Abigail Agredano fears her 96-year-old mother would not survive being uprooted from their hometown in the highlands of western Mexico, where its 400 mostly elderly residents are battling a government plan to dam the nearby Río Verde.
“If they manage to force us out, I think she and many others would die immediately,” Agredano, head of the Committee to Save Temacapulín, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Damming the Río Verde would supply water for major urban areas in the state of Jalisco and neighboring Guanajuato but leave Temacapulín and the smaller villages of Palmajero and Acasico underwater.
While the dam was proposed a dozen years ago, the campaign has grown more urgent this summer since Jalisco Governor Aristóteles Sandoval abandoned a pledge he made in 2013 to save Temacapulín.
Construction of the dam was halted at 80 meters (262 ft)after a Supreme Court ruling in 2013 and, as the partially finished dam has not been sealed, the river still runs through it.
But Sandoval, a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), said in late June the government now intends to raise the Zapotillo dam to 105 meters, a height that would seal the fate of the three tiny towns.
“Saving Temacapulín is no longer an affordable option,” Sandoval said, due to growing water demands of the state capital Guadalajara, Mexico’s second biggest city.
Citing a recent study by the United Nations Office for Project Services that advocates raising the height of the dam to create a larger water supply, Sandoval has rejected alternatives such as building dykes to protect Temacapulín as half-measures that would leave local residents at risk of flooding.
Settled by indigenous tribes in the sixth century, Temacapulín lies in a fertile valley where residents grow maize, beans and chiles.
Called Temaca for short, it is known for its hot springs and an iconic stone chapel built by a Catholic priest more than 250 years ago.
It is quiet, with little noise aside from chirping birds, with leafy plazas and wide cobbled streets. A sign on a scrubby hillside overlooking the town reads “Temacapulín greets you from the sixth century.”
While many of its young people have left to seek economic opportunities in the United States, the elderly residents who remain have demonstrated, held fundraisers and lobbied lawmakers to save their town.
Many homes are marked with defiant murals, and a sign reading “Temacapulín” at the town’s entrance has been altered with spray paint to add the word “resists.”
In the days following the governor’s announcement, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside Guadalajara’s government palace to sing protest ballads and chant “Temaca is not for sale!”
Guadalupe Espinoza, a lawyer who represents many Temacapulín residents, told the crowd the project could not legally proceed due to the 2013 court ruling that suspended its construction.
But a Jalisco government spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation this hurdle could be overcome by reaching a new agreement with Guanajuato state and Mexico’s National Water Commission.
Susana Delgado, a social sciences professor at the University of Guadalajara who has studied how the threat of displacement has affected Temacapulín residents, says they are suffering stress, sleeplessness, fatigue, anger, depression and high blood pressure.
Pressure to sell their homes to the government has divided families, friends and neighbors, fuelling distrust and the stigmatization of those who do sell.
“The social fabric of the community has been torn apart,” Delgado said. “This is the product of a strategy implemented by the state to wear down those who resist displacement.”
Consuelo Carvajal, who runs a convenience store, said she has seen how the tense situation has taken its toll. She said she thinks people are suffering heart attacks and falling ill from prolonged fear and uncertainty.
“They’re worried about what will happen to their children and their homes,” she said.
Carvajal, who has lived her whole life in a spacious, 200-year-old adobe house, said authorities have threatened to seize people’s homes if they refuse to sell.
“It’s a great injustice,” she said. “These houses were built by our ancestors. We have real affection for them.”
The Jalisco government denies treating residents improperly or unfairly.
“We’re not imposing anything on them,” said Felipe Lugo, the State Water Commission (CEA) director in charge of relocation. “We ask them whether they prefer to be paid in cash or relocated in a new town.”
Lugo said the CEA has reached agreements with almost half of Temacapulín’s 344 families.
Those who agree to trade properties are relocated in Talicoyunque, a housing development built for them on a stony hilltop overlooking Temacapulín.
Talicoyunque consists of 32 modest bungalows but has no school, health center, church, shops or public transport links.
Paint is already peeling off some of the homes, and there is little fertile soil to grow crops nor space to graze livestock.
Residents only have running water for two hours on every third day, and they have not been given the deeds to their new properties, almost two years after some gave up their old homes.
Article 19, a press freedom watchdog group, recently called for greater transparency after security guards barred journalists from entering the community.
Lugo said the CEA has been assigned 335 million pesos ($18.7 million) to build more homes and infrastructure, including a well to provide a constant water supply.
Residents will have “everything they need, in optimum conditions” and will receive proof of ownership once the authorities finish revising the deeds to their former properties, he said.
Many of those still in Temacapulín remain unconvinced.
“Sometimes we feel tired from fighting for so long,” Agredano said. “But our love for our town gives us the strength to keep going.”
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Reporting by Duncan Tucker, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org