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  • The Struggle for Control of Irrigation Water in the Yaqui River Valley, 1908–1919
  • Esther Padilla Calderón (bio)


This article addresses antagonisms which occurred over a period of a little more than 10 years—1908 to 1919—between users of irrigation water and the operators of the water distribution infrastructure in the Yaqui River Valley, which is located in the southern part of the Mexican State of Sonora. The United States-owned company contracted to manage the water resource was the Richardson Construction Company (RCC). The Richardson Company operated the irrigation system of this important agricultural zone dependent upon water channeled from the Yaqui River, the largest river system in Sonora. For over 20 years, the RCC distributed Yaqui River water for agricultural production and human consumption. The company also managed a substantial part of the valley’s land by renting, selling, or cultivating it, as well as building a new form of hydraulic infrastructure. The Richardson Company’s actions caused complications not only due to its aggressive introduction of modern operating methods to a long-established socio-cultural setting, but also because of the prevailing regional and national socio-political conditions of the time.

My goal is to examine conflicts between the Richardson Company and its water-using clients, the diverse farmers of the Yaqui River Valley. I look at issues and processes related to the struggle for control of the farming land and the regulation of the irrigation system, multi-faceted factors that erupted into contentions between the RCC and its water users. Also hindering the progress of modern farming in the valley were [End Page 53] other interferences: the fight of the Yoeme, the Yaqui Indians, to control their traditional territory, to expel those they saw as invaders1; the complicated ongoing socio-political conditions within the State of Sonora; and the disruptive effects of the Mexican Revolution.

To the Richardson Company and to the majority of its water users, Yaqui defense of tribal territory presented an obstacle to the modernization of farming in the Yaqui River Valley.2 The Yaquis’ conflict with the RCC, and its history of clashes with immigrant farmers, differed from problems the RCC had with its water users. To the Yaquis, the RCC, the company’s non-Indian farmer clients, and the authorities representing different levels of government were all seen as encroachers on their homeland.

In what follows, as I investigate the actions of the Yaquis, I also explore the antagonisms between the Richardson Company and its clients. I relate these complicated interactions to the Mexican Revolution in Sonora. These political struggles affected relationships with the Richardson Company and its water users, altering the region’s development, and thus impeding RCC expansion and the general productivity of the majority of its farmer clients.

The fight of the Yaquis to defend their territory thrust them into the middle of social and political developments and upheavals in the Yaqui River Valley. Their territorial struggle created conditions limiting agricultural expansion. Furthermore, during the peak years of the Mexican Revolution in Sonora, when battles impacted the production activities of the farmers, these conflicts also interrupted the evolution of new relationships being established to modernize economic development of the Yaqui River Valley.3

The antagonisms that arose between the Richardson Company and Yaqui River Valley water users were largely related to the RCC’s reneging on commitments it made for distribution of the water. These denials were often based on the power position of the new American company and its forceful way of operation. RCC regulations frequently clashed with preexisting practices concerning the management and distribution of irrigation water, while inflexible company policies challenged the rights and well-being of many of their water-using clients, the traditional farmers of the valley.

Atsumi Okada, Esperanza Fujigaki, and Gustavo Lorenzana4 point out, in their respective research on the Richardson Company, that the company faced many problems with farmers in the Yaqui River Valley, particularly the users of the Porfirio Díaz Canal (Díaz Canal). For Okada, these problems initially represent “a protest against new policies which [End Page 54] favored the creation of small properties, rather than independent landowners” (Okada 2000:103...


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pp. 53-96
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