Transition: A Look Back as We Move Forward

By KAY MATTHEWS

La Jicarita kicked off its February fundraiser last week with an appearance on KSFR’s “Living on the Edge” and an appeal online. Our modest goal is $2,500, and as of today, February 3, we have raised $870. Many thanks to all who have contributed thus far. We will continue with the fundraiser until February 21 with our regular reporting and analysis and a little help from our friends about why they think reading La Jicarita is important.

Over the course of the 15 years that Mark Schiller and I published and edited La Jicarita News there have been many set-backs and losses suffered by those engaged in community organizing around issues of environmental and social justice in northern New Mexico. Whenever I used to lament about this to my friend and colleague Ike DeVargas, who saw his community forestry business, La Companía Ocho, go bankrupt during those years, he would commiserate but also remind me that we should always view ourselves as victors: what we forged relationally, in partnerships and friendships, and what we learned together, is the measure of our success. It is this “continuous engagement” that allowed La Jicarita relevance, and will allow us to continue that relevance in the new incarnation as an online journal of environmental politics.

Ike DeVargas. Photo by Eric Shultz
Ike DeVargas. Photo by Eric Shultz

As David Correia, one of the editors of the new La Jicarita, wrote in our Manifesto: “La Jicarita has long been part of a network of organizations, community activists, and coalitions working together on important political struggles around the social impacts of production, distribution and waste. We continue this work and believe that the new structure of La Jicarita offers a platform that can connect organizations and activists and amplify new voices in our ongoing effort to stifle the reactionary ones.”

I’d like to take a look back at losses suffered because of some “reactionary” voices that unfortunately came from within movements, voices that worked to discredit solidarity and common cause. As I stated in the interview on KSFR’s “Living on the Edge” program last week, much of what happened during La Jicarita News years was both exciting and tragic: progress was inhibited and in some cases, peoples’ livelihoods were destroyed. Reflection is painful, but maybe some lessons can be learned as we figure out how to engage in different, but related struggles: the nuclear industrial complex; decimated forests and catastrophic fire; industrial energy development; police violence; etc.

In the Beginning

Our personal engagement began in El Valle, a Las Trampas Land Grant community in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where Mark and I moved in 1991. Here we quickly learned the lay of the land and the relationship of the community to the land; everyone watered their hay fields, orchards, and gardens from the three acequias diverted from the Rio de las Trampas; ranchers grazed their cattle with United States Forest Service permits in the mountains surrounding the village; and we all cut our firewood to heat our homes, also on USFS permits. That agency’s jurisdiction impacted our relationship with the land, of course, as it has since its inception in the early 1900s, and figures dominantly in this discussion.

Several years after we moved to El Valle a group of individuals and organizations formed a watchdog coalition in the Rio Pueblo/Rio Embudo watershed (the Rio de las Trampas is a tributary), home to many traditional villages in this southern part of Taos County. It was an interesting mix of people: Puebloans (Picuris), Hispanos, Anglos, parciantes, environmentalists, farmers, and never-before-been-activists who were worried about impacts to their watershed. The impetus behind the formation of the coalition was the proposed expansion of Sipapu Ski Area between Peñasco and Mora on the Rio Pueblo.

Controversies like the one played out over the Sipapu expansion reveal the complexity and interrelatedness of resource management and, more importantly, who gets to have a say in that management. Because the ski area is located on USFS land, that agency was a dominant player in the mix. The Office of the State Engineer, the agency that regulates water rights, became involved because the ski area needed to increase its water use to implement the expansion. But other groups organized to counterbalance the weight of these government agencies and protect their own interests. Downstream parciantes opposed the expansion to protect their water rights. Environmentalists were concerned that snowmaking and cleared forest stands would negatively affect the ecology of the river. Community members, worried about the impact of increased tourism on their traditional way of life, raised the issue of the legitimacy of private gain over the public good. Picuris Pueblo raised the issue of water quality. While each of these groups had different areas of concern, they came together around a single issue and learned to work together because that was the only way to have a voice.

These were not issues and concerns limited to a ski area expansion, nor to an individual watershed, of course. As relationships formed and connections were made, across watersheds and forests and among disparate communities,

La Jicarita News was born in an attempt to help empower these communities: to provide information and analysis about land, forest, and water resource use being contested throughout el norte; to unabashedly advocate for land-based community empowerment; to provide a meeting place for groups and individuals to work both separately and in concert towards environmental and social justice.

I want to take a look at three organizing sites that were critical areas of contestation during these years—forests, land grants, and acequias.

What is an Environmentalist?

In 1995, the year before La Jicarita began publication, environmental groups in New Mexico and Arizona filed suit against Region Three of the USFS alleging that the agency had failed to look at the cumulative impacts of logging on the Mexican spotted owl in planning its timber program, violating the Endangered Species Act. In August of 1995, a federal judge in Arizona issued an injunction that halted all wood cutting on the affected forests. In November of the same year La Herencia del Norte, led by DeVargas, protested the injunction by hanging Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians and John Talberth of Forest Conservation Council in effigy in downtown Santa Fe. La Jicarita, along with a cohort of environmental activists who had opposed the lawsuit in solidarity with the communities of el norte, were also there. The injunction lasted for 18 months while a settlement was negotiated, and the economies of northern New Mexico were severely impacted.

After Duke City, the corporate logging company that had the largest presence in northern New Mexico, especially in the Vallecitos Federal Sustained Yield Unit on the El Rito Ranger District, left the state due to pressure from the communities, environmentalists, and the changing nature of the timber industry generally, these same environmentalists continued appealing and suing each and every timber sale in the Carson under their agenda of “Zero Cut,” no logging on public lands. The Forest Service tried to wiggle its way out of culpability by essentially shutting down; its defense that the environmental analysis process was too difficult—every project they initiated was appealed or sued—was the byproduct of its strategy to pit the enviros against the communities. Without consistent commercial, thinning, or fuelwood projects let out for bid most of el norte’s community foresters went out of business. And those left, struggling to maintain the capacity to get any contracts, ended up in competition for the spoils. De Vargas told La Jicarita: “The Forest Service and the environmentalists have succeeded in getting the people of the Sustained Yield Unit villages fighting each other. And until we find a unity of purpose, we will have nada. We’re a community divided, beating each other up for the crumbs.”

How did we arrive at this place where environmentalists were fighting community foresters, environmentalists were fighting each other, and community people were fighting for the spoils?

I wrote an editorial about these confrontations between largely urban based environmentalists and community activists describing the situation this way: “Those activists who come to the environmental movement with a background in social justice issues—labor organizing, civil rights, the New Left—are often called social ecologists: They see human beings as an integral part of the natural world that is being manipulated and exploited by the industrial, capitalistic economic system. Other activists, often called deep ecologists, come to the movement to save our wildlands as a moral statement apart from any value these lands may have to human culture. In the introduction to a book entitled Defending the Earth, in which social ecologist Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First!, come together to try to find common ground between these two philosophies, editor Steve Chase says: ‘While social ecologists . . . trace the roots of the ecological crisis to the rise of hierarchical and exploitative human societies, many deep ecology activists talk of the human species itself as a blight upon the planet . . . . Indeed, the deep ecology movement as a whole lacks a consistent or clear social analysis of the ecology crisis or even a consistent commitment to humane social ethics.’ ”

There were many attempts to bring the two camps of environmentalists and community people together: teach-ins at the Oñate Center outside Española; mediation workshops sponsored by Rio Arriba County; even a meeting out in the Vallecitos Federal Sustained Yield Unit (VFSYU) where DeVargas and Max Córdova, head of the community forestry organization La Montaña de Truchas, met with Sam Hitt and John Talberth to try to have a dialogue. But it was impossible to contextualize the conversation, to acknowledge that both the community foresters and environmentalists shared a common goal to liberate management of el norte from corporate timber interests aided and abetted by the USFS when the enviros’ ultimate goal was to “liberate” the forests from everyone: environmentalism sin gente.

Mark Schiller and Max Córdova at Borrego Mesa. Photo by Eric Shultz
Mark Schiller and Max Córdova at Borrego Mesa. Photo by Eric Shultz

What Constitutes Community?

The movement to regain the many thousands of acres of land grants in northern New Mexico lost through adjudication and outright theft has taken many twists and turns throughout the years, none more than during the tenure of La Jicarita News. Hispano activists came together to organize the Land Grant Forum and the Mexicano Land Education and Conservation Trust representing land grant communities in New Mexico and southern Colorado to influence the legislative and political process. Many short and long-term strategies were developed to deal with compensation for lands lost and the possible return of the common lands shared by all members of a community land grant. Activists encouraged all land grant communities to form boards of directors and register with the Secretary of State. They could then come together as a congreso, similar to that of the New Mexico Acequia Association, which had formed a congreso of regional acequia associations around the state. As part of a democratic organization the land grants could become more involved in the electoral process by sponsoring candidate forums and having a presence in state legislative sessions.

Much of this work was done in anticipation of the findings of the General Accounting Office (GAO) investigative work regarding whether the United States abrogated the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to protect property rights in Spanish and Mexican community land grants. Land grant historian Malcolm Ebright wrote this assessment of the report in the July 2004 issue of La Jicaita: “After four years of ‘work’ the General Accounting Office has spoken. In its 222 page report: Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: Findings and Possible Options Regarding Longstanding Community Land Grant Claims in New Mexico, dated June 2004, the G.A.O. found that the United States government has fully met its responsibilities under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo regarding its promise to protect property rights in Spanish and Mexican land grants. The G.A.O. arrived at this conclusion without examining in detail specific land grant documents or the Spanish and Mexican laws and customs under which the grants were made, and without arriving at any standard of its own by which to measure whether the treaty’s promises were fulfilled. The first e-mail reaction I received to the report was: “It’s a whitewash.” I would go further: the report is a slap in the face.”

There would be no redress from the federal government, either in terms of reparations or land return, but these two remedies remained politically loaded within the land grant community, dividing it into two opposing camps. If the common lands are returned, who benefits from them? Some land grant activists took a very narrow view that only the heirs of the original grantees or families that settled the grants before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo are legitimate shareholders. This would mean that many people living within land grant communities—Indo-Hispanos, Native Americans, and Anglos— would be excluded from the common lands, while many people who no longer live within the grant would have access.

Others, aware of the injustices that occurred during the land grant adjudication process wanted to be particularly scrupulous in establishing equitable criteria for who has a stake in community property. They believed that everyone who the laws of Spain and Mexico would have recognized as legitimate shareholders of community land grants, i.e., anyone who holds legitimate title to a private tract within the land grant, should benefit. Community grants were established to benefit communities, not individuals who can trace their lineage to the original settlers. Heirs who were unjustly dispossessed of their holdings could be financially compensated for their losses.

This is what DeVargas had to say about the situation in an interview with La Jicarita in our very first edition, January, 1996: “Mexico and Spain gave private land grants to individual families and groups of families, but they also gave the community lands, the commons. Now if a community changes its complexion from Hispanic to white or black or whatever, it doesn’t alter that community’s need for that land. So the white people who feel real threatened by the idea of these land grants being turned back, it’s a racist thing when they feel that way about it because there’s nothing in the commons that said it had to go explicitly to the Hispanics. The communities still need the land base whether they change complexion or not. And they are changing complexion, let’s face it. I don’t have any problem with that.” Max Córdova, president of the Truchas Land Grant had this to say in the November 2001 issue of La Jicarita: “I think the only way our traditional values are going to last is if we start sharing them with others. What we have to do as a community is engage these people [newcomers] in the every day process of what we do. It’s very easy to pay someone to clean the acequia for you. It’s much harder to get a shovel and help clean it yourself.”

I remember attending a gathering of one of the land grants that had elected a board of directors and registered with the state. The gathering was both social and administrative; a new board was being elected. Many, if not most of the folks there had come from either other areas of the state or out of state to attend. When an Hispano man from a village within the land grant—an acequia commissioner from a long established family— was nominated for a position on the board, several of the out-of-state land grant members challenged him to prove that he was an heir to the grant before he could legally be elected to serve on the board. Others were outraged that this friend and buen vecino would have to defend his right to serve his community.

The Power of Community

As an acequia parciante, a commissioner, and an editor of La Jicarita News I long engaged in that powerful community and covered many of the battles it fought:

• When the Forest Service first tried to require that acequias obtain special permits to work on their headgates or ditches that lie on forest “property” the community put their water attorneys to work and went all the way up the ladder to the Regional Forester to clarify just who was here first and who was abrogating whose rights. It’s a battle that continues to rear its ugly head but the acequia community always comes out in force with its legal and relational arguments.

• In 2003 the acequias won a major legislative victory when the New Mexico legislature approved a new state statute that empowers acequia commissions to review any proposed water transfers from their ditches to determine if they would be detrimental to the operation of the acequia, and if so, to deny the transfer. The law was challenged on a constitutional basis several years ago but was upheld.

• A coalition of acequias and parciantes protested Santa Fe County’s application to transfer water rights from northern Taos County to the Pojoaque Basin as part of the settlement of the Aamodt adjudication, and delayed that deal for 10 years. Many more acequia groups will protest a new application to transfer those water rights by both Santa Fe County and the Department of the Interior when it is filed, probably sometime this year.

• The acequia community has watch dogged and wrangled with the Office of the State Engine over its proposed Active Water Resource Management regulations that would expedite water transfers and diminish priority water rights administration. Although the New Mexico Supreme Court recently affirmed the regulations, over the long course of the fight—from 2004 to 2012—the acequia community demanded concessions and forced modifications.

Last week when I walked into a meeting of the Taos County Public Welfare Advisory Committee (link) one of my co-members was visibly shaken, telling the story of the acequia meeting she had recently attended where she felt so uncomfortable—and “abused”—that she called her lawyer on the phone and he advised her to call the sheriff or the police if the abuse continued.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. I wrote about the need for moderation and cooperation within acequia associations in my 2012 article for La Jicarita. The internecine bickering within this community is just as big a threat to acequia vitality as is the transfer of agricultural water to what the powers that be define as the “highest and best” uses: urban, industrial, and recreational. We’ve become a people who litigate even the smallest dispute. Some of our neighbors, who have been acequia parciantes since their teens, have been to court countless times over inter — and intra-community disputes concerning water allocation, rotation, movement, representation — anything and everything. In a 2005 editorial Mark wrote about the dangers this kind of divisiveness poses to the integrity of acequias: “Despite the fact that surface water rights were originally granted by the Spanish and Mexican governments as a community resource, many community members take the position that water rights are personal property that can be sold, leased or transferred regardless of the impacts those transactions may have on the rest of the community. And what about all the inter- and intra-community battles over water distribution? Instead of recognizing that other parciantes and acequia communities are allies in the battle to keep water in the acequias by trying to resolve acequia disputes within their communities, many parciantes and acequia commissions choose to take their disputes to the State Engineer or the courts, resulting in water rights owners becoming so disillusioned they no longer participate in acequia activities or even worse, are tempted to sell their water rights to the highest bidder.”

Mark’s editorial went on to talk about our inability to work in concert regarding all the issues I’ve discussed, not just acequias: “[T]hese actions are self-defeating because ultimately they help the real enemy of all poor and working class people . . . . If we ever hope to break the vicious cycle of poverty and exploitation in northern New Mexico, we must see beyond the narrowly defined boundaries that divide us and unite with working class people throughout the region and the world.”

Let’s begin a “continuous engagement” to take on the bureaucracies that govern our public land and water resources; the nuclear industrial complex that runs Los Alamos National Laboratory; the oil and gas industry that has already bought our governor; the increasingly militarized police force—all the enemies of environmental and social justice.


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