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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 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 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 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 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 they could.

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 Nations.

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.]