Name of the community


Short description of community and hydrogeology of the area

Yucatan is located in the southeast portion of Mexico. The total area of Yucatan is 124, 409 km2 and the population (by 2018) was ca. 2.1 million inhabitants. The landscape of the area is defined by a highly permeable karstic soil, a notable absence of rivers or permanent freshwater resources in the surface, and a high number of natural wells or sinkholes (locally called cenotes, from the Maya word t´sonot).  

My community is located in the so- called “Ring of cenotes”, an important and unique feature of the Yucatan Peninsula’s hydrogeology formed by a complex groundwater system which is product of a large meteor impact 65 million years ago. The meteor fractured the surface layers of the Earth’s crust and led to the ring alignment of the aquifer outcrops. Due to these unique features, the area contains diverse habitats, vegetation zones, cenotes but also archaeological evidence of the ancient Maya civilization. 

Cenotes form when a great portion of rainfall infiltrates the soil, creating streams and channels that disappear underground. In karstic systems, the rock is porous. Groundwater flows through the porous rock, gradually carving out a cavity filled with water. Over time, this cavity grows to the point where the sinkhole can be tens of metres wide and its sheer walls just as high.

There are more than 3 000 cenotes in Yucatan from which more than 2 million people withdraw groundwater on a regular basis. The system is shared by three different states: Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo. In the Yucatan, all socio-economic sectors rely directly or indirectly on this resource. The main users, agriculture and industry, are causing high levels of pollution and severely overexploiting the cenotes.

The large number of cenotes and lack of reliable hydrological data make it difficult for users to monitor and control their usage of groundwater. Consequently, the population faces a greater risk to its groundwater reserves than is currently recognised, the consequence of groundwater being free for all and poorly managed.


Languages spoken by the community:     


Location of community:         

20.400417, -89.134857 

Can you explain how your community relates to the environment? 

Much of our relationships with nature relies on the inherited knowledge from our Mayan ancestors. We express deep spiritual connection to nature reflected over millennia of stewardship, maintaining ecosystems that are essential to produce food, to provide freshwater and for climate stability. We learn about the environment and from the environment and this led us to a profound understanding of the natural world, the cosmos and the use of technologies. 

Can you explain how your community relates to water? 

The Mayas were a water-oriented society, everything was related to water including their ceremonies which were, and still are, performed to honour the God of Rain (God Chaac). The Mayan Indigenous people’s perspective of water management and the many challenges they face are based on their historical dependence on their environment in general, and groundwater, in particular, along with their values, world views and belief systems.

In Yucatan, for example, water management has evolved from a traditional commons system that has survived for thousands of years. The Maya emerged in this place more than 4 000 years ago and, nowadays, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that water helped our civilisation to flourish. Archaeological evidence suggests that there was a close link between water and society as a whole. Maya knew, for example, how to take care of their water resources. The Maya were also able to deal with stress variation in environmental conditions by transforming their local environment. They significantly modified their landscapes to centralise their water needs, capture rainfall and create channels to provide several communities with water.

Tell us about yourself and your relation to water 

I am an Indigenous scholar and a diplomat with the mission to create respectful approaches in any field or discipline that is conducted by, grounded in, or engaged with Indigenous Communities, their wisdom, cultures, experiences or knowledge systems. My educational background is in Human Ecology and Human Geography at PhD level. I have worked for international academic and non-academic organizations, and consistently achieved high-level results and policy engagement by collaborating with international institutions at different levels in social issues and science fields including the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples Issues, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria, the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Sweden, and the Department of Natural Resources Management, University of Manitoba, Canada, IPBES, CBD, UNESCO, to mention a few. 

Yolanda on her way down to a cenote
Figure 1: Yolanda during speleological prospection of groundwater caves in Yucatan


However, as an Indigenous scholar, I realized that the belief and knowledge system I inherited from my ancestors was different from the Western science that I was being educated in. Consequently, non-Indigenous scientists who are not familiar with our traditional beliefs will barely recognize this rationale since our knowledge "does not make sense to science", thus it has been often set aside from academic discourses and institutions. As an Indigenous woman, I possess deep ties to indigenous communities, our lands, territories and waters, and also strong ability to understand, respect and respond to sensitive cultural nuances associated with working alongside Indigenous Peoples and experience working on projects that accord respect to Indigenous Peoples' knowledge systems. My relation to water is simple: I am a guardian of our waters. 

Tell us about your role within your community and if it is related to water, how so?  

Yolanda in front of a water body
Figure 2: Yolanda in front of an “open air” cenote


At local level, I always promote the engagement with Indigenous knowledge systems, and the historical and contextual complexities of Indigenous experiences in research and decision-making processes. My work is culturally appropriate, Indigenous-led and action oriented; focused on respect, reciprocity, relevance and mutual responsibility with emphasis on issues of privacy, intellectual property, data custody and secondary use of data. It also ensures the participation of communities particularly in the interpretation of data and review of research findings, while maintaining respect for community knowledge. These commitments are put in practice through agreements that follow an explicit process of tailored planning guided by humility and with the principle that all knowledge systems involved are equal. 

As a scientist with strong experience in natural and social sciences along with my Indigenous knowledge I can apply different lenses and bring time-space evidence to make significant and informed contributions in decision-making regarding impacts, issues and resources that cross as well as extend beyond the boundaries of nations. The processes I am undertaking to ensure Indigenous Peoples knowledge and worldviews are represented at both, policy and scientific spheres, in an attempt to meet their needs can be divided in two major strategies:

Scientific sphere: I develop and employ scientific approaches that involve methods from the social and natural sciences, but it is fully based on Indigenous understandings, frameworks and conceptions. This include the active involvement of Indigenous People, it is action oriented, focused on respect, reciprocity, relevance and mutual responsibility with emphasis on issues of privacy, intellectual property, data custody and secondary use of data. I also ensure the participation of Indigenous communities particularly in the interpretation of data and review of research findings, while maintaining respect for community knowledge. These commitments are put in practice through agreements that follow an explicit process of tailored planning guided by humility and with the principle that all knowledge systems involved are equal.

Policy sphere: I use time-space evidence from the natural and social sciences and Indigenous knowledge regarding how nature functions and our impacts, to inform and orient organizations regarding policy initiatives that may present opportunities to advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous People’s rights and knowledge (including epistemologies and ontologies).

Is there an important water body on your land? If so, can you name and describe it?  

The hydrological unit area of Yucatan is the Yucatan Peninsula Aquifer, which includes the states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo. The aquifer is karstic and unconfined, except in the coastal zone. The soil characteristics and the high permeability influence the amount of rainfall that can directly enter the aquifer. Permeability helps water to flow through the rocks and precipitation infiltrates into the subsurface. This phenomenon has had strong effects in the resource, especially the formation of the connected underground channels and sinkholes (locally called cenotes) that are widely spread throughout the area. A cenote is a natural sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater. The term derives from a word used by the lowland Yucatec Maya—tsʼonot—to refer to any location with accessible groundwater. The regional term is specifically associated with the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, where cenotes were commonly used for water supplies by the ancient Maya, and occasionally for sacrificial offerings. Overall, groundwater storage and flow occur in a karst aquifer with major cave systems, where groundwater flow is dominated by turbulent conduit flow. 

In your or your communities view, what is the most important aspect humanity should act upon with regards to water? 

For the Mayas it was important to learn from, appreciate the limits, and fragility of nature. We have to listen to what our Mother Earth, and the universe, are saying. Mother Nature, the people, the animals, the plants, the lands, our waters, and all the components of our universe, the physical/material/spiritual, are connected in an endless cycle, and we need to take care of it all. 

How do you ensure access to safe drinking water in the community, today? 

Yolanda in a Cenote
Figure 3: Yolanda entering an “underground cenote” for exploration


Historiaclly, societies decline as their natural resources alsco decline, especially when the resource is a common-pool resource, this is, ressources that are held in common and for which exclusion is difficult and joint use involves substractability. Groundwater is particularly degraded in places where it is open access or governed by top-down approaches. In Yucatan, access to drinking water is easy via cenotes since the majority of them are open access and this often generates severe free riding problems since water extraction of indivuals affects everyone. In addition, water quality is not good and, in fact, cenotes are often more contaminated than depleted due to several factors including salinization highs amounts of nutrients, pesticdes, population growth, and in general, due to the lack of effective groundwater governace. Overall, communities rely on water bottles for human consumption, which is very expensive and difficult to afford. 

Do you have canalisation, and sanitary facilities in area inhabited by your community? Are community members using them and how satisfied are you with those? 

The percentage of the population with safely treated water is uncertain since the majority of the households do not have a treatment facility, septic tank, or latrine pits and, if they do have, they are old and usually in bad conditions. Shockingly, ca. 90% wastewater emissions are directly discharged in the environment. 

Can you explain how your community relates to space? 

The ancient Maya were avid astronomers, recording and interpreting every aspect of the space and the sky. That is the reason why many of their most important buildings were built with astronomy in mind. The sun, moon, and planets—Venus, in particular—were and still are very important to us. 

Can you explain how your community relates to technology? 

We use ancient and modern technology, the difference is that our technology is created within a sensory environment that builds on our sense of relationship, meaning, balance, feeling and memory. One ancient indigenous farming technology is the milpa system, a traditional intercropping system of regional vegetables that spreaded in all Mesoamerica. Contemporary Mayan farmers cultivate this intercropping system through the practice of “tumba y quema”(slash and burn) together with small plots of other vegetable crops such as chiles, corn, beans, and squash. The milpa entails a rotation of annual crops with a series of managed and enriched intermediate stages of short-term perennial shrubs and trees, culminating in the re-establishment of mature closed forest on the once-cultivated parcel. As long as this rotation continues without shortening fallow periods, the system can be sustained indefinitely. 

How does your community pass on knowledge related to the environment (e.g., via narratives, songs, paintings and murals, cloth prints, sculptures, other forms of art, etc.)? 

One of the main characteristics of Indigenous knowledge is that it is mainly oral and visual - 

embedded in language, stories, and ceremonies. Our ecological knowledge has been 

transferred over centuries via oral tradition but also it can be found on the Mayan temples, arts, architecture and archeology, by using glyphs, or the ancient Maya writing system. 

Which changes in the environment have you or elders in your community observed? 

Degradation of water resources and importan ecosystems in general and loss of biodiversity. 

What are the water-related changes you have observed on the land your community lives on? If you have observed changes detrimental to the environment, what is the community currently doing to counteract these changes? 

Decline in water quality. In the region, I have been implementing indigenous-led, culturally-safe, land-based Indigenous water initiatives to involve community members, including communitarian clean-ups of cenotes with the aim to restore, revitalize indigenous knowledge, traditions and interest in developing protecting cenotes as well in restablish the cultural and spiritual aspect of cenotes. Some of those activites included groundwater and speleological exploration and monitoring, in conjunction with indigenous members to assess currentt conditions of the groundwater caves. 

We face issues with:  

  • Water scarcity;  
  • Reduction of biodiversity in water bodies;  
  • Soil moisture;  
  • Access to drinking water;  
  • Lack of sanitation;  
  • Lowering of groundwater; and 
  • Quality of groundwater. 

Have you encountered cases where space technology applications were used for water/environmental monitoring, management etc? (Please provide examples if any: in general, or within your community, in order to understand need for educational workshop, awareness etc) 

A meteor ca. 10 miles (14 kilometers) wide crahsed into Earth 65 millions years ago and strucked what is now Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The impact triggered tsunamis, wildfires, and ejected a cloud of ash and dust that circled the globe, blocked the sun, and chilled the climate, killing off 75 percent of all life on Earth, including the dinosaurs. Thanks to space technology applications, it is possible now to see the cracter of this impact and the ring of sinkholes of cenotes, which provided freshwater for ancient and contemporary mayan civilization. It is possible nowadays, to study and understand the complexity of the area, the landscape, waters, geography, etc. 

If there is something you would like to know about space technology and Earth observation, what would it be? 

Mapping groundwater from space. 

What is your favourite aggregate state of water and why is that so? 

For the Maya, all states of water are and were important. The Mayas, for example, were excelent engineers and managers of rainwater, using massive systems of cisterns called chultuns, jaltunes, aguadas, etc. However, in a place with no natural water sources on the surface, they had to rely on engineering skills and a profound knowledge of the hydrological cycle in general to sustain large populations. 

How does Space4Water add value for you? 

Understanding and recognizing that our ancient Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous science can contribute to modern western science practices. Moreso, in emphasizing that understanding how our Earth systems functions is important for all of us, especially in times of increasing climate instability and environmental degradation. Space4Water is a great initiative to achieve that. 

What features would you like to see implemented on the Space4Water Portal? 

There has been a certain level of misinterpretation and unawareness when it comes to what Indigenous knowledge can tell us about the understanding the universe. People usually think our stories are mythical or even esoteric, however, our knowledge and all our stories are the vessels in which we encode our science knowledge. We have recorded and passed on knowledge about environmental occurrences, with the observations accurately describing events that occurred in this country 30,000 years ago and more. From the explosive death of stars in the sky, the presence of a Southern Star 12,000 years ago, weather changes, volcanic eruptions, equinox, etc. predicted long time ago which forever changed the landscape to sea level rise, and millennia-old meteorite impacts; Indigenous knowledge provide answers to questions about our past while also being able to guide our futures.