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

Anti-Pemex Protests

Air Date: Week of

In the Mexican state of Tabasco in recent weeks, over sixty separate protests have occurred at oil wells against the government-owned Pemex company. Farmers and fishermen are complaining of pollution resulting in spoiled crops and catches. This same oil is being used as collateral for Mexico's debt to the United States, so the Mexican Government is starting to negotiate with the protesters to prevent blockades and disruption in oil extraction. Jana Schroeder reports from Mexico.


NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood. For 2 weeks in February, hundreds of Mexican farmers and fishermen blocked access to oil wells in the southern state of Tabasco, protesting what they call damage to their lands and their livelihoods from oil drilling. Most of Mexico's oil production takes place in Tabasco and in the neighboring state of Campeche. Oil is vital to Mexico; it's a major source of foreign exchange and it's collateral for the multi-billion dollar loan the government took out from the United States last year when the economy crashed. That's why Tabasco's protesters were watched nervously in Washington, DC. But they fuel political fires within Mexico as well as Pemex, the state-owned oil company at the center of the controversy, has become a prime target for opposition politicians. There's a lot at stake for Mexico's government in Tabasco, and as Jana Schroeder reports there's a lot at stake for the local residents as well.

(A machete cuts through brush)

SCHROEDER: Damasio Garcia Sanchez is 85 years old. He still works this small plot of land in Tabasco's lowland farming region known as Chontalpa. Today he's clearing it by hand to prepare for the next crop of corn. The Chontal indigenous people have lived off farming and fishing here for generations, but in recent years they say intensive oil drilling by Mexico's state-owned oil company, Pemex, has changed their way of life and their chance for survival.

GARCIA: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: The land's worn out. Now it doesn't produce anything. If you plant yucca, you don't get anything. If you plant squash, it comes out all shriveled. Look at the banana grove I've got planted over there. Nothing. Before, the banana was big and beautiful. But now, what we are going to eat?

SCHROEDER: Small farmers like Mr. Garcia were among those who blocked access to the state-owned oil wells in this part of Tabasco in February. The protests have been led by one of Mexico's opposition parties, the Party of the Democratic Revolution or the PRD. Pemex, the state oil company, says the protests are politically motivated and exaggerate environmental damage from oil operations. Pemex has a policy of not granting interviews, but officials have complained that recent protests at 60 oil wells have cost the company as much as $13 million. Scientists who study the region say complaints by local residents are genuine. Dr. Alfonso Vasquez Botello is a geochemist at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

POTELLO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: They are based on results, and from 15 to 20 years ago, which demonstrated with facts and statistics and published reports that petroleum extraction in southeast Mexico had already seriously affected large segments of the population. So for me, as a researcher, what's happening in Tabasco is nothing new. It's just that the people are responding difrently.

SCHROEDER: Dr. Vasquez says the government claims Pemex has improved its practices.

VASQUEZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: But the truth is, we don't see this improvement in our studies. To the contrary, we have found higher and higher concentrations of compounds derived from petroleum in organic tissues in water and sediments.

SCHROEDER: Pemex officials acknowledge that oil spills and gas emissions are partially responsible for ecological damage in Tabasco, but they insist there are also other causes, such as improper disposal of human wastes and use of pesticides and fertilizers.

(People gathering)

SCHROEDER: The state government of Tabasco has set up a commission to mediate between Pemex and farmers and fishermen. Chemist Leonardo Garcia Hernandez is the director of environmental protection at the commission. He says of the tens of thousands of complaints registered, only a small percentage are actually related to damage caused by Pemex. He says that after the oil company compensated some affected small farmers in the mid 1980s, people started to take advantage of the situation.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: All of a sudden it became an escape valve for all the economic problems in the area. There were more and more complaints from that time up until 1994, '95, it was like there was a complaint boom with some incredible claims. Many of them, I can assure you, without any technical backing.

SCHROEDER: Mr. Garcia believes environmental problems are getting mixed up with the region's economic and social problems. Pemex has vowed to pay out on all legitimate complaints, but says it won't pay a single penny to what's been termed the complaint industry. Still, the oil company says it has donated millions of dollars to economic development efforts in the region, including money for public works jobs for people who can't make a living the way they used to. But many say it hasn't made much difference. Jose Gordillo grows corn and beans on communally owned land in the village of Olcoatita'n.

GORDILLO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Sometimes the government comes around with its little program that pays less than $2 a day and lasts only 2 or 3 weeks. But it's only for a few people, only for those who support the government. They get the jobs.

SCHROEDER: Eight years ago a ruptured pipeline spilled oil into this river. According to Mr. Gordillo it's never been the same since. He says his community has been waiting 2 years for a response from Pemex to their complaints of environmental damage. Ernesto Martinez Oliva, who works for the Human Rights Committee of Tabasco, says there are many such cases of unanswered complaints and unfulfilled promises. He's personally experienced one of them. He lives less than a mile from the side of a pipeline explosion a year ago, that left 9 people dead. The government agreed to begin relocating families living in the area by August of 1995, but Martinez says nothing's been done.

MARTINEZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: The people haven't moved because they're poor. They don't have enough money to buy another house or buy another piece of land. This is why there are so many unhappy people around this state, because it's not the only agreement the state government has signed but failed to comply with.

SCHROEDER: According to the influential independent magazine Processo, there are nearly 2,000 miles of pipelines crisscrossing Tabasco, and in 20 years there have been 30 explosions reported, with as many as 200 deaths. When protests were underway, Pemex announced a 6-fold budget hike for building and maintaining pipelines. It emphasizes that much of the money will go toward building new line to replace the old ones. But biologist Gonzalo Ortiz Gil is worried about much bigger problems, about an entire ecosystem that's been changed forever.

(A child speaks)

SCHROEDER: Mr. Ortiz works at the autonomous Chapingo University in Tabasco. He clears off a table in his home to spread out a well-worn, hand-drawn map of Tabasco's coastal region along the Gulf of Mexico. He says canals built by Pemex to transport its oil and machinery have increased ocean water flowing into an intricate natural system of lakes and rivers. He says the canals and causeways have changed water levels and salinity and created havoc for local farmers and fishermen.

ORTIZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: There are farmers whose pasture lands and coconut groves are under salt water. They've lost them. They should be paid for the damage. If we were in the United States, any court would have ordered such payments or the land that has oil underneath it, the oil will be theirs. They would be rich. They wouldn't be living in poverty. What we've got, if you take a good look, is massive uncontrolled exploitation. Why? Because politicians are selling the petroleum. If there isn't enough oil, more wells have to be dug. Ecology doesn't matter. The important thing is to get the oil out. This happened, for example, when Lopez Portillo was president.

SCHROEDER: That was back in the 1970s. Some Mexican environmentalists believe it's also happening now. They believe Pemex is under pressure to step up oil production, since Mexico put its oil up as collateral for the Clinton Administration's loan guarantee for $20 billion. In fact, Pemex recently announced it plans to boost oil production and increase oil exports to the United States to 75% of all exported oil. Mr. Ortiz says there are many ways such intensive oil drilling has affected the environment. He claims the government has evidence of acid rain, and he charges that wastes and sludge stored in pools at drilling sites are left to contaminate the ground and water table. Mr. Ortiz is one of the few scientists in Tabasco's capitol, Villahermosa, who are willing to speak so frankly. Some of the most qualified experts have government or university jobs they're afraid of losing, and only speak cautiously or off the record.

ORTIZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: I've been holding back from talking to the press about this problem because it has political implications, you know. But I decide that as academics, we have the moral obligation to say what we know about this situation.

SCHROEDER: Pemex has recently promised to conduct new environmental impact studies. But Mr. Ortiz says there is no lack of studies, nor of proposals from qualified scientists. But they've been shelved and ignored. One of those proposals is to give people living in the areas with ecological damage a chance to relocate and make a decent living again.

(Water being splashed)

SCHROEDER: The families living around the Mecoaca'n Lagoon might be candidates for such a relocation program. They've traditionally made their living from fishing and oyster farming, but oil spills during recent years have drastically affected oyster production. Rofino Lara Wilson has been fishing here since he was a kid.

WILSON: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: The only thing people can do is sell a few oysters here on the street at about a dollar a bag, or whatever they can get to survive. Because there's no other work here. Fishing is all there is. If we try taking our oysters to a market, we're turned away because people know the lagoon is polluted.

SCHROEDER: Mr. Lara talks of the days the fishing boats went out 6 days a week, and came back loaded with oysters. But that way of life, he says, is history now. For Living on Earth, I'm Jana Schroeder in Tabasco, Mexico.



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