With new efforts underway to create a binational forum (Mexico - Guatemala) to protect the Usumacinta watershed, Christopher Shaw has written an open letter to those currently in discussions. It also provides an introduction to the history and the issues, as well as our efforts over the last 10 years to study and document the river.
Please contact me for more information. dave.pentecost [at] gmail.com
Click MORE below to see the complete letter.
AN OPEN LETTER ON THE USUMACINTA RIVER WATERSHED
Frans and Trudi Blom first brought the idea of conservation to the watershed
in the 1950s by proposing a section of the Selva Lacandona be reserved for
the Lacandon Maya. Their idea was as much the preservation of culture as of
habitat, and this principle- that indigenous integrity and habitat are
inextricably linked in the watershed- should help guide any future
conservation planning. Conservationists working in the region like Nacho
March, Ron Nigh, Fernando Ochoa, Roan Balas McNab and others have all
acknowledged and upheld the principle in their work.
The first large hydro project on the Usumacinta was proposed in the 1980s,
and would have stretched all the way up the Pasion and Lacantun tributaries,
flooding Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan, among other known and unknown Maya
sites. At that time, the Guatemalan shore was held by rebels, whose presence
discouraged illegal logging, poaching, and looting. It also discouraged dam
engineers. In 1985 Jefferey Wilkerson's groundbreaking article in National
Geographic brought the river and its glories to widespread public
consciousness for the first time. Additionally the Guatemalan journalist
Victor Perera wrote about the river in The Nation and in his books The Last
Lords of Palenque and Unfinished Conquest, and Jan de Vos chronicled the
region in his magisterial series of histories. Ultimately the hydro project
failed under the weight of its own disincentives: siltation, geology,
seismic activity, distance from markets, politics, etc., but the outcry from
conservationists, archeologists, writers, and the public helped. It also
established a pattern.
A thriving seasonal business in wilderness tourism began after the Wilkerson
article. The river and its environs became a favorite destination of river
travelers, amateur Mayanists and archaeologists, birders and wildlife
Carlos Salinas proposed a smaller but still monumental hydro project in
1990, and completed the periferico surrounding the Montes Azules reserve.
Articles in the New York Times, and op-ed pieces by Homero Aridjis
suggesting a binational reserve for the area, helped defeat this incarnation
of the idea.
In the late nineties a consortium of scientists, and government and
non-governmental organizations met in San Cristobal de las Casas, under the
auspices of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Florida,
to identify the extent and types of habitat remaining the region, and to
draw maps of the watershed. The conference addressed many of the
jurisdictional and administrative questions that still bedevil the idea. A
link to the conference report:
The Zapatista Rebellion in 1994 and '95, and the Guatemalan peace accords in
1996, reshaped the political lines in the watershed. As a direct
consequence, and with the dramatic fall of the peso, bandits began robbing
raft trips, ending wilderness travel in the corridor. One of the most
promising tourist activities, with the least potential impact and the most
possibility for helping conservation, archaeology, and cultural
preservation, ended. Illegal activity of all types took over the corridor.
The Mexican army, which pervaded the Zapatista region, had little effect on
river crime, may have abetted it. In Guatemala, the absence of the expelled
CPR communities, which had helped keep the selva safe and secure, now left
it open to invasion, illegal logging, smuggling of immigrants, arms,
artifacts, and drugs. (Many members of those communities now work as
Defensores, but their numbers are few, and they are poorly paid.) The region
continued in a state of low-grade terror and occupation for ten years.
In 2001, a consortium of NGOs and regional environmental groups (many of
whom had participated in the 1990 conference) met in Belize to discuss the
future of the Maya Forest, and to turn over the planning and implementation
of programs from Washington-based organizations to regionally-based ones. I
was present at that meeting and read from my book Sacred Monkey River. Among
the conference's recommendations was a system of wilderness trails, rustic
back-country posadas, an emphasis on non-motorized travel in back-country
areas; residencies and scholarships for artists, scientists, and scholars;
and principles of sustainable forest use for new communities in the
In 2002, When the Mexican government under Fox proposed, under its Plan
Pueblo Panama, the latest mega-dam at Boca Del Cerro, (and its subsequent
smaller incarnations) Dave Pentecost and I started Rios Mayas. We circulated
a letter to President Fox explaining why previous dams had been abandoned,
why it remained impossible to build them without destroying an unknown
wealth of knowledge, habitat, and living culture. The letter demanded the
conduct of environmental impact studies, the development of alternate energy
sources for the watershed, and permanent binational protections for the
river. Our letter attracted the assistance of Homero Aridjis, and the
signatures of more than 200 scientists, artists, writers, and citizens from
Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, Europe and Canada. In November of 2002
Pentecost and I met at Montes Azules with reporters from the New York Times
and National Public Radio, and conducted a press conference at Mexico City.
Our effort was covered in numerous papers in Mexico, Guatemala, and the
U.S., and the text of the letter appeared in its entirety in Progreso. We
make no claims to our effectiveness, but soon after our letter appeared,
reports of reduced dam heights and alternate designs began filtering out of
the CFE, and within a year we learned that the project had been shelved.
None of our demands have been addressed at this time, however, and as long
as the river is unprotected it remains vulnerable. The corridor itself is
unstable and crime ridden. Despite a few safe descents in recent years, no
secure wilderness recreation can be conducted, nor can many kinds of
scientific research. In 2004 narco-traffickers at Piedras Negras blocked a
WCS jaguar study in the PNSL, and in 2003 a Rios Mayas mapping expedition
was robbed, even though members of the expedition, including Rios Mayas
co-founder Dave Pentecost, Ron Canter, and Tammy Ridenour, of Guatemala
City, managed to complete the trip and make new discoveries.
And, in fact, numerous discoveries have been made in the years since the
Boca del Cerro threat. Stephen Houston and Hector Escobedo's important dig at Piedras Negras was completed. Charles Golden's mapping and exploration of newly discovered and overlooked Maya sites in the Sierra del Lacandon continues to break new ground. Ron Canter's discovery and paper on navigational bollards on the river has been completed. A new catfish species, Lacantunia enigmatica, has been described. What these discoveries and ongoing research-carried out with
little financial support and under restricted conditions-- demonstrate is that the corridor itself and adjacent remote areas of the watershed remain incompletely explored and almost completely unknown.
I don't need to underscore to you the irreplaceable magnitude of knowledge,
life, and indigenous wisdom that would be lost if such a treasure were to be
flooded or developed in a thoughtless and destructive manner. Pressures for
energy, agriculture, and development will only increase. That is why your
work is so important and why the Usumacinta must be protected-in some
achievable and practical fashion-in perpetuity. The time to do it is now.
The knowledge exists. The groundwork has been laid. All that's required is
the political will, the money, and an encompassing vision and philosophy to
carry it out.
The watershed now has a twenty year history of thought and planning. I have
prepared a list of basic principles, based on our Fox letter, the
discussions at previous conferences, and the model of protected areas in
other parts of the world, that we hope will help guide any long term
programs. We hope they would be considered non-technocratically, and based
on common sense principles and compassion:
-No new roads in the corridor or contiguous protected areas. Sections of
some existing roads may be closed.
-No new cross-current structures: bridges, dams, power lines, etc.
-The cooperation of local indigenous officials in the planning, design, and
implementation of a corridor plan. Models exist at Uaxactun, Peten, and
Emiliano Zapata, Chiapas, among other places in both nations. Both are
imperfect, as any model must be in such a volatile area. But both have been
in existence for long enough that the record of their failures as well as
their successes would be instructive.
-The 2001 Belize meeting found broad support for a system of scholarships,
residencies, and fellowships for scholars, artists, and scientists visiting
the area. Such a system would, for little cost, produce a steady stream of
scholarly and popular articles, art, films, journalism, and new discoveries.
Residents would come from the Maya area itself, and from other parts of the
-Within the corridor a loose but binding system of protocols for land-use
would regulate agriculture in favor of organic and intensive techniques,
forestry for sustainable yields, the harvest of wild plant and animal
species for sustainability, and construction for minimum short and long-term
-The establishment of a cadre of guards, maintenance workers, rangers, and
guides, all drawn from local populations that would be trained and paid a
reasonable middle-class wage, with regular hikes and benefits, sufficient to
discourage corruption. Rangers and guards would receive extensive education
and training in languages, education, ecology, etc
-A system of fees for day, week and longer uses, with requirements for
equipment, visas, and camping standards that would be imposed collectively
and shared equally among the incorporated communities within the corridor.
These would be paid by users at official entry points like Bethel, Corozal,
Tenosique, etc.. It would be affordable, but enough to substantially
enhance-and in fact support-local communities. Local populations would come
and go without interference.
-Local business grants for legal river transport, rustic posadas etc. (under
the canopy), and other commercial concessions.
-Ongoing studies in water quality, aquatic and wildlife biology, and other
disciplines. While we applaud the WMF concept of preserving the "cultural
landscape," we missed any mention in your email of the river itself, which
is the richest resource of all Chiapas and Guatemala. Our firm and
non-negotiable position is that whatever can be done to maintain and improve
water quality must be done. This includes habitat protection at higher
altitudes, sewage treatment or abatement, standards for logging and grazing
-A system of back-country posadas, campgrounds, and designated camping areas
served by the river, maintained and patrolled foot and mule trails, and a
minimum number of existing airstrips.
-A system of zones designated residential, agricultural, archaeological,
multiple use, and core habitat. Core areas would include the current Parque
National Sierra del Lacandon, Sierra Cojolite, the San Jose Canyon, and
existing biological corridors, etc.
-Considerations for other value-added economic activity.
-A binational commission to oversee proposed development, businesses, and
wilderness use in the corridor.
All these principles have been tested and implemented in similar areas
around the world where humans and nature coexist in harmony, such as the
Adirondack Park of northern New York State, Lake Baikal, in Siberia, and
smaller and more compact protected areas. The Usumacinta, because of its
history, the importance of its singular archeological, cultural and
ecological heritage and resources-and especially the distinct self-contained
geography that sets it apart-make it a natural for such planning. Let me
emphasize again that examples exist with long-term records of success. Their
experience is that such programs enhance broad-based economic activity.
Undoubtedly other NGOs and government agencies will object to these points
on various grounds, many of them legitimate, driven by their specialized
interests. We offer general principles only, but stand ready to make more
specific suggestions at the appropriate time. However, as generalists with
deep and wide experience in the region and elsewhere, we do hope you will
see the wisdom of this approach to beginning the process.
We also hope you may resist the inevitable appeals to abandon ambition in
favor of the "possible." To make something that will work, that will last,
that will matter, will require not only stable economies, peaceful
democratic succession, and cooperation among existing and often mutually
hostile agencies and NGOs, it will require faith, courage, and an
overarching vision not driven by parochial concerns. Fortunately for such a
goal, many pieces of the larger system are in place already, at least
nominally, and many local communities have already begun to think in terms
of the long run.
October 10, 2005