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Ecological System Designs for the Indigenous Community of Maruata, Michoacan, Mexico

Description of a multifaceted ecological design program in an indigenous community in Mexico.

Maruata overview

Maruata's primary resources- a fairly intact ecosystem...

Maruata is a Pomaro Indian village on the coast of Michoacan. The people and land are beautiful and captivating. This was the last place the road reached on the coast of Michoacan in the 70's, and they are currently at the collision point between ancient ways of life and modern influences.

This page describes portions of a privately funded ecological design program in the Pomaro territory.

The goals are:

The parts of the program Oasis has been involved with includes development of sanitary local sources for drinking water, improvement of the Maruata piped water supply, improvement in the management of feces, greywater reuse for home gardens and fruit trees to improve nutrition, and enhancing local business and economic self-reliance. Other parts of the program include a nursery for turtle eggs, a school, and medical assistance.

Future projects envisioned include a tree nursery, improved watershed & forestry management, a bike shop, solid waste reduction/ recycling, and materials to support the teaching of the Nahuatl language to children.

• Thanks to the ReSource Institute for taking over funding for this project in Spring of 2002•

Land and people

Photos: Chris Lindstrom

Making tortillas on clay oven Pomaro Indian kids Abuella

...fairly intact culture, and wonderful people


Maruata is a village of 1500 or so on a south-facing beach two hours south on a winding road from Tecoman. There has only been a road in this area since the mid seventies, electricity since the early nineties. There's one cell phone but it's generally broken. The economy is based on subsistence agriculture, fishing, small scale logging and tourism. The Pomaro Indians are a splinter tribe of Aztecs who still speak Nahuatl. They have control over their own ancestral land, to which every Pomaro has a birthright, and outsiders cannot own.

They are much more oriented towards enjoying life the way it is, rather than "improving" things. While this makes, for example, a well-functioning water distribution system a real challenge to facilitate, it is probably the key attribute which has prevented them from organizing the wholesale destruction of their ecosystem and nature-centered way of life.

Here's some of the work we did:


The development of Maruata has been on the back of the turtle. Prior to the arrival of the road, there were thousands upon thousands of turtles. The road enabled the meat and eggs to get to markets as far away as Japan. In the ensuing "gold rush" decade the turtle population declined by 90% while the human population increased by a factor of ten.

Turtles currently face a gauntlet of predation by pigs, dogs, and humans.

Maruata is one of only a handful of nesting grounds worldwide for the "negra" turtle. Guarding the eggs in a turtle nursery helps give a chance that these amazing creatures—which predate the dinosaurs—will continue to grace the planet for millennia to come.

Following turtle tracks in front of our tent.

The tortugero Bubba and Dave built.

Baby nursery turtles ready for release.

Showing off newly hatched "negra" turtles ready for release.

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Drinking water

Drinking water has historically come from shallow (1-2) hand dug wells (pozos); deep (3-6m), lined, hand dug wells (norias); or bottles (garafones). Our testing showed that the entire valley is underlain with drinking quality water from a few to fifteen feet down. However, the open wells are quickly contaminated from above. The garafones are the source preferred by everyone who can afford them, but they are really expensive, both ecologically and economically. They cost about a dollar for five gallons (10 pesos for 20L) and a family who uses them spends more on bottled water than for corn, the staple food. Garafones get to town via a two to four hour round trip on a narrow, windy road in a huge diesel truck. I calculated that each garafon costs about a cup (100mL) of diesel fuel.

As a whole, the local economy loses about $50,000 a year for bottled water. Development of a system or systems for using the clean water under their feet is a high priority.

Shallow hand dug community well next to a contaminated river.

Pozo a couple of paces from a river of dilute fecal matter. Amazingly, when freshly dug the water is clean due to filtration of the sand (water test results #m35). When the groundwater level changes, the well is re-dug.

Outside of hand dug well.

Noria in town. The owners said the water was good to drink for a year or two after they built it, but they didn't use it for drinking when I took the picture (16) and they abandoned it and filled it in a year later. When the rains really hit, the entire surface of the ground is ankle deep in pig-shit laden water (24), which pours down into the pozos and norias alike.

Inside contaminated well.

Animals also crawl into norias and die there (2).

Low rock wall above bedrock spring shields it from runoff contamination.My first choice for a drinking water source was a pipe network from gravity-fed spring water (7). The difficulty is that the monsoon unleashes such a deluge of fecal-matter contaminated runoff (27) that it is very difficult to completely protect a source.
This source, which is used by houses a half hour walk from town, we helped protect by facilitating the construction of a rock wall to divert surface runoff.
A pipe network for drinking water is also extremely difficult to maintain sanitary under third world conditions. A cyclone scoured away some pipes buried 1 m (40") deep two years after they were installed! Additionally, typical third world water systems don't have pressure all day long, and have many leaks. When there is water, it leaks out and forms puddles on the surface.

When the pressure drops (which happens multiple times per day) the puddles of street dreck are siphoned back into the pipe and will be the first water out of the taps when pressure is returned.

My second choice was containers filled at the source with spring water in the dry season then rain water from the biggest, cleanest roof in the wet season. However, testing showed that all roofs are coated with feces dust during the long dry season, and even after several inches of rain the water is still contaminated (28).

The villagers do collect rain direct from the sky in clean pots when it's dumping rain, and this works well.

Attempting to jet a tube well.Finally I decided that a tube well to the clean, good tasting groundwater right underfoot would be the most dependable source of water clean enough for the locals to drink in all conditions and even to sell to the softest tourists. (I have observed that hardy locals seem to do fine with water containing 50 ppb of fecal matter. I can handle about 10, while the softest tourists can get sick on anything over 1ppb).

We had an interesting time trying to figure out how to jet a tube well. If anyone knows how to do this efficiently on a small scale, please Email us .

Abandoned hand-dug well with cracked apron and filled with debris.

After temporarily giving up on jetting a pipe the whole 6m, we found an abandoned noria in a really good location to convert. The earth in this spot is a cap of relatively impermeable soil a few meters deep. When they reached the sandy earth underneath that, the water boiled up under pressure, rapidly rising two meters. The well is on the property of one of the water system volunteers in town. After the original construction, the noria did the usual downhill slide, hastened by the cracking of the seal (above) and the partial collapse of the culverts, which let soil and runoff fall in wholesale.

Sifting gravel to back fill around new PVC well tube.

To convert it, we first bailed many buckets of anaerobic black muck and "things" out of it, then pumped it clean with a 1" electric pump and a two inch gas pump.

Then we jetted a 3" PVC pipe a couple meters into the floor of it (the pipe shown is a full 6 m, so that's the depth). We then packed the space with sifted gravel (sifting shown above). A couple meters of coarse gravel were followed by the medium, then the fine.

Sealing the upper portion of the well shaft with clay.

The fine gravel was overlain with a meter of sand, then a meter of clay.

Sealing over the entire top of the dug well area with clay.

The clay plug at the top makes entry of surface water very unlikely.

Rebar framework for the concrete well cap.

The clay was overlain with a concrete cap 2 m (6ft) in diameter. This cap extends well past the original excavation onto undisturbed ground (the first cap broke when the lining settled). When the well was completely sealed, we poured a few cupfuls of chlorine down it and let it sit for a day to zap any lingering nasties. Then we pumped it for several hours.
With a 1" electric pump, the water level drops a few inches, then holds steady indefinitely. It is important that the pump not suck air, as the water used to re-prime it could introduce new contamination.

Pouring the concrete well cap.

Al paticuzie mushtin --Nahuatl for "water good to drink for the people"

Slowing the cure of the concrete well cap with water.

The concrete was kept moist for a couple days against cracks. Even with ankle deep monsoon runoff everywhere this water will still be good to drink.

The easy part has worked out well; the water has consistently tested at "non detected" for coliform bacteria, which is better than the bottled water (it typically has one or two general coliforms per 100m).

Playing in the drinking water from the finished well.

Now the hard part begins...enticing the villagers to use and maintain the system. The current idea is a public/ private partnership with the landowners and village.

Manual welding the lockbox for collecting resident's contribution's at the garafon filling station.

Public potable water system tap on street.

Storage for fifty garafons with filling hose and bench.

Testing potable water for general and fecal coliforms.

Testing the water with Coliscan Membrane Filtration and Hach presence/ absence tests. The coliform levels from the drinking water well were consistently lower than the purchased bottled water, and frequently zero coloforms per 100 ml, which is a lower level than that frequently found in bottled drinking water in the US.

Water test results- Maruata
Fecal coliform counts


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Piped water

Sealing holes in old spring box.

Repair of the old community springbox…surface water carrying livestock feces was entering through numerous holes. A fence was installed around the spring area to keep animals from camping out on and around the springbox-especially popular during the dry season.

Digging for horizontal well.

The excavation of the new springbox…this area was a swamp frequented by livestock, now kept at bay by the perimeter fence. The new springbox doubled the communities' water supply.

Making horizontal infiltration galley walls with concrete block.Bubba Walker laying blocks for the new spring box; actually a thirty foot long horizontal well.

New spring box.The finished product...

Inner tube, wire, jungle vine and poles used to fix leak in third world PVC water main.I mentioned earlier (under drinking water) some of the challenges of building and maintaining a pipe network in the third world. Maruata's supply line was made with PVC irrigation pipe that uses bell ends with rubber seals instead of glue. This means that there is at least one leak every 6 meters (20 ft)—for 1600 meters (1 mi) of line! The line is also too small, and we hope to replace it for both these reasons. However, this is, believe it or not, one of the better systems in the region. In fact, less than half the water systems in the region work at all. We may replace the 2" pipe with some of the 13 km of 2.5" pipe which the government provided a nearby village. Their system, which they put in at incalculable effort, has never delivered a drop of water. Apparently the deal is that politicians own the pipe companies, so they are very happy to give indigenous commodities pipe at government expense, but they don't care if the resulting system works or not.

Float valve on water storage pila.At least half of the water that makes it to the storage tank above the town is then lost in leaks and overflowing water tanks downstream. We've helped train some water volunteers to fix leaks in galvanized and PVC, and outfit houses with valves. Float valves on the private water tanks (shown above) would be great, if we could get them to last.

Bicycle equipped with hooks to support long, slender freight such as pipes.

The bike I designed for my use while working on the water system. It is outfitted with an altimeter and distance meteorite survey the lines and hooks to carry long pipes for repairs. I later added bins to carry wrenches and fittings.

Transport bike with pipe and plumbing maintenance crew. Repairing a line to the west half of the village, which has been dead for two years (it worked for a ten days when it was first installed). This 6.5 meter (21 foot), 2 inch galvanized steel pipe is pushing the limit for carrying by this means on the bike, but anything less is no problem.

Living fence around the El Chorrito spring area

A project to improve water quality from the village spring by excluding animals and contaminated runoff from the spring area.

This is being done using swales to redirect runoff and a fence with living posts to keep animals out.

Digging trenches to prevent contaminated surface runoff from entering the El Chorrito spring complex.


Planting trees along the berms from the trench tailings will stabilize them against erosion.

When the fence posts rot out, the lline of new trees will serve as fence posts.


Watershed reserve for El Chorrito spring watershed

A project to improve water quality and quantity from the village spring, provide a genetic reserve of endangered forest plants and a site for possible eco tourism by setting aside the watershed of the village springs as an area of no cutting and no grazing.

One side of the fence may double as a portion of the enclosure for a deer raising coop. Raising deer instead of beef cattle could help reduce deforestation for grazing.

Wildcrafted seeds of native hardwoods.

A local kid planting seeds along the watershed boundary above his house.


The 2003 reforestation team (read a story about their work).

The view from the ridge above the spring. Note the river bed, which was a shaded, narrow deep channel before the road and deforestation arrived—it is now a few hundred meter wide sunbaked sand bar.


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