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Oil Rigs, Farmers Endanger N. America's Big Rain Forest

FOREIGN debt, lack of exports, and the need to import oil have led Guatemala, like other Latin American nations with rain forests, to offer concessions to foreign oil companies. But the road-building that comes with oil development provides an opening for colonists who move in, cut down the forest, and plant crops.

Several blocks of land here in the Peten, the largest rain forest in North America, were opened last fall for oil exploration and production by Guatemala's Ministry of Energy and Mines. About 30 companies from the United States and elsewhere are interested in the concessions, which are expected to be granted within the next few weeks.

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One of the poorest and fastest-growing countries in Latin America, Guatemala has annual population growth of nearly 3 percent. In the Peten, the population is growing at about 10 percent annually. Guatemalans, Salvadoran refugees, and Mexican immigrants are pouring into the region.

Much of the area being offered for oil exploration lies within the 3.75 million-acre Mayan Biosphere Reserve. Created in 1990 by the Guatemalan governement, exploitation of natural resources in the biosphere is supposed to be restricted.

But Guatemala needs oil. The country produces only about one-third of the 25,000 barrels of oil it consumes each day. Oil acounts for nearly 10 percent of the country's total imports. There are many problems with oil production in the Peten, including guerrilla activity, lack of infrastructure, and the low quality of the oil.

In 1986, Esso suspended operations in the area after losing more than $1 million worth of equipment to guerrilla attacks. Last June, guerrillas blew up an oil rig belonging to Basic Resources, a Paris-based company. Basic, one of the bidders for the new concessions, produces about 5,000 barrels of oil a day from wells in northwestern Peten, on the edge of Central America's largest wetland, Laguna del Tigre.

Electricity and industrial services are limited in the region. With few paved roads, transportation is particularly difficult in the rainy season. One of the main reasons Guatemalan oil has not been developed is its low quality. The crude found here is heavier and somewhat harder to refine than oil produced elsewhere.

Dallas oilman Carter Montgomery, who has been interested in Guatemalan oil for more than a decade, says the industry is aware of the need to be a good steward: "The days when an oil company could just go into a country and do anything they wanted are over."

George Ledec of the World Bank estimates that for each mile of new road built by the oil industry in the rain forest, 1,600 to 10,000 acres of land are colonized. General opposition to oil contracts is increasing.

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Rodolfo Sosa, head of Basic Resources in Guatemala City, downplays the effects of road-building. "If you can control the roads, then colonization isn't a problem," he says. According to Mr. Sosa, broader economic issues cause the loss of the rainforest. "It's not the oil industry's fault.... If these colonists had other ways of making a living [than cutting the forest to plant corn], then the roads wouldn't be a problem," he says.

"The oil business has created very few jobs in the Peten," says Carlos Azturias Paz, the state governor.

He says that oil company trucks continue to spill oil on roads and into rivers. Governors in Guatemala have little power over mineral issues, however. Mr. Azturias wants to develop ecotourism in his state and encourage the development of areas such as the Mayan ruins at Tikal. For more on Guatemala's Peten, see page 10.

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