The Battle for Mexico's Last Rainforest

Biodiversity Conservation and Indigenous Rights in Chiapas: An irresolvable dilemma?
By Ryan Zinn, Global Exchange, Mexico
July 24, 2002

The struggle to preserve remaining tracts of biologically diverse regions in
Latin America is colliding head on with the struggle for human rights and
local indigenous autonomy. At the heart of this debate is the unquestioned
assumption that Human Rights and biodiversity protection are inherently at
odds. However, the issue has been confused by successful misinformation
campaigns by the Mexican government, the mainstream press and
"environmental" groups, like Conservation International.

The history of the Lacandon jungle is one of continual exploitation, from
the Spanish conquest to the present day, with the exploitation evolving to
reflect changing times and technology. Timber interests reined early,
followed by massive deforestation for government subsidized cattle ranching.
Later petroleum exploitation arrived, and with it, roads, contamination,
more deforestation.

Present day pressures include biopiracy and hydroelectric dams. Conservation
International with Grupo Pulsar (world's ninth largest biotech company) have
two "biological research" stations located in the Lacandon jungle. According
to local communities and activists, the research stations carry out
biopiracy operations, under the watchful eye of the Mexican government. This
amounts to the legalized theft and privatization of traditional knowledge
and medicinal plants.

Finally, the Mexican press announced last week a $240 million dollar loan
from the Inter-American Development Bank to begin the construction of 5
hydroelectric dams along the Usumacinta river, Mexico's largest and most
important. Fifty years of large dam building is enough to know that dams
displace local communities, destroy biodiversity and are economically
unviable in the medium to long term.

Myths and Realities

The first myth is that the so-called "Lacandon" Indians (sic), are the true
inhabitants of the region. In reality, the real Lacandons were eradicated
roughly 300 hundred years ago at the hands of the Spanish conquerors. The
current group of indigenous peoples, in fact originated from the Caribbean
region of Campeche, and are more correctly of the "Caribe" indigenous group.
Most evidence shows that grouping migrating to the Lacandon over the last
two centuries. The Mexican government both donned them the name "Lacandon,"
and granted them huge land concessions, in one of the most fraudulent land
distribution schemes in Mexican history. The land concessions allowed the
Mexican government the ability to exploit natural resources, with the quasi
consent of the Caribes.

The second myth is that the Zapatista and other communities are destroying
the local environment. While all human activity has some impact on the
environment, the Zapatista could be model examples of ecologically
appropriate community development. Zapatista communities have issued strict
rules with respect to the environment. Slash and burn practices have been
banned, agrichemical use is strictly prohibited, and they have installed
community forest management programs.

While some Zapatista communities are not originally from the Lacandon, their
exodus from their communities of origin reflect external forces beyond their
control. In fact many of the Zapatista "settlers" have fled to the Lacandon
due to the Mexican government's military and paramilitary forces’ intense
counter-insurgency strategy. Others communities are obligated to search for
new land due to the NAFTA dictated policies that have forced the Mexican
government to eliminate support to small farmers, open the borders to cheap
imports, like corn, and facilitate the exploitation of natural resources by
multinational corporations.

Now Zapatista and other indigenous communities are being scapegoated for the
current social and environmental crisis in southeast Mexico. This, while
lion's share of environmental damage and human rights violations correspond
directly to the Mexican government and multinational corporations.

Meanwhile the Mexican government plans to violently relocate the Zapatistas
from the jungle, for "conservation" purposes. However, the underlying causes
for the Mexican government's wish to relocate communities within the
Lacandon are: 1) military-political control of Zapatista communities, and 2)
to pave the way for the eventual, and absolute natural resource exploitation
of the region.

In final analysis, the onus for the present crisis in Chiapas rest squarely
on the shoulders of the Mexican government. Not only is the government
impeding local communities the ability to develop local initiatives for
natural resources “
"management," but blaming the victim, while threatening violent retribution
if the indigenous communities do not immediately vacate their ancestral

Ryan Zinn
Global Exchange Chiapas
www.globalexchange. <> org

<> Battle for Mexico¹s last rain forest
Indians fight for way of life, settlers snatch future farm land

Zapatista activist Manuel paddles in the El Suspiro lake near a small
community deep inside the Montes Azules nature reserve in Chiapas, Mexico.
In the fight to stop settlement in the shrinking rainforest, jungle-dwelling
Lacandon Indians are arrayed against settlers whose slash-and-burn
agricultural camps are often led or protected by the Zapatistas.

By Eduardo Verdugo
LACANJA, Mexico, July 16 ‹ The battle to save North America¹s
last large pocket of tropical rain forest is shattering old notions of
political correctness ‹ pitting leftists against environmentalists and
Zapatista rebels against other Indians.

LACANDON INDIANS, who have lived for centuries in the Montes Azules
jungle near the Guatemalan border, oppose the farms being slashed into the
nature reserve by Indian settlers from the nearby highlands.
The Zapatista rebels back the settlers, arguing that Indian farmers
are the best protectors of the rain forest. The rebels accuse
environmentalists who oppose the squatters¹ movement of being fronts for
corporate plans to exploit jungle resources.
At stake is a major source of fresh water in a parched nation, the
last jungle in North America big enough to support jaguars, and the habitat
of 340 species of birds and dozens of endangered plants and animals.
The conflict is also raising worries about violence between Indians,
and the ideological atmosphere has become so envenomed that some
environmental groups have walked away from the debate ‹ despite their fears
that settlement is threatening the jungle¹s viability.
The rhetoric of Indian rights and anti-globalization are being used
to justify deforestation, which environmentalists argue will benefit the
Indians little because the denuded land can yield crops for only a couple of


On a recent afternoon in the 1,290-square-mile Montes Azules ‹ Blue
Mountains ‹ the tall canopy of cedar, mahogany and cypress trees was
shrouded in smoke and dotted with farmers¹ fires.
Huge fire-blackened trunks of cypress trees loomed out of recently
cleared fields.
But the effects of human settlement are felt even in areas where
mammoth Guanacaste trees are still shrouded in vines and bromeliads, where
streams run crystal clear amid enormous ferns, palms and huge wild
elephant¹s ear plants.
Montes Azules is becoming a silent jungle as settlers carve it into
disconnected patches: in many parts, tapirs, howler monkeys and parrots are
already gone.
Patience is wearing thin among the Lacandones. Living in small,
jungle-friendly clearings for centuries, their number has dwindled to just
800, but they are the legal owners of much of the reserve ‹ much more land
than they need, the settlers say.
No accurate figure of the settler population is available, but
various estimates put it at 5,000 to 10,000.
They are coming in, cutting the trees and destroying not just our
land, but our way of life, said Alfonso Chankin, a Lacandon leader in
traditional white cotton tunic, black hair down to his waist. His clear
plastic sandals are one of the few traces of his contact with the outside


Speaking in halting Spanish in the yard of his thatched-roof home in
Lacanja, Chankin said that if the government doesn¹t do anything, we are
going to have to take matters into our own hands and throw them out
The risk of violence is real. On May 31, 26 Indians in nearby Oaxaca
state were massacred by a neighboring community in a similar land dispute.
Any attempt at eviction by the Lacandones and their allies would
almost certainly spark violence.
The only way they will get us out of here is dead, said Manuel, a
Zapatista activist in El Suspiro, a squatter camp deep inside the reserve.
Near his bare wooden shack, felled trees smoldered in a freshly cleared
Manuel, who like many Zapatistas identifies himself only by his first
name, mainly fears government soldiers and police.
Security forces appeared ready in April to forcibly remove the
settlers. But the national government backed off at the request of Chiapas
state officials, who want more talks ‹ although negotiations appear to be
going nowhere.
We¹re reaching a critical point where the jungle can¹t work as an
ecosystem anymore, said Ignacio March, a biologist for Washington-based
Conservation International, one of the few groups that has braved the
rebels¹ criticism to publicly oppose the settlements. For example, a jaguar
can¹t live in a small patch of jungle. They need a large, continuous
The rebels say they want to turn Montes Azules into an Indian
Farmers¹ Reserve, a patchwork of farms and jungle.
Jaime, the Zapatista commissioner who oversees El Suspiro and
several other camps, said the rebels have instructed their supporters not to
burn or chop down trees, but admitted that the rule is hard to enforce.
Manuel, after some prompting from his boss, grudgingly said farmers
should cut as little as possible.
This land belonged to my ancestors, said Manuel, whose Tzotzil
forebears actually come from the highlands 80 miles to the east.
Highland Indians began migrating into the reserve in the 1960s,
sometimes encouraged by the government and pressured by high population
growth and cattle ranchers who stole their land.
In an abrupt about-face in the 1970s, the government declared the
jungle off-limits to settlers and created a nature reserve. It evicted some
squatters, and granted the tiny group of Lacandones ownership of huge tracts
in the reserve.
That closing of the last virgin corner of Chiapas bred resentment in
some Indian communities, anger that became the foundation for the Zapatista
movement that appeared 20 years later.

But after the government set up the reserve, it never patrolled or
protected it, and a patchwork system was instituted under which some
squatter camps were allowed to stay. Only about 20 forestry guards patrol
the whole reserve.
People here don¹t respect authority anymore, said forest guard
Jorge Luis Gomez. If we went into the squatters¹ camps, they¹d lynch us.
From the air, the reserve looks like a vast green blanket scattered
with blue lagoons and brown clearings. The number of settlements rose
sharply after the Zapatistas¹ 1994 uprising, which encouraged land takeovers
and effectively ended police operations in the region.
Zapatista members account for only about half the settlements, but
the rebels have effectively blocked the relocation of any settlers by
threatening violence, boycotting talks and occupying vacated jungle camps.
The settlers clear plots for corn, which exhausts the soil after a few
harvests, then turn the land into cattle pasture.

A poorly financed government relocation program offers some
land and building materials outside the reserve, but running water and
electricity are often lacking.
The government should accept the communities that are living in
Montes Azules, and allow them to become honorary and permanent guardians of
the biodiversity there, the pro-rebel Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center
said in a June letter to President Vicente Fox.
There is little evidence the squatter camps are protecting anything.
The settlers clear plots for corn, which exhausts the soil after a few
harvests, then turn the land into cattle pasture.
In the newly settled Seis de Octubre camp, 70 families were hacking
into the jungle to build long wooden shacks.
Ebelio Maldonado, a 27-year-old Tzeltal Indian, stood between a pile
of recently felled trees and a smoking field where precious tropical
hardwoods are reduced to ash.
The Zapatista army sent us here to take care of the land, said
Maldonado, moving his hand in the air to trace the outline of the new
settlement. We¹ll plant beans and corn, and buy fertilizer, and we¹ll take
care of everything here in the jungle.
With large families ‹ Manuel has seven children ‹ the settlements
must expand. We¹d like to bring in some cattle, and some mechanized
planting, Maldonado said.

The results of that can be seen in the two-thirds of the original
Lacandon jungle outside the reserve that has already been cut down. Stream
beds are dried up, and only a few skinny cows graze on sun-baked grassland.
While ranchers love grass, it is the enemy of the jungle; once it
takes hold, it carpets the ground and interferes with the natural cycle of
regeneration the Lacandones depend on.
Lacandon farmer Manuel Castellanos curses the grass as he stoops to
pluck it away in his small farm plot in a jungle clearing.
Such clearings can support a Lacandon family for 20 years because
they vary plantings ‹ yucca and other root crops, fruits and vegetables, and
corn. The practice allows fields to regenerate, provide second-growth wood,
and be used again for farming.
This is the heart of the water, the lungs of the world. This is our
heritage, said Castellanos. And we are losing it.
Biologists hold out hopes that the Lacandones¹ knowledge of jungle
agriculture ‹ imperfect, but better than the settlers¹ farming methods ‹ can
be spread to other groups.
But that appears unlikely, given the hostility between the Lacandones
and the Zapatistas, who oppose the very concept of nature reserves.
The Lacandones acted selfishly, and against their fellow Indians, by
not sharing the land, Jaime, the Zapatista area leader, said. There is no
way they, all alone, can take advantage of all this land.
The fact that the Lacandones don¹t want to take advantage of the
land ‹ preferring instead to preserve it as an occasional hunting or fishing
ground ‹ is an idea lost in the clash between the two groups¹ cultures.
For a movement that demands respect for Indians, the Zapatistas
express open contempt for the Lacandones, calling them a manipulated,
pampered tool of the government.
Rebel sympathizers even refuse to call them Lacandones ‹ the name the
Indians prefer. They insist on calling them Caribes, the name of a group
of Indians from outside Mexico.
But the Zapatistas aim their harshest attacks at environmentalists.

Many rebel supporters view Zapatista support for squatters as part of
a battle against economic globalization. They see the objections to the
settlements as pretexts to hide corporate conspiracies, or to help Mexico¹s
conservative government and its now abandoned plan for a hydroelectric dam
near the reserve, or to weaken the Zapatista movement.
The rebels cite cash donations by the U.S. Agency for International
Development and a Mexican agribusiness company to Conservation International
as proof that the environmentalists want to sell off the jungle¹s water or
genetic samples of wildlife.
They aren¹t really interested in protecting the reserve. They want
to mine it: for genetic material, for water, for hydroelectric power, said
Andres Aubrey, an anthropologist who has worked in Chiapas for more than a
Biologist Victor Hugo Hernandez, a former director of the reserve,
counters: The whole bio-piracy issue is pretty much a pretext to justify
The attack from the left ‹ long an ally of conservation movements ‹
has scared off the Washington-based World Wildlife Fund, which in 2000
signed a petition calling for the removal of settlers, but later dropped
that position and now refuses to talk about the reserve.
We learned our lesson that time. We found ourselves in the middle of
so much polemics that you can¹t answer them, said Mercedes Otegui,
spokeswoman for the WWF in Mexico. Our policy is now just not to get

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