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What's This Oil Doing in My Lake?!?

A local showing Kavitha around the rainforest
As I started to write about in my last update ("Deep in the Rainforest"), the largest tropical rainforest left in North America is in grave danger of destruction. Although this region has been declared the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, it is not completely protected. The government of Guatemala can administer concessions to groups who want to use the forest for other reasons. These concessions can be a good thing in some cases.

For example, the communities that have been living off products and medicines from the forest for generations can obtain concessions from the government to harvest from a certain area of the forest over a 40-year period. Non-governmental groups will teach locals how to sustainably harvest resources like chicle, allspice, and decorative ferns. Training the local people will provide assurance that these forms of income will remain for future generations. The communities that live in the Mayan Biosphere, like the one I visited in Uaxactun, have been living here for thousands of years. They have a great respect for the forest that has provided for them all these years, and realize the importance of protecting it.

Unfortunately the locals are not the only ones who have been receiving the concessions. The front pages of many Guatemalan newspapers these days, the government has also made some concessions to foreign oil companies to drill in this incredibly fragile ecosystem. Union Pacific from the United States and the Perez Company from Argentina have plans to move forward and drill for oil in Uaxactun and nearby Carmelita. Meanwhile, the Basic Company who owns Texaco, has plans to drill in the Laguna del Tigre area of the biosphere, an area which comprises the largest wetland ecosystem left in North America.

These concessions given by the Guatemalan government have resulted in a large-scale international protest from concerned individuals and groups surprised by the government's actions. There are two separate divisions that grant the concessions for use within the biosphere, one in charge of renewable resources like the ones the indigenous peoples extract, and the other in charge of non-renewable resources like oil. They do not realize that these two resources are not completely unrelated.

Kavitha and Manuel chilling lakeside
"The government thinks they can grant concessions to the oil companies without interfering with the forest or the locals way of life," explains Hilda Rivera from the Frontier Agriculture Program. "They claim that the oil is beneath the ground and won't affect the activities above the ground." Of course, this is not true, and a large-scale oil operation would pollute the waters, require forest land to be cleared, and would force locals to move to find new homes.

"Yes, it is a tragedy, because it will destroy our forest" said Miguel as I met him on the path in Uaxactun, walking to harvest some bamboo from the forest. "Nothing the people who live here say can stop it, the government won't listen to us."

You can help to try to stop the destruction of this forest and the displacement of these communities. Join an international letter-writing campaign to the president of Guatemala in protest of the oil company concessions in the Mayan Biosphere. Individuals from all over the world, including people who work for Oilwatch, Greenpeace Spain, the Environment Foundation Sri Lanka, the Green Party of Europe and the Rainforest Network of the U.S., have been writing about the importance of protecting this fragile rainforest. The local people only ask to live without threats to their health and their traditional way of life. Please help this important cause by letting the president know how you feel. Check out the sample letter in the Making a Difference section for good ideas to include in a letter to Mr. Alvaro Arzú, the President of Guatemala.


Abeja - Why Do People Know What They Know
Team - The Miseducation of Latin America
Shawn - Environmental Devastation: Who's to Blame and How Can We Stop It?
Kevin - Watch out World!
Kevin - Watch out World! (kids version)
Shawn - A History of Terror in Santiago Atitlan
Make a Difference!
Monica - Greetings

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