Mexico 12 Dec 2014 00:00
Oil is everywhere, our way of life depends on that non-renewable resource in a level we could have never imagined. But the "bags of sun" as Carl Sagan called the oil fields are not omnipresent in our world as oil byproducts are. Those zillions of decomposed corpses from millions of years ago only appear at selected spots in the surface of our planet. Sometimes they are found offshore or in deserted areas where no one lives. Other times they appear in densely populated areas, where it's extraction deeply disturbs people's way of life. This is one of those areas. The place where everything started. The water-land where the olmecs, the mother culture of mesoamerica, were already using crude oil for many purposes 3500 years ago.
The economic history of the state of Tabasco, located in southern Mexico, can be resumed in one word: Extraction. One million hectares of lush rainforest were turned into pastures during the logwood and mahogany booms from the 17th century. Cattle were introduced into the cleared areas to make sure the natural ecosystem will not regenerate, and feed the meat markets of Mexico City. In the 70's the prime natural resource of our time made it's grand appearance and the oil boom started.
On average almost 500,000 barrels of high quality oil are extracted each day in Tabasco along with almost 1.5 millions of cubic feet of natural gas, that means 1 barrel for every four inhabitants of the region a day. The Tabasco Shore produces another 300,000 barrels a day. Foreign oil companies have been working in Tabasco for many years. The recent oil reform promoted by president Peña Nieto supposedly will end PEMEX control over Mexico's oil and will turn foreign companies from contractors to shareholders.
The oil region of Tabasco is a densely populated swampy area of around 10,000 square kilometers, known as "La Chontalpa" the land of the Maya-Chontal people. This region was the cradle of civilisation in Mexico and is one of the most diverse regions in the world, culturally and biologically. Most of it's inhabitants remain impoverished and few opportunities are present for young men. Today the local youth dream of becoming a "petrolero" for a chance to earn decent wages, despite the low chances they have of landing a job involving more than cleaning.
Pedro, 17, gets basic cleaning jobs at Poza 123 (Pool 123), if he is lucky donning the signature orange jumpsuit once a month. Julio De La Cruz, a teacher at a primary school in Tapotzingo says that, "None of the people from the surrounding areas have been allowed to enter work on the oil fields other than cleaning, and not one peso has been given back to the communities."
Despite syndicates organized by local leaders to negotiate for a share of the work, most of the labour force contracted by the oil industry is not local. Eliazar Benitez, 65, is originally from Aguascalientes in the centre of Mexico but moved to this area 40 years ago. He has worked with many different companies but all within the oil industry.
"There are some 120+ oil rigs that sit off the gulf coast with an average of 200-300 people working on each and the workers are mainly foreigners: Europeans, Japanese, Chinese, Americans and Venezuelans." he said. "They keep the majority of foreign workers off land as not to upset the locals, but you can easily see them when they finish their 28 days on and are flown to land via helicopter. A large percentage end up in local brothels, and it is not unusual to see prostitutes waiting for the workers when they come to land."
The ecological damage caused by oil extraction here has been critical and has generated protests among the rural population since the beggining of the boom. Fish, the natural main source of protein of the region where 40% of the fresh water in Mexico, is now poisoned with heavy metals like mercury, nickel and lead. Patches of oil are omnipresent in the lowlands of the region.
The Santo Tomas environmental organisation has put in place an oil watch programme they to monitor oil spills on land. However, Hugo Ireta Guzmán, who works with the organization, says that the pollution at sea still poses problems to the local economy.
"There have been many problems with the local camarones (shrimp)," he said. "Many people used to rely on this as a main source of protein, but now the region imports a lot from other parts of Mexico because of contamination in the sea."