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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mexico's Troubled River

Air Date: Week of

Richard Mahler visits a river in Chiapas, Mexico that flows through the heart of a rainforest. Recent land battles in the area and a proposed hydroelectric dam both threaten the future of the Usamacinta River and its surrounding ecosystem.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Land and water, two of the most essential elements of life, are coming under increasing pressure in the southeastern part of Mexico known as Chiapas. Ecological stresses form some of the roots of the recent Zapatista Rebellion, and Mexico faces hard choices about the Chiapas region. Near the top of the list of concerns is the fate of the mighty Usumacinta River, which forms part of Mexico's border with Guatemala. It still runs freely through the dense rainforest, which was once home to the ancient Mayan civilization. But the forest is being slowly cleared by small farmers, and talk of damming the river itself for hydropower has been revived in response to rebel demands for economic development. Reporter Richard Mahler has our story.

(Running river)

MAHLER: It is the isolation of the Usumacinta that protects it. The river is many bumpy hours from the nearest town by a single muddy road. There is only one launching site for large boats, and from that point on a traveler is swallowed up by the largest intact rainforest north of the Panama Canal: a jungle of magnificent natural beauty and stunning biodiversity. According to some scientists, a single square mile of riverbank is likely to contain more plant and animal species than the US and Canada combined. Including endangered cats, macaws, and monkeys.

(Birdsong, running river)

DAVIS: The magic being on the river is pretty phenomenal.

MAHLER: Scott Davis is a naturalist who spends half of each year in Arizona and half in Chiapas, where he guides trips down the Usumacinta, which he calls a rare resource.

DAVIS: One of the few rivers in Chiapas and actually throughout the whole Mayan, the La Ruta Maya, that provides access to Mayan ruins. And using the vehicle, using the river as a vehicle, is pretty unique. It also allows the individual to see what second growth forest is all about, what clear-cutting is all about, and also what the pristine tropical jungle is all about.

MAHLER: Like any tropical waterway, where there are roads near the Usumacinta there is also deforestation. But the river itself is deep and swift, too dangerous for most small boats. Thus, the immediately adjacent area is largely uninhabited, the embankments unspoiled and shaded by a dense canopy. Yet hundreds of people live nearby, using trails to hunt wild game and tend small fields. Among these forest dwellers are Lacandon Maya Indians, who hold legal title to much of the watershed. Others are arriving uninvited every day.

BOR: [Speaks in Spanish]

MAHLER: In the village of Lacanja, a Lacandon named Bor tells us that his tribe shaman has asked the governor of Chiapas to do something about peasants from the highlands who are homesteading without permission, cutting trees and killing animals. Authorities acknowledge Lacandon ownership, Bor says, but haven't evicted the encroaching trespassers despite prayers offered by the shaman at the ancient ruins. Many of the unwelcome newcomers, also of Mayan descent, have been forced from small farms in the overcrowded highlands by powerful ranchers. Last January, the frustration of these highland Maya led to open warfare between the new rebel Zapatistas and Mexico's army. Now, there are fears that the government may be tempted to sanction immigration to the Usumacinta Basin to satisfy rebel demands for land redistribution.

(Insect buzzing, nighttime rainforest sounds?)

MAHLER: Will Hoffman is project coordinator for the independent research center Na Bolom, based in the highland town of San Cristobal de las Casas.

(Music on busy city street)

HOFFMAN: One of the things that we were worried about here was that in a lot of institutions locally is that they were going to divide up the rest of the rainforest to appease a mass of the problems on an immediate level. Yeah, the Zapatistas are talking now. I guess one of their huge issues is land.

MAHLER: Although they share a common ancestry with highland Maya, Hoffman says most Lacandon Indians rotate and diversify their crops and raise no cattle, making little lasting impact on the jungle. In contrast, highlanders have forgotten how to practice sustainable rainforest agriculture. They quickly exhaust the shallow topsoil and must frequently clear new land for corn and cows. While these immigrants pose a serious long-term threat to the watershed, potentially more damage to the Usumacinta itself looms in the form of a huge hydroelectric project. James Nations of Conservation International is an anthropologist who has lived among the rainforest Maya, and also listens to the Zapatistas.

NATIONS: One of their requests, demands, however you want to phrase that, is for electricity. Chiapas has the lowest percentage of all Mexican states of households with electricity, 66%.

MAHLER: Nations says the Zapatista demand for an improved infrastructure has revived talk about damming the Usumacinta, a controversial idea that has been around for 3 decades. The project could power not only Chiapas, but much of Mexico and virtually all of neighboring Guatemala, which shares a 150-mile border along the Usumacinta. In the process, however, a dam is likely to dry up wetlands, devastate fisheries, destroy unknown biological treasures, and inundate long-forgotten ruins still being discovered along the Usumacinta. It would partially flood 2 large ancient cities where many secrets of Mayan civilization have been unlocked: Piedras Negras on the Guatemalan side, and Yaxchilan on the Mexican bank. Victor Perera is a Guatemala-born author who has written extensively about the region. He believes it is the need to protect these ruins that may ultimately save the Usumacinta.

PERERA: It's the destruction of Yaxchilan and Piedras Negas that is the biggest bone of contention here. But I think there are much larger issues involved: cultural, environmental, as well as archaeological. But it's on the archaeological grounds that you can make a real strong stand.

MAHLER: It is unlikely that any hydroelectric project will move forward until at least 1995. Mexico's lame duck president, Carlos Salinas, has shelved the plan, and Guatemala cannot proceed until a pace agreement is reached with the guerrillas who are now in control of its side of the river. Meanwhile, ecologist Arturo Gomez-Pompa, an advisor to Salinas, believes the uncontrolled influx of landless farmers could do more damage to the Usumacinta river system during the next few years than the dam might cause in the long run. While politicians and rebels negotiate, he says, a sustainable economy needs to be created that minimizes destruction by those who have moved into the watershed.

GOMEZ-POMPA: We have to find alternatives for a better living of the people who are there in the high diverse forest environment, and I think what we need is more action and less talk.

MAHLER: The fate of the Usumacinta has yet to surface as a campaign issue in Mexico's presidential election, which takes place this August. But the so-called Group of 100, a powerful lobby of prominent Mexicans, is warning of potential armed conflict in the Usumacinta watershed that could involve the Zapatistas. That's if efforts aren't made to resolve the competing claims of immigrants, rebels, and indigenous residents. Continued inaction by officials, the group concludes, will cause further degradation of the jungle and the loss of priceless Mayan artifacts. It would also make it impossible to experience the unique rapture of a boat trip through the cathedral-like majesty of this mature rainforest. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Mahler.

(Sounds deep in the rainforest: lightning, downpour)



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