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ENVIRONMENT-MEXICO: Violence Brewing in Montes Azules Reserve

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jun 5 2003 (IPS) - Lacandon Indians in Mexico are threatening to use force to stop other indigenous groups from clearing out land and creating settlements in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. Meanwhile, the government has promised for the umpteenth time to come up with a solution.

Lacandon Indians in Mexico are threatening to use force to stop other indigenous groups from clearing out land and creating settlements in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

Meanwhile, the government has promised for the umpteenth time to come up with a solution to the conflict that appears to be on the verge of erupting.

Since President Vicente Fox took office in December 2000, 10 new settlements have been carved out of the forest in the 331,000 hectare reserve, which forms part of the Lacandona jungle located in the southernmost state of Chiapas on the border with Guatemala.

There are now a total of 45 settlements with a combined population of 35,000 people.

An investigation carried out by environment authorities points to an imminent risk of violence between the Lacandon Indians, who number around 1,000, and the settlers, who are mainly indigenous people from other ethnic communities who use the slash-and-burn technique to clear agricultural land in the Lacandona jungle and the Montes Azules reserve.


For over a decade, Mexican governments have been promising to relocate the settlers and prevent the creation of new villages, but that has not yet happened.

”There is a time bomb in the Lacandona jungle, and not only there but in all rural areas of Chiapas, where poverty and violence persist,” Guillermo Trejo, a researcher of social movements at the Centre for Economic Research and Teaching, told IPS.

Slash-and-burn agriculture and logging activities that destroy the native forest, the clearing of jungle for livestock to graze, and fishing of endangered species are problems created by the new human settlements, which are growing in number despite the creation of a number of negotiating commissions, military patrols, and innumerable government promises.

Although it covers just a small part of Mexico’s territory, what is left of the Lacandona jungle, especially the Montes Azules reserve, is of great importance in terms of biodiversity.

The isolated jungle region, the main tropical wetlands preserve in North America, is home to 37 percent of Mexico’s mammal species, 48 percent of all bird species, and 33 percent of reptile species.

But the emergence of human settlements and the consequent destruction is driving the Lacandona jungle to its death, warn studies by the Autonomous National University of Mexico.

Two centuries ago, the tropical Lacandona jungle covered around two million hectares. Today it has shrunk to less than 500,000 hectares. Much of what was once jungle is now an arid, semi- populated landscape.

In the biosphere reserve, more than 20,000 hectares of forest have already been cleared, and another 20,000 are in the process of being destroyed, according to government estimates.

”Irregular settlements” created by indigenous people from surrounding areas, who are mainly sympathisers of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), anger the Lacandon Indians, who were made the legal owners and guardians of most of the jungle by means of a 1972 presidential decree.

The Lacandon Indians threatened last month to drive out the new settlers, who they accuse of destroying the jungle. The group also complained that the Fox administration has done nothing to resolve the situation.

Trejo said that negotiating a peace agreement with the EZLN is basic to coming up with a solution to the problem of irregular settlements in the jungles of Chiapas.

Peace talks between the government of Ernesto Zedillo (1994- 2000) and the Zapatistas, a mainly indigenous rebel group that rose up in arms in January 1994 demanding true democracy and respect for the rights of Indians, broke down in 1996.

But the EZLN refuses to return to the negotiating table, despite the fact that Fox met many of the group’s sdemands, such as closing army garrisons in Chiapas, which had been heavily militarised by the Zedillo government, and securing the release of imprisoned guerrillas and Zapatista sympathisers.

The EZLN says it will only agree to peace talks again when a law on indigenous rights is enacted in its original form, rather than the amended version that was passed by Congress in 2001. In the meantime, the poorly-armed insurgent group remains in the remote mountains of Chiapas, without attacking or being attacked, thanks to an amnesty in effect since 1994.

Indigenous people clearing out land for crops and pastures in the Lacandona jungle and the Montes Azules reserve say they are fleeing poverty, violence and a lack of land.

But the creation of human settlements in the jungle is just one aspect of a complex social situation in Chiapas, which requires special efforts that the Fox administration does not appear to be making, said Trejo.

Since 2001, authorities have been offering to solve the problem in Montes Azules through dialogue with the settlers and the Lacandon Indians. But nothing has yet come of that.

In December, 27 families of Chole Indians were peacefully evicted by authorities on the promise that they would be given land elsewhere. But after spending five months in government shelters, the families, tired of waiting to be resettled, began to seek land on their own in late May.

The Chiapas state government estimates that around 100 million dollars are needed to relocate the settlers – funds that it does not have.

The Rural Association of Collective Interest, which represents 12 of the irregular settlements that have cropped up in the Montes Azules reserve in the past few years, warned that it would not accept any relocation programme, and that on the contrary it would seek legal status for the villages.

The group’s spokesman, Mario Hernández, warned that the residents of the new villages were prepared to resist eventual police attempts to evict them.

Nevertheless, Secretary of the Interior Santiago Creel insists that there is no imminent risk of violence in Montes Azules – even though members of the Lacandon indigenous community and settlers have both threatened to use force if necessary.

As other officials have done in the past, Creel once more repeated that the conflict would be resolved through dialogue and cooperation among the parties involved.

But until an effective channel for dialogue is created, the Lacandona jungle and Montes Azules reserve continue to be destroyed, and violence may break out at any moment.

 
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ENVIRONMENT-MEXICO: Violence Brewing in Montes Azules Reserve

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jun 5 2003 (IPS) - Lacandon Indians in Mexico are threatening to use force to stop other indigenous groups from clearing out land and creating settlements in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.
(more…)

 
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