Fox Against the River Usamacinta

[A letter about this latest threat to Mexico’s environment, signed by numerous environmentally-concerned citizens from around the world, will be presented to President Fox by Homero Aridjis in December 2002. The following article was translated by Jeremy Greenwood.]

Todas pintadas, jamas extintas, son estas aguas, rio de monos, Usamacinta.
(All painted, never extinct, are these waters, river of monkeys, Usamacinta)
—Carlos Pellicer, Mexican poet, 1899-1977

Like a recurring nightmare, the project to build dams on the River Usamacinta has appeared again; in the cradle of Mayan civilization and within the Lacandonian rainforest which has been undergoing a faster and more extensive rate of deforestation than Amazonia.

In the mid-sixties, the area known as Boca del Cerro was slated for a large hydroelectric dam. The project was suspended. In 1980, Mexico made an agreement with Guatemala to make a feasibility study for a series of dams in the Usamacinta watershed, and around 1985 a recommendation was made for Boca del Cerro to be the main dam, with four additional ones: the reservoirs to cover an area of 1300 square kilometers (approx. 7800 square miles). In March of 1987, El Grupo de los Cien condemned the plan to build dams on the River Usamacinta, the natural frontier between the two countries. To carry out the project would mean flooding 700 sq. km. (aprox. 4200 sq. miles), wiping out Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras, erasing the Mayan cultural past, and serving as a kiss of death to the Lacandonian forest, one of the last tropical forests on earth, and incidentally, to the Lacandonians themselves. The New York Times printed the news on its front page, together with an editorial entitled, “Don’t Flood the Mayan Vatican”. El Grupo de los Cien requested of the Presidents of Mexico and Guatemala that they cancel the project and the President of Guatemala, Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, declared his intention, “to work to preserve the fauna as well as the culture”, of the region. “I sincerely believe that a heritage like this belongs to humanity, and that we should preserve it.” In May 1989, upon request of the government of Guatemala, the Minister for Ecology and Urban Development (SEDUE) suspended the hydroelectric plan for the Usamacinta.

The Usamacinta River is the swiftest in Mexico. In 1990 the engineer, Manuel Rubio, was hired by the Federal Electric Commission (CFE) to make a study of the terrain. His conclusion was that the instability of the riverbed would not allow for the building of a concrete curtain. After telling a local newspaper that the CFE should forget the project, Rubio was fired. The group of experts which then analyzed the ecological impact of building the dam, warned that holding back the current with a concrete curtain would cause the flooding of 23 communities along the river bank. Their 25,000 inhabitants would have to relocate. Construction of the concrete curtain would create a dead river below it, which in turn would allow parasites to proliferate in the fish, a source of food for the residents. The microclimates responsible for the endemic flora and fauna would disappear. The wetlands of Centla, an area protected on account of its great biodiversity, would be seriously damaged, causing a brutal break in the ecological chains. Migratory birds that come there year after year would cease to do so. Contrary to the declarations of the CFE, that more energy is needed to satisfy the national demand for electricity and sell some to Guatemala and Belize, the experts revealed that it was PEMEX who needed the energy in the zone, to continue the drilling and production of oil, which would cause an ecological catastrophe in the region and whose environmental impacts would result in much greater expense than searching for alternative energy sources.

On February 15, 1992 in Yaxchilan, at an international meeting about biodiversity that I attended, President Salinas de Gotari announced the creation of a new reserve called Yaxbe (the green road) on the Usmacinta, supposedly to maintain continuity between the Lacandonian forest and the Peten in Guatemala. A few days later, I read in the newspapers that the CFE and the Ministry of Energy, Mines and State Industry (SEMIP) were announcing the construction of a dam at Boca del Cerro and others along the river. Once again El Grupo de los Cien opposed this threat to the biological and cultural heritage of Mexico and Guatemala. We were on the point of launching an international campaign with North American groups when, at the beginning of April, I received a call from Dr. Arturo Gomez Pompa (an ecological advisor to Salinas), telling me that the president had just cancelled the project. Indeed, on April 2, at the meeting entitled, Business Participation in Development, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Salinas said, “my government will not build this hydroelectric dam on the River Usamacinta, nor has it plans to carry out similar projects on the river.”

Ten years have passed, and now it is President Fox who is taking up again the plan to build dams on the River Usamacinta. But this time, according to the inhabitants of Tenosique, Villahermosa and Emiliano Zapata, they talk on the local radio of “diverting the current to take advantage of its strength”. Who are they trying to deceive? Just as during the Priista past, the management of disinformation by the CFE is key to their strategy of achieving their several times rejected objective. Construction of the dam at Boca del Cerro is the cornerstone of the Puebla-Panama Plan, the most ambitious development project of the current regime, and one that has provoked the opposition of campesinos in Oaxaca, Puebla, Veracruz, Guerrero and Yucatan, trade unions, academics and indigenous people, and NGO’s. At the end of June 2002, at the “Special Summit” in Merida, Yucatan for the countries who took part in the meeting at Tuxtla seeking ways for association, the Presidents of Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the Prime Minister of Belize, agreed to push forward the SIEPAC project (System for Electrical Interconnection for countries of Central America). The majority of these countries have already signed contracts for loans to participate in SIEPAC, whose first phase involves supplying electricity between Mexico and Guatemala. Mexico will not be able to plan for the energy dependence of the other countries without building dams on the River Usamacinta, and let it be said in passing, not without deregulating the electric and oil sectors. The dam at Boca del Cerro will only produce 500 megawatts, 2% of the national demand.

The arguments for not building dams on the River Usamacinta still apply. We cannot permit the destruction of an area that holds the greatest biological, cultural and archeological concentration in Mexico. Eighteen archeological sites (not counting those yet to be discovered) will find themselves below 130 meters of water. As I told the New York Times in 1987, the devastation caused by this project would be greater than that caused by a war in the region. Where are the Environmental Impact Reports? Where is the public consultation? Where is SEMARNAT, the rubber stamp Ministry, to defend Mexicans’ natural heritage? Why has INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) not flatly rejected this project? How can the World Bank and Bank for Inter-American Development justify their support for such an ill-fated project? What happened to Democracy, Transparency , and the Right to Access Information? Has something changed between 1987, 1992 and 2002? In this case, is there any difference between Miguel de la Madrid, Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Vicente Fox?

In 1991 Gabriel Garcia Marquez and myself presented to the nineteen heads of state gathered in Guadalajara for the first Ibo-American Summit a proposal from El Grupo de los Cien to create a Latin American Ecological Alliance. One of the recommendations was to establish an eco-archeological park which would include both banks of the River Usamacinta, to ensure the preservation of the tropical forest covering Chiapas and El Peten, Mayan culture, and the river itself.

Will Vicente Fox go down in history as the destroyer or the savior of the cultural and natural heritage of the Mayan world? Who will decide?