Rain forest sits at the center of Chiapas standoff

Mexico's government wants to relocate illegal squatters, but some threaten violence.

Looking at a satellite image of southeastern Mexico is like looking at a 3-year-old's coloring book. Sporadic splashes of green are mixed with a host of other colors.

These splashes are all that's left of one of the most biologically diverse rain forests in the world - just 10 percent of what used to be more than 200,000 square miles of dense jungle covering the Yucatan peninsula and extending up the Caribbean coast.

But there is one patch of green where the coloring has stayed mostly within the lines. It's Montes Azules, an ecological reserve created by the Mexican government in 1978 within the Lacandon Jungle.

Nearly half of the remaining Mexican rain forest is protected here, where an average acre shelters more than 400 species of plants and animals, including 50 types of orchids and 300 varieties of butterflies. This makes Mexico the third most biologically diverse place on the planet, after Brazil and Indonesia.

The problem is, Montes Azules is located in the troubled state of Chiapas, where nearly 10 years ago Zapatista peasants, seeking autonomy, rose up against the Mexican government. Many villagers were displaced by the ensuing conflict and fled to the jungle, setting up illegal villages and slashing and burning trees to clear farmland. The indigenous owners of the forest and environmental groups say the Mexican government must now step in and protect the jungle by evicting the settlers. But the settlers, many of whom still support the Zapatista movement, say they won't leave, pushing the region to the edge of violence.

Satellite images are the only way ecologists can see what is happening within Montes Azules these days. Visiting the reserve has become very complicated.

"They wouldn't let me in," Jorge León Cortés, investigator of conservation at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, says of the Mayan Tzeltal and Chol peasants who have "invaded" the reserve. "They control that territory completely, and they are very, very wary of outsiders."

Illegal settlements

The legal owners of the forest are the Lacandons, the last remnant of a Mayan tribe that has long inhabited remote areas of the jungle. In 1972, the Mexican government granted the 66 surviving Lacandon families more than 80 percent of the rain forest - including the majority of what is now Montes Azules.

Their descendants, numbering less than 500, have earned their living as managers of their inheritance, charging fees for road construction, selling renewable forest products like palm leaves, and contracting with agribusinesses for the cultivation of commercial crops like eucalyptus.

The Lacandons have long complained to the government about illegal settlements, and during the past few months have begun to insist on their removal.

The government is also being pressured to act by environmental groups like Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund, who blame the squatters' slash-and-burn agriculture for the loss of the forest. Along with the US Agency for International Development, the groups have funded a broad-based conservation campaign for Montes Azules that hinges on relocating illegal settlements. But some observers say the conservation groups have ulterior motives.

"The kind of influence these groups have on the government makes us worried," says Ernesto Ledesma Arronte of the Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research (CAPISE), based in Chiapas. Mr. Ledesma says that contributors to these organizations include Pulsar Group, Starbucks, Chiquita, and Exxon - firms with investment interests in the region. Ledesma calls the supposed goodwill of groups like Conservation International a Trojan horse - once they gain access to Montes Azules they will exploit the region for its coffee, fruit, oil, and potential for pharmaceuticals.

Manuel Villareal Calle of Conservation International says there is no conflict of interest from the group's contributors and he has "no information on any planned investments [in the area] from these companies."

Zapatista villagers call both the government and the Lacandons hypocritical for talking of protecting the rain forest now. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, logging companies led by the government contracted with the Lacandons. During this period, Chiapas lost an average of 2 percent of its forests each year, says Mr. León of the Colegio.

Machetes and pistols

Two months ago, a group of Lacandons armed with pistols and machetes approached Nuevo San Rafael, one of the 42 illegal settlements within the reserve, and demanded that the villagers leave. José Merced Hernandez, a CAPISE representative who witnessed the exchange, says the Lacandons arrived on a Mexican Navy patrol boat, accompanied by two representatives of the Federal Agency for the Protection of the Environment (PROFEPA).

"Government officials just stood there while [the Lacandons] made these threats," says Mr. Merced. "It leads us to think they are working together - that the government is encouraging the Lacandons."

The government denies taking sides, and Leonel Díaz Sarmiento, spokesman for PROFEPA, says the representatives were environmental observers, calling their presence there a "coincidence."

The Lacandons are ready to give their lives to protect their land, one of them told the newspaper La Reforma in May, and if the government does nothing, they will take matters into their own hands.

As well, in a communiqué released in December, Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos announced that the Zapatista National Liberation Army, which battled the government 10 years ago, would protect the villages in Montes Azules from any attempt at forced removal.

The government says that it is in dialogue with the villagers, and that many are disposed to being relocated, but only one village has accepted a deal. The six families of Lucio Cabañas were promised new land and temporary work in the municipality of Amantenago, but upon their arrival there in December, the surrounding villagers forced them out. PROFEPA then sent them to stay at a facility in nearby Comitan, promising a better place within a month.

But after five months of waiting, eager not to miss the planting season, the families gave up and returned to Montes Azules a month ago.

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