Mexican Dam Would Displace Thousands Series: MEXICO'S DAMS. What Price Power? Part 1 of a 2-Part Series. First of Two Articles Appearing Today

Article excerpt

`THIS dam isn't for our benefit," growls Morelio Santos to a town hall assembly packed with disgruntled sandal-footed campesinos. "We're going to lose our farmland and our houses so people in Mexico City can have lights."

Mr. Santos, a watermelon farmer and mayor of this poor, remote village of Tlalcozauhtitlan, has cause to be disturbed.

In Mexico, indeed worldwide, major dams and large infrastructure projects (airports, tourist resorts, highways) built in the name of "development" are almost without exception economic and social disasters for the populations displaced by the projects, development experts say.

"Not just in developing countries but across the board, the resettlement record is terrible," says Scott Guggenhiem, a World Bank policy planner.

Every year, 1.2 million to 2.1 million people (mostly poor, minority ethnic groups) are displaced worldwide by dam construction alone, according to one World Bank estimate. And these numbers are likely to rise as high oil prices make hydroelectric dams a more attractive energy-generating option.

The most common result of displacement, note World Bank reports, is a slide into deeper poverty. Lost farmland and severed family and business relationships disrupt often precariously balanced income streams. In Mexico, for example, resettlement has resulted in increased drug trafficking in some rural areas and greater migration to the United States and major Mexican cities.

What concerns Mayor Santos is a large dam that Mexico's Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) wants to build on the Balsas River near San Juan Tetelcingo in the state of Guerrero. Flood waters will force some 18 communities along a 100-kilometer (62-mile) stretch of the river to move. The CFE estimates 18,000 to 20,000 people will be affected.

Local officials and anthropologists say those figures are low.

"My best estimate is that 30,000 to 32,000, perhaps more, would have to be relocated. At least another 15,000 would be indirectly affected by the loss of farmland and the serious disruption of family, religious, and economic ties," says Catherine Good, an anthropologist at the Universidad Ibero-Americana in Mexico City who has been doing research in this region for 12 years.

If Ms. Good's numbers are correct, this would be the largest group ever dislocated by a Mexican dam project. Mexico's record on relocating much smaller communities is abysmal, say anthropologists here. (See related story).

Making matters worse, the society here is unique. The population is almost entirely Nahuatl, an indigenous tribe in this area since 1250 A.D., before the Aztec Empire and well before the arrival the Spanish Conquistadors. Unlike many indigenous groups, this one has survived and prospered.

"They're a unusual example of an indigenous community which has been economically successful and maintained its own language and culture into the 20th century," says Good. "As farmers and merchants (selling bark paintings, wooden masks, and clay crafts to tourists), they've interacted with the outside world without being absorbed by it."

Given the centuries of territorial-related customs, adds Good, "It would be very hard to reconstruct this society successfully. …