Nick Dowson speaks to Anabela Carlón Flores, an indigenous lawyer and campaigner who, in the face of pipeline companies, is a force to be reckoned with
In December 2016, on the way to a community meeting where the next steps in the campaign against the Agua Prieta US-Mexico gas pipeline were to be discussed, indigenous activist and lawyer Anabela Carlón Flores was kidnapped.
Although she was released the same day, her abductors continued to hold her husband. ‘During that time, they sent me a document asking me to withdraw our injunction against the pipeline,’ Anabela explains. But she didn’t back down. ‘Since I didn’t know where he was or if there was a guarantee he would come back alive, why should I sign?’
Anabela’s community of Loma de Bácum, in the Mexican state of Sonora, is under threat on a number of fronts. Pesticides leak from local commercial farms, dams have dried up water sources and traditional skills are being lost due to a failed shift from subsistence farming to cash-cropping, promoted by the Mexican government. ‘Today, native seeds have almost disappeared,’ she says.
Anabela is reluctant to talk about her own role in the Yaqui community’s resistance. But she has clearly been at the heart of her people’s fightback: raising awareness, organizing the community’s response and, as a trained lawyer, spearheading the legal case. ‘Because I was the local leader… maybe that’s why they targeted me,’ she concedes.
In 2014, US-based Sempra Energy proposed the new pipeline – further threatening the wellbeing of Anabela’s people. Soon the company was attempting to get indigenous sign-off for their plans and she saw first-hand indigenous leaders being bullied and cajoled into giving permission. Many Yaqui villages granted support. Last October, Yaqui supporters of the pipeline even attacked pipeline protesters, killing one.
According to Anabela, the company also attempted to deny the dangers of explosions from flammable gases posed by the pipeline. She says the company treated local people to restaurant meals and plied them with drinks to get their signatures of support; made false claims of having held consultations; and also lied, saying Loma de Bácum was the only community along the route yet to sign.
Still they refused. Worried about the pipeline’s impact on future generations, the committee asked why it could not be built around the indigenous territory rather than through it. ‘We created a Facebook group as a way of countering misinformation,’ explains Anabela. ‘We started sharing proof of what was going on.’
A few years earlier, Anabela had been introduced to participatory video – an interactive process whereby local communities discuss problems before working together to record and shape their own films – when she met the community development organization InsightShare.
Awed by the technique, she had jumped at the chance to learn the process. She says it has made a huge difference in sparking discussion of the various issues that the Yaqui people face.
A short video made by Anabela with La Marabunta Filmadora, a video collective run by indigenous Yaqui and Comcaac women, who have been organising video trainings with six distinct indigenous groups without any previous access to filmmaking.
‘Before participatory video, only foreigners came to our villages and made videos about us. Now we can do it ourselves,’ she says. ‘Before that we didn’t talk about all these problems – like pesticides, herbicides and pipelines. Now we do. And unlike meetings and documents, you can share videos with other communities.’
Construction of the pipeline in the Yaqui territory started in 2016 but together with another lawyer Anabela won a moratorium on the grounds that it violated Yaqui sovereignty, protected by Mexican law.
‘Consent should be free, prior and informed,’ says Anabela, yet the company pushed on with construction without this. ‘We managed to win an order from the judge suspending all activity in the area.’
This legal backing for the Yaqui was not enough, however. The pipeline has now been built through their village’s lands – the company took advantage of her and her husband’s abduction to push construction forward. But despite continued intimidation, Anabela continues to campaign and is hopeful they might be able to stop its completion.
Nick Dowson is a writer and investigative journalist who has written on topics including health, technology and power, housing, transport and the environment. He is currently New Internationalist’s web editorial intern.