José A. Rivera


Most of us associate the Philippine Islands as a wet tropical zone and do not expect to find acequia-irrigated landscapes. However, unlike the verdant rice terraces of the Mountain Province in north-central Luzon that are humid year-round, agriculture in the Ilocos Norte Province to the northwest requires irrigation during a prolonged dry season that extends from late October to May. Much of this region is located between the highlands of the Cordillera Central on the east and a coastal area north and west toward the South China Sea. The rice fields in the coastal lowlands in particular require flood irrigation six months of the year to supplement the wet season when torrential rains are common. Most of the agricultural lands of Ilocos Norte are community based, similar to the acequias of the upper Río Grande of New Mexico and southern Colorado. And, like the Río Grande acequias, they too operate outside of government as commons property held by the irrigators themselves, the zanjeros.


How and when did zanjeras originate? The topography of Ilocos Norte contains limited land along the narrow coastal plains flanked by interspersed mountain spurs that extend inland to the higher slopes of the Cordillera Central to the east. Most of these foothill sections and the valley lowlands are drained by the Laoag, Vintar and Abra rivers. To develop a viable farm economy based principally on rice production, diversions, canals and other infrastructure would have to be built as the coastal population increased, especially during the Spanish regime that introduced new forms of human settlement and cropping patterns. In order to build projects at this scale, including dams that would contend with typhoon storms and flooding during the wet season, farmers had to work cooperatively during the initial period of construction and continuously for the operations and maintenance of the canals to ensure water delivery across the contiguous parcels of rice fields. During the monsoon seasons, the traditional dams made from bamboo stakes, brush, sandbags and rocks were often washed out and had to be rebuilt and sometimes relocated as the river channels moved. Unlike concrete structures that are permanent but capital-intensive, in the early days the zanjeros preferred to build collapsible dams they could rebuild or relocate with their own labor and local construction materials.


Landholdings were small or none at all, as in the case of peasant and tenant farmers. From this core evolved two types of irrigation societies. Those who owned and worked their farmlands provided labor and materials for the construction of their zanjera systems, much like was done in colonial New Mexico, and they also devised plans for water distribution. These owner-operated systems likely came first since the landowners could control both land and water resources to suit their needs. Other Ilocanos were not as fortunate, especially those without landholdings. True to the ingenuity characteristic of the people from Ilocos Norte, these peasants fashioned a bold experiment that would exchange water for land. Specifically, groups of aspiring farmers offered to build diversions on the major rivers, dig out zanjas extending into the properties held by landowners and distribute water from the head to the tail-end sections of land, all in exchange for land membership shares, or atars, allocated to them by the original landowners. In exchange, each willing landowner would benefit from the water in the system to irrigate larger blocks of farmland he would retain for his own production. To structure this unique arrangement, the zanjeros and each landowner formalized a written agreement, or convenio, along with a land-division map indicating more or less equal shares of land to each farmer, often in three or four different sections of the irrigation system to ensure equity of land distribution and access to water from the head to the tail, and larger blocks of land to be retained by the landowner. These land and water arrangements were always local as to proportionality but, in a typical model, un tercio (one-third) would remain with the landowner and dos tercios (two-thirds) with the zanjeros. Once set into place, the atar lands were controlled corporately by the zanjera association.


Literature about the origins of the zanjeras is sparse, but most historians date them to around 1740, with additional ones developed by the late 1890s and into the turn of the century. Once the zanjera model was established, more systems would evolve in response to population growth, surplus labor, reduction in farm sizes and the limitations of the topography. Eventually, the headcount reached about 680 in the Ilocos Norte Province, as recorded by the National Irrigation Administration, by 1979. Another quandary is whether the zanjeras were of Spanish origin to any significant degree. The dates of construction and when they flourished coincide with the Spanish regime that began in the middle 16th century and ended in 1898. The first ethnographic report on the zanjera societies did not emerge until 1914, but, based on letters and other reports from the Augustinian missions along the Ilocos coast, the friars assigned to Ilocos Norte promoted the expansion of irrigated agriculture, including the construction of dikes and canals, as new settlements arose in the lands surrounding the missions. To date, much of the lexicon of zanjeras persists in Castilian Spanish well past the colonial regime that ended in 1898. As shown in sidebars A and B, many of the irrigation terms and names for water officials were derived from Spanish and incorporated into the native Ilocano. Ethnographic studies as late as the 1960s report that some zanjera documents continued to be found in the possession of the members, still written in Spanish, even though by then this language was no longer familiar to the zanjeros. Interestingly, the members nonetheless could recite the contents of these documents since the rules and regulations along with other agreements were handed down orally.


Water management practices appear to be modeled from Iberian traditions. Along the Ilocos coastal plains, the early churches were built between 1650 and 1700, with Spanish officials in charge of laying out the town plans. Reportedly, the Spanish friars closely supervised these newly created mission settlements and taught the natives how to parcel and clear the lands, plow and sow the fields with newly introduced plants, flowers and garden crop varieties from México and Spain, thresh grain, and store the harvest in order to supply food to a growing population. To boost the production of rice within old cultivated and new lands, parish priests directed the opening of channels starting around the last quarter of the 18th century with enlargements and expansions into dozens of towns by subsequent Augustinians throughout the 19th century. Guided by the friars, the newly constructed dikes and irrigation systems made for good rice yields, even in times of sparse rainfall. Other crops included wheat, cotton, sugar cane, cocoa and lucrative indigo for export in both Ilocos Norte and neighboring Ilocos Sur.


Operating procedures and water distribution rules in the zanjeras closely resemble the Iberian tradition as transplanted to the New World and perhaps from México to the Philippines by way of the friars. As with land shares, water shares are proportionately distributed and, in times of scarcity, a system of rotating turns per day can be implemented, called barsak in Ilocano, or a share of time allocated for the use of canal water, a concept dating back to the Ilocano ancestors. The rules for allocating water in times of scarcity can vary depending on which schedule is determined at a zanjera meeting that covers duration and the location of water distribution activities with much flexibility for these arrangements per canal or laterals. When rainfall becomes abundant again, the rotation schedule is undone.


To ensure equity of water distribution, irrigated land parcels within each zanjera are recorded and accounted for in relationship to the names listed in a journal for each zanjero. Of special interest is the fact that the length and width of each parcel is measured in metros, palmas and puntos. To divide the canal water evenly, the larger zanjeras employ a physical divisor called the padila tablon, a traditional proportional weir that takes water into laterals in proportion to the sum of water shares owned by gunglos, or section group members, within the zanjera system. Like the Valencian and New Mexican partidores, these divisors express how water shares are measured to ensure equity in flow distribution. As physical structures, they can be monitored by guards, other water officials and the sectional irrigators themselves for their own particular lateral.


Did the zanjeras derive from the Iberian model of irrigation? Likely, the friars built from existing traditions diffused into the Manila region by Chinese and other Asian traders, before the Spanish regime, as was done for wet rice cultivation. Sources for the organization of zanjera societies along the Ilocano coast to the north, however, are not known but, upon close examination, zanjera operations reflect a Spanish influence in locations where the Augustinians created new settlements for Ilocano converts that they organized and resettled. Some of the names given to the zanjeras are derived from Catholic saints, a few of which are the Zanjeras San Juan, San Marcelino, San Antonio, San José, San Blas, Santa Rosa, Santa Ana, and Santo Rosario. The strongest resemblance to the Iberian model centers on governance and institutional arrangements where the community of irrigators, in Spain, New Mexico, and Ilocos Norte determine their own rules, establish days for canal cleaning and any repairs, elect a Junta Directiva of officers who conduct administrative functions, guard and monitor their systems, impose fines (multas), for infractions or when irrigators do not contribute their share of obra (labor) and convene a Junta General (General Assembly).


As a whole, the zanjeras fulfill the criteria as corporate bodies that control and allocate resources to its members based on common ownership of the diversion structure, the main canal and, in the case of zanjeras, a kamarine (meetinghouse) as well. This factor alone makes a case for continued investigation of zanjeras and acequias as comparative irrigation societies. We hope this brief essay will stimulate additional work by all of us who are students of acequia culture. For comments or feedback, contact José Rivera:



José Rivera is a research scholar at UNM’s Center for Regional Studies and professor of planning at the School of Architecture and Planning, UNM. He is author of Acequia Culture: Land, Water, and Community and has done field research on acequias all over the world.