Weighs Electricity Against History
By TIM WEINER
Sept. 22, 2002
EXICO CITY, Sept. 19 - Mexico, starved for electricity, is reviving
plans to dam its biggest river, the Usumacinta. The dam could provide
power to millions, but at a cost: the destruction of precious Mayan
The Usumacinta rises in Guatemala's highlands and runs free for 600
miles north to the Gulf of Mexico. Controlling it with a hydroelectric
dam could create enough electricity to light a large city. A dam also
might help police a river that serves as a road through the jungle for
illegal migrants, drugs and guns.
But the dam could inflame southern Mexico's indigenous groups, including
the Zapatista rebels, who view government development schemes as
sinister imperial plots.
Archaeologists say the project would flood largely unknown but
potentially priceless ruins along the river.
Government officials responsible for preserving Mayan ruins say 18 sites
are threatened. Some have important buildings and structures that cannot
easily be recovered, and some may hold only shards, they said. All 18
are dimly known.
"We know from explorers and looters that there is amazing stuff there
waiting to be found," said David S. Stuart, a Mayan expert at Harvard.
"If it's under water it's gone - beautiful art, ruins of palaces,
hieroglyph inscriptions, stuff we would have nowhere else."
Government officials say there are two plans: one for a dam 132 feet
high, another for a dam 330 feet high.
The smaller dam would create a lake 22 miles long, officials said. The
big one would most likely create a larger backwater, one that could
conceivably threaten a major Mayan site, Piedras Negras, about 30 miles
upstream on the Guatemalan bank of the river.
"This is a disaster," said Stephen D. Houston, an archaeologist at
Brigham Young University. "And if Piedras Negras is flooded, it would
the worst disaster ever to be visited on a classic Mayan site."
Mr. Houston has worked extensively at Piedras Negras, a large, mostly
unexcavated classic Mayan city that flourished from 400 B.C. to A.D. 800
and is today surrounded by trackless wilderness.
The plans to dam the Usumacinta, the biggest river between Texas and
Venezuela, have been drafted, with a degree of secrecy, at Mexico's
federal electricity commission.
Julio Acosta Rodr=EDguez, the commission's hydroelectric projects
coordinator, said a 132-foot-high dam near the town of Boca de Cerro
could generate 500 megawatts, enough for two million or more Mexicans.
"That won't solve the country's problems," he said, "but it's part of
Mexico's government says 500 megawatts represents perhaps 2 percent of
its energy needs in the coming decade.
If the dam threatened "a jewel of Mayan culture that must surely be
preserved, we'll rethink things," Mr. Acosta said. "If a site can be
rescued, we'll figure out how."