1,000-year-old court set­tles wa­ter dis­putes in Va­len­cia

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

VA­LEN­CIA: Eight men in black robes, sit­ting in a cir­cle on chairs in the street out­side a cathe­dral look on, stony-faced, as a bailiff calls the ac­cused. They form the Wa­ter Court of Va­len­cia, a mil­len­nial in­sti­tu­tion in Spain. In just a few min­utes and with­out any pa­per­work, this tri­bunal set­tles ir­ri­ga­tion con­flicts that erupt in the fer­tile plain that sur­rounds Va­len­cia, Spain’s third largest city, a Mediter­ranean re­gion of or­chards.

UN cul­tural body UNESCO has in­cluded the court-which bills it­self as “the old­est in­sti­tu­tion of jus­tice in ex­is­tence in Europe” — on its list cel­e­brat­ing the world’s “in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage” which de­serves pro­tec­tion. The tri­bunal’s ex­is­tence dates back at least to the 10th cen­tury when this re­gion was ruled by Mus­lims and the Gothic cathe­dral where the tri­bunal meets today was a mosque.

It deals with cases of stolen wa­ter, a pre­cious re­source in drought-prone Spain, or dis­agree­ments over the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of rules man­ag­ing the ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem. Dis­putes can hap­pen at any time of the year but they are more fre­quent dur­ing droughts when spe­cial rules govern­ing ir­ri­ga­tion are im­posed and “su­per­vi­sion is en­forced to con­trol the avail­abil­ity of wa­ter,” said his­to­rian Daniel Sala, an ex­pert on the Wa­ter Court.

‘No choice’

One re­cent case was brought for­ward by Vi­cent Marti, who has op­er­ated an eco­log­i­cal farm for over 30 years. He turned to the tri­bunal af­ter notic­ing that the wa­ter ar­riv­ing at his farm was pol­luted with traces of ce­ment and paint thrown into the ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem by work­ers ren­o­vat­ing a neigh­bor’s house.

Af­ter hear­ing both sides, and a brief de­bate among the tri­bunal mem­bers, the pres­i­dent of the court an­nounced that Marti’s neigh­bor was at fault. Fol­low­ing tra­di­tion, he in­di­cated his ac­cep­tance of the rul­ing by say­ing “cor­rect” and was later fined 2,000 eu­ros ($2,285). “I felt bad re­port­ing it be­cause we are neigh­bours, but I did not have much choice,” Marti told AFP. His farm pro­duces eco­log­i­cal pro­duce, which is sub­ject to strict qual­ity con­trols, and the “sur­vival” of his busi­ness was at stake, he added.

Ev­ery Thurs­day

The court in its cur­rent form is made up of eight mem­bers, all of them men, who are elected by the roughly 10,000 farm­ers who use the ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem set up in the plains around Va­len­cia. Each mem­ber of the tri­bunal rep­re­sents one of Va­len­cia’s eight com­mu­ni­ties of ir­ri­ga­tors, known as “ace­quias”, which grow veg­eta­bles and tu­bers, such as tiger nuts that are pounded to make hor­chata, a pop­u­lar Span­ish drink.

The court meets ev­ery Thurs­day at noon out­side the Door of the Apos­tles of Va­len­cia’s cathe­dral, which houses a gold chal­ice said to be the one used by Je­sus at the Last Sup­per. Its mem­bers wear a black robe sim­i­lar to those used by judges but that only goes down to their waists. The pro­ceed­ings, which are watched by a crowd of lo­cals and tourists, are car­ried out in Va­len­cian, the lo­cal lan­guage. All de­ci­sions are fi­nal and can­not be ap­pealed. The tri­bunal’s rul­ings “have been re­spected by dic­ta­tors, pres­i­dents, kings, ev­ery­body,” said Sala.

‘Pre­vent­ing a fos­silized in­sti­tu­tion’

Two fac­tors are threat­en­ing farm­ing on the plains of Va­len­cia-and by ex­ten­sion the sur­vival of the tri­bunal: the re­duc­tion in the amount of land that is farmed due to ur­ban­iza­tion and the age­ing of the pop­u­la­tion. En­rique Navarro, a 44year-old farmer, crit­i­cizes the fact that the ma­jor­ity of tri­bunal mem­bers are over the age of 60.

He says a “gen­er­a­tional re­newal” is needed so that the court “does not end up be­com­ing a fos­silized in­sti­tu­tion.” Of the hun­dreds of wa­ter dis­putes that arise each year, just 20-25 ac­tu­ally reach the tri­bunal. On some Thurs­days no one ap­pears at the door of the cathe­dral with a case. The crowds, which turn out to watch the pro­ceed­ings held in the his­toric cen­tre of Va­len­cia, also dis­suade many farm­ers from bring­ing for­ward a case.

“For a la­borer it is al­most an of­fence to come here,” said Jose An­to­nio Monzo, who en­forces ir­ri­ga­tion rules at a com­mu­nity of ir­ri­ga­tors called Quart. —AFP

VA­LEN­CIA: Peo­ple look at the bailif and the mem­bers of the Wa­ter Court (Tri­bunal de las Aguas) wait­ing to deal with ir­ri­ga­tion con­flicts that erupt in the fer­tile plain that sur­rounds Va­len­cia. — AFP

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