Guatemala: The story of Eco-Rio and how it saved Rio Dulce National Park

“There were only 15 to 20 local families here and maybe four or five
businesses plus Hotel Marimonte, Hacienda Rio Dulce, Casa Guatemala
and Catamaran Island.” And there were virtually no cruising sailboats
from other countries until 1980’s when the law was changed to allow
the importation of sailboats, he noted. But growth was slow during
those years primarily due to political unrest and Guatemala’s unstable
government. However in 1985 the “rule of the generals” came to an end
and residents here could see some growth and development of the Rio
slowly begin.

“By 1989, there were some (cruising) boats on the river
and the government saw the need for regulation of boaters,” Gobbato
said. In 1992 Shell Oil Corporation arrived on the Rio and caused
concern among the residents here. Shell asked for and received a
permit to explore the river basin. The oil company’s presence in the
area caused the group of residents which was to eventually form EcoRio
to start meeting informally. They then started attending meetings
between the forest service and Shell. The group’s first project was to
do a mosaic of the Rio Dulce National Park, showing the terrain and
location of the various communities. “That’s when we started calling
ourselves EcoRio, working under the auspices of the Audobon Society of
Guatemala and with the help of Roberto Dorion, owner of the land
occupied by Mario’s Marina, and Nini Berger, president of the Audobon
Society of Guatemala,” Gobbato said.

Halliburton Construction of
Houston did the exploration and seismographic work and had obtained
permits to drill two exploratory wells in Lago Izabal. During this
time, Shell also demonstrated its social conscience by building the
main road to San Felipe, constructing many schools and financing the
only archaeological survey of the area. And the oil company did indeed
find oil. But it contained far too much sulphuric gas to be
financially viable to extract and Shell Oil left the rio. However,
Gobbato explained, Shell “left no trace of their presence here and
left the drilling sites really, really clean. Before building the
drilling platform, they carefully removed the grass in a two acre area
and when they left, they replaced it.” After Shell left, along came
Simpson Paper Company of Tacoma, Washington. EcoRio’s experience with
Simpson Paper was not as pleasant as their dealings with Shell. The
Simpson advance team was “tricky” according to Gobbato since they
presented themselves as being “foresters” – nurserymen and forestry
engineers – and quickly purchased 5,000 acres of land in the Rio Dulce
area. “For the first five years we had a good relationship with
Simpson,” Gobbato said.

“Then they started planting.” The group
started getting reports of hundreds of very sick people in the area of
the Golfete. A “scam” attributed to the mayor of Livingston at that
time attracted residents of El Estor who were helped with their
paperwork to obtain title to 100 acre lots and also, conveniently for
the mayor, became voting residents of Livingston. Simpson would then
rent the land from the indigenous people for Q250 per acre per year
and hire the land owner to work clearing and planting for Q18 a day.
Contractors for the paper company would also transport other workers
from El Estor and set them up in large work camps which had no
latrines, no sanitary facilities and no medical assistance. Workers
had to wash the herbicide spray equipment in the same water source as
their drinking water. And, of course, they got sick. Very sick. “Don
Emilio (Mendizabal) took photos of the workers’ living conditions and
passed them along to the press,” Gobbato said. After planting some
2,000 acres of pulp trees and employing 200-300 people, Simpson
planned to operate its chipping mill on land now owned by RAM Marina.

In order to transport the pulp chips, the company was planning to use
huge river barges with tug boats to take the product out through the
entrance to the Rio Dulce at Livingston then load it on a “mother”
ship anchored in the bay. But there was a small navigation problem for
the barges since the Rio Dulce makes two or three sharp turns (in the
most beautiful part of the high walled river canyon) which the barges
would have problems negotiating. No problem, the paper company
decided. They would simply “dynamite” the curves to make passage for
the barges. That’s right, dynamite. Finally, after investigating the
company’s intricate and allegedly devious profit structure involving
offshore bank accounts and dummy corporations, Guatemalan President
Álvaro Arzú “axed” Simpson’s plans by passing legislation “prohibiting
the use of barges for extraction in the Rio Dulce management plan.”
And that shut down Simpson Paper’s plan for the Rio Dulce. EcoRio and
others breathed a sigh of relief. By no means dormant, EcoRio is still
very active in monitoring the Rio Dulce National Park in cooperation
with governmental agencies such as CONAP and representing the Rio in
the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism.

Comments (2)

Daphne BeckerAugust 24th, 2009 at 6:25 am

This is just fabulous, I am so proud of EcoRio! And, most especially, Eugenio Gobbato, Kevin and Luisa Lucas.

lucyMarch 14th, 2010 at 4:53 am

this is great!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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