February 2015

Safeguarding the Global Cultural Heritage of Community Acequias


Luis Pablo Martínez


Acequia cultural landscapes provide impressive testimony on the interdependence of cultural and natural heritage, as well as on how heritage can effectively contribute to the promotion of intercultural dialogue and sustainability. The word acequia itself embodies a long and fascinating history of cultural transfer from Arab to Iberian and, later, to American contexts.


When the Iberian Peninsula was incorporated into the Muslim World with the name of Al-Andalus (711 A.D.), the Arab and Berber newcomers found a land that was in deep decline since the times of the late Roman Empire, centuries earlier. The situation was brilliantly reversed in a few centuries, as the breathtaking sites of the Mosque of Córdoba and the Alhambra of Granada demonstrate. The splendor of Al-Andalus was indeed an effect of the agrarian revolution promoted by Muslim rulers and farmers. A wise and innovative synthesis of local and foreign irrigation knowledge integrated by the best practices of the Greco-Roman, Berber, Egyptian, Syrian, Mesopotamian, Arab and Persian water cultures made possible the extension of agriculture throughout the otherwise arid and semiarid landscape that characterizes Mediterranean Spain.


The subtle design of the irrigation systems of Al-Andalus allowed a single canal to serve a wide range of uses, from providing drinking water for human consumption and livestock to supplying water for local traditional crops—wheat, vineyards and olive trees, to name a few—and new crops imported from as far as lndia and China—rice, sugar cane, orange trees and more. Besides agriculture, acequias drove water wheels and mills, fed tanneries and dye works, supplied public baths and permitted waste disposal for village and urban communities. Water was used and reused to the fullest in Andalusi acequias, representing sustainability in the truest sense of the word.


The Andalusi design has left its imprint as much in the physical irrigation networks—the tangible side of acequia cultural landscapes—as in the institutional arrangements devised for guaranteeing the proper conservation and operation of the whole hydraulic system—the intangible side of acequia landscapes. Far from relying on state-controlled, despotic institutional frameworks, Andalusi acequia systems were governed in an autonomous, democratic and bottom-up process by its users, organized in communities of irrigators. Acequia water was viewed as common property, and the users’ annual cooperative work required for keeping the system operational was essential for cohesion and identity in local communities.


The value of acequia systems is not only cultural but also environmental. The ditches—often simple trenches dug in the earth—promoted the extension of riparian habitats far beyond natural streams to which acequia waters, driven by gravity, returned after having met the needs of irrigation. Acequia systems replicated the natural cycle of water.


Between the 13th and 15th centuries, the superb acequia landscapes of Valencia, Murcia and Granada in Spain fell into the hands of the Christian kings of Aragón and Castile. Far from rejecting them for cultural or religious reasons, the Christian newcomers committed themselves to their preservation and even enlargement. And between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Spanish colonists made use of acequias to consolidate new settlements throughout arid and semiarid parts of the Americas and even to the northern Philippines.


Despite its great historic, cultural and environmental significance, acequia heritage has received little recognition until now. Only a few sites on the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List have been selected because of the significance of their traditional acequia or acequia-related irrigation systems, like the Palmeral of Elche, Spain, the Aflaj of Oman, or the cultural landscape of Bam, Iran. But there is an increasing interest in the rediscovery and promotion of acequia values. Experts in human development have pointed out the role that existing, self-organized acequia communities play in the successful introduction of new development policies and projects. Likewise, biologists and ecologists cite the contribution of traditional acequias to biodiversity and the sustainable use of water. Geographers, historians and archaeologists are learning how to read acequia landscapes for their historical content. And, above all, the irrigators themselves—such as those in the upper Río Grande basin—recognize the importance of their traditional acequias in shaping and maintaining their way of life and cultural identity. Small wonder that acequia landscapes count among the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) initiative promoted since 2002 by another U.N. agency, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization).


Nowadays, the effort to preserve and promote intangible cultural heritage under UNESCO’s leadership presents new and promising perspectives for the preservation and revitalization of acequia heritage. In 2009, the Murcian Consejo de Hombres Buenos (Council of Good Men) and the Valencian Tribunal de las Aguas (Tribunal of Waters) were inscribed jointly on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. These two traditional water courts—custodians of the Andalusi irrigation wisdom—have, since medieval times, resolved internal conflicts in a speedy, fair, inexpensive and effective manner for acequia farmers from the Segura and Turia rivers in Spain.


For sure, traditional irrigators from the Americas to Asia will push for recognition, either for the tangible and intangible items of their acequia culture or for their acequia cultural landscapes as a whole. In an age of uncertainty and conflict—often over water—acequia heritage offers a wealth of knowledge on the sustainable use of water, strengthening local communities and promoting respect and intercultural dialogue on both sides of the Atlantic and, indeed, wherever community canal irrigation exists.



Luis Pablo Martínez is a historian, anthropologist and Inspector of Cultural Heritage for the government of the Region of Valencia. He has coordinated numerous UNESCO nominations for the cultural heritage of Mediterranean Spain. luispablo.martinez@gmail.com





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