GUATEMALA: Legal Battle Over Wetland Oil Drilling

  • by Danilo Valladares* - IPS/IFEJ (guatemala city)
  • Sunday, November 28, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Their major legal offensive will be a lawsuit against the Guatemalan government, on charges of establishing an oil company in violation of the 2004 Free Trade Agreement signed by the United States, Central America and Dominican Republic, according to Rafael Maldonado, with the non- governmental Legal, Environmental and Social Action Centre (CALAS).

Meanwhile, 'there are at least three appeals claims in the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court filed by various groups, which we hope are resolved favourably so that the oil drilling is halted,' Maldonado said. Oil exploitation began in 1985 in the park, situated in the northern department (province) of Petén.

The 338,000-hectare Laguna del Tigre National Park, one of the largest 'core zones' of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, is home to an array of species, like the scarlet macaw (Ara macao), jaguar (Panthera onca) and Morelet's crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii), and El Perú and El Tesoro archaeological sites.

Because of its size and natural wealth, the park is included on the list of internationally important wetlands, defined by the Ramsar Convention, which entered into force in 1975.

Despite its international status, on Jul. 22, Guatemala's President Álvaro Colom (of the social-democratic National Unity of Hope party) and his Cabinet extended the petroleum contract 2-85 of the Anglo-French Perenco Guatemala Limited, which was to expire Aug. 12, for the Xan oil field located in Laguna del Tigre.

Colom thus disregarded a proposal by German lawmakers, who offered the Guatemalan government compensatory payments from various partners for stopping oil drilling in protected areas.

Meanwhile, in the case of Ecuador, the German government withdrew its pledge to contribute 60 million dollars a year over 13 years to a trusteeship for the development of the Yasuní-ITT initiative, which was similarly intended to compensate Quito for halting the extraction of 847 million barrels of its proven petroleum reserves.

The extension of the contract, which if not overturned in court will expire Aug. 13, 2025, did not have the approval of Guatemala's Ministries of Environment, Interior or Culture, which see it as harmful to national interests -- and led to another series of lawsuits.

'Various legal statutes have been violated: the law on protected areas, the law on fossil fuels, and the law that declares the Maya Biosphere a protected area,' said Maldonado.

The lawyer said there is sufficient cause to declare the contract extension unconstitutional. 'We have five lawsuits that can be presented in different ways to stop the drilling,' he said.

So far, the Constitutional Court has rejected at least four cases against the contract extension filed by the public University of San Carlos, opposition lawmaker Aníbal García, CALAS, and the government's own National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP).

Rodolfo Rorhmoser, CONAP representative, told this reporter that the council had filed the lawsuit against the Perenco company's extension because it not only violated Guatemalan laws, but also international laws, like the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the region's Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and Dominican Republic.

'Guatemala could face very big penalties for damage caused as a result of failing to protect its natural resources,' he said.

Rorhmoser hopes that the Constitutional Court 'reconsiders' its ruling, otherwise the case could be brought to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, DC.

Miriam Monterroso, of the non-governmental Association for the Rescue and Conservation of Wildlife (ARCAS), said in an interview that she agrees the oil drilling contract extension is illegal.

The activist criticised the Constitutional Court for its rejection of the lawsuits 'with frivolous arguments instead of considering the deeper issues and the threats to the nature park,' which is also threatened by illegal logging, wildlife trafficking and human trespassing.

Another ingredient in the controversy is Sergio Véliz, former head of CONAP, who has been accused of altering the 2007-2011 executive plan for the Laguna del Tigre National Park so that oil drilling would not appear as a threat to the area.

But experts and activists argue that the dangers created by this extractive industry are inherent.

Francisco Castañeda, of the University of San Carlos Centre for Conservation Studies, stressed the ongoing threat of an oil spill, which could extend to some 300 interconnected bodies of water.

Furthermore, he said, 'there are reports of a decline in the number of birds, which would be related to the smokestack where they burn off the petroleum gases, and U.S. researchers have reported damage to the food chain of fish near the oil drilling site.'

'This has not been a good deal for the country,' said Castañeda, because the profits from the oil 'could instead be obtained through tourism, fishing and other activities the park has to offer.'

The Xan oil field produced 4.5 million barrels of crude in 2009, more than 90 percent of Guatemala's total petroleum production, which generated about 66.6 million dollars in income and royalties, according to official figures.

Oil industry royalties could reach 500 million dollars over the 15 years of the contract extension, while preservation of Laguna del Tigre could generate 700 million dollars in that period, according to a study by the Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment at the Jesuit-run Rafael Landívar University.

The calculation is based on the revenues generated through farming, tourism, transportation, food, biodiversity, water resources and carbon credits.

*This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by Inter Press Service (IPS), CGIAR/Biodiversity International, International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), and the United Nations Environment Programme/Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP/CBD) -- all members of COM+, the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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