The New York Times
Sunday, September 22, 2002, p. 14
Mexico Weighs Electricity Against History
By Tim Weiner
MEXICO 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 ruins.
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
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 be 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
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 Rodriguez, 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 the solution."
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."
"This is Mexico's mightiest river," he added, and it runs
through "an underdeveloped, impoverished part of the
country. If we work together responsibly, we can help the
region, not hurt it."
But Alberto Lopez Wario, director of archeological
preservation at the National Institute of Anthropology and
History here, said the only plans he had seen from the
electricity commission called for a 330-foot-high dam at
Boca de Cerro.
That is, by international standards, a very big dam, close
to half the size of the biggest in the United States, like
the Hoover, Grand Coulee and Glen Canyon Dams.
Mr. Lopez Wario said plans for the dam would be reviewed by
the federal Environmental Ministry and his institute. They
could be rejected or modified in the interests of
preservation, ecology or politics.
"The possible outcomes include saying no," he said. "If we
say no, the project won't happen."
"The project will be realized if, in the end, we can
preserve the remains" of Mayan culture along the river, he
said. If built, the dam might take as long as nine years to
complete, giving archaeologists a chance to salvage what
A dam of any size could help the government patrol the
Usumacinta, where bandits, smugglers and other outcasts now
rule. Many archaeologists, along with outfitters who once
took tourists up the Usumacinta, were driven off the river
by a series of armed attacks five years ago.
The river is a route for migrants from all over Latin
American and, increasingly, Asia, who pay smugglers for
passage into Mexico and, they hope, the United States. It
has also served cocaine traffickers and illegal loggers.
The river also marks the eastern edge of territory being
claimed in the name of rural rebels, like the Zapatistas,
who rose up in Chiapas in 1994 as champions of the area's
impoverished indigenous people. The Zapatistas claim that
President Vicente Fox wants to turn Chiapas into a kind of
amusement park for rich tourists, in which Indians and
peasants would be no more than animals in a zoo.
Dams provide about one-fifth of the world's electricity. But
dams and other water-management schemes have broken up 60
percent of the world's rivers, according to the United
Today, in many countries, big dams have fallen into some
disrepute, in part because they displace people and
obliterate their cultures, along with the rivers they
harness. How many people might be displaced by a dam on the
Usumacinta is unclear, though the region is lightly settled.
Mexico's plans to dam the river go back more than 20 years.
Earlier proposals were foiled by, among other problems, the
protests of archaeologists seeking to preserve the remnants
of the still mysterious Mayan civilization.
The Mayans rose to prominence about 1,800 years ago in
present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras and
northern Belize. They built great cities, palaces, temples
and observatories to map the stars, all without metal tools.
They created the only native American writing system and cut
roads through the jungle.
After a millennium of cultural achievement then unsurpassed
by Western civilization, their world collapsed eight
centuries ago. No one really knows why.
[Map of Mexico highlighting Boca de Cerro: A plan calls for
a dam near Boca de Cerro, and near Mayan ruins.]