The three most threatened human rights on the planet today are the right to water, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to food. In Chihuahua these are ever-growing threats that have claimed two victims already. Ismael Osorio and Manuelita Solis, his wife, were murdered near Ciudad Cuauhtémoc on Oct. 23 while they defended these rights.

1.  When thirst is a reality

The right to water is a human right that affects farmers and their crops in the land irrigated by the Carmen River. It also affects an entire population that lacks access to water for cleaning, drinking, and cooking purposes. Water access is a growing challenge for rising populations in our cities. In Ciudad Juárez and Ciudad Jimenez, water wells dug deeper and deeper reached depths that resulted in water contamination with arsenic. Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, the source of the state’s grains and the national reserve of yellow corn, will soon exhaust the underground water reservoir that feeds its population. The state’s capital, Chihuahua, has witnessed the depletion of reservoirs in the surrounding areas and will continue to do so if the project of drilling 400 new wells in the El Cuervo Lagoon, north of the city of Aldama, is approved. These wells would accelerate depletion of the already endangered Sauz-Encinillas reservoir.

Violence can be reduced in our cities, but it will not be reduced while thirst continues to haunt our population. Agricultural irrigation is the greatest obstacle in the fulfillment of the right to water for producers and consumers alike. In Mexico, 79% of water resources are allocated to agriculture, but in Chihuahua, the figure reaches 83%. In the state, neither regulations for the concentration of water, nor well-drilling rights exist in what is known as ¨free zones of water delivery, ¨ especially in East Chihuahua. Furthermore, there is no regulation establishing water usage for food production instead of livestock grazing in zones where water is scarce. If these regulations are not put in place soon, a fatal future awaits. After all, Chihuahua only seconds the Federal District and the Baja California peninsula in terms of limited water access per person in Mexico.

2.  A cancerous environment

The right to a healthy environment is rarely valued, perhaps because we are used to bargaining adequate living standards for modern pleasures. We don´t have to go too far, however, to find two regions—Delicias and Cuauhtémoc— with increasing incidence of diseases associated with the use of agricultural chemicals: cancer, leukemia, and allergies.

Many have forgotten the miners from Chihuahua who died of silicosis in the state´s mines and the fainting girls of San Francisco del Oro in the 1980s. These events appear to be correlated with old mining methods in dark and unhealthy environments.

Ever-expanding modern mining methods in Chihuahua, however, are not less harmful to the health of mining communities and natural ecosystems. Residents of the Madera and Ocampo districts have witnessed cyanide leakages to streams flowing to the Yaqui River from big mining corporations like Dolores, as well as rampant deforestation in exchange for a few pounds of gold.

These companies actively violate the human rights of entire communities to a healthy environment, even if they are based in the middle of the desert.  They deplete thousands of acres of the endemic vegetation that contributes to sustainable agricultural practices. They hinder animal migration and break natural cycles by placing fences that enclose natural water stations for animals.  They exhaust water reservoirs, making agriculture unfeasible and causing what could be dubbed ¨desertification of deserts¨, which, in turn, contributes to lower carbon absorption and global warming due to the greenhouse effect.

3.  Hunger, the 21st Century Version

Water depletion and global warming directly affect worldwide food availability and production. Close to home, for example, lies the Tarahumara mountain range, where the population suffered an intense period of hunger as a result of a devastating drought last year. Sending seeds to the region was a futile effort, as the natural water accumulations disappeared. This is a common problem in regions along similar latitudes around the globe.

The right to food not only faces global warming as its most powerful enemy; it also faces the processes engendered by economic speculation in foods and commercial control of exclusive production zones. Investment funds—formerly invested in the manufacturing and real estate industries—are now oriented toward basic food markets. Market speculation of basic foods causes food production to be unstable and to gravely affect people´s right to food.

Bad news. The price of basic grains does not depend on supply and demand, let alone on real need. It depends on speculative operations and unstable investments in corn, wheat, rice and soybean. A piece of information: the financial crisis of 2008, had clear negative impacts on the food markets and resulted in a radical increase in malnourished people: from 860 million to 1200 million.

Corporate control of agricultural zones in developing and fertile countries—specifically those producing foods for developed nations—is a significant factor of food availability. Thus, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, South Korea, China, and even India, along with transnational companies, have purchased large extensions of land in Equatorial Africa for the production of foods. This production is included in the strategic reserve of the investing nations.  Furthermore, Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, recently announced that the world´s oceans are being monopolized and depleted. As a result, entire fishing communities are at risk of food insecurity.

4.  Ethical dilemmas and political challenges

These three fundamental human rights—the right to water, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to food—are not threatened by a faceless climatological cycle. They are threatened by the consequences of human action resulting in high numbers of negatively affected populations and a handful of beneficiaries: big agricultural and livestock corporations, mining companies and speculative oligopolies in the food markets. This powerful profit-seeking class violates these three human rights of millions of people around the globe.

Society needs to support the demands made by Ismael, Manuelita, and their neighbors in the grassroots organization El Barzon. These demands include a complete halt in operations of the El Cascabel mining company on land of Benito Juarez in the Buenaventura district; as well as a stop to well drilling in the state of Chihuahua and closing of illegal wells and exploitation of water reservoirs of the Carmen River. The proposition presented by the farmers of the Peasants Democratic Front (Frente Democrático Campesino) for government intervention in and regulation of the bean market to secure fair trade for producers and a fair price for final consumers should also be supported.

Defending these rights, in these terms, results vital for the development of human rights. We should insist on defending them and face our ethical dilemmas and political challenges.

Víctor M. Quintana is an advisor to the Democratic Farmers Front (Frente Democrático Campesino) of Chihuahua and a researcher/professor at the Autonomous University in Ciudad Juárez and collaborator with the Americas Program

Translated by Gustavo Ruiz Llopiz