Water, Social Justice & Development Challenges.

Reflecting on the first six weeks on justice and development in Mexico.

mexico charity clean water
PHOTO REBECCA PETERS

This past Thursday marked my sixth week in Latin America as I dedicate my summer time to developing safe water access, social justice, and education programs in Mexico and Bolivia. Returning to work in communities familiar to me in Chiapas and Cochabamba brings constant pangs of insecurity; my education at UC Berkeley has taught me to become more self-reflective about considering my role as an foreigner working abroad, where I arguably have less accountability than I would working in my hometown. Every time I engage in research or work away from home, I remain conflicted about my privileged position here as an advocate, academic, and public service leader. However, the lessons I gain here, including cross-cultural communication, community building, and developing solidarity in the context of inequality, are invaluable. I will bring these lessons home with me, where there is no shortage of water and social justice issues that I care deeply about: hydraulic fracturing, failing hydro-infrastructure, nitrate contamination in the farming communities of the Central Valley of California, and destruction of rivers, wetlands, and oceans.

One thing I have learned here is that feeling like an outsider doesn’t always mean leaving your country, but sometimes just leaving your community. While in Chiapas I worked with an anthropologist, Antonio, who studies culture and water issues and is originally from the Tsotsil speaking rural community of San Juan Chamula, a bumpy 30-minute drive in the hills away from the city of San Cristobal. A beautiful distinction in the Tsotsil language that we learned from Antonio is that of ya’al and ya’lel. He explained that ya’al is water “in the well” – water that exists as a gift from nature or rain. This is the water you collect, use to drink, to clean your home, to wash your children and yourself. This is the water that flows through rivers, now contaminated with pesticides introduced by multi-national agriculture corporations. Ya’lel is “not your water” as Antonio described it – it is water that is embodied in you, in the green veins of plants, in your blood, your sweat, your sweet salty tears. However, I was interested to find that this is largely an academic distinction that Antonio learned while in college, a level of educational attainment that most of his fellow community members will not experience. Antonio explained that he feels like an outcast when he returns to San Juan Chamula after his studies in the city, coming back with an outsider’s academic perspective on cultural practices around diagnosing and treating illness, since water is not understood to be a vector for sickness.

To intentionally mis-appropriate a quote from Robert Bresson, a French film director, I see the role of practitioners while in the field not to ‘fix’ things but rather to “make visible what without might perhaps have never been seen.” I can draw parallels between Antonio’s struggles to apply the education he received to improve his hometown and my own goal to decipher the common vulnerabilities, mutual needs, and shared hopes. Reading recent policy documents by non-governmental organizations, non-profits, and government organizations reminded me of just how romanticized many development concepts remain today; water, sanitation, and hygiene policy and investment distribution still reflects the great distance between Washington, DC and other loci for development “expertise” and the developing world. While I respect the public servants who dedicate their lives to the complex task of alleviating poverty, hunger, ill health, education disparities, and environmental degradation, without consistent field experience to supplement abstract policy-making processes and academic theory, many practitioners remain distanced from the micro-interactions that constitute improved health, economic security, and community building.

mexico clean water initiative
PHOTO REBECCA PETERS

Water and social justice issues in remote, rural indigenous and migrant communities in Latin America largely remain invisible today, and it requires tenacity, persistence, and patience to develop a voice to speak cogently about these complex problems. In my collective seven months in Guatemala, Bolivia, and Mexico, I’ve found that not everyone wants to or is capable of engaging in “development” work and what it entails. It is physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing to travel across continents, work through language barriers and cultural difference, encounter political corruption, and, oftentimes, find that I’m just not that relevant. However, in the words of Phil Garrity, a volunteer with Partners in Health in Peru who overcame a rare kind of bone cancer and recently shared his reflections on “Measuring the Immeasurable”, “We do not walk away when things appear impractical, unfeasible, or futile. We stay, to perhaps accept defeat again and again, if only to show the world that the people we serve are worth more than the steps they may gain or lose on their path to a more dignified life. That we ourselves are worth more than our successes or failures on our path to building a more just world.”

Article written by Rebecca Peters.

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