4.1. Life History and Professional Experience
Laguna is a relatively young canalero of 32 years of age from the village of Villa Hidalgo. He recently married Delia, aged 23, who is also working for the association, as a secretary. They live just a few blocks from the office. He takes his work very seriously and actively considers the prospects that he has within the association as a canalero with an agronomy degree. Although he likes a beer, he refrains from drinking and going to the local cantinas and accepting beers, food or gifts from water users in exchange for water. This is perhaps why his body is still relatively lean compared with some colleagues. Like most colleagues and several farmers in the field he wears a baseball cap of a seed company, sunglasses, t-shirt, jeans, a radio on his belt and boots for the mud. Consistent with the rural setting, this canalero maintains a moustache.
In 1993, Laguna started working as a canalero for the association. The first period he experienced as being very difficult. Originally, Laguna was supposed to be trained by one of CONAGUA’s ex-canaleros, Juan. However, when he arrived it appeared that all the old canaleros had already left. As mentioned above, only two CONAGUA canaleros with more than a decade of experience continued to work for the association, one of whom became the supervising canalero. However, they did not have a clear role in Laguna’s training either. Laguna recalls that he went to the field for the first time with another canalero who was fairly inexperienced himself. He remembers that, that same day, he was sent by this man along a lateral canal with the instruction to go and watch, without any further guidance. As he was driving along the canal on his motor bike, farmers came up to him asking him for water. He did not know anything and had no idea of what to do. So he started giving water to these farmers and adjusting the control structures. It was very stressful and created many tensions for him.
During his first weeks he made many mistakes, because he had nobody to show him what to do or how to solve a particular problem. On several occasions, this resulted in angry farmers demanding water, or accusations from his colleague canaleros that he was using too much water, leading to unpleasant bodily interactions and stressful situations, which he later learned to overcome. ‘Theory is not like practice’, he states, indicating that the formulas and concepts that he learned during his formal education and the special CONAGUA training course were hardly useful for doing the work of a canalero. He learned slowly by actually distributing the water, by trying out different things and also by observing and interacting with his colleagues and irrigating farmers.
4.2. Sections as a Heterogeneous Work Space
For the third year, Laguna is working in the relatively upstream Section 3
and Section 5
of the irrigation system (see Figure 5
). These are contrasting sections in terms not only of the type of land ownership, farmers, cropping patterns and field irrigation technologies, but also of plot size and the number of farmers to whom he has to distribute water (see Table 1
). Here we mainly focus on Section 5
(see Figure 6
), which is one of the largest and most demanding workspaces for a canalero, as it is dominated by small-scale tobacco production and sprinkler irrigation. We concentrate on how the canalero deals with the specific problems, demands, and complexities of the heterogeneous arrangements involved in sprinkler irrigation.
includes more than 1000 hectares of actually irrigated land and more than 500 tobacco producers. Most of the land belongs to the ejido of La Presa, which is the largest tobacco producing ejido in the region. The tobacco cultivation is undertaken by hundreds of small-scale producers. The extremely fragmented pattern of land distribution and ownership is even further complicated by the large-scale leasing of land for the production of tobacco. On average, the irrigated tobacco plots are three hectares. This contrasts sharply with, for example, Section 3
that typically contains much larger irrigated holdings of approximately eight hectares. In other sections the ejido plots also tend to be larger (on average four hectares). For the canalero, the daily water distribution and fee administration in a big section with a large number of plots and producers involves a huge workload.
Getting to know the many people in his section has taken Laguna several years. After three years, he knows hundreds of producers, bomberos (pump operators), irrigators and other villagers who are involved in the production of tobacco. Laguna deals with most of the irrigating farmers and bomberos that he encounters in the field in a friendly and respectful manner and he tries to prevent or mediate conflicts with them. Occasionally, he advises farmers on organizational or agronomic matters, gaining some respect from them.
is an economically and politically important space for the association’s management, because of the political and institutional importance of tobacco and the fact that some leaders and some of their clientele, allies and friends are based here, particularly among the ejido commissioners and delegates of the association’s assembly. For the association, the financial importance of Section 5
exceeds that of many other sections, because its fee collection potential is much higher (see Table 1
In order to bank these revenues, Laguna needs to connect the WUA’s administration with that of the tobacco companies. This involves the complicated task of linking an official, but outdated, CONAGUA list of water users and plots with a list of registered tobacco producers that often do not coincide. The companies transfer the irrigation fee for individual tobacco producers, who are organized in groups, only when they receive a group leader’s signature to confirm that they are receiving water. To get this signature and find out which plots a tobacco producer is using and to which water user this corresponds, the canalero needs to visit all group leaders in his section. This is a very labor-intensive task and requires an intimate knowledge of the multitude of plots, ejidatarios and tobacco producers in Section 5
. The association receives a periodic payment in respect of lists completed by the canalero. The management thus pressures the canaleros in tobacco sections to make haste with this activity. The canaleros in their turn complain about the various demanding tasks that they have to fulfil.
4.3. Sprinkler Irrigation in Tobacco Production
The prevailing irrigation method in Section 5
is sprinkler irrigation. As in other parts of the Northern Coast, it is considered the traditional form of irrigation. Initially, tobacco companies introduced the first pumps and mobile sprinkler systems to the region in order to irrigate the lighter tobacco varieties. After the nationalization of the tobacco market at the beginning of the 1970s, the parastatal, Tabamex, started to intervene in almost every phase of the tobacco production cycle [35
]. Amongst other things, it arranged the irrigation of tobacco plots for thousands of tobacco producers in the region according to a complex scheme. This further increased the use and the number of sprinkler systems. Specialized staff, sprinkler installations, and other means and resources were allocated for this purpose. Most tobacco producers thus never experienced the need to buy a system for themselves, in spite of their sometimes significant profits. In addition, they gained little experience with the actual irrigation practice themselves. Tabamex staff and the additional private owners who rented out their installations determined the timing of irrigation turns.
Within this institutionalized set-up, individual tobacco producers had no need to request an irrigation turn and therefore failed to develop a routine. This situation remained largely the same after the dismantling of Tabamex in 1991. The tobacco companies who became active in the area decided to decentralize the costly and labor-intensive task of irrigation to their tobacco producers. They started giving out loans to the producers to buy a sprinkler system. However, most small-scale tobacco producers were not sufficiently profitable to qualify for such loans. Therefore, these farmers hired sprinkler systems from more well-to-do farmers, and the companies started pre-financing this for five irrigation turns per cycle. The high cost of this is paid for by these farmers at the end of the season. In addition, the companies started advancing the irrigation fees of their tobacco producers to the WUA. As a result, these producers developed no need to interact with either the WUA or the canalero to get permission for irrigation and learn about their operational rules.
This institutional history clarifies the particular distribution of assets, competences and costs that determines the current irrigation practice. Most tobacco producers thus have to look for a fellow farmer willing to rent out a sprinkler installation to them every time they want to irrigate. Often they try to find somebody close to their plot, or from their own village. These scarce installations have thus become the critical link around which irrigating farmers organize their access to water.
The owners of a sprinkler installation normally employ a bombero and, sometimes, additional regadores
(irrigators) as laborers. The sprinkler systems used in this area can be characterized as periodic-move systems or, more precisely, hand-moved lateral systems [36
]. The (non-human) components of these systems consist of a diesel pump with a capacity of forty liters per second, a temporarily fixed main line and hand-moved laterals, which transport the water under a certain pressure to the connected sprinklers. The bombero is responsible for installing, operating and maintaining the pump. Together with the other irrigators, he connects the pipes to form a main line and a lateral. After a few hours, when a track of land has been irrigated, they move the lateral a few meters to irrigate the next bit.
The owner of the pump, and also the bombero and his irrigators, are paid per hectare. This encourages them to irrigate rapidly and not to lose time in order to cover a greater area in a week. Particularly at the height of the irrigation season from November to March, a bombero earns a salary that is significantly higher than that of an ordinary land laborer. Many plots need to be irrigated, and the pumps, sprinkler systems and their operators are in high demand and are moving from one field to another. The owner of the pump can basically rent it out to anyone he wants. In order to bring the necessary components together to get his land irrigated, a tabaquero (tobacco producer) is thus very dependent on the timing, quality and financing of work by others. Many small-scale tobacco producers thus play a limited role in the actual irrigation of their crops. They only have a rough idea when the bombero and the sprinkler system will arrive to irrigate their field, and all they can do is wait for that moment. It has never been an established practice among these tobacco producers to request an irrigation turn from the canalero, and it is also difficult in practice for them to request it three days in advance, because the timing of their irrigation turn is dependent on the availability of the sprinkler system.
In practice, when the bombero arrives with the whole installation at a field, he immediately starts installing the pump and throws in the ‘pichancha’ (intake pipe), if there is sufficient level in the canal or drain from which he intends to draw the water. The latter is usually not a problem in this section, especially at the head-end of canals. The bombero does not await the consent of the canalero or the tabaquero, neither of whom in most cases is present at that moment. A bombero basically does not need the canalero to give him access to water, because he can easily physically bypass him with a pump and an intake pipe. For them, this is simply the shortest and most time saving link to water. The canalero is in this case therefore not the most essential intermediary; what is more, his capacity to monitor pumps along a canal is limited. Irrigating farmers whose fields are located towards the tail-end or near a drain, where the delivery of water is more irregular or insecure, are more likely to inform the canalero. When there is no water available, it sometimes happens that angry farmers or bomberos blame the canalero for not allocating sufficient water.
The following section focuses on Laguna’s work of distributing water under this kind of operational arrangement, bringing to the fore the particular problems of control, contradictions, and complexities that he has to resolve in his daily practice.
4.4. In the Field: Driving Along ‘the 10’
In spite of the overall abundance of water, the canaleros unanimously agree that the head-end of Section 5
is one of the most difficult and demanding sections. They measure the difficulty and the workload of this section by the number of sheets Laguna requires for the programming and reporting of irrigation. When I asked him about Section 5
, he demonstratively waves in the air six or seven reporting sheets that he has painstakingly filled out. He stresses that some of his colleagues can suffice with only one or two pages per section. His weekly programs and monthly reports require much work, because of the large area, the large numbers of irrigating tobacco producers and their plots that have to be registered. This gives an indication of the amount and intensity of his work, and his long working days. It requires enormous flexibility on the part of a canalero to ensure that the available water supply in the main canals satisfies real demand in the field.
When I joined Laguna in his work in February 1998, still at the height of the main irrigation season, he departs from his house on his motor bike in the early morning. He works until the late afternoon, with an interruption at lunchtime. Most of the day he can be found in the field, but in the afternoon he sometimes needs to check an administrative matter with one of the secretaries or is called to the office via the radio by the manager.
At this time of year when many farmers are irrigating, Laguna needs to make frequent adjustments to gates and intakes in the main canals, laterals, sub-laterals, and lower level canals. This often determines his route through the sections. He has to return two to three times a day to check the level in the canals. Especially when an additional amount of water for the tail-end sections has been let into the main canal, he has to ensure that the radial gates in the main lateral are adjusted so that this extra volume arrives in the downstream sections. As an upstream canalero, he can be easily accused by his downstream colleagues of using the water that they requested for his own sections. From the main lateral, Laguna normally drives downstream along the sub-laterals and minor canals, where he checks the running irrigation turns and the water levels in the canals, while adjusting some gates. Meanwhile, he observes and talks to farmers, pump operators and irrigators, and other people that he encounters or seeks out in the field. Laguna alternates easily between opening gates and searching for particular tobacco producers who need to sign an agreement for him.
The sub-lateral 10 + 539.77 of the lateral 17, called ‘the 10’ by the canaleros, is about five kilometers long and has three sub-laterals (see Figure 5
and Figure 6
). It is equipped with nine cross-regulators and thirteen direct field intakes. This canal presents several of the control problems that Laguna is experiencing in distributing water in this section, but in an even more intense way. This canal, its laterals, and the drains connected to it irrigate more than 100 small plots, owned by a similar number of ejidatarios. On several occasions, Laguna emphasizes the complexities and unexpected situations he encounters on this canal.
Early one February morning, Laguna and I drive towards the intake of the 10 on the main lateral, near a crossroads just outside the village of La Presa. Arriving there, we meet the local CONAGUA supervisor. We stand close to a cross-regulator in the main lateral, which backs up the water level to a height that ensures that sufficient discharge flows into the 10. The CONAGUA supervisor comments to Laguna about the water in the main lateral being backed up to a very high level. The water is even flowing over the spillway of the cross-regulator, which is meant only for an excessive flow, such as occurs, for example, during a rainstorm. The supervisor is worried that, as a result, the downstream canaleros will not receive their requested volumes on time. Laguna responds that the situation is more complicated than the supervisor thinks. His aim is to maintain the water level exactly at the height of the spillway. He has to do this in order to cover the whole of the 10.
According to Laguna, the canal is badly constructed. It runs ‘in reverse’. The intake of the canal is much too high and the canal does not have a gradient. Moreover, the end reach of the canal even goes up slightly. If he lowered the water level in the main lateral by just twenty centimeters, this would mean that the water flow would not reach the end of the 10. He would come into serious conflict with the tail-enders of the canal and those who use the tail water from the drain connected to it. His solution anticipates the water demand of these tail-enders, although some of them irrigate land that lies far away from a canal and several have not requested an irrigation turn. Damming up the water level at this point of the main lateral is a tricky business for Laguna, not least because it also affects the downstream water distribution of other colleagues, because they may receive their water later than requested. Laguna claims to have learned to deal with this infrastructural defect in this way through his experience of experimenting with water levels, adjusting the cross-regulator, and distributing water among these tobacco producers. The canaleros face similar problems with other sub-laterals.
When we arrive at the 2 + 466 (a sub-lateral of the 10), Laguna points to two pumps placed on the road next to the 10. According to Laguna, he found these pumps working this morning without being apprised of the fact that these tobacco producers were planning to irrigate. In addition, two other pumps were placed on the drain connected to the 10 into which water is released. As we drive along the 2 we encounter another two pumps that are irrigating. Although several of these pumps were not specifically programmed by Laguna, he estimates that the present flow in the 10 will be sufficient for the six pumps that he has observed. In his program of last week and in determining the actual inflow for the 10 this morning, he deliberately took into account the fact that some pumps would unexpectedly appear on the canal and consume an extra flow. He programmed and allocated water for a few additional pumps. However, sometimes this precautionary measure is not enough. Then he requests an additional amount of water for his section. The supervising canalero coordinates these mid-weekly requests with the dam.
The total number of pumps on a canal thus determines the actual water demand. But Laguna never has an exact idea of how many pumps will be placed along the canal during a weekday. Admittedly, the pumps only consume a limited and predictable water flow (40 L/s). However, it is not the individual water demand but the unpredictability of the number of working pumps that creates problems for him. It can happen that from one moment to the next, suddenly around ten pumps are placed on the canal, whereas only three or four farmers have forewarned him. The over-consumption causes the water level to drop rapidly, as a result of which the farther downstream tobacco producers cannot irrigate. Meeting the rapidly increased demand immediately with the available supply of water becomes problematic. As a consequence, Laguna is confronted with angry downstream farmers who want to irrigate at once, because they have hired a sprinkler system and risk the bombero going somewhere else first, when they cannot irrigate right away. In spite of the fact that most tobacco producers along this canal come from the ejido of La Presa, there is limited mutual social control on having the permission of the canalero to irrigate. This is caused partly because the actual irrigation is carried out by bomberos, who can easily dodge agreements, operational rules and the canaleros’ authority. Getting the canaleros’ permission is simply not their concern. The following day it can just as easily happen that Laguna finds only a few bomberos irrigating at the canal, with the result that the allocated water flow runs idly towards the ocean.
According to Laguna, the unpredictability of the water demand requires him to regularly monitor the number of pumps along the whole length of the canal. To review the situation in the event of problems, he needs to check the whole sub-lateral and not just the field intakes, because the bomberos basically start irrigating wherever and whenever they want to. At the height of the tobacco season, he passes along the 10 at least twice a day, and sometimes even more often, in order to check on the water level and make revisions when necessary. These decisions are largely tacit, based on Laguna’s implicit knowledge and experience with this canal and its dynamic water demand. It is also not in his interest to make such decisions explicit, as they can be very conflictive. He is well aware of the impact they might have downstream, i.e., the lack of water for his downstream colleagues, but that is not his immediate concern. He is not directly confronted with the angry farmers who have planned an irrigation turn but do not receive it on time. The only thing to bother about is his downstream colleagues who are accusing him of taking too much water. His response to that is generally evasive.
I ask Laguna what he does with farmers who do not inform him on time before starting to irrigate. According to Laguna, he tells them that the next time they should inform him. However, being in the field with him, I witness nothing of the sort. Moreover, in the days I spent with Laguna I have never seen him reprimanding a farmer about an irrigation turn that was not requested or not on time, in spite of the fact that he frequently complains about the difficulties that this presents to him. His busy daily schedule keeps him from reprimanding tobacco producers and bomberos for breaking this operational rule. In addition, applying a sanction is not really an effective option for Laguna. He claims to have told people over and over again to inform him if they want to irrigate, but that it has had little result. The same farmers continue to irrigate without his permission. Reprimanding has only produced conflicts with farmers and bomberos, which he prefers to avoid. Laguna seems to have accepted the situation that he is often bypassed and does not have effective control over the actual water distribution.
But why does Laguna not use sanctions such as imposing a fine or sending for the hydraulic police, which is a special police department in Tepic, the state capital, for these matters? He responds that if he took such a measure the manager would immediately rescind it. Last year the hydraulic police finally visited the system. This visit was one of the few times that they came to the Left Bank. They removed an intake pipe of a farmer who had not yet paid his irrigation fee. Removing an intake pipe from a canal is something that the management often talks about and that the canaleros threaten with, but in practice it hardly ever happens. In this case, the only thing the manager did the next day when the police had left was to give this man his pipe back without any reprimand. This example backs up Laguna’s argument that the canaleros do not feel supported by management. On several occasions, his superior has undone his decisions or simply bypassed him. Such actions demotivate him from enforcing this particular operational rule.
Near a cross-regulator in the 2, I notice that the water is backed up close to the rim of the canal. I ask him why. Laguna responds that he did not cause this. Some farmers must have let the gate down during the night because they wanted more water. Laguna has not given them permission to do this. He rectifies the situation by bringing the gate up. Although he acknowledges that people have transgressed the operational rule that they should receive his permission, he does not take any further action. He seems used to people contesting his authority by moving structures without his permission. On other occasions, it seems that somebody moved a gate without an obvious motive, perhaps some boys who crossed the structure to get to the other side of the canal. When Laguna finds that people have moved a gate, he responds by returning it. In the case of repetition or when he suspects a notorious farmer, he may use a lock or make a remark to bystanders or particular farmers. However, it is often difficult to prove who moved the gate, and Laguna argues that it is not in his interest to create conflicts by accusing people, falsely or otherwise.
4.5. Time to Reflect: A Former Canalero on the Scene
In the shadow of an old guamuchil tree, close to the 10, Laguna discusses some of his work-related problems with an ex-canalero. Juan worked as a canalero for twenty years and retired soon after the transfer of the irrigation system. When I ask him what has changed in the work of the canalero, he responds that very little has changed. It is true that the canaleros are more technologically advanced nowadays, being equipped with radios and motor bikes by the association. Laguna adds that the canaleros presently manage two sections and therefore a larger irrigated area. Juan says that the other day he witnessed the flooding of a plot, which was caused by farmers who had moved a gate without the canalero’s permission. This also frequently happened in his days. Another thing that remains the same is that they also told producers again and again to request water on time, but that this did not change a thing.
Laguna seems to agree with the elder, experienced man. He argues that when he tells users to wait for their turn, somewhat later he receives an order from the office to give them water. ‘They take away my authority’, Laguna states. When he tells farmers that they have to wait before they can irrigate, they go to the association and ask if they can get water directly. The association’s president and manager give in to such requests because they have commitments with these farmers, or because they are engaged in a political campaign and thus in need of support. Therefore, as canaleros, they do not feel that the manager supports them. He claims not to be able to do anything, because the next time these farmers laugh in his face.
‘Mejor sigues la corriente’ (It is better to follow the flow), the ex-canalero concludes. For a canalero it is better to give in to certain pressures that he faces, rather than resist them. Some producers develop special relations with the office, the former canalero confides in me. The canalero cannot prevent that, he opines. This was the case in the past and will not change in the future. Following the flow means that the canalero cannot always regulate the flow and control access to it. It certainly does not imply mere passivity, but it does warn against romanticization.