Note to reader: This article really drives
home the importance the work of OCA's Sustainable Chiapas campaign.
Laguna Miramar and Montes Azules, the region this article discusses,
is where one of OCA's organic hortalizas is planted and we hope
to do more great work there to support the indigenous point of view.
Growing Poverty Is Shrinking Mexico's
New York Times
Dec. 8 2002
ZAPATA, Mexico — Manuel López Gómez is watching the green world
around him disappear, ravaged by people whose only path from starvation
lies in slashing and burning the jungle to plant a patch of corn.
out of balance here," said Mr. López, 60, a local farmer turned conservationist.
"We are trying to stop the destruction. If nothing changes, all the
land around here will be destroyed."Five miles up a muddy trail from
Emiliano Zapata, in southeastern Chiapas State, is Mexico's largest
unpolluted lake, Laguna Miramar, and beyond that stands the last rain
forest in Mexico. But today almost half a million poor people, speaking
six different languages, live in that dying forest. For some here in
Chiapas, the issue is turning from saving the trees to saving the people.
of government reaching into this most remote corner of Mexico has left
most citizens with next to nothing. President Vicente Fox's plans to
build dams, railroads, highways and industries linking Chiapas to the
outside world in a 21st-century free-trade network are grand but unrealized.
And in Chiapas, development often means destruction.
in the late 19th century, the government sold foreign companies the
right to tear the great mahogany and cedar trees from Chiapas. In 1972,
the government deeded what was left — a forest as big as Connecticut
— to the tiny and untrammeled Lacandón tribe, a few hundred people,
who farm by trimming the forest canopy, not erasing it.
more than two-thirds of the Lacandón forest has been sawed down, first
by timber companies with heavy machinery, then by peasants — some
from Chiapas, some from farther north — all seeking a little land
by which to live.
the government declared the remaining forest, 1,278 square miles of
it, an international sanctuary: the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve,
presumably off limits to development. That pledge has been stretched
to the breaking point by the pressures of poverty, population growth
and political struggles.
satellite images, the green land of the bioreserve shrinks every year,
like a lake slowly going dry. The trees are cut, the undergrowth is
burned, the thin topsoil planted with corn until the crop fails, the
land then grazed by cattle until the rains wash the earth away. Hundreds
of settlements struggle in isolation, sharing little sense of community,
rarely seeing eye to eye, often lacking a common language.
ejido system, by which the Mexican revolution promised land to peasants,
the earth in and around the preserve has been subdivided among farming
families for five generations. It will not last much longer.
struggle for land has started to pit the Zapatista rebel movement against
ecologists who want to save the remains of the forest. The Zapatistas
declared war on Mexico's government nearly nine years ago over the poverty
of peasants in Chiapas. Today the movement criticizes efforts to conserve
the bioreserve as a "war of extermination against our indigenous communities."
of the ecological danger which the indigenous people inside the bioreserve
represent," the group said in a statement last spring.
rebels argued, conservation serves "large multinational companies dedicated
to exploiting biogenetic resources, covered with the masks of environmental
foundations." (Biotech companies, aware that most of the species in
the forest have never been cataloged, have contributed money to conservationists
also denounced "shopkeepers trying to develop eco-tourism" in Chiapas
as "fools trying to change our lives so that we will cease being what
we are: indigenous peasants with our own ideas and culture."
group, whose headquarters lie close by, has faded from public view.
It has little visible presence here in the town that shares its name.
In Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican Army is more powerful than the Zapatistas.
A new army base looms over the village. Throughout southern Chiapas,
Humvees patrol mountain roads, policing the countryside, zooming past
peasant women carrying backbreaking loads of firewood.
the Zapatistas have raised — control of the land — remains
a burning issue. One answer may lie in ways that will bring a little money
into villages like Emiliano Zapata, enough to end the dying tradition
of scratching out a living raising corn and beans, without trampling a
rural culture built on the ruins of the ancient Mayan civilization.
and outsiders have cut cornfields and cattle pastures into the reserve,
but Mr. López, encouraged by conservationists, has persuaded many others
to cultivate alternative crops, like organic coffee, under a program largely
if silently financed by the United States Agency for International Development.
A few tourists hike to Laguna Miramar, paying villagers for the privilege
of experiencing a semblance of wilderness.
On the other
side of the forest, that trickle of tourism is becoming a flood. At Frontera
Corozal, an outpost established 23 years ago for Chol Indians who were
ejected by the government from the bioreserve, 40,000 tourists a year,
mostly Europeans, pass through town, spending the night — and thousands
of dollars — to visit Mayan ruins.
of economic development, financed by foreigners and moving peasants away
from tradition and toward the modern world, may be the Zapatistas' worst
nightmare. But right now it is about the only development around.
Fox's plans so far amount to little beyond $10 billion worth of ideas
on paper. Over the last three decades, the government has built roads,
schools, health centers and power lines in the region. But its largest
legacy in Chiapas is conflict.
still make the rules here, said Ron Nigh, an anthropologist who has worked
in the region for 17 years. "Some conservationists think there shouldn't
be anybody living in the jungle," he said. "The local people basically
have no say."
way to save the trees may be to change the political and economic conditions
of the people living among them. But Chiapas remains a land of poverty.
Illiteracy runs high. Education past grade school is rare. Hunger and
anger are common.
And in Emiliano
Zapata, Mr. López said, the conflict between development and preservation
remains unresolved. "It's difficult to maintain a nature preserve in places
where people want to live," he said.