What Lies Beneath: Oil, Subsoil and the Chiapas Conflict

September 25, 2007

Several decades ago in the Mexican state of Chiapas and in neighboring Guatemala, geologists discovered deeply buried rock strata of the type that formed oil deposits millions of years ago. Since then, the search has been on for oil in these areas, and in northwestern Chiapas, a good deal has already been discovered and pumped. Meanwhile, it seems quite likely that the northeast part of the state—the Lacandón rainforest area—is also rich in oil. Chiapas' northeastern mountain ranges are expressions of deep anticlines—the world's most important type of oil-containing geologic formations—and some anticlines in the Reforma area contain huge oil deposits.

Reforma is not far from regions of Chiapas that since early 1994 have been wracked by war between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government. Yet many geologists and government officials insist that these troubled areas contain little or no oil. Data exist, however, which belie these negative claims. They suggest that the real reason for denial is that the Mexican government wants to clear northeastern Chiapas of thousands of contentious Zapatistas and other indigenous forces before they impede state attempts to exploit and privatize the oil fields.

David Candelario Rodríguez is an engineer in the Southern Zone of Pemex. In a 1986 study, he noted that in Marqués de Comillas, in the southeastern corner of the rain forest, "a potential [oil] reserve has been evaluated that is estimated at 1.498 billion barrels of crude spread over 865 square miles."[1] And discussing the Nazareth gas field, near Comitán, the report states that "along with the Ocosingo area, the hope is to incorporate a potential reserve estimated at more than two billion barrels, extending over more than 2,000 square miles."[2] In all, potential reserves total 3.7 billion barrels—only a bit less than the five-billion-barrel figure that the petroleum industry considers a mega-deposit.[3] Further, when the U.S. General Accounting Office notified the U.S. government of the Pemex studies recognizing giant oil fields in Ocosingo, it confirmed statements from oil workers who in 1993 were amazed to witness the discovery of signficant, high-quality gas and crude-oil deposits—and of wells that had already been drilled before mysteriously being covered up.[4]

Despite all this evidence, in 1999, Adrian Lajous, who at that time was still director of Pemex, claimed that the wells in question showed limited potential for producing oil.[5] Lajous' statements contrast sharply with technical reports, including from his own agency. From 1975 and 1986, Pemex prospecting brigades of petroleum engineers and geology students working in the northern, central and southern Lacandón Forest reported that they examined 94 anticlines and 60 faults with significant oil-bearing potential. Of these, 35 anticlines and 14 faults were found to be promising, and Pemex has identified 29 of these as likely to contain oil.[6] Those reports agree with yet more information, such as that pumping wells have already been built.[7]

Most important, the reports concur with a map entitled "Rio Salinas Project." It is included in a study of the Mayan Jungle done by the College of the Southern Border of Chiapas, carried out to solicit funding for a privatization project for the Usumacinta River, at the border with Guatemala. The study notes seven oil deposits in the Lacandón rainforest.[8] These same deposits appear on the internet page of the oil company Seine River Resources (SRR), which maintains operations in the nearby Petén Jungle in Guatemala.[9] Also noteworty are exploratory activities by the French firm General Geophysics Company (CGG, or Compañía Mexicana de Geofísica). CGG has been operating in the region since 1992, and several statements indicate that it is prospecting in Chiapas' Coordinated Reserve of the Montes Azules Biosphere, in high-biodiversity regions that supposedly are protected.[10] If we go by indirect reports about the bioversity of the site and by statements from indigenous witnesses, it appears that important discoveries have been made, especially on the plateaus of El Ocotal Lake and El Suspiro Lake in the Amador Valley.[11] These are the very places where President Zedillo, at the end of his term, ordered the expropriation of communal ejido lands in order to build a new military encampment.

The Zedillo-era expropriations are the latest in a series of government actions to control northeastern Chiapas, apparently with a view to keeping the area's natural resources from being democratically controlled. In 1970, José López Portillo had just become director of the ruling party's Institute of Economic, Political and Social Studies (IEPES). Portillo would later become president of Mexico, but at that time IEPES had the strategic task of preparing the program of incoming President Luis Echeverría's administration. As part of the job, López Portillo edited a report about Chiapas. In it, he noted possible oil reserves in the areas of Las Margaritas and nearby La Trinitaria, as well as Los Altos. By 1980, with the price of oil having skyrocketed to almost $40 a barrel from only $15 in 1978, the transnationals had begun drilling at the Guatemalan border where it meets Mexico's Marqués de Comillas area, and the Mexican government vowed to protect Montes Azules. But at the same time, the government began regulating the mass movement of Indians colonizing land near the potentially oil-bearing anticlines. The government also promoted mestizo colonization of Marqués de Comillas in order to discourage settlement by indigenous groups, who were making land distribution claims that might impede oil exploration and drilling.

More recently, the state appears to be anticipating conflict between its desire to regulate and exploit oil, and the fact that the deposits happen be located near or directly beneath Zapatista communities, such as Aguascalientes de Francisco Gómez and Roberto Barrios, and autonomous municipalities such as Tierra y Libertad, San Pedro Michoacan, José María Morelos y Pavón, Francisco Gómez, Libertad de los Pueblos Mayas, Primero de Enero, Trabajo and Francisco Villa. Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos believes that oil has been one of the motivating factors in positioning Mexican army troops throughout the Lacandón rainforest. Marcos cites military occupation of the village of Amador Hernández, and the construction of a new road by the army, as particularly indicative of the government's desire to make sure it controls the region's oil. As of this writing, only one troop withdrawal has been reported, of 140 soldiers from Amador Hernández. And there has as yet been no clear indication of whether there will be a reversal of the recent presidential decree signed by Ernesto Zedillo, which expropriated land from Amador Hernández to use for a strategic military encampment. Not until sometime this spring will we know if current troop withdrawals represent a genuine change of policy.[12]

Meanwhile, Mexico is not the only place where oil is being underreported. Prominent geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey and transnational companies claim that reserves in nearby Guatemala total a mere 50 to 100 million barrels, even though studies by environmental organizations report 1.4 billion barrels.[13] Transnationals are opening up new exploration wells, new pipelines, new roads and refineries; they are creating greater environmental and social devastation as they parade through the area in search of the coveted fuel.

By the 1970s and 1980s, companies such as Getty Oil, Texaco, Texaco Canada, Monsanto, and Elf Aquitaine, to name only a few, had appeared on the scene. At the end of the decade, several remained, including Compañia General de Combustibles, a subsidiary of Sociedad Comercial del Plata de Argentina; Triton Energy; Compañía Petrolera del Atlántico; Kiser; Enterprise Development Corp.; New Arcadia Resources; Ramrod Petroleum and Gas; Parker and Parsley; SRR; and Basic Resources, which was acquired in 1997 by the Canadian company Norcen Energy Resources, and in 1998 by the U.S.-based Union Pacific Resources.[14] Recently, Ranking Resources Inc. of Canada has shown interest, while Oil and Technology Services is fighting for concessions.[15]

Pemex geologists have noted that in Guatemala, companies are drilling horizontally into the border subsoil to extract oil located up to a mile inside of Mexico.[16] Maps posted on the internet by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Energy Information Administration and the Oil and Gas Journal do not recognize the existence of oil in the Petén area of Guatemala, but they do in Mexico's nearby Lacandón rainforest.[17] This suggests recognition that there is more oil in Mexico than Guatemala. If so—given the expected stampede to privatize resources—Mexico may face an even worse parade of transnational companies than Guatemala has, as well as more environmental devastation and more militarization and aggression against indigenous Mayan and mestizo communities—similar to what already has occurred in Guatemala's dirty war.

The San Andrés Accords, which emerged in 1996 from peace talks between the EZLN and the government, cite the indigenous communities' collective right to evaluate federal and state plans to exploit strategic resources in their regions in order to determine those plans' effects on indigenous territories. But the Accords do not give the communities the power to use national strategic assets for their own benefit. Recognizing these constitutional rights would obstruct the interests of the transnationals, which are privatizing strategic resources. So the government has been backsliding on the Accords, all the while encouraging continued military and paramilitary aggression that aims to blow holes in the attempt to negotiate peace with dignity.

During his presidential campaign, National Action Party (PAN) candidate Vicente Fox said he could solve the Chiapas conflict in 15 minutes. Meanwhile, as President Zedillo finished his term, he was careful to leave the militarization and paramilitarization of Chiapas at its highest level since he took office six years ago. Thus, Fox's new government can demagogically present any superficial decrease in troops as evidence of its readiness to negotiate. As of now, though, it is hard to gauge the new President's willingness to effectively dismantle the main repressive networks against the indigenous population, nor his will to carry out—without beating around the bush—the federal government's promises vis-a-vis the San Andrés Accords. On the other hand, one hears a good deal of very explicit news these days about modernization and investment projects that propose to extend to Chiapas corridors of maquiladora sweatshops that produce textiles, automotive parts and other exportables, and which are now corroding the social fabric of Mexico and Central America.

This type of "economic solution" is falsely presented as the only possible answer to poverty in Chiapas. A close watch therefore needs to be kept on the manipulation of information about oil in the Lacandón rainforest, since expelling rural populations from these regions of abundant raw materials could perfectly serve not just the new owners of these riches, but also other regions that need a newly proletarianized labor force.

Andrés Barreda is an author, professor of sociology at the National Autnomous University (UNAM) in Mexico City, and coordinator of the Center for Social Analysis, Information and Popular Education.

1. David Candelario Rodríguez, Las Estrategias Ambientales de Petróleos Mexicanos en la Selva Lacandona, Estado de Chiapas, Tesina, Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo, Mexico, 1992.
2. David Candelario Rodríguez, Las Estrategias Ambientales.
3. Giant oil fields are those containing at least 500 million recoverable barrels of oil. Supergiant oil fields have at least five billion recoverable barrels. The giant fields combined contain at least 250 million barrels of recoverable liquid oil (crude oil and liquid associated with natural gas), and at minimum 500 million barrels of hydrocarbons recoverable as liquid or liquid equivalents (natural gas is converted at 6,000 cubic feet per barrel). Campos Petroleros Gigantes y Recursos Mundiales de Petróleo, report prepared for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), R-2284; CONACYT, Ed. Ciencia y Desarrollo. Mexico City, June 1978, p. 38.
4. General Accounting Office, Mexican oil: Issues affecting potential U.S. trade and investment, Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade, Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, United States General Accounting Office, March 1992.
5. La Jornada (Mexico City), August 23, 1999.
6. Instituto de Geología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mapa geológico de anticlinales, siclinales y fallas del estado de Chiapas, n.d.
7. David Candelario Rodríguez, Guillermo Correa and Raúl Monge, "Lacandones. PEMEX y el gobierno se están acabando la selva," Proceso, No.777, September 23, 1991; Favio Barbosa, "Pozos petroleros ocultos en la Selva Lacandona," Memoria, No. 50, January 1993; Pemex, Diagnóstico de instalaciones petroleras en la zona de la Selva Lacandona: proyecto Ocosingo-Lacantún, (Mexico City: Subdirección de Producción Primaria, 1991); Pemex, Marco de referencia ambiental en la selva Lacandona, Chiapas. En el entorno a las actividades petroleras, zona "Marqués de Comillas" y reserva de la biósfera "Montes Azules," (Mexico City: Pemex, 1986); Pemex, Propuesta para el desarrollo y la preservación de la Selva Lacandona (Plan Maestro), Pemex, June 1984.
8. El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Planeación Regional para la Conservación y Desarrollo Sustentable de la Gran Cuenca del río Usumacinta, (San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, April 1998).
9. Seine River Resources Home Page, http://www.seineriver.com/
10. Documento de diagnóstico oficial sobre la biodiversidad y las condiciones sociales de vida en la región de Las Cañadas, Chiapas, 1992. Author unknown.
11. Herman Bellinghausen, (Interview with Captain Julián of the EZLN), La Jornada, February 23 and 24, 1995.
12. Jaime Reveles, El Financiero, December 18, 2000, p. 69.
13. J.A. Peterson, Petroleum Geology and Resources of Southeastern Mexico, Northern Guatemala and Belize, United States Geological Survey circular 760; Charles D. Masters and James A. Peterson, Assessment of Conventionally Recoverable Petroleum Resources of Northeastern Mexico, U.S. Geological Survey, Openfile Report, 1981; Witness for Peace, Un Crudo Despertar: El Banco Mundial, Políticas de los Estados Unidos y Petróleo en Guatemala, 1998.
14. René León Escribano, "El Petróleo en Guatemala," Revista de Ciencias Sociales Centro de Investigación y Documentación Centroaméricano (CIDCA), January-June 1979; "El Gobierno Predice Boom Petrolero," Cerigua, January 30, 1998; El Parcial: Boletín de Información Latinoamericana, (Hamburg: German Federal Republic, August 1983); Alfredo Guerra Borges, Compendio de Geografía Económica y Humana en Guatemala, Guatemala, Editorial Universitaria de Guatemala, 1986; Jacobo Vargas Foronda, Guatemala: Sus Recursos Naturales y el Militarismo y el Imperialismo, (Mexico City: Claves Latinoamericanas, 1984); "Guatemala Iniciará Pronto Subasta de Exploración en Doce Areas," Alexander«s Oil and Gas Connections, January 22, 1997; http:/www.gasandoil.com/goc/news
15. "Canadians Dominate Oil Business," Cerigua Weekly Briefs, No. 23, June 12, 1997.
16. These and other statements were made to us in in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, by Pemex technicians who work in the region and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
17. Charles D. Masters, D. H. Root and R. M. Turner, World of Petroleum, U. S. Geological Survey, 1997, http://energy.er.usgs/products/papers/World_oil/oil/index.htm; Energy Information Administration, Energy In the Americas, U.S. Department of Energy, October 1995; Pablo Cruz-Helu and Javier Meneses-Rocha, "Pemex Plots Ambitious E&D Spending Increase," Oil and Gas Journal, Vol. 96, No. 24 (June 15, 1998).

Tags: oil, Mexico, Chiapas, militarization, Pemex

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