By Tim WeinerNew York Times
December 8, 2002
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.
"We are 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.
A century 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.
Starting 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 â€” a forest as big as Connecticut â€” to the tiny and untrammeled Lacandón tribe, a few hundred people, who farm by trimming the forest canopy, not erasing it.
Since then, more than two-thirds of the Lacandón forest has been sawed down, first by timber companies with heavy machinery, then by peasants â€” some from Chiapas, some from farther north â€” all seeking a little land by which to live.
In 1978, 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.
Seen in 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.
Under the 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.
Now the 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."
"They speak of the ecological danger which the indigenous people inside the bioreserve represent," the group said in a statement last spring.
But, the 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 in Chiapas.)
The Zapatistas 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."
The rebel 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 question the Zapatistas have raised â€” control of the land â€” 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.
Villagers 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 â€” and thousands of dollars â€” to visit Mayan ruins.
This kind 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.
President 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.
Outsiders 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."
The only 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.
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