Mexico's new predators

Foreigners have often besieged Villahermosa, a steamy gregarious old city in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec near the spot where Cortes first set foot on Mexican soil in 1519. English freebooters occupied it 80 years later. The 17th and 18 th centuries saw incursions by booty-hungry corsairs. And Frenchmen, in the service of Napoleon III, arrived in the 1860s.

Now the principal threat to the people, land, air, and water comes not from foreign but domestic invaders -- notably state agencies such as Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), Mexico's oil monopoly.

The massive invasion began in the early 1970s with the discovery of petroleum more than 13,775 feet below the lush, tropical vegetation that carpets the region.Output climbed from 27,400 barrels per day (bpd) in 1973 to over 1 million bpd in 1980 when the Villahermosa area, now known as "little Kuwait," furnished 40 percent of the country's 2.5 million bpd year-end production.

The oil served as a black magnet, attracting people from every part of the nation. Once a sleepy, fly-specked provincial capital, Villahermosa turned into a boom town. Its population tripled in a decade to its current level of nearly 300,000 inhabitants.Many of the new arrivals live in fetid shacks that cling like swallows' nests to the banks of the Grijalva River, until a few years ago alive with the splash of expatriated Mississippi steamboats. They dodge cars along the city's narrow, congested main street, which, in the words of one journalist, looks like "a chariot scene out of Ben Hur" because of the number of crashes and breakdowns.

The onslaught of people has caused shortages in food, drinking water, consumer goods, schools, transportation, and housing -- triggering in inflation rate half again as high as that of Mexico City where prices shot up 30 percent in 1980. Everything seems in short supply with the possible exception of houses of prostitution.

The environment has been ravaged along with human beings.As the quests four black gold quickens, heavy equipment cuts grooves across land, once devoted to grazing and farming.The water of rivers and estuaries bubbles with black wastes, the by-product of "progress." And the air, illuminated at night by the flaring of natural gas, is redolent of hydrogen sulfide -- a poison that attacks the area's cirtrus trees.

The most recent threat to the ecosystem takes the form of a proposed canal that would create a 2.5-mile gash across Tabasco state, of which Villahermosa is capital, from Samaria to the Gulf of Mexico 43.5 miles away. The ministry of agriculture and water resources justifies the project as a means to control flooding, create a navigable waterway, and open new lands to cultivation.

A number of ecologists, economists, and engineers have criticized the undertaking as a "pharaonic dream" of Tabasco governor Leandro Rovirosa Wade.They insist that (1) dams and dikes could curb seasonal inundations; (2) the effort to make virgin land available would remove some 69,000 acres from agricultural use; (3) the salinity of the local water system might be drastically altered; (4) the Mecoacan lagoon, the richest source of oysters in Tabasco which supplies 35 percent of the nation's production, could be polluted; and (5) plans are proceeding without a thorough study of the canal's impact on either government-financed crop programs or the hydrology of the area.

Although touted as a means to uplift the indigenous population who reportedly have endorsed it, the canal would endanger -- if not wipe out -- six Chontal communities in the Nacajuca municipality alone, according to scientists at the Colegio Superior de Agricultura Tropical located in nearby Cardenas. Moreover, a recent survey, reported in the weekly magazine Proceso, found 98 percent of the local population to be absolutely ignorant of the project and its consequences.

Cynics suggest that the venture, to cost over $130 million, will simply provide opportunities for mordidasm or "bites" that often give official contracts here a Swiss cheese appearance.

In a speech five years ago, President Jose Lopez Portillo promised: "During my administration, I will not allow areas rich in petroleum to be exploited as if they were colonies in order to transfer the wealth to other parts of the country and leave the production zone beset by disease, despoliation, misery, isolation, and depleted wells."

Yet the chief executive's support for PEMEX's predatory activities and the Samaria-Gulf scheme mocks his own stirring words. Compared to the present-day governmental invaders, the English filibusters, avaricious pirates, and French soldiers of past centuries must seem like good Samaritans to Tabasco's embittered population.

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