Papaloapan River

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Papaloapan River

Papaloapan River, one of the most important rivers on Mexico's southern Gulf Coast, drains a roughly 15,100-square-mile basin in the states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Puebla. Its headwaters are formed by the Salado River in the valley of Tehuacán, Puebla, and by the Tomellín River in the Sierra de Juárez, Oaxaca. The river becomes the Papaloapan near Valle Nacional as it begins to meander across the Gulf coastal plain to discharge into the Laguna de Alvarado. The river's fertile levees were preferred sites for pre-Columbian settlement, and the earliest evidences of civilization in Mexico, that of the Olmecs, are found in the lower floodplain of the Papaloapan and adjacent rivers.

Since colonial times, annual floods and the threat of malaria had limited settlement on the lower Papaloapan to small villages and cattle ranches. In the twentieth century, the floods became more severe, primarily because of the deforestation of the upland basin; the worst floods in history occurred in 1944, killing more than 100 people. In 1947 President Miguel Alemán, a native of the area, established the Comisión del Papaloapan, the first of Mexico's river basin commissions. It was given full planning and construction authority for the integrated development of the region: dam construction, electricity production, channel straightening, swamp clearing, mosquito control, road building, colonization, and the general improvement of social services. Frequently compared to the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Papaloapan project was different in that the commission was always under the federal executive. Completed in 1954, the 250-foot-high Miguel Alemán dam on the Río Tonto near Temascal created a 19,305-square-mile reservoir and provided protection for 77,220 square miles of land that previously had been subject to flood. The Cerro de Oro dam, completed in the early 1980s, protected additional land from flooding and increased the hydroelectric potential of the Alemán dam to 500,000 kilowatts.

See alsoAlemán Valdés, Miguel; Energy; Pánuco River.


Jorge L. Tamayo, Geografía general de México, 2d ed., vol. 2 (1962), pp. 313-325.

Thomas T. Poleman, The Papaloapan Project (1964).

Peter T. Ewell and Thomas T. Poleman, Uxpanapa: Agricultural Development in the Mexican Tropics (1980).

Robert Cooper West and John P. Augelli, Middle America: Its Lands and Peoples, 3d ed. (1989), p. 311.

Additional Bibliography

Lucero, A. El desarrollo regional en México y su problemática agraria. México: Departamento de Etnología y Antropología Social, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, SEP, 1979.

Palacios, Carlos Oguin, Maria del Carmen Alvarez Avila, and Alberto Asiain Hoyos. Tecnología agroacuícola en la cuenca baja del Río Papaloapan: La experiencia del Campus Veracruz del colegio de posgrados. México, DF: Red de Gestión Recursos Naturales: Fundación Rockefeller México, 2000.

Villa Rojas, Alfonso. Los mazatecos y el problema indígena de la cuenca de Papaloapan. México, Ediciones del Instituto Nacional Indigenista, 1955.

                                            John J. Winberry