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Specter of Usumacinta Dam Lingers

By Edin Hernández*

The hydroelectric dam mega-project on the river dividing Mexico and Guatemala is keeping environmental groups on edge, despite reassurances from authorities that it has been canceled.

GUATEMALA – The governments of Mexico and Guatemala confirm that they do not have plans to build a major hydroelectric plan on the Usumacinta River, the mightiest of Mayan region and a natural border between the two countries. But environmentalists and local residents are wary of the official denial and continue to organize protests.

Known as the Boca del Cerro project, filed away and revived by at least three Mexican governments, it would have the capacity to produce 3,978 megawatts and would consist of a 130-meter high concrete wall, which would create an artificial lake of 20,000 cubic meters.

The dam, originally projected for the southern Mexican state of Tabasco, would flood 500 to 800 square km of Guatemalan territory, say environmentalists, and would endanger the cultural and biological wealth of the Usumacinta basin.

An area rich in flora, fauna and water and energy resources, the river basin covers the Altos de Chiapas and the Lacandona jungle, in Mexico, and the Guatemalan departments of El Quiché, Alta and Baja Verapaz, and El Petén.

The Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) of Mexico announced in November that it had cancelled the project, and the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) also denied that such plans were under way.

"Guatemala does not support this Mexican project due to the strong opposition of environmental groups and the large organization of residents in El Petén," MEM spokesman Juan Carlos Ruiz told Tierramérica.

But the people living on both sides of the Usumacinta are not convinced that plans have been buried.

El Petén residents created the Petenero Front against Dams and, along with 15 organizations, founded the Alliance for Life and Peace.

"The megaproject will bring more harm than good," Alliance president Jorge Mario Sub told Tierramérica.

"The Guatemalan lands are low, and a dam on the other side would flood the village La Libertad," notes Magalí Rey, president of the MadreSelva Collective.

The coalition pressured El Petén governor Adán Regalado to sign a commitment promising not to authorize the hydroelectric project. "Only if we organize will we be able to prevent a third of El Petén from being flooded by the dam," said Sub.

In mid-2002, dozens of intellectuals and artists signed an open letter to Mexican President Vicente Fox urging him against giving the project the green light.

Writers Ariel Dorfman and Margo Glantz, artists Leonora Carrington and Francisco Toledo, among many others, stressed in the letter that the water of the Usumacinta forms the backbone of one of the regions of greatest biological vitality and cultural relevance in the world.

The idea of building a mega-dam in the heart of the millenniums-old Mayan civilization is a recurring nightmare for environmentalists. The plan was revived in 2001 as part of the discussion for the Puebla-Panama Plan (PPP), an integration and development program for Mexico and Central America promoted by Fox.

The authorities on both sides say that a major dam project is not included in the PPP. But it is likely that other smaller hydroelectric projects will be tabled in the near future.

Gerardo Cubos, CFE Mexico spokesman, acknowledged in a conversation with Tierramérica that initial studies are under way for a smaller scale dam.

The new plan is also being studied by the governmental National Institute of Anthropology and History, which must determine whether the dam would affect historic or cultural monuments.

Alejandro Martínez, national archeology coordinator, said that according to the CFE studies he has seen of the zone, "it is a project that would not flood even one square centimeter of Guatemalan territory, nor would it affect important archeological areas."

The Usumacinta is the most voluminous river of Mexico and "the third in Latin America as far as electrical production potential. A hydroelectric dam on that river would be able to supply southeast Mexico and all of Central America," MEM spokesman Ruiz said.

Guatemala currently has the capacity to produce 620 megawatts, 53 percent generated by thermoelectric plants and the rest by hydroelectric dams. Electrical services reach 85 percent of the 12 million Guatemalan people.

In Mexico, nearly 100 percent of the population of 100 million have access to electricity. The country has the capacity to generate around 41,000 megawatts, 70 percent from thermoelectric plants. Hydroelectric energy represents just 24 percent of the total potential.

* Edin Hernández is a Tierramérica contributor. Pilar Franco (Mexico) contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2001 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados

The border river Usumacinta.  Photo credit:  Mauricio Ramos.
The border river Usumacinta. Photo credit: Mauricio Ramos.