February 2015

NM Acequias and World Heritage: A Proposal


Carlos Ortiz Mayordomo and Lina Gracia


The nomination of Acequias of New Mexico to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity has been proposed by various groups worldwide, with the goal of promoting validation, conservation and transmission of traditional knowledge and practice. Acequias have always enabled the sustainable and productive use of community lands. The landscape created by traditional agricultural systems over time has become part of a regional identity. The acequias of New Mexico are an immense cultural heritage, sustained over many generations. Today, they are subdivisions of the state. A great body of research and practice already exists that documents the social and institutional functions of acequias. The proposed nomination is so fully substantiated that the next strategic steps will involve coordination and reflection rather than more research.

The character of each tradition on the World Heritage List, and the authenticity of each, is based on its Universal Exceptional Value. The process of identifying these aspects is described in the Operational Guidelines of UNESCO, with 10 Criteria of Recognized Value (http://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/). For a heritage tradition to be listed requires that it meet at least one of these. The acequias of the Americas, of which those of New Mexico are notable examples, represent the Western dissemination of these techniques, perfected in the Arab world during the Middle Ages. The tradition took root in the Iberian Peninsula and was transmitted to the Americas by Spain. The creation of these communal systems in a new setting is the final stage in their transmission. A system already recognized by UNESCO that shares many traits with the Acequias of New Mexico is the Palmeral de Elche, a millennial oasis community in southern Spain, crisscrossed by acequias and groves of date palms, citrus and gardens. The UNESCO criteria applied there would be the same ones deployed for New Mexico. But which specific acequias would be nominated? Several years ago, the New Mexico Acequia Association voted for recognition of the tradition itself, rather than a particular place or example. But the selection of such a place might be necessary for the nomination process. Inclusion on the list is not easy. In recent years, UNESCO has considered countries with less influence and little representation. It would be advisable to build upon a place already recognized, such as Taos Pueblo, which has been a World Heritage site since 1992.

Since 1992, the multidimensionality of the values that constitute Heritage has evolved a lot. The architectural character of Taos Pueblo and its continuity were emphasized, according to UNESCO criterion iv, “to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technologial ensemble or landscape which illustrates significant stages in human history.” But the documentation of pueblo culture, which emphasized the buildings and their protection, was not profound. Today, the pueblo community would perhaps be interested in revising and broadening the scope to include criterion ii, “to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town planning or landscape design.” Addressing criterion vi, “to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance” would recognize the sacred character of Blue Lake and the buffalo pasture near the pueblo.

An example of the difficult but positive relationship between the pueblo and the Acequias of Taos valley can be found in the Abeyta Accords of 2012, in which the pueblo and the Taos Valley Acequia Association (TVAA) participated. This accord establishes the basis for a lasting collaboration between the groups. Abeyta defines a clear territorial base that could tighten the geographic area for the UNESCO proposal—the Acequias of Taos, not in and of themselves, but representing, as well, all those acequias in the hemisphere constructed in collaboration with native groups.

Because of its spiritual significance and link with the acequia world, the Santuario de Chimayó could also align with criterion vi. It is one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage destinations in the United States, the center of social, cultural and spiritual life and a depository of a valuable Intangible Heritage.

An ideal collaboration between the Acequias and the Pueblo of Taos could meet the UNESCO criteria and expand the geographical definition of the “Pueblo of Taos” so that:

It be included with the TVAA with the name “Pueblo and Acequias of Taos Valley”

The criteria of inscription for the “Pueblo and Acequias of Taos Valley” be related to the recognition of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (south of the U.S. border and on through New Mexico), listed by UNESCO in 2010, given its historic linkage with Taos.

The historic collaboration between TVAA and Taos Pueblo be recognized for the creation of a territorially defined cultural landscape in contiguous spaces that share the same natural resources.

The values inherent in the Acequias be recognized for their importance in an economy of common good, for nurturing an important agrobiodiversity, the use of multiple languages and more.

From the perspective of the Acequias, the case to be made to UNESCO would address, as a minimum, criteria ii, iv and vi. A possible motto for the project would be the popular saying used during planting and harvest time: “Una para nos, otra para vos, y otra para los animalitos de Dios (One for us, one for you, and another for God’s little animals).”

Towards this goal, I would propose these ideas to construct an ambitious proposal with profound meaning. The incorporation of the Acequias of New Mexico in the UNESCO List would give universal recognition to their resilience, principles and values demonstrated during their lengthy history. The memory of Estévan Arellano and other respected leaders calls for the participation of all those who can offer their efforts to guarantee the future of this extraordinary cultural landscape.



Carlos Ortiz Mayordomo of Elche, Spain, has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and a graduate degree in environmental sciences. He has conducted research on landscape evaluation, heritage and chemistry. Now retired, he keeps active in the study of traditional food production. carlormay@gmail.com

Lina Gracia of Spain has a Ph.D. in biology. She has specialized in environmental management and natural resources and has conducted research on Elche’s palmgrove, landscape evaluation and heritage.



What Are Acequias?

Acequias are the age-old, hand-dug, gravity-fed irrigation ditches in northern New Mexico that make possible the cultivation of locally grown food. But they represent much more than that. As a social system implanted into the hydrological cycle for community subsistence, acequias constitute a place-based knowledge of watershed, intertwined with food traditions, community and culture. They are an instructive example of democratic self-governance, stewardship and sharing of resources. They are also the defining structure of their ecosystem. The unlined ditches allow water to seep into and recharge local aquifers, providing a rich riparian zone for wildlife, shade trees and native plants.

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