When José May decided to begin accepting tourists at the cenote on his land in Homún, Yucatán, he first had to ask permission with a ceremony. His family cooked for several days to prepare. They summoned the jmeen, the Mayan priest, to officiate the ritual. After sacrificing chickens and installing an altar, the jmeen pronounced the words that the Mayans have repeated for generations over the sacred bodies of water. “We have the belief that we can get sick by invading space that does not belong to us. There is an energy inside the cenote that tells you that there is an owner. That is why we always ask permission to work it,” May says. And if humans have to request permission to drink its water, and for tourists to visit it and swim, why shouldn’t the cenote have its own rights–like not being polluted?
The question resonates with May, one of the indigenous people of Homún who is fighting for the Cenotes Ring of Yucatan to be recognized by the Mexican authorities as a subject of law. It is the latest legal offensive undertaken by the indigenous group Kana’an Ts’onot which translates as Guardians of the Cenotes, to try to stop the underground lakes’ rapid deterioration. The causes of pollution are multiplying. In addition to the longtime threats, such as hotel developments or the lack of wastewater treatment, new contaminants have appeared, such as soybean monocultures, the indiscriminate use of pesticides, the proliferation of pig farms and, more recently, the Maya Train megaproject. In a region where the karstic soil, made of porous limestone, allows most of the surface waste to pass into the aquifer, the factors are a perfect storm.
The Guardians of the Cenotes sent a letter of demands to president Andrés Manuel López Obrador last February. The letter was also addressed to local and state authorities and the federal secretariats in charge of ensuring the environment and water quality. Only the latter, the National Water Commission, has responded to the letter three months later. Lourdes Medina, a lawyer with the NGO Indignación, which has accompanied the indigenous group in the process, explains that the authorities are obliged to respond to this type of request. Their failure to respond is a “de facto denial.” So the group has taken the next step: preparing an injunction that they will present later this month in federal court in the city of Mérida.
The lawsuit comes in the wake of cases that have recognized the rights of nature in other parts of the world, including the Mar Menor in Spain and the Atrato River in Colombia. The key to this kind of initiative, explains Medina, is that “they give nature legal status, which means that its rights can be defended directly in a court of law.” Although the injunction is “ecocentric”–that is, it focuses on the importance of cenotes beyond the benefits they offer people–the figure of the “guardian” is key: there must be a group responsible for the…