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Who is Destroying the Jungle?

September 2003 AMERICAS.ORG

Who is Destroying the Jungle?
A struggle for land in Chiapas, Mexico.
by Kari Lydersen
A flash of lightning silhouettes the wiry figure of Jose Jimenez Cruz as he raises his fist to make a point. "We want our new generation of kids to be able to see all the different kinds of animals and plants here," says Jimenez, putting a protective hand on the shoulder of a little boy huddling around his legs. "We are conserving the rainforest so our children will know them. We are taking care of our mother earth."
Sheets of tropical rain pound down on the thatch roof of the open air hut where he and his family prepare food. They belong to the Nuevo San Rafael community of indigenous Chol people, located in the Montes Azules region of Chiapas, Mexico. They belong to a community about to be evicted.
Here in the lush Lacandon rainforest of Chiapas, entire communities are under imminent threat of expulsion because they are supposedly destroying the rainforest. The Mexican government and U.S. conservation groups say communities like Nuevo San Rafael have invaded the jungle and are destroying it by planting corn, building huts, and starting fires. But indigenous residents see ulterior motives behind the attempted expulsions. With them removed, the Lacandon jungle will be open to bio-prospecting, hydroelectric power plants, ecotourism outfits, and the extraction of wood, oil, uranium and fresh water.
Many of them also see their expulsions as part of the Mexican government's counterinsurgency campaign against the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), since many of the communities on the list for removal are EZLN supporters.

Montes Azules has been a federally protected bio-reserve since 1978. Now, partly at the urging of U.S.-based conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, the Mexican government is trying to evict 20 to 60 small indigenous communities from the area. Some of the communities have been in Montes Azules for decades. Many newer communities were established in the 1990s when their members fled paramilitary violence in other parts of Mexico.The 60-some residents of Nuevo San Rafael have only been in this location for a year and a half. Like many other communities in the area, They arrived here fleeing violence and repression in their own community of El Calvario, where they were frequently attacked by Paz y Justicia, a paramilitary group known for terrorizing supporters of the EZLN with impunity. The young boy hovering around Jimenez's legs saw his father murdered by Paz y Justicia ("Peace and Justice") in 1998.

To facilitate the removal of the communities, the Mexican government has enlisted an indigenous group known as the Lacandones (Lacandon Indians).
As part of a government-sponsored agrarian reform process that began in the 1950s, Mexican jungle communities who’d been working the land for years or even centuries—including the Lacandones—were allowed to file for legal title to their lands. Some 47 Tseltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal and Chol indigenous communities had filed as of 1972. Seventeen of those indigenous groups were awarded land titles and 30 more remained entangled in bureaucracy, according to Mexican conservation group Maderas del Pueblo.

Meanwhile, three Lacandones communities—with a combined total of 66 families—applied for a legal title to 10,000 hectares of land. To their surprise, they were awarded a whopping 614,321 hectares (about 1.2 million acres). That's about one third of the whole area jungle.
In 1974, the Lacandones signed an agreement with the COFOLASA logging company, allowing the logging of precious hardwoods on their lands.

"The government needed an intermediary who would let them extract wood from the jungle," said Miguel Angel Garcia, coordinator of Maderas del Pueblo. "The other communities wouldn't but the Lacandones would."

The government also reportedly has given the Lacondones numerous gifts, including a small plane, SUVs and monthly cash stipends. Since April 2003, groups of Lacandones armed with machetes and guns have paid regular visits to Nuevo San Rafael and other communities threatening them and demanding they vacate the land, which the Lacandones technically own. Usually the Lacandones are accompanied by Navy and government officials on these visits, according to reports filed by the Red de Defensores, a human rights network based in Chiapas.

Throughout this the Mexican government has promised to give new land to groups that vacate the Lacandon jungle. But so far, the government hasn't followed through, and those who leave the jungle have ended up as refugees.

Jimenez says that the residents of Nuevo San Rafael, like most of the other communities under threat, refuse to leave their homes. "We are friends and protectors of the jungle."

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist who writes for In These Times magazine, Alternet, the Washington Post and various publications. Contact her at karilyde@aol.com.

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