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Chiapas Article

MAYA SITES FACE FLOODING

Archaeological Institute of America http://www.archaeology.org/online/news/usumacinta.html

February 19, 2003

Evidence continues to surface that a hydroelectric dam proposed by Mexico's Federal Commission of Electricity (CFE) will flood an area of southeastern Mexico rich in Maya ruins and artifacts. Archaeologists working in the Usumacinta River basin--many of whom are advisers to the electricity commission--have established that the dam would inundate a largely unexplored area near the Guatemalan border they believe to have been the seventh-century Maya kingdom of Ponomá. Adding to the public relations fallout for CFE was the recent discovery of remarkably well-preserved cave paintings at a lesser-known site called Chinikiha, which lies well within the proposed flood area.

This is the third time since 1987 that the Mexican government has made plans to dam the Usumacinta, which is the longest river in Mesoamerica and the most torrential in Mexico. Attempts by Mexican presidents Miguel de la Madrid in 1987 and Carlos Salinas in 1992 met with stiff civic resistance and were canceled. This latest version is planned for the same location as its predecessors, 5.5 miles south of Tenosique, where the river rushes northward out of the Chiapas highlands en route to the coastal plain of Tabasco.

The site is known as Boca del Cerro, or Mouth of the Hill. Although the presence of archaeological ruins in the area has long been suspected, dense jungle cover and a shortage of government funds for exploration have combined to leave its contents largely unknown. Between A.D. 600 and 800 the region flourished as Pomoná, a kingdom whose strategic location on the Usumacinta brought it into many confrontations with powerful neighbors in Palenque to the west and Piedras Negras to the south. Boca del Cerro and the proposed dam site was once a Pomoná settlement known as Panhale.

The original CFE plan called for a dam 330 feet high whose floodwaters, the government admits, would have endangered two well-known Late Classic Maya centers: Yaxchilán in Mexico, and Piedras Negras across the border in Guatemala. According to the project outline, the ruins at Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras would be taken apart and their stones moved uphill to be reassembled out of flood reach.

Newspapers around the world sounded the alarm, including the New York Times, which quoted archaeologist Stephen D. Houston, who works at Piedras Negras, proclaiming the proposed dam "the biggest disaster ever to be visited on a classic Maya site." The CFE promptly revised its plan, announcing before the Mexican Congress on October 7, 2002, their intent to build a dam 132 feet high that would flood approximately 22 square miles of land, and would generate 500 megawatts of electricity, fulfilling two percent of Mexico's total need.

Even with a scaled-down plan, problems have persisted for CFE. Its all-important partnership with Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), whose archaeologists had been evaluating the proposal favorably, is now strained. INAH spokesman Rubén Regnier had earlier described candidly the agreement reached between project archaeologists and engineers in a July 23 interview with the newspaper Reforma. In the event of a discovery around Boca del Cerro, said Regnier, "INAH will attend to the event immediately, with the purpose of avoiding delays in the execution of the electrical energy works." But INAH changed its tune on December 22, when it published an open letter to the Mexican people in the magazine Proceso under the headline "INAH Protects the Archaeological Patrimony of the Mexican People." Although most of the letter only restates INAH's responsibilities regarding the Boca del Cerro dam project, its opening sentence is telling: "Up to this moment, the Institute has not received the definitive technical plans of Boca del Cerro."

Within CFE discretion has given way to secrecy. None of its project engineers would speak to ARCHAEOLOGY, and one of its spokesman, Gerardo Cubos, denied that the the Boca del Cerro dam project even exists. Indeed, it appears CFE is already preparing itself should the Boca del Cerro project be canceled once again.

According to an internal CFE report that appeared last October, the commission has dispatched experts to survey possible Usumacinta dam sites further south in the state of Chiapas. But a dam site at Boca del Cerro would harness the Usumacinta at its greatest velocity, and governmental plans that appear on the website "México Tercer Milenio" describe the Boca del Cerro project as "a strong priority" that has the capacity to be the most productive hydroelectric dam in Mexico.

Begun by an ex-CFE engineer named Manuel Frías Alcaraz, the website provides information about the energy projects under consideration by the CFE, including their price tags. Investors are encouraged to submit offers through the site. Despite its cooler relationship with CFE, INAH remains open to the Boca del Cerro project. INAH coordinator Alejandro Martinez Muriel told ARCHAEOLOGY that "from the point of view of an archaeologist, the flooding will affect very little.

No important Maya site is within reach." Nevertheless, in July INAH archaeologists like Laura Pescador and Luis Alberto López Wario were calling for "salvage operations" to collect whatever precious Maya artifacts could be found before the flooding, which would take place in two years, according to CFE. For his part, López Wario, who directs INAH's archaeological salvage project, told Proceso that there are 25 unexplored archaeological zones near the proposed dam site. He said that while the high-profile sites of Piedras Negras and Yaxchilán will likely be protected, lesser-known sites like Chinikiha are faced with destruction.

Cave paintings at Chinikiha (Alfonso Morales and Julia Miller) [LARGER IMAGE] It was in Chinikiha that a series of prehispanic cave paintings of bats were discovered on November 8. Bordered in reddish tones and painted on stucco, these murals recount the myth of twin bats who played a key part in the Maya creation myth.

In addition to the nine caves that are virtually unexplored, Chinikiha has structures, including a ball court, said Juan Antonio Ferrer, INAH's director for the Usumacinta basin. Since the site is a mere seven miles from the proposed dam, the cave paintings will be underwater if the project goes forward. Ferrer has said that the Boca del Cerro project would endanger no less than 220 archaeological sites. Panhale, the ancient Maya settlement where the dam is to be constructed, has been little explored.

However, a report recently published by archaeologist Armando Anaya Hérnandez on the website of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., begins to offer the scope of the problem. Anaya, a professor at Le Trobe University in Australia, located what he believes were two distinct population centers of Panhale. Both were built atop a limestone ridge overlooking the Usumacinta, with one center located 325 feet and the other 975 feet above sea level.

During their broad sweep through these two overgrown locations, Anaya and his team found ceramic fragments, human skeletal remains, a one-room temple, a watchtower, and a two-roomed building with vaulted ceilings, among other discoveries. "Sadly," he wrote, "Panhale has been considerably affected by the mining activities of the nearby lime plant, the exploration works of [CFE], and the ubiquitous actions of professional looters." Anaya describes how CFE disturbed one of the limestone terraces on which some of Panhale's ruins are situated, digging a trench 7.5 feet deep and 750 feet long as part of a dam feasibility study.

He also describes three more ancient Maya settlements he found within four miles south of the dam site that would be partly or completely submerged. They are San Carlos Boca del Cerro, Chan Marín/Súchite, and Rancho La Herradura. Although the outcome remains uncertain, support for dam opponents has come from Rios Mayas and El Grupo de Cien. The latter, a leading environmental organization in Mexico, is credited with spearheading the previous two defeats of the Boca del Cerro dam project. Its founder, the Mexican poet Homero Aridjis, says the Usumacinta is the lifeblood of the Lacandón jungle in southeastern Mexico. "In Walt Whitman terms, you could say it is our Mississippi," he said. Under the direction of the Grupo de Cien, a letter was delivered to Mexico's president Vicente Fox on December 3 signed by 64 writers, artists, archaeologists, and environmentalists opposed to the Boca del Cerro dam.

The letter, which was published the same day in Reforma, suggests a binational corridor be established to protect the jungle shared by southern Mexico and Guatemala. Fox, however, has thrown his complete support behind the dam project, calling it an important step toward developing the area according to the ambitious Plan Puebla Panama, which aims to industrialize the Central American isthmus from southern Mexico to Panama. Six additional dam projects in the Usumacinta River basin are being planned as part of the PPP. "There has been absolutely no response from anyone regarding the letter," said Aridjis in a telephone interview. "None at all."--JASON MCGAHAN ______________________________________

 
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