed it on to all of her daughters. Cordelia was one of ten children in the Martinez household who farmed all summer and wove all winter.
Cordelia is now 84 years old now and has eight children of her own who live within walking distance of her home and family farm. They continue to work together, weave, and carry on a long cultural tradition in the sacred Chama valley.
What is the history of your acequia community, as you know it (or as you’ve been told)?
La Acequia del Rio Chama was first used and dug between the years 1702-1714 according to archival and acequia records. When I was growing up in the valley I remember the large gathering of the neighbors and relatives to gather the harvest! Anywhere between 20 to 30 people would go from one house to the other to till and plant with horses, thresh wheat by hand, and husk corn. It was such a special time as a young girl and one of my favorite memories was harvesting corn in the fields. Our elders would hide a watermelon between the rows of corn and whoever got to the watermelon first got to keep it! Our people have always worked so closely together and helped one another but not so much these days. A few weeks ago we had our acequia meeting and nobody can afford to give up their time to be Mayordomo. You see, back then people were working for staples, not money. It worries me that I am the second oldest in the community and can barely find anyone to help me for pay. However, I am incredibly blessed to have children who come help me every weekend and as new people have come into the community there is interest to get involved with our acequia.
What kinds of crops does your acequia community grow?
We grow everything except head lettuce because of the heat. Corn, beans, squash, and melons do well in our valley. Last year I and three other farmers formed a food co-op with the help of the Center of Southwest Culture out of Albuquerque. The center helped us with seeds, soil testing, crop growth and marketing our produce. With their help we learned how to nurture our soil to keep it more productive, weigh and package our produce, and get assistance in taking it to the Ghost Ranch Conference Center for the farmers market. I have learned so much through this process and mostly the hard way but now I have very healthy soil and a strong crop every year! I have cultivated and protected a very special heirloom Chimayo chile seed that I got from my family. The seed grows best in the Chama Valley and I have people coming from all over the North to buy my crop!
What traditions and practices does your acequia community maintain? (Food and agriculture, limpia, etc.)
Next weekend we will clean the ditch and every parciante will send 1 worker per 10 acres. People come from the neighboring community to clean the acequia and we are hoping to have water as soon as possible! When that water is flowing that is the greatest feeling in the world.
Our community has a yearly Dia de San Yisidro celebration in which we choose a different farmers field every year that we will gather at to pray and celebrate. San Antonio is our Patron Saint and in the good ol’ days they blessed people fields after a procession of at least 4-5 miles long! At the end of the procession one farmer world open his farm and we would have a huge fiesta with a potluck and where the musicians from our church choir would sing and play music all day! We are all one human family and no matter where you come from if you are here we can all eat, plant, and celebrate together on this day and every day!
What is your irrigation season? (Time frame)
Acequia del Rio de Chama irrigation seasons starts now in the latter part of March and then we run all the way until the end of October. We close it up in the winters now because the Gophers make holes everywhere!
What are your commissioners and mayordomos doing this time of year?
We have very active commissioners who frequently apply for funding through our legislature, and persue grants for infrastructure repairs. Normally it is not a big load because we have a strong board and about 52 members. When I was younger, there was fewer people but with more acreage. We recently have had a big influx of new comers from California, Arizona etc., but it is important to remember that everyone is a part of this human family and their participation and influence is what will help the community and acequias to survive! I have had people from Peru and Ugondad join me at my table and people from all around the world. Did you know that we all have the same problems, wants, joys? We are all the same! It is our leaders that are turning everything upside down. People all over the world have grown the same foods but prepare it differently. They share the same values of the land or a late ancestor once did and we cannot forget that! So I share my food with them because if you don’t have anyone to share the food you grow with it just doesn’t taste good.
What makes your acequia special?
The acequia is the glue; it’s what keeps a community together. Even if we don’t see each other every day I know that my neighbors are here for me if I need them. It is the glue that keeps the people together because it feeds the friendships, people, animals and crops. You don’t have to work hard at it, just be yourself and be available and the acequia will take care of us. I go to the store once a month if I am lucky just for coffee and sugar but my freezer keeps me going through the winter until I start filling it again in the summer. The acequia doesn’t let me want for nothing, I go outside and farm and have all the means to cook. Because of the acequias I have lived a very rich life and am very blessed. I know where my food comes from and I am thankful and want to teach others about where it comes from, honor and give thanks to our water and mother earth and all she provides for us.
By David Benavides, Attorney with NM Legal Aid
- If a conflict arises on a lateral of our acequia can we as the officers of the acequia stay out of any involvement? We have always had a policy of non-involvement when it comes to laterals.
- If the conflict involves someone not getting the water they are entitled to, you should get involved as the acequia officers. There is no real basis in the law for a “non-involvement policy” for laterals when it comes to people being deprived of water.
If you think about it, everyone who pays their acequia dues and has a valid water right has a right to get actual wet water delivered to their property. It is the job of the acequia officers to make sure that happens and that everyone’s rights are protected. If someone on a lateral is blocking or preventing another parciante from getting water, that parciante is entitled to get help from the mayordomo or commissioners the same as anyone else. Consider, if it was you who was being blocked by a neighbor on a lateral from getting any water, and you had paid your dues and done everything else that is expected of you as a parciante, wouldn’t you expect to get the same assistance as everyone else from the acequia officers in enforcing your rights? After all, you have a valid water right, so no one has the right to prevent you from exercising it.
These ideas are in fact set out in the state acequia statutes. Section 73-2-64 prohibits anyone from blocking, interfering with or stealing water without permission from any acequia or dam, “or any contra or lateral acequia thereof”. So laterals are specifically mentioned as having the same protections as the other sections of the acequia.
These same statutes authorize the mayordomo or commission (and in some cases the district attorney) to take one of several legal actions against the offending party, including civil and criminal prosecution. So it is not correct to assume that it is up to the parciante to take legal action on their own. In fact, the authority for the officers to take action is much clearer in the law than it is for an individual parciante.
Of course, most acequias are able to figure out ways to resolve the situation without going to court. However, the point here is that the acequia officers have the clear authority – and the duty – to step in and try to resolve the situation — informally at first, or through formal legal action if necessary. If the offending party is not responding to the complaints of their neighbor, involvement by the mayordomo or commission is sometimes realistically what it takes to resolve the situation so that the parciante gets the water.
It is a different matter if an acequia has a policy that the parciantes on a lateral are responsible for cleaning that lateral without help from the other parciantes. Some acequias have that type of policy and there is probably nothing legally wrong with that type of non-involvement. Some acequias have a policy of allowing the parciantes on a lateral to figure out among themselves a rotation schedule for the water. That type of non-involvement is probably fine, too – as long as everyone is getting the water. But when a parciante is blocked from getting water, the people who are in charge of the overall delivery system – that is, the mayordomo and commission – have a duty to get involved.
Submitted by NM Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance
During the 2018 session, a bill with the words “seeds” and “preemption” in the title caught the attention of farmers and seedsavers in New Mexico. The bill appeared to be the handiwork of the biotech industry, which was attempting to prevent local governments from enacting regulations on the cultivation of seeds. The opposition to the bill was swift and strong. Tribal officials and farmers, who advocate for protecting heirloom/landrace seeds from cross-contamination by genetically engineered seeds, mobilized against the bill, and it was tabled in its first hearing. This bill was revealing about the national agenda of the biotech industry to preempt local laws and about the extent of opposition from grassroots organizations comprised of gardeners, seedsavers, and farmers.
One might ask why a pharmaceutical corporation such as Bayer would be pushing for this bill in New Mexico. It has been reported in recent months that Bayer and Monsanto are seeking a merger, and Monsanto is well known as the dominant transnational corporation that aggressively develops and markets genetically engineered seed. Beyond that, Monsanto has aggressively “protected” its seed patents by suing farmers who were inadvertently contaminated with Monsanto’s DNA. Farmers are rightfully concerned about having Monsanto, or Bayer-Monsanto, as a neighbor. In addition to the risk of contamination, genetically engineered seeds (also known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs) have been associated with the emergence of “superweeds” that evolve to resist the herbicides in GMO seeds.
So, why did these corporations want to pass a preemption bill in New Mexico? First, it is important to explain the term “preemption.” Preemption is a strategy used by industry to enact laws at the federal or state levels to preclude local governments from enacting regulations, specifically if those regulations are more stringent than state or federal laws. Several other states have enacted laws that preempt local governments from enacting ordinances regulating seeds. In the US, 29 other states have enacted preemption laws that prevent local counties and cities from regulating the cultivation of seeds.
The likely reason that Bayer and Monsanto are pushing preemption is that the industry wants to prevent local governments from passing regulations that restrict, prohibit, or otherwise regulate the cultivation of genetically engineered seeds. There are several reasons for local governments to enact local regulations, including protecting existing farmers, especially those cultivating native, heirloom, or organic seeds, from cross contamination from GMO seeds. At this point in time, there have been no local governments in New Mexico that have enacted or proposed enactment of such ordinances, but it appears that industry wants to preempt their ability to do so before local governments have an opportunity to even consider any ordinances concerning seeds.
HB 161 proposed to amend the “New Mexico Seed Law” in Chapter 76, which was enacted in 1967. The Seed Law sets forth the laws for certifying seeds for commercial sale to ensure that, when consumers purchase seed, the seeds meet standards for purity and germination rates and also that the seeds are properly labeled. The Seed Law also defines the certification agency for implementing the Seed Law from the NM Department of Agriculture and the NMSU Cooperative Extension Service. The law currently does not appear to include explicit language that outlines jurisdiction that regulates the location of the cultivation and production of seeds.
Around the US, there are some states, such as California, where local governments have enacted ordinances that restrict the cultivation of GMO crops. In Hawaii, counties enacted ordinances banning GMOs and/or pesticides/herbicides but those were overturned in the federal courts. Whether local governments can adopt ordinances regulating or banning depends on the specific language in state laws, where there may be expressed preemption or where state law occupies the field. In cases where it is not specific whether state law completely occupies the field, there is concurrent jurisdiction, in which local governments have some ability to regulate, provided it does not conflict with state law. It appears that HB 161 was an attempt to change state law to completely preempt local governments presumably because local governments in New Mexico may have some jurisdiction to regulate GMOs.
The NM Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance was founded in 2006 and is a collective of organizations and traditional farmers from Pueblo and acequia communities dedicated to protecting native seeds from contamination from cross pollination from genetically engineered seeds, or GMOs, genetically modified organisms. The Alliance includes Tewa Women United, Honor Our Pueblo Existence, the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, and the NM Acequia Association.
The New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) has joined a local acequia in a case currently before the New Mexico Court of Appeals. On January 9, 2018, the Court of Appeals approved the filing of an amicus brief (friend of the court) filed by the NMAA and other parties in the case Parkview Community Ditch v. Peper. “In our brief, we are urging the court to allow acequias and land grants to continue the historic and cultural practice of conducting meetings in Spanish,” said Paula Garcia, Executive Director of the NMAA.
Parkview Community Ditch is in Tierra Amarilla, a village in rural Northern New Mexico, known for its enduring fight to protect its natural resources for the community, including those within the historic Tierra Amarilla Land Grant. A district court ruling affirmed the cultural practice of conducting meetings in Spanish, but that decision was appealed. Now, the NMAA has joined Parkview in its fight at the Court of Appeals to defend their right to hold meetings in Spanish. The brief recounts New Mexico’s complex history of protections in the New Mexico Constitution for Spanish-speaking inhabitants.
In a statement, Joseph Piña, Commissioner of the Parkview Community Ditch said, “Our acequia appreciates NMAA’s help and support on finally resolving this issue. All this lawsuit has done is cause unnecessary stress and placed an additional financial burden on our members. In the end, it’s a lose-lose, even if we win. We spent all this money and time when we could’ve been spending it on the acequia and irrigating. We’re just looking forward to putting this behind us. We just want to focus on what we’re good at and what we’ve learned to do since we were young – we’re farmers.”
The NMAA’s legal team that prepared the amicus brief includes longstanding partner New Mexico Legal Aid, represented by David Benavides, Esq. “After centuries of acequia meetings being conducted in the language of the local community, we were alarmed that someone would sue an acequia on these grounds,” said Benavides. “If any entity should reflect the community, the culture, and its people, it should be the local acequia.”
Law students from the University of New Mexico’s (UNM) Natural Resources and Environmental Law Clinic at the UNM Law School were part of the legal team that represented the amici. “As clinical law students, we were grateful for the opportunity to represent New Mexico acequias and land grants in an important brief that seeks to preserve the Spanish language and culture of New Mexico,” said Bryan Gonzalez, the lead clinical law student. Bryan and eight other clinical students worked on the brief over two semesters. The clinic provides a broad range of legal services on natural resource and environmental issues to low-income and underrepresented communities throughout New Mexico.
Larry J. Montaño and Charlie S. Baser, of Holland & Hart LLP’s Santa Fe office, joined New Mexico Legal Aid and the UNM clinical law students in representing the amici pro bono. “We feel privileged to have been able to help on this important matter” said Mr. Montaño and Ms. Baser. “New Mexico is a unique and special place, due in large part to its living, deep-rooted cultural traditions. This appeal seeks to protect, perpetuate, and celebrate one of its richest traditions.” Parkview Community Ditch is represented by Sanchez Law Group (Daniel J. Sanchez, Esq.).
Joining the New Mexico Acequia Association in the brief include the New Mexico Land Grant Council, Acequia Larga de Las Cruces, Merced del Pueblo de Chilili, Merced del Pueblo de San Joaquin del Rio Chama, and Acequia Madre del Llano.