Mexico: Lacandon Selva Conflict Grows

September 25, 2007

The Cessna bush plane takes off from Ocosingo, where the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico slope down to the Lacandon Selva—the jungle. We leave behind paved roads and the electricity grid, heading into the verdant canyonlands of what remains a wild frontier, a stretch of jungle along the Guatemalan border only partly under government control. And we are flying into the deepest and most hotly contested part of it—the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. An ongoing conflict over the reserve has pitted settlers from the highlands against international environmental groups, who say settlements are threatening protected land, and the Mexican government. The settlers and their supporters in the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) charge the government wants to forcibly expel them both to reclaim the jungle from rebel control and to carry out development plans, exploiting the area’s natural and biological resources.

The land we are flying over is a patchwork of forest and areas cleared for cattle ranches and peasant communities. But as we head south into Montes Azules, the forested areas grow. The Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, at 331,200 hectares, is a fifth the total size of the original Lacandon Selva, a lowland tropical forest in the basin of the Usumacinta River east of the Chiapas Highlands. Established in 1978, the reserve is recognized by the U.N. Environment Program for its global biological and cultural significance. In 1992 the 61,874-hectare Lacantún Reserve, which includes the Classic Maya archeological sites of Yaxchilan and Bonampak, was added to the biosphere reserve.[1]

With 1,500 tree species, 33 percent of all Mexican bird species, 25 percent of all Mexican animal species, 44 percent of all Mexican diurnal butterflies and 10 percent of all Mexico’s fish species, it is considered part of the Mesoamerican global “biodiversity hotspot” by the Washington D.C.-based environmental group Conservation International. The “hotspot” extends down the isthmus from Chiapas along the mountain spine of Central America, incorporating protected areas all the way to Panama—generally in remote trans-border tropical forests. CI and allied nongovernmental organizations have projects in all these protected areas.[2]

By CI’s count, there are 140 settler communities in the Montes Azules reserve, and 225 within the Lacandon Selva’s protected areas. Of these, 32 are “undocumented”—that is, they never had their lands officially titled as an ejido, or agricultural settlement.[3] Late last year, Mexico’s federal Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat, citing the ongoing destruction of the forest by slash-and-burn agriculture, announced that these 32 untitled communities will have to relocate from the reserve—preferably voluntarily, to be compensated with new lands elsewhere in Chiapas. Environment Secretary Víctor Lichtinger said new invasions of the reserve by new settlers have continued and “there has to be an action to stop that kind of thing.” Luis Alvarez, President Vicente Fox’s spokesman for dialogue to end Chiapas’ long-simmering conflicts, said the move was a necessary one “to protect that ecological zone.”[4] But the jungle settlers themselves—as well as the Maya Indian rebels of the EZLN, which most of the settlers support—believe that the eviction policy masks both a strategy of counterinsurgency and an agenda of corporate exploitation of the rainforest’s oil, timber, hydro-electric and even genetic resources.

We land at Nuevo San Gregorio, a Tzotzil Maya settlement on the edge of the reserve—a cluster of huts in a green valley, the forest a short walk in any direction, and a day’s walk from the nearest road. The church is brightly painted with a mural depicting village life and jungle animals as well as the obligatory Virgin of Guadalupe. Bright green guacamayas soar overhead and howler monkeys cry from the trees. The church and schoolhouse have solar panels; there is no other electricity.

There is no government presence whatsoever in this remote settlement. The little schoolhouse is run by the Independent Rural Association of Collective Interest (ARIC-I), a regional campesino organization which the settlement is loyal to. Education is bilingual in Spanish and Tzotzil.

Ironically, the Nuevo San Gregorio settlers are in the forest because the government encouraged them to clear it for farmland thirty years ago in order to relieve land pressures in the highlands. The Tzotzils are a people from the heart of the highlands, the area around San Cristóbal. The residents of Nuevo San Gregorio came from the highland municipality of Huixtan, where they were ranch hands earning 25 centavos a day. They told me they left Huixtan’s Rancho San Gregorio and came to the Selva to found their settlement when they heard President Luis Echeverría announce on the radio in 1971 that peasants should move there for land.

Then, when the biosphere reserve was declared in 1978, they instantly became squatters. This represented a reversal of government policy concerning the Selva—from encouraging its colonization by landless peasants to sealing it off as a protected area following an international outcry over the forest’s rapid destruction. While the U.N.-recognized global program of biosphere reserves is supposed to incorporate small groups of indigenous peoples into management, ecologists charged that settler encroachment continued to eat away at the forest. In 1990, a World Bank study declared that the next decade would make or break the Lacandon Selva’s chances for survival; it had been “reduced to the minimum size essential for the integrity of its ecosystem.”[5] Satellite photos revealed that the Mexico–Guatemala border was clearly visible from space, so completely had the forest been cleared on the Mexican side.[6]

But the EZLN charges that the government is now using this as an excuse to move against their support communities, despite an official truce.7 President Fox has failed to deliver on his campaign promise to bring a negotiated end to the conflict, and has pursued his predecessors’ policy of military encirclement of the Selva. Wrote Hermann Bellinghausen, a reporter sympathetic to the Zapatista movement, in the Mexico City daily La Jornada, “Never before have the interest and actions of the United States government, large transnational companies and some world agencies (which range from the U.N. to Conservation International, and include all levels of the Mexican federal government) been so obvious in the Lacandon Selva and in Montes Azules. Environmental, bioprospecting, eco-tourism and birth control (eventually, sterilization of indigenous women) programs are acting as the spearhead for a far-reaching strategic and military project.”[8]

Reached in Tuxtla, the state capital, Ignacio March, Conservation International’s representative for Montes Azules, told me, “Some people seem to think that poverty is a good excuse to destroy the reserve. But the Lacandon Selva has been half destroyed over the last 20 years and poverty has only increased. The government cannot give land to every invader because that only provides an incentive to invade. It is a difficult problem. We still haven’t found a solution, and unfortunately the Zapatista conflict is an obstacle to finding one. Many people exploit that and are going into the jungle.”

March believes that CI has been targeted unfairly by activists: “The problem is that we are in charge of the monitoring system for the Lacandon forest. We are the eyes of the community to see what is going on in the rainforest. We have the duty to call public attention to any deforestation process in the reserve. We are frequently attacked with false arguments, like we are against poor people and we want the security forces to take these people out. But we are just doing our duty, alerting the authorities to what is happening.”

March says CI receives a budget from the U.S. Agency for International Development to rent bush planes for periodic observation flights over Montes Azules, and has recently detected forest fires in the most remote part of the reserve. “The main problem is poverty, and political leaders who are moving very poor people into the reserve,” he concludes. “They are manipulating people in other parts of Chiapas who are looking for land.”

Nicolas Morales Palé, one of the community leaders in Nuevo San Gregorio, brings us out to a cornfield in the settlement. He is local coordinator of organic agriculture with ARIC-I. Morales boasts of the settlement’s ecological program. He says they gave up slash-and-burn agriculture ten years ago and have learned a method of rotation that allows them to survive without eating into the forest. There is a community agreement not to clear forest, and to only use traditional corn varieties—no purchased seed.

Then he passionately grabs a piece of soil and holds it out to us, so we can see its richness for ourselves. “We will die here if we have to,” he says. “The women, the children, everybody. We’re not leaving alive. We will shed our own blood on this land. We are going to stay here because this land is for the campesinos.”

At the community gathering where the residents and those from neighboring settlements speak with gringo visitors, the children line up holding handmade signs in stiff but impeccable Spanish. One reads, “We reject the eviction of indigenous people from Montes Azules.” Another says, “We demand constitutional recognition of our indigenous rights and cultures under Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization and the San Andrés Accords.” The political sophistication of these primitive settlements is impressive. Last April the 32 communities threatened with eviction filed a formal protest with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. [9]

Of the 32 communities, most are EZLN support bases. Others, like Nuevo San Gregorio, are unarmed and not formally part of the rebel movement, but have fraternal relations with the Zapatistas. Most of the Selva communities not part of the EZLN support base follow ARIC-Independent, which broke from ARIC in 1994. The original ARIC was loyal to the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) political machine, and was pitted against the EZLN. ARIC-I was formed by ARIC dissidents who broke from the PRI machine. In contrast to the EZLN, ARIC-I is unarmed and civil. Former ARIC-I leader Porfirio Encinos is now Chiapas Governor Pablo Salazar’s director for indigenous issues. But the group remains autonomous, and openly pledges nonviolent resistance to the expulsions.[10]

Everyone we spoke with in Nuevo San Gregorio supports the Zapatistas’ long-stalled peace plan, the San Andrés Accords, which would give Indian communities—even small jungle settlements like this one—constitutionally-guaranteed autonomy. Hubliano López-Sánchez, an ARIC-I regional leader for this section of the Selva, tells me: “We are campesinos and we know how to use the land. We are self-governing indigenous communities. So we have the right to autonomy, which the EZLN is fighting for.”

Isabela Morales Pérez, a member of a group that walked through the jungle to meet with us from another community, Nueva Israel adds, “How can they move us, with our children and our families, to another place where we will have to start from nothing? We want the government to stop threatening us.” She speaks with a baby strapped across her breast.

In a December 29 communiqué, EZLN leader Subcomandante Marcos pledged that the rebels will resist the government’s planned removal of Zapatista base communities from the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, in the heart of the Lacandon rainforest. “There will not be a peaceful expulsion,” wrote Marcos.[11]

Local rights groups reported that army troops had been moved into the area of the Biosphere Reserve, apparently awaiting orders to eject the Indian communities. “Soldiers are occupying key locations, going on patrols and making surveillance flights over the communities in question,” said Patricia Gómez of San Cristóbal Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center.[12] On December 19, a detachment of Federal Preventative Police backed up by a helicopter carried out a “voluntary eviction” of one Chol Indian community from the reserve, and federal authorities were said to be negotiating with the evicted families for compensation with new lands elsewhere in Chiapas.[13]

Even this deep in the Selva, the government has recently sent security forces on missions of intimidation, the residents charge. Visitors from Candelaria settlement say a detachment of Federal Preventative Police came to their community in February.

In the evening, the Nuevo San Gregorio village band—a guitar-fiddle-bass trio—puts on a concert for us in front of the church, performing valiantly on beat-up old instruments with missing strings. In the morning, after tortillas and eggs, we fly out—continuing south into the heart of the reserve. We fly over the shrinking heart of intact jungle, leaving settlements behind. A dense, unblemished canopy covers the low mountains for as far as the eye can see in any direction. But it doesn’t last long. Just beyond the clear turquoise of Laguna Miramar, near the western border of the reserve, lies a brown plain of exposed, completely deforested earth. This is the drill grounds surrounding San Quentin, the main military base for the Lacandon Selva.

We land in Comitán, the major town on the other side of the forest. Here we meet a Chol Maya family displaced by the first evictions from the reserve, and still living in the compound of a government aid agency. They are from the settlement of Río San Pablo, which agreed to leave Montes Azules in December. Federal police backed up by a helicopter showed up to enforce the eviction. But now the families are still negotiating with federal authorities to be compensated with new lands elsewhere in Chiapas. Says family elder Domingo Pérez Gómez: “If it isn’t resolved soon, we will go to a ranch to work, because we are not used to living dependent on the government.” His advice to those still in the jungle: “Don’t leave the Selva, because the government is not to be trusted!”

Río San Pablo was a new community. The residents fled there from the Marqués de Comillas region of the Selva—a heavily-settled area just south of the Biosphere Reserve—after family members were killed by MOCRI militants in 2000. MOCRI is the Regional Independent Campesino Movement—a name strikingly similar to ARIC-I, but such distinctions are critical in the jungle turf wars. MOCRI has been pitted against the EZLN to the point—the rebels claim—of assassinating their followers.[14] In the Marqués de Comillas, the group’s principal stronghold, MOCRI is accused of threats and violence against non-MOCRI communities.

Domingo Pérez’s family are originally from Tila, in the Chol heartland of northern Chiapas, where the Highlands slope down towards the Gulf Coast. They left ten years ago because there was no land. Tired of growing corn on poor lands 12 miles from where they lived, they relocated to the Marqués de Comillas—only to flee again into Montes Azules. Now they have been relocated a third time.

They say they are at odds with negotiators from the federal environmental bureaucracy over lands they seek for compensation in Palenque, near Tila where they started. The government says that at 20,000 pesos a hectare, the lands they seek are too expensive. Meanwhile, they complain that the government is providing no education for the 18 children in the group. “We live like beggars in the street here,” says Domingo Pérez. “We wake up and we have no work to do. We cannot live like this.”

Ironically, the government is preparing to expel jungle settlers in the name of rainforest protection just as it is blowing the dust off plans for massive exploitation of the region, much of it connected to Plan Puebla-Panama, a series of interoceanic rail and highway links, industrial and free-trade zones stretching from the Panama Canal to the Mexican state of Puebla.[15] In June 2001, President Fox signed an agreement on the PPP with the presidents of the seven Central American republics in San Salvador, pledging to cooperate—initially—on grid integration and road improvement.[16] The industrial colonization of the Selva with paved roads, dams and oil exploitation is seen as a key pillar of the PPP. But the Zapatistas decry the Plan as a “counterinsurgency” measure aimed at bringing the restive Indian communities of southern Mexico (and Central America) under industrial control.[17]

In the 1980s, the state oil company Pemex—third largest U.S. oil provider after Canada and Saudi Arabia—drilled test wells at Nazaret outside Ocosingo, and along the Lacantún River deep in the jungle, preparing to expand the oil industry south into the Chiapas rainforest from its heartland in Tabasco on the Gulf Coast. The test wells were abandoned in the wake of the 1994 Zapatista uprising. But with paved roads and army troops now ringing the rainforest in an arc that follows the Usumacinta River and the Guatemalan border, Pemex is planning to return. The private contractor General Geophysics of France has resumed exploratory work in the Selva.[18]

Logging has already resumed in the Marqués de Comillas, a heavily settled area of the forest just across the Lacantún River from the Biosphere Reserve, with timber arriving daily at sawmills and warehouses in Altamirano, Palenque and other towns along the edge of the Selva.[19]

Says Heron Moreno of the Red de Defensores, an indigenous-run group that serves as a liaison between the jungle communities and human rights organizations: “It is the government’s lie that indigenous people are destroying the forest. We do not have the resources. On the road to Palenque big timber trucks leave every day filled with timber. If we cut a tree it is because we have to, to build a home or to clear land to plant. The families in Montes Azules are displaced peoples who are there because they need land, fleeing the paramilitary violence. How can the government portray them as criminals and once again displace them?”

Ecologists are most alarmed by the revival of long-stalled plans for a giant hydro-electric complex on the Usumacinta River which cuts through the heart of the forest and forms the border with Guatemala. Officials with Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission say there are two plans—one for a 132-foot dam at Boca de Cerro, which would create a floodplain 22 miles long, and 330-foot dam at the site, which could flood a much larger area. Archeologists are concerned that numerous Classic Maya sites in the area could be flooded.[20]

Rocío Rodiles Hernández, an investigator at ECOSUR, a research institute with its offices at San Cristóbal, is president of the Montes Azules Assessor Council—a position previously held by Conservation International’s March. Rodiles discovered a new variety of catfish on the Lacantún River in 1996, and says that 40 years ago there were catfish over a meter long in the Selva—no more, due to deforestation and over-fishing. She is critical of government development plans for the region. “The Usumacinta dams would have a devastating effect on fish diversity,” she says. She also believes strongly in an ethic of campesino stewardship of the reserve. “These communities have an interest in protecting their forested lands, because they depend on them for their livelihood.”

The Montes Azules Assessor Council was formed in 1997 “to incorporate the different social sectors involved in the protected natural areas,” as its mission statement puts it. It includes representatives of legally-recognized ejidos and communities within the reserve, and drew up a management plan for Montes Azules in 2000. But the body has no binding power, and does not include representatives of the threatened communities. Asked why not, Rodiles says: “None of the autonomous communities have applied to be on the panel, and I don’t think it’s the council’s role to approach them.” And she warns: “Slash-and-burn agriculture continues in the reserve, and remains a source of destruction—new communities of invaders are burning forest to clear new land.”

The jungle communities themselves are most concerned with corporate plans to exploit the rainforest’s biodiversity. Last year, a coalition of traditional Maya healers in another part of Chiapas declared victory following the cancellation of a $2.5 million U.S.-funded program to research herbal cures used by indigenous communities. Led by the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (ICBG), a consortium of agencies including the U.S. National Science Foundation and Agriculture Department, the researchers were to share their data with private pharmaceutical and biotech firms which were commercial partners in the deal. But the Chiapas Council of Traditional Indigenous Midwives and Healers (COMPITCH) denounced the project as “biopiracy,” asserting the impoverished Maya communities would receive little benefit from any patents developed.[21] Another bio-prospecting deal, between the Mexican government and the California firm Diversa, was also cancelled last year. Diversa, which has a similar agreement with the U.S. Interior Department for Yellowstone National Park, was granted access to Mexico’s biodiversity in exchange for $5,000 to train and equip personnel from the Mexican National Autonomous University (UNAM).[22] The project was canned, following much public pressure, when the Mexican attorney general found UNAM had no authority to enter into the deal.[23]

Says Onésimo Hidalgo of the Economic and Political Investigative Center for Community Action (CIEPAC), which works with the rainforest communities: “There will be no bio-prospecting work in Chiapas for decades. There are researchers collecting plants in the reserve, but unfortunately because of the scandal everything botanists do is considered a threat and a theft of the local resources.”

Meanwhile, despite the cancellation of the ICBG Maya project, an NGO-run research station—partly funded by Conservation International—continues to map the flora and fauna of Montes Azules,[24] while the Mexican agro-business and biotech giant Grupo Pulsar has established numerous research stations in Chiapas. Deep suspicion of the plan is evident in the Selva communities. Said Moisés Pérez López of Nuevo San Gregorio: “We don’t want our resources like water and rivers and plants to be privatized. We don’t want our plants to be genetically modified. We are not chickens in cages that can be fed transgenic corn. We indigenous communities will fight against Plan Puebla-Panama to the bitter end.”

Plan Puebla-Panama is mirrored in another trans-national plan for the isthmus—this one the brainchild of the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility—called the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which would link all of the “biodiversity hotspots” of southern Mexico and Central America.[25] Montes Azules is designated as one of the “nuclear zones”—points of unspoiled high biodiversity—of the corridor. But COMPITCH assessor Ana Valadez protests: “There has been no consultation. Most of the indigenous groups in the area have no idea that they’re part of a bio-corridor.”

Last year, hundreds of Zapatista supporters marked October 12, Día de la Raza, by blocking the entrance to the main Chiapas military base, Rancho Nuevo, both to demand demilitarization of the conflicted southern state and protest the PPP. “These lands belong to the people and we will not abandon them,” said one protest leader. “The riches belong to those of us who have lived here for centuries and we will oppose their globalization.”[26]

CIEPAC’s Hidalgo says some of the threatened communities in Montes Azules “might be willing to leave if housing and land was really provided.” But the long-term solution lies in “national dialogue with the Zapatistas.” An “environmental table” was to follow the talks on indigenous rights that gave rise to the San Andrés Accords. “But the San Andrés Accords were never fulfilled, and the dialogue has been stalled for years.”

In September, Mexico’s Supreme Court upheld a version of the San Andrés Accords which Congress had stripped of all binding provisions on control of territory and resources by indigenous communities. The EZLN broke off all contact with the government and press in protest of the decision, but a statement was issued by leaders of a protest march in San Cristóbal, representing several Chiapas Indian and campesino groups—including the Emiliano Zapata Campesino Organization, the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples and Civil Society in Resistance. The statement said the Supreme Court decision “definitively closes the doors to a dialogue necessary to construct peace in the state of Chiapas and all Mexico. . . The ‘indigenous law’ traitorously imposed by the congress and by Vicente Fox, and now ratified by the supreme court, only serves the great multinational companies that seek to plunder the strategic resources of Mexico through Plan Puebla-Panama and the Free Trade Area of the Americas.”[27]

Meanwhile, Hidalgo shares the skepticism about the stated motives behind the planned expulsions. “Settlers in the Selva have an ecological vision, they guard their forest and their resources jealously. Its a geo-strategic policy in reality—the government wants to eliminate the Zapatista support base.”

In December 2001, Fox’s former head of national security and current Mexican delegate on the U.N. Security Council, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, stated that environmental “terrorist activities” were occurring in several regions in the country, and that the state would shortly be deploying “all its force on a military scale” in those areas, calling it a “war operation.” The federal environmental prosecutor’s office announced that the first targeted region would be Montes Azules.[28]

The military presence in the Selva is rapidily escalating. As the U.S. attack on Iraq began, Fox ordered special army and navy patrols along the Usumacinta, citing the threat of terrorist infiltration from Guatemala. On March 20, four U.S. military officials and a group of U.S. Marines participated in Mexican military exercises on the Mexico-Guatemala border dubbed “Strengthening Security and Vigilance,” according to La Jornada reporter Hermann Bellinghausen. The “good faith visit” by the Marines coincided with the first day of military action in Iraq.[29]

Bill Weinberg is author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso Books, 2000) and editor of the on-line weekly World War 3 Report . He researched this story as part of a Global Exchange delegation to Chiapas in March 2003.

1. Rocío Rodiles Hernández, ECOSUR, author’s interview, San Cristóbal, March 2003.
2. .
3. Ricardo Hernández, Conservation International project coordinator for Chiapas, in telephone interview with author from Tuxtla Gutierrez, April 2003.
4. La Jornada, Dec. 17, 2002.
5. Larry Rohter “Tropical Rain Forest in Mexico is Facing Destruction in Decade,” New York Times, July 10, 1990.
6. Tim Golden, “Left Behind, Mexico’s Indians Fight the Future,” New York Times, January 9, 1994.
7. Proceso, Dec. 31, 2002.
8. La Jornada, March 25, 2002.
9. Heron Moreno, Red de Defensores, author’s interview, San Cristóbal, March 2003.
10. Moreno interview, March 2003.
11. Proceso, Dec. 31, 2002.
12. The News, Mexico City, Dec. 20, 2002.
13. Proceso, Dec. 21, 2002.
14. EZLN communiqué, Dec. 29, 2002.
15. Sophie Style, “The Plan Puebla Panama,” The Ecologist, UK, June 2001.
16. AP, June 16, 2001.
17. La Jornada, Feb. 2, 2001.
18. Onésimo Hidalgo, CIEPAC, author’s interview, San Cristóbal, March 2003.
19. Hidalgo interview, March 2003.
20. New York Times, Sept. 22, 2002.
21. The News, Mexico City, Dec. 8. 2001.
22. La Jornada, Sept. 28, 1999.
23. Barbara Belejack, “Bio ‘Gold’ Rush in Chiapas on Hold,” NACLA Report on the Americas, March/April 2002.
24. Ignacio March, Conservation International, author’s interview, via telephone from Tuxtla Gutierrez, April 2003.
25. .
26. EFE, Oct. 13, 2002.
27. Chiapas IMC, Sept. 11, 2002.
28. Hermann Bellinghausen, La Jornada, March 26, 2002.
29. Hermann Bellinghausen, La Jornada, March 24, 2003.

Tags: Mexico, Lacandon, Chiapas, Zapatistas, environment, repression, violence

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.