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Chiapas Article

Environmentalists protest dam project for ancient river
Claudia Boyd-Barrett, - 12/4/2002

An old, recurring threat is back to taunt the mighty Usumacinta river that winds along the Mexico-Guatamalan border: a hydroelectric dam project resurrected by the Mexican government.

Critics of the project gathered at a press conference yesterday to decry the potential disasters posed by large-scale tampering with Usumacinta's free-flowing waters.

"What is going to happen to the people who inhabit this land?" questioned Moises Morales, a native and expert on the region. "For us (this is) ... like fearing the end of the world."

Descendants of the ancient Maya Indians still live in this culturally and biologically rich region. However, far from the splendor of their past civilization, today's Mayans suffer poverty and political marginalization deepened by low agricultural prices, depressed currency rates and privatization of communal lands.

President Vicente Fox says the dam will help bring development to the area as part of a larger project to create a mega infrastructure and biological corridor running from Puebla in Mexico to Panama. The plan aims to open southern Mexico and Central America to foreign investment, industry and natural resource extraction, spurring local employment.

But numerous conservationists, scientists, archaeologists and citizens from Guatemala, Mexico and the United States say the dam will flood acres of tropical forest and tillable land, displacing indigenous communities and wreaking environmental havoc.

In a letter to Vicente Fox, members of the environmentally-concerned Rios Mayas and Grupo de los Cien coalition urged the president to reconsider his plans for the region, home for endangered species such as jaguars, manatees, spider and howler monkeys.

"We reject the premise that this goal requires the destruction of the region's premiere natural and scenic wonder, one of the world's richest ecological and historical resources, and the largest wild river in Central America," states the letter.

The dam, while producing just two percent of Mexico's electricity needs, would also flood archeological sites thousands of years old, some which have yet to be explored.

Instead of provoking such far-reaching damage, those opposed to the dam have suggested the creation of a bi-national riparian corridor between Mexico and Guatemala, together with investment in alternative development and power generation initiatives and low-impact tourism.

Usumacinta is "too attractive for the hydro-engineers of the world to avoid," says Christopher Shaw, author of Sacred Monkey River. "We need to put the river and much of the watershed under international protection."

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