LAS AMERICAS Wellsprings of Rebellion Is Oil Production a Hostage of the Zapatista Army? BY JOHN ROSS AT THE ROOT OF the largely Mayan Zapatista rebellion that continues to mesmerize Mexicans may well be a great lake of oilor so concludes Father Mardonio Morales, who has spent thirty years walking the canadas y selvacanyons and junglein the Lacandon region of Chiapas, the Zapatistas’ operational base. “Great interests are at play in the Lacandonthe lives of the Indian communities and the unrestricted control of natural resources that sustain the neo-liberal structures….” Father Morales wrote, in a paper distributed for private discussion and recently obtained by the Mexican political weekly Proceso. The seventyyear-old Jesuit, long one of the key religious workers in the San Cristobal de las Casas Diocese, was ordered by diocesan officials not to speak with the press after he implied, in a Proceso interview, that San Cristobal’s Bishop Samuel Ruiz had advance knowledge of the Zapatista rebellion. Everywhere the white-bearded priest has traveled, he wrote, from the heart of the jungle to the mountain highlands he sees chapopote ground. Mayans living in the region continue to use chapopote in native medicines. But Mardonio observes, he is not the only party aware of the Lacandon’s oil potential; for two decades, Petroleos oil consortium, has surveyed deposits and drilled test holes throughout the million-acre jungle. In southeastern Chiapas, exploration is accompanied by widespread deforestation and the stripping of remaining stands of hardwoods. Recently, Morales hitched a ride from the denuded Pico de Oro drilling site, in a trailer rig illegally hauling ma Freelance writer John Ross files his stories from Mexico City. hogany logs to mills in the north of Chiapas. Father Morales speculates that in the 1960s and ’70s, the Mexican government invited tens of thousands of settlers into the Lacandon, not so much to farm the jungle’s fragile soils, but, rather, to provide cheap laborfirst for large cattle ranchers and later for PEMEX and its many sub-contractors. “Wherever PEMEX waves its magic wand, a road appears,” the priest said, while isolated communities, with no oil-development potential, remain isolated. “The strategy is clear” he writes, “it is not for nothing that this state is full of troops….” Six years ago, Morales began to notice encampments of oil workers, many of them contracted by foreign exploration firms like the French Geophysique, along the sides of the roads cut through the jungle. Then on January 1, 1994, the Zapatista bellion shut down exploration in the Lacandon, and fourteen hundred workers and much equipment were moved out of the region the day after the EZLN allegedly stole a large amount of dynamite from a drilling site. Petroleum exploration in the Lacandon resumed this past spring, according to the Jesuit, following the first round of peace negotiations between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government. PEMEX is close-mouthed about its Lacandon prospects. “We’ve tried unsuccessfully for years just to get PEMEX to give us a list of wells in the jungle,” says Ignacio March, director of the Center for Investigation and Study of Cristobal-based environmental research institute. “PEMEX gives you very little,” said George Baker, a California-based Mexican oil consultant adept at prying information from the giant consortium. In Mexico, seventy-four active oil fields hold 95 percent of the na tion’s estimated oil reserves, and most are off-shore. Acknowl edged land-based deposits are clustered in Veracruz, and in Tabasco, just across the Chiapas state line. PEMEX has announced no significant land-based discov eries in a decade. Yet, three years ago, PEMEX spokespersons in formed U.S. counterparts that a “large field” had been found in Ocosingo municipality, a city that bills itself as “the Gateway to the Lacandon.” According to docu ments unearthed by Fabio Barbosa, an eco nomics researcher at the Autonomous Uni versity of Mexico, U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Commerce offi cials involved in the NAFTA talks were in formed of the finds in the spring of 1993. \(The documents Barbosa discovered were The first recorded clash between the EZLN and the Mexican Army took place in the canadas of Ocosingo on May 21, 1993, a few kilometers from a now-capped drilling 10 NOVEMBER 17, 1995
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