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    Sistema de Información Científica

    Red de Revistas Científicas de América Latina y el Caribe, España y Portugal

    Jaramar Villarreal-Rosas

    Miguel Olmos-Aguilera

    Sociedad y Ambiente


    año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34


    Ecodegradation and Indigenous Livelihoods:

    a Case Study in Northwest México

    Degradación ecológica y modos de vida indígenas:

    un caso de estudio en el noroeste mexicano

    Jaramar Villarreal-Rosas


    Miguel Olmos-Aguilera



    Cucapá indigenous people have been facing one of the best examples of human domination over

    water resources: the colonization of the Colorado River Delta. In this research, we use the So-

    cial-Ecological Systems framework to provide insights about the inFuence that environmental

    degradation has on indigenous livelihoods, taking as a case study the processes that have affected

    the indigenous Cucapá settlement El Mayor since 1940. Using semi-structured interviews, partici-

    pant observation, and bibliographic compilation we identi±ed degradation factors, we then linked

    that information with the chronological changes in livelihoods according to the El Mayor commu-

    nity. We found that 1) the 1980’s Food, 2) the Fow of sewage drainage since 2007 and, 3) the 2010

    earthquake were the main drivers that have re-arranged the Social-Ecological System feedbacks

    inside El Mayor, disconnecting the population with the Hardy River and affecting their wellbeing.

    Furthermore, we found that negative perceptions of the river´s water quality prevent the suc-

    cessful development of recovery projects with engagement of El Mayor people. We propose that

    better ecological conditions could increase opportunities to achieve wellbeing in the community

    and strength the connections to land, however, comprehensive public policies are also necessary.


    Cucapá; livelihoods; social-ecological systems; environmental degradation; healthy

    environmental Fow


    Estudiante de doctorado en Biología de la Conservación por la University of Queensland, Australia. Maestra en Administración Inte-

    gral del Ambiente por El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, México. Líneas de interés: ecología de zonas áridas, biología de la conservación,

    manejo de áreas protegidas, pueblos indígenas y conservación. Correo electrónico: jaramarv@gmail.com


    Doctorado en Antropología Social por École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Francia. Profesor-investigador en el Departa-

    mento de Estudios Culturales, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. Líneas de interés: etnología del noroeste mexicano, etnomusicología,

    música indígena, arte indígena. Correo electrónico: olmos@colef.mx

    Ecodegradation and indigenous livelihoods: a case study in northwest



    Sociedad y Ambiente

    , año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34


    El pueblo indígena Cucapá ha enfrentado uno de los más grandes ejemplos de la dominación sobre

    los recursos hídricos: la colonización del delta del río Colorado. Se utilizan sistemas social-ecológi-

    cos para analizar la infuencia que la degradación ambiental tiene en los modos de vida indígenas,

    particularmente, los eventos de degradación ambiental que han afectado a El Mayor Cucapá desde

    1940. Se utilizaron entrevistas semiestructuradas, observación participante y compilación biblio-

    gráFca para identiFcar ±actores de degradación; dicha in±ormación ±ue ligada cronológicamente a

    los cambios en los modos de vida descritos por la comunidad: 1) la inundación de 1980; 2) el fujo

    de aguas residuales desde 2007; y 3) el terremoto de 2010, los cuales ±ueron los ±actores que, se

    encontró, han reestructurado los procesos de retroalimentación dentro de El Mayor, lo que ha

    desconectado a la población con el río Hardy y ha afectado su bienestar. Además, la percepción ne-

    gativa que la población tiene sobre la calidad del agua limita el éxito de proyectos de restauración

    y la participación de la población en ellos. Mejores condiciones ambientales podrían incrementar

    las oportunidades de bienestar para El Mayor y reforzar la conexión con el territorio, sin embargo,

    políticas públicas integrales también son necesarias.

    Palabras clave:

    Cucapá; modos de vida; sistemas social-ecológicos; degradación ambiental; cau-

    dal ecológico saludable


    Cucapá indigenous people have historically inhabited the Colorado River Valley. Recent archeolo-

    gical evidence reports settlements ±rom ~1670




    et al

    ., 2016). ²or this community, the

    river was both the provider of tools, food and shelter, as well as the pillar for intangible cultural

    elements such as the Cucapá worldview, myths and symbolisms (Reisner, 1986; Chan

    et al

    ., 2012;


    et al

    ., 2013). However, the ±ast colonization o± the Colorado River Delta beginning in the

    20th century lead to the degradation o± the ecosystem (Samaniego, 1998; Ward, 2003; Porcayo

    et al

    . 2016). It was in 1931 when a second major drought a±±ected the river’s delta, causing the

    river-based economy of the Cucapá people to break, forcing them to gradually embrace capita-

    lism (Samaniego, 1998; Gómez Estrada, 2000). Table 1 provides a chronological guide o± the main

    events that have infuenced Cucapá livelihoods in the past 500 years.


    There are important discrepancies among the antiquity o± the Cucapá settlements in the Colorado River Delta. While Porcayo

    et al


    (2016) present archaeological evidence dating ~1670 AD, other authors have estimated older dates going ±rom 1 500 B.C. (De Cesare,

    1985), 1 000 B.C. (Kelly, 1977) to 900 B.C. (Bonilla Vázquez, 2011). This is di±±erent to the linguistic studies proposing an antiquity in

    the development o± the Cucapá language o± 4 220 years (Ochoa Zazueta, 1982).

    Jaramar Villarreal-Rosas

    Miguel Olmos-Aguilera

    Sociedad y Ambiente


    año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34


    Table 1. Key events in the past 500 years in the history

    of the management of the Colorado River Basin

    and the Cucapá indigenous people

    Key historical events in the Colorado River Delta social-ecological system

    Historical and holistic




    Exploration and attempt of colonization of the Colorado River Delta by religious orders (Bonilla Vázquez,



    Signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and Gadsden Purchase (Ward, 2003).


    Cucapá people territory became binational.


    Guillermo Andrade acquired the Colorado River delta territory (Samaniego, 1998). Cucapá people were

    legally dispossessed but still free to use the territory in the traditional way (Gómez Estrada, 2000).


    Mexican attempts to colonize the area failed, and most of the population in the delta were still indigenous

    people (Sykes, 1937).

    Transition period



    First major drought in the Colorado River Delta due to the deviation to irrigate Imperial and Mexicali

    valleys. Cucapá people were unable to sustain their traditional economy and use of natural resources and

    forced to join the market economy (Gómez Estrada, 2000).


    Settlement of the Cocopah Tribal Reservation in Somerton, Arizona,


    . Free access to and use of the

    river’s resources was banned in


    (Kelly, 1977; Tisdale, 1997).


    Cucapá people on either side of the border preserved their semi-nomadic lifestyle and some of them were

    still engaged in traditional agriculture (Gómez Estrada, 2000).



    Second major drought in the Colorado River Delta due to lack of runoff in the upper basin of the Colorado

    River and the construction of Hoover Dam (1931-1935) (Gómez Estrada, 2000). Agricultural drainage

    into the Hardy River begins (Ward, 2003). Techniques for food provisioning, ceremonies, rituals, and

    legends no longer regularly practiced or taught to new generations (Gómez Estrada, 2000).





    prohibited the free border crossing of Mexican and North American Cucapá and all indigenous

    people (Gómez Estrada, 2000). Cucapá people were forced to abandon their semi-nomadic lifestyle and

    live in community as a result of the reforms on agricultural and land policy driven by the Mexican Fe-

    deral Government (Ward, 2003). Establishment of Cucapá Indígena and Cucapá Mestizo villages and

    the settlements at the banks of the Hardy River that in 1980 formed the El Mayor village (Álvarez de

    Williams, 1974a; Gómez Estrada, 2000).

    Consolidation period


    The Hardy River became a tourist destination for North Americans. El Mayor people became tourist

    service providers (Albro, 2013).


    Establishment of the Pozas de Arvizu village on land granted to


    Cucapá citizens by the The Colorado

    River Land Company (Rodríguez, 1976).


    Signing of the binational water treaty ‘Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of

    the Rio Grande” (known as the 1944 Treaty) that established a water allocation to Mexico from the Colo


    rado River of 1 850 234 000 m3 and speciFes the conditions of its distribution (


    , 1944).


    Up to this year, Morelos Dam (last dam along the Colorado River settle in Mexican territory build be-

    tween 1948-1950) received over 2.466 mill/m3 even though in the 1944 Treaty, the water allocation for

    Mexico was lower: 1.850 mill/m3 (Ward, 2003).



    Third drought in the delta due to the building of Glen Canyon Dam and Flling of Lake Powell (Stockton

    y Jacoby, 1976; Glenn

    et al

    ., 2007).

    Ecodegradation and indigenous livelihoods: a case study in northwest



    Sociedad y Ambiente

    , año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34

    Meeting popu-

    lation needs


    Flooding of the Colorado River Delta. Ecological conditions improved (Glenn

    et al

    ., 2007). Houses settled

    along the river were abandoned and the El Mayor village was created (Leonor, interview, 2014).


    First permit for commercial ±shing in fresh water, granted for El Mayor inhabitants (Bárbara, interview,


    The degradation



    Fresh water ±shing declines (Bárbara, interview, 2013). Beginning of ±shing in El Zanjón (Sabrina, in


    terview, 2014).


    Declaration of the “Biosphere Reserve of the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta” (





    , 2007).



    The Colorado River no longer reaches the Gulf of California (Mapa de la tierra de los Cucapá, 2009). The

    ±ght for ±shing rights in the NPA begins (Leonor, interview, 2014).

    Skeptical perception of water

    quality and restoration strategies


    The discharge of wastewater from the Las Arenitas Treatment Plant into the Hardy River begins (Gar



    et al

    ., 2009; Albro, 2013).


    Earthquake in Mexicali. The topography of the Hardy River was affected as well as the irrigation mo


    dules that fed the Hardy River. Several tourist camps were abandoned and the path to El Zanjón was

    damaged (Trejo Fernandez, 2012; Albro, 2013).


    The Las Arenitas arti±cial wetland began to operate, improving the drainage into the Hardy River (Gar


    cía-Hernández, 2013). Nevertheless, for El Mayor people the water is polluted and poses a threat to

    health (Bartolo, interview, 2014).


    Beginning of the pulse ²ow as stated in Minute 319 of the 1944 Treaty (


    , 2012). On May 15, the Colo


    rado River reached the Gulf of California after 54 years of irregular ²ooding patterns (since 1960) (




    Source: Prepared by the authors.

    With the impossibility of using the river as a resource provider, the necessity to ±nd a paid job and

    the pressure from the


    and Mexican governments to control indigenous people, Cucapá people

    were eventually forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and settle down (Álvarez de Williams,

    1974a; Kelly, 1977; Gómez Estrada, 2000). Nowadays, the Cucapá population is around 1 500,

    spread in three main settlements and other areas within the southern states of the


    and nor-

    thern Mexico. The three main settlements are: 1. the Cocopah Indian Tribe in Arizona,



    1 000 members (Cocopah Indian Tribe, 2014), 2. Pozas de Arvizu, Sonora, Mexico (Luque, 2012)

    with 100 inhabitants and 3. El Mayor, Baja California, Mexico with 174 inhabitants (information

    obtained during ±eldwork).

    In this investigation, we use the Social-Ecological Systems (


    ) framework as the basis

    for analyzing and understanding the relationships and interactions between Cucapá people and

    their surrounding environment. According to Berkes and Folke (1998), in a


    , biophysical and so-

    cial (in its broader sense) factors are linked through complex feedback mechanisms in continuous

    Jaramar Villarreal-Rosas

    Miguel Olmos-Aguilera

    Sociedad y Ambiente


    año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34


    adaptation. Cucapá settlements and the Colorado River Delta thus form a


    in which political,

    economic, social, cultural, and ecological events have undoubtedly infuenced Cucapá people live


    lihoods (Figure 1).

    Figure 1. Diagram showing some of the elements included in the

    Social-Ecological system of the Colorado River Delta (





    Source: Prepared by the authors.

    * Arrows downwards and the double arrow indicate that social and ecological factors interact with all the elements inside the


    , with

    those interactions continuously changing through time creating the co-evolutionary system of the Cucapá and the Colorado River. El

    Mayor people and the Hardy River (circled) are sub-systems of the




    , but at the same time, they constitute a


    itselF. Thus, in

    this research the


    under study is integrated by El Mayor population and the Hardy River feedbacks (




    ), under the question:

    how degradation Factors upon the Hardy River have infuenced El Mayor people livelihoods. Key Facts in the history oF the





    described along the text as a basis to better understand how the whole system has evolved.

    El Mayor is located at the banks of the Hardy River, this village is unique in that it is the only

    one of the main Cucapá settlements located in part of the Cucapá historical territory, a sacred

    place. Although El Mayor in its current location was established until 1980, this settlement has

    its origins in 1937 when Cucapá people were Forced to stop their semi-nomadic liFestyle and some

    Families established along the banks oF the Hardy River (Table 1). Thanks to the consistently be


    tter ecological conditions throughout the years in the Hardy River compared with the Colorado

    River main channel, the population in El Mayor continued to extract natural resources for longer

    Ecodegradation and indigenous livelihoods: a case study in northwest



    Sociedad y Ambiente

    , año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34

    than the other settlements (Table 1). Thus, from the second half of the last century (1940) until the

    period when this research was conducted (2013-2014), there were clear and speciFc degradation

    factors upon the Hardy River whose consequences on Cucapá inhabitants of El Mayor are the ob-

    ject of this research (Figure 1). Using the case study of El Mayor inhabitants we seek to provide a

    better understanding of how the transformations on ecosystems in±uence indigenous livelihoods,

    how new mechanisms and resources are adequated to alleviate one population’s tangible and in-

    tangible necessities and the associated transformation of values over the territory.


    El Mayor Cucapá village, located at km 57 of the Mexicali-San ²elipe highway, belongs to the

    district of Venustiano Carranza (


    , 2017), Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico. El Mayor village

    covers an area of 77 m2 with approximately 85 houses (²igure 2, ²igure 3). ²ield work lasted for

    a year, divided into three main stages: 1) July 2013, participant observation and informal con


    versations were held, 2) December 2013, semi-structured interviews were applied, 3) July 2014,

    the El Mayor people were informed that the research had concluded, and some data were veriFed

    with key informants. Short visits were also made throughout the year to witness key events such

    as the traditional celebration, fairs, ceremonies, and the Fshing season. Pozas de Arvizu and The

    Cocopah Indian Tribe were also visited.

    Interviews were applied to people belonging to different age groups in accordance to the

    intentional sampling criterion (Anduiza Perea

    et al

    ., 1999).


    Information obtained through the

    interviews, Feld diary and informal conversations was analyzed based on the grounded theory te


    chnique (Trinidad

    et al

    ., 2006). Information on the environmental degradation of the Hardy River

    was obtained through bibliographic compilation with the assistance of civil society and govern-

    ment organizations until the saturation point of information was reached. It is important to note

    that along the text we will use the term ‘Cucapá people’ to refer to all the Cucapá population when

    they still had a semi-nomadic lifestyle, while the term ‘El Mayor people’ will be used to specify the

    population that settled along the Hardy River banks around 1930-1940 and that later on created

    the El Mayor village.


    The results presented in this paper are part of the main author´s


    c thesis (Villarreal-Rosas, 2014). Is important to note that the

    names of the interviewees were modiFed to protect their privacy.

    Jaramar Villarreal-Rosas

    Miguel Olmos-Aguilera

    Sociedad y Ambiente


    año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34


    Figure 2. Social-Ecological System under analysis; map of the Colorado

    River Delta showing key points for Cucapá indigenous people

    Source: Prepared by the authors based on data supplied by the National Institute of Geography and Statistics (Instituto Nacional de

    Estadística y Geografía-


    ) [shapefle] 2013, Geoestatistical Frame version 6.0,


    , National Commission of Natural Protected

    Areas (Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas-


    ) [shapefle] 2014, Upper Gul± o± Cali±ornia and Colorado River Delta,

    Conanp and 2013-2014 feld work over


    , 2014 with the assistance o± Norma L. Rangel Valadés.

    Ecodegradation and indigenous livelihoods: a case study in northwest



    Sociedad y Ambiente

    , año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34

    Figure 3. Map of the Hardy River with key sites for the Cucapá

    indigenous people highlighted

    Source: Prepared by the authors based on data supplied during 2013-2014 over


    , 2014 with collaboration of Norma

    L. Rangel Valadés.

    Jaramar Villarreal-Rosas

    Miguel Olmos-Aguilera

    Sociedad y Ambiente


    año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34


    Degradation of the hardy river

    Tourist camps on the Hardy River: the consolidation of a new approach to

    the river, 1940-1980

    From 1900 to 1940 Cucapá people experienced a transition in their livelihoods strongly infuenced

    by the environmental conditions that the Colorado River Delta had along those years. Historically,

    they had a holistic use of the river (a detailed description of Cucapá people before 1900 is beyond

    the scope of this research, however, Cucapá historical livelihoods could be found at Álvarez de Wi-

    lliams, 1974b; Álvarez de Williams, 1975; Kelly, 1977; Gómez Estrada, 2000; Porcayo

    et al

    . 2016).

    Nevertheless, a±ter ±acing two major droughts, ±rom 1905 to 1907 and ±rom 1931 to 1935, together

    with other degradation events (Table 1), Cucapá people were unable to continue with their river-ba


    sed provision o± resources (Tisdale, 1997; Samaniego, 1998; Gómez Estrada, 2000; Porcayo

    et al


    2016). As a parallel process, the river provision o± intangible livelihoods also changed. Ceremonies,

    rituals, and legends were no longer regularly practiced or passed on (Gómez Estrada, 2000).

    The construction o± Glen Canyon Dam and ²lling o± Lake Powell provoked a third major

    drought that lasted ±rom 1958 to 1983 (Stockton and Jacoby, 1976; Glenn

    et al

    ., 2007). Despite the

    desolated environmental conditions in the Delta, the Hardy River received two extra water con-

    tributions: 1) drainage from the agricultural valley of Mexicali that runs through the Hardy River

    since 1930 (Ward, 2003) and 2) over 2 466 mill/m


    received at Morelos Dam until 1955 that were

    directly discharged to the Hardy river (Ward, 2003). With these water contributions, environmen


    tal conditions in the Hardy River were su±²cient to provide ±ood and other resources that El Mayor

    people had direct access to in the event of economic scarcity. For example, they gathered pechita

    (mesquite pods) and the center of the common rush, they hunted rabbits and drank water directly

    ±rom the river (Yazmin, interview, 2014, 78 years old). El Mayor people interviewed recall this pe


    riod with nostalgia and be±ore all the degradation ±actors started, when ²shing was solely to meet

    their own needs and the river was the physical space were most of the learning and socializing was

    made when they were children.

    “When I was hungry, i± I had an old throw net I used it to ²sh, and I ate what I caught, without tor


    tillas or lard, nothing else, nothing” – Yazmin (interview, 2014, p. 150, 78 years old).

    The beauty o± the Hardy River attracted tourism ±rom Cali±ornia and Arizona, the owners o± the

    land nearby the river started renting lots for RV parking, that eventually turned into camps (hou-

    ses ±or rent) (Albro, 2013). El Mayor people, on the other side, couldn´t meet their needs only with

    Ecodegradation and indigenous livelihoods: a case study in northwest



    Sociedad y Ambiente

    , año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34

    the extraction of natural resources. This is how the establishment of tourist camps along the Hardy

    River in the early 1940s became a secure and constant income for El Mayor people, although some

    of the population also found employment picking cotton. Among the activities that El Mayor people

    developed in the touristic camps were: keepers of the houses while the owners were away, worked

    as servants, guides, guards, watchmen, cleaners, cookers and helpers. Shops were settled around

    to offer food and services such as tire repair, boat and Jet Ski rent (Albro, 2013).

    “It was so pretty, there were lots of trees, bigger than this [points to a lamppost], we climbed up the

    branches and from the top we dived into the middle of the river. And then we played to see who could

    dive in and come out of the water on the other side of the river […]. I was about 6 years old and my

    other brothers were about 9 years old or less and my brother was about 12. It was so wide [the river]

    it was as wide as from here to the church, ships could sail on it” –Yazmin (interview, 2014, p. 152,

    78 years old).

    The period from 1940 to 1980 represents the consolidation of a transition process in Cucapá cultu


    re, with clear transformations in the interactions inside the Social-Ecological system of the Colora-

    do River Delta (




    ) (Figure 1). Beginning with what we are naming as the ‘Holistic period’ in

    which the Colorado River was the basis of world view, the space for social interaction, rituals, and

    ceremonies, as well as the provider of personal care resources, food, tools, medicine and all aspects

    of Cucapá living (Table 1). Passing through the ‘Transition period’ in which the complex links in


    side the




    where drastically transformed in a parallel process to the fast colonization of the

    delta region (Table 1), and Fnally reaching a ‘Consolidation period’. The Frst two periods refer to

    wider processes affecting the whole Cucapá culture and population, this categorisation, although

    may be considered as over simpliFed, helps understand the context under which El Mayor people

    livelihoods are analysed.

    It is from the ‘Consolidation period’ that we start refering to El Mayor people, in clear

    recognition that from 1940 the social-ecological factors for this village were unique, and required

    an independent analysis from the other Cucapá settlements (Table 1, ±igure 1). By this period,

    El Mayor people were already dependent upon the market economy with the direct extraction of

    resources (by then reduced mostly to Fshing and gathering) converted into a complementary or

    recreational activity, and the ritual life including war or adulthood ceremonies inexistent (Table

    1). Nevertheless, it should be highlighted that the Hardy River was still strongly regarded as a

    vital historical space to learn about Cucapá cosmology, about the river resources and stories of its

    richness and greatness, as well as a social space for community interaction and housing (Table 1).

    Jaramar Villarreal-Rosas

    Miguel Olmos-Aguilera

    Sociedad y Ambiente


    año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34


    Environmental events: changes in El Mayor livelihoods, 1980-2014.

    From 1979 to 1989 excess fows at the Colorado Basin caused fooding in Mexico. The reasons ±or

    the excess water were, ²rst, that Lake Powell in Glen Canyon Dam ²nally reached its storage

    capacity. Second, the meterological events of El Niño that provoked over rains and snows along




    et al

    ., 2007). As a measure to prevent the collapse o± di±±erent dams over the


    , huge quantities o± water were allowed to fow in the Colorado River natural channel (Piechota

    et al

    ., 1997). For the environment, this meant the recovery o± approximately 600 million m


    of wet-

    lands and riparian vegetation (Glenn

    et al

    ., 2007). El Mayor people, however, recall 1980 fooding

    as the event that forced them to change their last 40 years of interactions with the Hardy River,

    even though the population recognize the bene²ts the extra water brought to the environment the

    ²rst years a±ter the fooding.

    This section is divided into ±our speci²c events that El Mayor people indicated as ±actors

    that gradually changed the environmental conditions in the river, and with it their livelihoods.

    The fooding o± the Colorado River a±±ected us greatly. First it was a bene²t but eventually it le±t

    us in a situation that really a±±ected us. For me and ±or the people that used to ²sh here, the period

    when there was water in the Salada Lagoon was bene²cial. It was like a 10 years’ food in the whole

    area. It was necessary to move the highway because the water went as far as the old highway, so

    they raised the highway. But in the end, it was a disaster. The river channel changed, and then it

    got blocked, it was deep and then it got blocked ending up being short – Bárbara (interview, 2014,

    p. 156, 50 years old).

    Flooding of the delta: meeting El Mayor people’s needs, 1980-1990

    The consequences o± the fooding o± the Colorado River delta varied depending on the time that

    elapsed since the beginning o± the fooding. El Mayor people described the initial consequences

    o± the fooding as negative ±or the ±ollowing reasons: a) El Mayor people were ±orced to abandon

    their homes along the Hardy River and obliged to set in a different space, which is now El Mayor

    village. This new li±estyle increased tensions between them as they were used to settle in ±amily

    groups, separate from other families. b) Moreover, living in El Mayor entailed the use of public

    services such as drinking water, electricity, gas, schools and doctors that were mentioned by the

    population as ±actors that distanced them ±rom their traditions, c) One o± their main sources o±

    income, the tourist camps, were severely affected, d) Due to the enormous amount of sediment and

    debris that was washed up during the fooding, water quality declined signi²cantly, causing skin

    and gastrointestinal diseases (Bárbara, interview, 2014, 50 years old).

    Ecodegradation and indigenous livelihoods: a case study in northwest



    Sociedad y Ambiente

    , año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34

    In fact, [on the banks of the river] there are still vestiges of the little houses we had. I remember that

    my grandmother was crying and picking her things out of the water, picking up her clothes, her be-

    longings so she could get out. We had set aside a boat and threw in the stuff, and she was crying and

    crying because she had to leave her house and we moved to the highest part, to the village, where

    El Mayor is now. That was about, how much? 150 m far from where we were before, but it was the

    highest part […] we got out with boards and that was how, like that, we started to settle under the

    mesquite trees, until the government helped us to build wood houses with asbestos roofs. It was not

    that long ago that they helped us to change them because, I was doing some research, and asbestos

    roofs cause cancer –Leonor (interview, 2014, p. 122, 43 years old).

    Despite the negative consequences of the Fooding, once the river channel was stabilized, the river

    resources became the main source of income and not only used in the event of economic scarcity,

    what makes a strong difference from the last period described (1940-1980). During this period

    livelihoods were expanded and diversi±ed: a) tourist camps rapidly recovered from the Foodings,

    in fact they expanded due to tourism attracted by the radiant recovery of the river, b) it became

    possible to extract resources for direct consumption: mainly ±shing but they gather also medicinal

    plants, mesquite pods or hunting of rabbits, c) with the abundance of aquatic resources commercial

    fresh water ±shing, a new livelihood, was established.

    Commercial ±shing appeared at this decade and the ±rst ±shing cooperatives were establi


    shed. The main ±shery sites were the Salada Lagoon and the Hardy River. People ±shed mainly

    largemouth bass and lizas, although they also ±shed yellow and white cat±sh, white and black

    crappie, common carp, and shrimp (Bárbara, interview, 2014, 50 years old). ²ish buyers from

    Mexicali, Chihuahua and other cities went directly to the village (Danilo, interview, 2014, 50 years

    old), where the trade was made. During this period recreation and social interaction activities

    were mainly done inside or along the river. Elder residents of El Mayor recall this decade as one of

    abundance and ful±llment.

    In the morning, you could catch up to 300-400 kg of ±sh a day, even if you only managed to catch 100

    kg daily it was a good day […] there were lots of buyers, you did not have to worry about anything.

    On the banks of the river there was a man with scales, weighing, buying, and paying for the ±sh. You

    did not have to worry about anything. Now it is not worth it for the buyers to come, people just catch

    100 kg in a whole week. In those years, in one night I caught 400 kg of shrimp there in the river, up

    in the Salada [lagoon]. There were lots of ±sh, there were a source of life –Horacio (interview, 2014,

    p. 136-140, 40 years old).

    Jaramar Villarreal-Rosas

    Miguel Olmos-Aguilera

    Sociedad y Ambiente


    año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34


    Drought in the delta: the degradation begins, 1990-2006.

    During this period, freshwater Fshing activities declined, water levels fell off every year until

    1999 when the Colorado River stopped ±owing into the Gulf of California,


    staying completely dry

    from Morelos Dam to the Upper Gulf of California (Mapa de la tierra de los Cucapá, 2009). As a

    result, the concentration of fertilizers and pesticides increased and the amount of Fshery resources

    became so scarce that El Mayor people gradually abandoned the Hardy River and Salada Lagoon

    Fshing areas (²igure 2).

    We were happy to catch Fsh by the ton, but then the Colorado River was blocked; it had a lot of

    problems. We ended up being very tired after spending all day electroFshing, we threw the net thou


    sands of times only to catch 10 or 15 kg of Fsh. We caught some catFsh, which were all sick, thin.

    There was no Fshing for us anymore. My mom and my little brother went on Fshing, they started

    Fshing in the drains and for the few Fsh that were left in the rivers. And well, that was very poor

    Fshing, that was not enough for the gas and for all that going and coming and my brother ended up

    working in construction and my mom started selling handcrafts –Bárbara (interview, 2014, p. 140,

    50 years old).

    Due to the increasing difFculty of Fshing in fresh water, El Mayor people moved downstream to

    the south, as far as the junction of the Colorado River and the Gulf of California, an area known as

    ‘El Zanjón’ (²igure 2) where new Fshing cooperatives were created to Fsh ‘Gulf corvina.


    El Mayor

    people, even in the historical use of the territory, rarely used this area for Fshing for their own con


    sumption, it was the necessity to Fnd a new source of income what forced them to create this new

    livelihood. In 1993, the ‘Biosphere Reserve of the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta’

    was decreed (²igure 2). During the Frst Fve years of the establishment of the reserve, there were

    no con±icts and the Fshing organizations were successfully consolidated. After this period, however,

    Fshing in the reserve was restricted, affecting Fshing at El Zanjón. While fresh water activities decli


    ned, sea Fshing has been gaining force throughout the years until the present, and now is considered


    The enormous demand of water, infrastructure for water storage and the policies under which is regulated are the reasons that have

    gradually decreased the levels of water running along the Colorado River Basin and that have prevented a constant ±ow reaching the

    sea since 1960 to date (


    , 2014). Along the text key dams and major droughts and ±oodings have been pointed out, however, there

    should be noted that the management of the Colorado River is extremely complex, there are more than 100 dams built along the Co-

    lorado River Basin, including Morelos Dam in Mexico (National Geographic, 2014). The water of the river is managed and allocated

    for agriculture, urban and industrial purposes between the states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Nuevo Mexico, Arizona and

    California in the


    and Baja California and Sonora in Mexico (González Casillas, 1991). In the


    , the management is stated under the

    1929 Colorado River Compact (González Casillas, 1991) and under the 1944 water treaty for the ‘Utilization of Waters of the Colorado

    and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande’ as a binational agreement between Mexico and




    , 1944).


    Gulf corvina (

    Cynoscion othonopterus

    ) is an endemic species from the Upper Gulf of California. This species became commercially

    extinct in 1980 and is now being threatened again by current Fshing practices (Paredes

    et al

    ., 2010).

    Ecodegradation and indigenous livelihoods: a case study in northwest



    Sociedad y Ambiente

    , año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34

    the main economic activity for most of the population in El Mayor. The fact that El Zanjón is part

    of a Cucapá historical territory has made El Mayor people to embrace Fshing in El Zanjón as a link

    to their ancestors, and the basis upon they are building their contemporary identity


    . Those reasons

    make El Mayor people to Fght for the right to continue with this activity despite the several restric


    tions that the Mexican government puts on Fshing in this area due to conservation issues. Most of

    the recent Cucapá literature focuses on this con±ict, more information could be found in Morales

    Aguilar (2015); Mora Reguera (2016); Muehlmann (2013); Navarro Smith (2008); Navarro Smith

    (2011); Navarro Smith (2016); Navarro Smith

    et al

    . (2010); Navarro Smith

    et al

    . (2014)

    Together with the scarcity of Fshing resources, the low ±ow of the Hardy River affected the

    elaboration of arrowweed, common rush and willow houses. According to Ofelia (interview, 2014,

    70 years old), those houses, that were already uncommon, ceased to be used after the 1980 ±ooding

    due to the difFculty to Fnd the materials to build them, as well as the bigger effort needed to build

    them. Willow bark was also used to build roofs to celebrate traditional ceremonies and to elaborate

    willow bark skirts that were no longer commonly used but were sold as handcrafts, these skirts are

    infrequently still elaborated.

    During this period, it became impossible for El Mayor people to use the Hardy River to meet

    all their economic and social-cultural needs. However, once again, the Hardy River did not lose all

    its ecosystem functions thanks to the agricultural drainage from Irrigation District 014 in the Mexi-

    cali Valley. This enabled the Hardy River to keep providing recreational services and to be used as a

    stock of consumption resources only to affront economic scarcity, similar to the conditions described

    during the 1940-1980 period. As well, touristic camps were still functioning and some of the popu-

    lation still had their jobs. Driven by the necessity to Fnd other sources of income, El Mayor people

    started gaining proFt handcrafting and kuri kuri singing and dancing (Bárbara, interview, 2014,

    50 years old). These cultural activities were believed to have been discontinued by the beginning

    of the 20


    century (Garduño, 2011), however, they have been reemerging in adaptation to the new

    socio-political context and with great importance for the contemporary Cucapá identity.

    Waste water discharge: skeptical perception of water quality, 2007-2014

    According to the El Mayor population, in 2007 a second major degradation event occurred: the

    launching of the ‘Las Arenitas’ Wastewater Treatment Plant (²igure 2) run by the Mexicali State

    Commission for Public Services (Comisión Estatal de Servicios Públicos de Mexicali-


    ). An

    agreement between the Sonoran Institute and


    stated that 30% of the discharge from the


    This process is also identiFed and discussed in further studies made by Navarro Smith and Cruz Hernández (2015) and Navarro

    Smith (2016).

    Jaramar Villarreal-Rosas

    Miguel Olmos-Aguilera

    Sociedad y Ambiente


    año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34


    treatment plant had to be sent to the Hardy River for restoration purposes (


    , 2012). The frst

    months after Las Arenitas was inaugurated the water was not correctly treated, which entailed

    the discharge of water with much higher levels of fecal coliforms and other pollutants than the

    ones permitted under Mexican oFfcial norms (García-Hernández

    et al

    ., 2009). Residents claimed

    that water from the Hardy River was very poor quality, with an unpleasant odor and green color.

    The massive death oF fsh and increased gastrointestinal illnesses among the population because oF

    the pollution oF the river (Albro, 2013) conducted to the temporarily cancellation oF the wastewater

    discharge into the Hardy River (García-Hernández

    et al

    ., 2009).

    Things are going From bad to worse because we do not have any water, and the little that gets here is

    dirty and polluted –Bartolo (interview, 2014, p. 157, 60 years old). Now you cannot even dive in the

    river because it is all polluted, it is sewage from Mexicali, imagine. Even if they say that they clean

    the water by up to 90%, how could the water be clean! You cannot go there because oF the chemicals

    and other debris they dump in the water –Bárbara (interview, 2014, p. 157, 50 years old).

    Under these circumstances, the Few commercial fshers that remained in the Hardy River had to

    cope with the diFfculty oF commercializing the fsh in Mexicali, due to buyers’ concerns over the

    river’s pollution. At the same time, selF-provisioning oF fsh became minimal, touristic camps co


    llapsed and people avoided going to the river, all due to the high risk of getting sick.

    I do not sell a lot oF fsh anymore because people said that the water was polluted, people have said

    that the water is not polluted too but in the end, people do not want to buy it –±elix (interview, 2014,

    p. 160, 30 years old).

    River pollution reached a peak in 2008, which lasted until 2009 when the creation oF a wetland

    next to the Las Arenitas treatment plant helped improve water quality (Zamora-Arroyo and San


    tiago, 2010). The run oFF From the treatment plant and the Las Arenitas artifcial ecosystem has

    helped enhance the health of the Hardy River from an ecological perspective.


    The main benefts oF


    The wetlands oF the Hardy River are invaded by the alien species Tamarix ramosissima (Zamora-Arroyo

    et al

    ., 2005). The ²ow oF

    the river is mainly composed oF agricultural drainage (Albro, 2013; Trejo ±ernandez, 2012) with a runoFF oF approximately 7.5 to 13.6

    annual mm3 (Zamora-Arroyo

    et al

    ., 2005; Albro, 2013) and an estimated content oF 70 000 tons oF Fertilizers and 400 000 litters oF insec


    ticides per year (Calvo ±onseca, 2010). The ²ow oF urban sewage is 0.55 m3/s (García-Hernández

    et al

    ., 2009). High salinity levels and

    presence oF Fecal coliForms are pollutants associated to agricultural and urban sewage respectively (Calvo ±onseca, 2010). Eventhough

    the Hardy River is considered a highly degradated habitat, is at the same time the most extensive patch of continuos vegetation in

    the Colorado River Delta, what makes the Hardy River a key habitat For migratory and local birds, mammals and fsh communities


    et al

    ., 2009) and a restoration priority For conservationists (Zamora-Arroyo

    et al

    ., 2005). ±undamental to maintain

    the wetlands along the Hardy River is the input oF Fresh water (Calvo ±onseca, 2010; Hinojosa-Huerta

    et al

    ., 2009). Hence, under an

    ecological perspective, an increase in the ²ow oF Fresh water that could help lower the concentration oF salinity and Fecal coliForms is po


    Ecodegradation and indigenous livelihoods: a case study in northwest



    Sociedad y Ambiente

    , año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34

    draining the treated water to the river are: 1.- the decrease in the annual average salt concentra-

    tion and the decrease in the seasonal variability, 2.- decrease in fecal concentration (García-Her


    nández, 2013). With better water quality, the number and abundance of species has increased as

    well as their distribution along the river (García-Hernández

    et al

    ., 2009).

    There are other projects that governmental and non-governmental organizations like the

    Sonoran Institute and Pronatura have been trying to introduce in the community to help alleviate

    poverty and offset the loss of natural resources. An example of this efforts was the creation in 1999

    of the Ecological Association of Hardy-Colorado Rivers Users (Asociación Ecológica de Usuarios

    del río Hardy-Colorado







    ) comprising representatives of the agricultural, tourism and

    Fshery sector as well as one Cucapá family (


    , 2006). They achieved the building of ‘El Ta


    pón’, a retaining barrier made of sand and reinforced with rocks. ‘El Tapón’ was built between 2002

    and 2003, is located south of the area known as ‘El Riñon’ on the Hardy River (±igure 3). The aim

    of this structure is to raise the water level in the south part of the river (±igure 3) to encourage the

    growth of native ²ora and fauna (Zamora-Arroyo

    et al

    ., 2005). According to the Sonoran Institute

    and Pronatura reports, ‘El Tapón’ has ²ooded 405 ha as well as contributing to ecoturism, acuacul


    ture and recreational activities (Zamora-Arroyo

    et al

    ., 2005).

    Although El Mayor inhabitants generally admit that the water quality of the river has

    improved, they never mentioned to know the existence of the wetland nor how it helps to improve

    the water quality of the Hardy River. For most of El Mayor people, the fact that the water comes

    from a treatment plant implies the risk of getting skin or gastrointestinal diseases, as well, El

    Mayor people still perceive the river as polluted or unable to provide enough resources to meet

    their needs. In interview with ofFcials from the Sonoran Institute and Pronatura, they claim that

    the projects intended in the Hardy River have failed due to the Cucapá’s lack of organization and

    enthusiasm in trying to recover their sacred territory and the ecosystem. We suggest that the main

    reason those projects have failed in achieving successful engagement is that the community of El

    Mayor perceive river conditions as poor, regardless of what scientiFc studies say. This gap between

    environmental science and local community perception has signiFcant negative implications for

    sitive. Water quality of the Hardy River was assessed from 2006 to 2008 in García-Hernández

    et al

    . (2009), other studies using similar

    water quality indicators were done in 2010 by Calvo ±onseca (2010) and 2013 by García-Hernández (2013). The information reported

    in these studies clearly indicate better water quality after the establishment of the wetland and improvement in the water treatment

    system. García-Hernández

    et al

    . (2009) reported salinity values going from 6 469 ppm to 4 416 ppm before and after the starting off of

    the treatment plant. Meanwhile, Calvo ±onseca (2010) reports a salinity concentration going from 19.19 mS/cm in 2005 vs 7.78 mS/cm

    in 2008. Regarding the fecal concentration, García-Hernández

    et al

    . (2009) found between 2007 and 2008 a fecal concentration of 686



    /100 ml (during the peak pollution point), while in the period 2008-2009 the concentration decreased from 2 195


    /100 ml to



    /100, the decrease in concentration was directly attributed to the ²ow comming from Las Arenitas treatment plant. In 2013,

    García-Hernández (2013) found fecal concentrations complying with the parameters established in the


    -242 of the Health Depart


    ment (Secretaría de Salud). García-Hernández

    et al

    . (2009) also reports that the Fsh community in the river is recoverying based on

    the increase in abundance, lenght and species richness she found. Finally, Hinojosa-Huerta

    et al

    . (2009) considers the ²ow from Las

    Arenitas as fundamental in preserving the wetlands of the Hardy River, and therefore the diversity and abundance of the community

    of birds of the area, integrated of species that are rare or uncommon in other sections of the delta.

    Jaramar Villarreal-Rosas

    Miguel Olmos-Aguilera

    Sociedad y Ambiente


    año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34


    the El Mayor people, since no project is likely to be accepted as far as the perception of the river

    continues to be negative.

    Earthquake: skepticism over the river conditions to recover, 2010-2014

    On the 4


    of April 2010, an earthquake ranked 7.2 on the Richter scale occurred 60 km southeast

    of Mexicali on the Cerro Prieto Fault (SSN, 2010). The earthquake is regarded by El Mayor people

    as the last key factor that contributed to the river’s current state of degradation. The main indirect

    consequence derived from the earthquake was the decrease in water levels, leaving the south part

    of the river (Figure 3) almost totally dry during summer (Albro, 2013). The decrease in the water

    level was caused by a) the destruction of the irrigation canals of modules 11 and 12 of Irrigation

    District 014 and the resulting decrease in irrigation ±ow to the Hardy River (Trejo Fernandez,

    2012), b) changes in the topographic features of the river, which reduced its depth (Trejo Fernan


    dez, 2012), c) drainage from the Las Arenitas treatment plant was used for agricultural irrigation

    rather than for ecological restoration as agreed with the


    , due to the damages in the canals

    and the necessity to water the crops (personal communication with Edith Santiago, Associate di-

    rector of the Colorado River Delta Program, Sonoran Institute).

    The Hardy River gets dry in some parts but not in others. The river is fed by drainage from crops

    but after the earthquake the channels broke and no longer carry water. And the river dries out and

    then comes back again but not very much, not like it used to. Right now the level is low, very low,

    but I think that once the channels are ²xed and water will start ±owing again, the river is going to

    rise again –Aurelio (interview, 2014, p. 157, 57 years old).

    The earthquake did away with the livelihoods here at El Mayor because North Americans (tourists)

    who were still here left –Bárbara (interview, 2014, p. 157, 50 years old).

    With the decrease in water levels, together with the destruction and fear the earthquake left se-

    veral tourist camps were abandoned. Fresh water and salt water ²shing were affected, the former

    due to the high mortality related with the low water levels and the latter because the pathway to

    El Zanjón ²shing area was damaged. For the youngest, the earthquake was the main factor that

    caused the drop in the water level and prevented them from using it as a place for recreation, thou-

    gh; children are the only ones that currently still explore the river. Adults rarely go walking along

    the river and never go swimming; they rarely ²sh for self-consumption.

    Ecodegradation and indigenous livelihoods: a case study in northwest



    Sociedad y Ambiente

    , año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34

    Very little fows From the river now, it is not possible For boats to go by, Far less a water motorcycle

    –Cebrían (interview, 2014, p. 154, 55 years old).

    There I have my jet ski and I have a paddle boat as well. Now I have them outside because someone

    is going to come to buy them, because we used them when my nieces came here to the river [for lei-

    sure activities] From Mexicali but not anymore –Danilo (interview, 2014, p. 154, 55 years old).

    Despite the skepticism of the Hardy River to recover from the degradation, there have been huge

    international eFForts to restore the delta (Raise the river, 2014). The most recent and important

    restoration project in the Delta is called the ‘Pulse Flow.


    The moment the pulse fow began, mem


    bers of El Mayor expressed through pictures and ceremonies in social media their hopes for the

    Hardy River to recover. Others thought that due to the low amount oF water, the only thing they

    would obtain would be more garbage carried along by the fow.

    Who knows whether the water that is going to fow [From the pulse fow] is going to help. It depends

    where they are going to let it run; iF they are going to mix everything up, it is going to be a mess. The

    only thing now is that iF they let it run, it is going to fow directly into the sea –OFelia (interview,

    2014, p. 165, 70 years old).

    It is going to fow directly into the sea but it would be bene±cial For us because there would be lots oF

    ±sh. IF only we can make the government build a levee in the highway, so that the water runs back

    to the Salada Lagoon so that it accumulates there, it would be bene±cial For us. And where there is

    water, there is liFe, because there would be ±sh and that is the source For us. And iF the government

    does not want us to ±sh corvina, we could ±sh here, in the Hardy River and we could ±sh in the

    corvina season but not that much, without using too many boats. It is useful for the government in

    every respect […] look, water brings tourism, ±sh, lots oF people, duck hunters. It would bring a lot

    oF employment For all oF us –Horacio (interview, 2014, p. 165, 40 years old).

    Over the 50 years oF environmental history described, El Mayor people livelihoods have evolved

    each time more distant to the Hardy River and conforming groups that represent the different

    values and interests that nowadays exist within the town. Apart From commercial ±shing in El


    The International Treaty on the ‘Utilization oF waters oF the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and oF the Rio Grande’ states that 1 850 234

    000 m


    of water from the Colorado River are allocated to Mexico (


    , 1944). The signing oF Minute 319 oF this treaty is described as an

    historical event in the global context because during a time of low storage levels in the


    dams, it achieved the allotment of water with

    the sole purpose oF environmental restoration. The minute established a ‘pulse fow’ with a volume oF 130 million m



    0.7% oF the annual fow oF the Colorado River) and a ‘base fow’ oF 65 million m


    that would help maintain the habitat created by the

    pulse fow (


    , 2012). The pulse fow was released From March 23


    to May 18


    2014. On May 15


    , the Colorado River reached the Gulf

    oF CaliFornia aFter 54 years oF irregular fooding patterns (since 1960) (


    , 2014). Results are to be evaluated in the next 5 years (until

    December 31


    2017) when the eFFectiveness oF the restoration is to be analyzed (


    , 2012). Updated inFormation on the restoration

    projects could be Found at http://raisetheriver.org/.

    Jaramar Villarreal-Rosas

    Miguel Olmos-Aguilera

    Sociedad y Ambiente


    año 5, núm. 13, marzo-junio de 2017, ISSN: 2007-6576, pp. 5-34


    Zanjón, El Mayor inhabitants engage in at least in one of the following economic activities: Fshing

    in the Hardy River, sale of handcrafts, tourist camps, government programs, security guards, farm

    laborers, employees in factories, professionals, economic beneFts related with the exploitation of

    the communal land or performing illegal activities.

    Based on the livelihoods listed above, it is possible to identify three different groups in El

    Mayor depending on their main and complementary activities: I) El Zanjón Fsherman, who su


    pplement their income through at least one of the other activities; most of El Mayor inhabitants

    belong to this group, together with Cucapá that live in other settlements in Mexico. II) Annual

    Fshermen in the Hardy River, who are El Zanjón Fshermen too and supplement their income with

    at least one of the other activities; only two families belong to this group. III) People who do not

    engage in any Fshing activity and whose income depends on the other activities; only Fve persons

    belong to group III, which are also the only ones who have land rights (the rest of the people that

    has land rights are spread around Mexicali). It is worth noting that some people belonging to this

    group said that their current relationship with the Hardy River is so weak that it would not have

    a signiFcant effect on their livelihoods if the river dries up completely.

    Despite the low economic and recreational value the Hardy River still has for the El Mayor

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