Juan Estévan Arellano

April 18th passed in northern New Mexico without fanfare, being that it had been designated by UNESCO as “Patrimonio Cultural del Agua,” Día Internacional de los Monumentos y Sitios. However, the international day to celebrate the cultural patrimony of water was not the only special day last month dedicated to honor Mother Earth.

Across the world, Earth Day was also celebrated. Founded by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, it started as an environmental teach-in on April 22, 1970. In 1990 it took on an international flavor when it was celebrated by 141 nations. It is now celebrated in over 175 nations. Since 2009, the United Nations has designated April 22nd as International Mother Earth Day.

Bolivian President Evo Morales recently enacted the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.” The Bolivian law speaks of the country’s natural resources as a “blessing,” and gives the Earth specific rights, including the right to life, clean air and water, as well as the right to repair livelihoods affected by pollution from human activities such as mining and agribusiness. The UN is also aiming to recognize the Earth as a living entity, which would give our planet some of the same rights as humans.

Muslims already recognize the divine right of water in their “Law of Thirst.” So both the Earth and water are recognized as special and equal to humans, though the “Law of Thirst” does not carry the weight of a law recognized by a government. But at least it’s a philosophical and moral statement.

Reflecting indigenous traditional beliefs, the UN’s proposed global treaty says humans have caused “severe destruction . . . that is offensive to the many faiths, wisdom, traditions and indigenous cultures for whom Mother Earth is sacred,” writes Steven Edwards for PostMedia News.

Debate at the UN started two days before that body’s second International Mother Earth Day, another initiative led by Evo Morales. In indigenous Andean culture, writes Edwards, the Earth deity known as Pachamama is the center of all life, and humans are considered equal to all life forms – be they bugs, trees, fish, birds or any other natural form.

Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist, is among the global environmentalists backing the drive with a book the group launched in New York during the UN debate: Nature Has Rights. As traditional folktales of “Los Cuatro Hermanos,” the four brothers, remind us, we must not forget that among those elements in nature with rights are water, soil, fire and wind.

Carlos Blazquez, who lives in Zaragoza, Spain, writes, “That our past is not the same as that of kings, counts or the rich bourgeois, which takes up the time of most historians. The majority of us are descendants of humble people, people who went to the mill to grind, who carried water to their houses from fountains, or did their laundry in that social club of poor women known as ‘lavaderos’,” public washing places, such as acequias or the river.

It’s the same patrimony of simple diversion dams (presas), wells (norias), gristmills (molinos), acequias, and other examples that is rapidly disappearing without most people today even realizing it. Yet this type of cultural patrimony should never be forgotten or abandoned; we should not be ashamed of it because being poor is not shameful. This should serve as a symbol of progress. We do not throw away a painting from the Middle Ages. Instead, it is revered and worth millions of dollars.

An old church is not destroyed or razed to the ground like the 175-year old St. Anthony’s Church in Questa. The community immediately came out in its defense, as well they should have. Yet if the highway department covers up an acequia, as has happened throughout northern New Mexico, not a word is uttered. When a tunnel carved in rock for the Acequia Junta y Ciénaga in 1948 was destroyed by the Highway Department to pave the road, nothing was said. Not a photo remains, yet the old people still refer to that place as “el tunelito,” the little tunnel. Today it only exists in the minds of the elders. Maybe the mayordomo and the commission might scratch their head and wonder what can be done, but that’s all. The community, which should be outraged, doesn’t care.

Blazquez also talks about an “undocumented hydrology ecology,” similar to an undocumented person who exists, but without rights. No one would think of destroying an old church, painting, sculpture or musical piece, yet not a murmur is heard when an acequia is covered, or a gristmill is taken down viga by viga. This is a forgotten patrimony, sometimes a shameful patrimony.

And Blazquez suggests that we can live without temples, palaces, mausoleums, art, and even without literature, yet our life would be very different without fountains, baths, mills, and acequias that bring water to the community. There can be no life without water, yet we don’t protect its infrastructure because it’s old, ancient, even making some people ashamed.

If anything, these events during the month of April should make us look at the landscape with different eyes. Don’t simply value the religious and artistic patrimony; also appreciate those simple human constructions such as a hand-dug well, a presa made of branches and rocks, or an open-air acequia, as things of beauty. For without them we would not exist. There would be no northern New Mexico to inspire artists and writers.

Juan Estévan Arellano is a researcher focusing on traditional agriculture and irrigation. He is the translator-editor of the book Ancient Agriculture. Arellano and his wife, Elena, raise heirloom fruit and vegetables in the Embudo area along the Rio Grande.