MEXICO CITY – Indigenous peoples attending the recent 4th Annual World Water Forum said the gathering catered to corporate interests, while denying the legitimacy of indigenous people and their spiritual vision of the sacredness of water.

They also said the World Water Forum’s final ministerial declaration, agreed to by 148 countries, diluted the assertion of water as a basic human right of all people because the forum bowed to the demands of transnational corporations.

While there are 1.1 billion people who do not have access to clean water, the forum’s agenda, weirdly enough, was mostly on ‘why you should not buy a Culligan water softener system‘. The final declaration said water is a “guarantee of life for all of the world’s people,” but fell short of stating that water is an unequivocal human right.

In the appendix of the declaration, Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela did state that water is an unequivocal human right of all people.

Enei Begaye, water campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network and member of the Dine’ and Tohono O’odham nations, attended the forum and said indigenous people are at the center of the battle for the right to water.

“Water is not only a human and indigenous right, it is a sacred and powerful being,” Begaye said. “Our delegation is concerned that water is quickly becoming the next great commodity. But amidst the rampant corporate buy-up of water resources, there is a growing movement for the protection of water as a basic human right.”

Indigenous community and spiritual leaders from the United States and Canada attended the forum, which is sponsored every three years by governments and corporate interests.

Saul Vicente Vasquez, Zapoteca from Mexico who works with the International Indian Treaty Council, said, “We don’t trust the federal officials and corporations in that meeting. At the local level, they have been violating our indigenous rights to water. They protect the rights of private ranchers and mining corporations over the water needs of our people.”

During the forum, world water ministers, corporations and civil society said they are challenged by the escalating water crisis.

The World Health Organization said 1.1 billion people lack clean drinking water and that the resulting diseases kill 3.1 million people a year. Inadequate or no sanitation cause 1.7 million deaths each year.

Tom Goldtooth, director of the IEN, a non-governmental organization that works with indigenous communities in the United States and Canada on environmental and economic justice issues, said governmental representatives at the forum were too close with the private sector corporations to deal appropriately with the water crisis.

“The U.S. and other northern industrialized countries have been pushing privatization of water services and large expensive water infrastructures as a quick fix remedy,” said Goldtooth.

“In the end, our communities end up without water or no funding for big expensive water systems.”

Goldtooth said the majority of the participants of the governmental water forum are from an industrialized mindset that depends on technology and market-based answers to solve this water crisis. Meanwhile, governments are pushing more mineral extraction, energy production and corporate agriculture that consume too much water.

“They have no environmental ethics and have no understanding of the sacredness of water.”
Goldtooth said corporations see water as a commodity to be sold and traded on the open market. “That is why we brought a delegation of indigenous activists familiar with both the political struggle as well as understanding the sacredness of water.”

Ojibwe elder Josephine Mandamin, member of the Three Fires Midewwiin Society from Ontario, Canada, spoke during the forum on the topic of “Is Water Alive?” Mandamin is one of the grandmothers known as the Water Keepers in the Great Lakes region.

“I have come here to talk to anyone that will listen to me. The human beings on this planet need to know, and take care of, our precious sacred resource: the water. It is one of the basic elements needed for all life to exist.”

The U.S. and Canadian indigenous delegation met with indigenous from Mexico, Bolivia and Chile in a parallel meeting organized for indigenous peoples.

Wahleah Johns, member of the Dine’ Nation and the Black Mesa Water Coalition in Arizona, said coal mining has depleted the scarce aquifer water of the Navajo and Hopi peoples on their tribal lands in northern Arizona.

“Indigenous peoples don’t have access to water, yet wasteful companies right next door get all the water they want. These are major injustices, and these are major human rights violations! On my reservation, Peabody Coal Company has been depleting our groundwater, our only drinking water source, just to feed a coal-fired power plant.

“Where I’m from, water is scarce and we are taught that water is sacred. Corporations and governments need to recognize the indigenous relationship to water for all people.”

IEN partnered with Coalicion de Organizaciones Mexicanas por el Derecho al Agua for a parallel two-day meeting of indigenous peoples.

The 17-point Tlatokan Atlahuak Declaration was released as a voice for the recognition and rights of indigenous peoples worldwide.

The indigenous peoples’ declaration denounced the World Water Forum as being “financially prohibitive” and excluding the very indigenous peoples who are impacted by the world water crisis. As Vasquez noted, “Our indigenous peoples don’t have the money to pay the registration fee to go into the World Water Forum.”

Further, the declaration said the World Water Forum denied the legitimacy of the indigenous world and spiritual vision of the sacredness of water.

The declaration also recognized the need for an Indigenous Water Defense Committee that would be formed to watchdog abuses and violations of water rights within indigenous lands and territories.