The Federal Electric Commission and the River of Monkeys

While the fate of the world appears to hang by a thread over the possibility of a United States’ war with Iraq, and the ubiquitous violence promised by that prophet of terror, Osama bin Laden, we should not lose sight of threats to the culture and natural environment of our own country

For the Federal Electric Commission (CFE), the watershed of the River Usamacinta – the sacred river of monkeys and the swiftest running in Mexico – represents a source of energy that has been wasted up until now. The CFE has identified Chiapas as possessing 11 thousand megawatts of potential hydroelectric power, and is regretful of the fact that so far no dams have been built on any of the 38 possible sites along the Usamacinta. For us, this watershed embraces the biological, archeological and cultural heart of Mexico; along whose banks once flourished the Mayan world.

The proposed dam construction on the River Usamacinta was a pet project of the CFE for four decades of PRIista governments. Rejected in 1989 and 1992, due to the opposition of ecologists, scientists, archeologists, anthropologists and inhabitants of the region, the project has been resurrected in the government of Vicente Fox. For the moment the target for the CFE’s first dam is Boca del Cerro, located 10 kilometers southeast of Tenosique, Tabasco.

Employing the same tactics used by the officials of FONATUR (National Foundation to Promote Tourism) in their attempts to stifle critics of the disastrous ESCALERA NAUTICA project in Baja California and the Sea of Cortez, the CFE is trying to discredit those opposed to building a dam on the Usamacinta by claiming that they do not understand the project in its present form, therefore their objections are not valid. However, neither for the ESCALERA NAUTICA nor for the dam at Boca del Cerro, have the people behind the project made public – according to their own estimates – the true extent of their plans. Lack of transparency has been part of their politics.

Meanwhile let us examine the proposal as it appears in the information disclosed by the CFE so far (though not to the public), which has fallen into our hands, and its effect on the river, the archeological sites and the people in the region.

The schedule envisaged by the CFE includes three years of preliminary activities, such as getting approval from the states of Tabasco and Chiapas, carrying out engineering studies, and going through the bidding process, in order to begin the construction phase which would last for 64 months. Diverting the River Usamacinta would occur in 2006, and closure of the river is scheduled for June 2009. Commercial operation of the first of four units would begin in the 57th. Month, that is, September 2009 if construction starts at the beginning of 2005.

According to the proposal, the concrete curtain will rise to a height of 48.5 meters. When he appeared before the Camara de Diputados (equivalent to the House of Representatives) last October 7, Elias Ayub, Director General of the CFE, referred to this as a cortinita (little curtain). The reservoir, about 35 kilometers long, will encompass one thousand 799 hectareas (about four and a half thousand acres), 707 of them in the municipality of Tenosique, and one thousand and 92 in Palenque, Chiapas). Most of the land consists of ejidos (communal lands). The CFE claims that only 10 settlements, with a population of one thousand 559 people, will be affected. These are the Chol, Tzeltal and mestizo groups who live in places like Lindavista, Santa Margarita, Paso el Naranjito and San Jose Usamacinta (in the municipality of Palenque). Other sources suggest that about 50 thousand will be impacted over an area of 300 square kilometers.

Based on studies commissioned by themselves between 1990 and 1992, the CFE recognizes the existence of 29 archeological sites in the reservoir and the area that will be impacted. Eleven of these sites will be submerged under water, three of which are characterized by their importance to the larger region, their impact on Mayan or Olmec culture, their complicated and elaborate architecture which includes significant and special plastic elements. One of these is Chinikihia, undoubtedly the most important in the region (among those that have been identified up until now) because it is believed to have controlled the whole valley during the Classic Period. In an area of 400 thousand square meters, are to be found architecture from the Late Classic Period and a ball court. Also scheduled to disappear are the sites of Lindavistsa Santa Margarita, Camino a Las Delicias, Ojo de Agua Santa Margarita, San Jose de los Rieles, San Jose Usamacinta, a large part of Santo Tomas y and Francisco I Madero- Cortijo Nuevo. With the flooding of the area, any possibility of new discoveries of the Mayan civilization, whose cultural value is immeasurable, will be lost. Of what use is the Ley Federal de Monumentos (Federal Monuments Law) in protecting the country’s archeological Heritage?

The CFE assures us that it will “reduce, mitigate and compensate” for the environmental and socio-economic impacts identified in previous studies, but it dismisses the possibility that they might be sufficiently important for the project to be cancelled. The CFE claims that “the hydroelectric proposal for Boca del Carro will have no significant impact upon the vegetation of the area”, due to the fact that “development in the watershed will occur in areas consisting mainly of ravines, and flat areas that have been deforested for agriculture.” It classifies the condition of conservation as “low, mainly secondary.” Not for a moment do they consider turning the vegetation back to its natural forest. The CFE announces that it intends to carry out a rescue program for “species of flora and fauna of ecological importance,” thereby issuing a death sentence to those species that the “wise men” of the CFE decide lack importance. In this case, which officials and businessmen will be the judges who pronounce sentence upon the irrelevance of animal and vegetable species within the life chains of the Usamacinta ecosystem, and what will be their criteria? Do they mean to capture all species of animals (vertebrates as well as invertebrates), select and uproot the plants for transplanting? And where? In an exact reproduction of their previous environment? How clear would their consciences be if, one day, there should appear masses of CFE workers in Mexico City, and leave not a single tree standing?

There is a lot of anxiety in the region, and also in Guatemala, since nobody is sure how many dams will finally be built, and where. Among “immediate actions to avoid potential risks”, the CFE lists “defining communication and participation strategy to reduce conflicts and the intervention of social, environmental and outside political groups.” In other words, how they can minimize the interference of groups who have legitimate concerns about the social and environmental consequence of the construction of the dam at Boca del Cerro? An essential part of this strategy is to reveal as little as possible of the true scope of the project. According to the Director of CFE, reform of the Electricity Sector is urgently needed. He can begin by introducing transparency and democracy into activities of the State Utility of which he is Director, so that those who love the River Usamacinta and the Mayan Culture that flourished in its watershed, will not remain in the dark.

For the enlightenment of CFE officials here are the words of an indigenous old man who misses his river:

“Those leafy trees fell, they were silenced: the plants whose flowers used to make nectar for the bees and the birds dried up. Those birds flew away, they disappeared. The watery eyes of the river closed in sadness. All he could do was look every day at the traces of what he was. Now, my son, what torments me is that this people will also take another road, and sometime, some day, we will wake only to see the traces.”