No Quick Solution to Deforestation in Lush Chiapas ; Mexico Is Losing Nearly 3 Million Acres of Forest and Jungle Each Year, a Study Says

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On approach, the tiny hamlet of Quexil looks like an idyllic if impoverished country village. Animals graze on green farmland. Children chase one another through lush foliage. A scattering of humble shacks is dwarfed by pine and cedar- capped mountains that rise majestically into vivid blue skies.

But one feature betrays an environmental and social embroglio that threatens Mexico's future: On either side of the one road through town, smoke plumes rise toward the morning sun over blackened patches of land.

Here, as in hundreds of communities tucked in the temperate forest and tropical jungle that span the southeastern flank of Chiapas, destitute Indian villagers are cutting down trees and burning the undergrowth to clear fields for cultivation and cow grazing. Quexil, and many places like it, is a village at odds with its own government and much of the outside world.

Following a comprehensive study, the federal government has blamed poor farmers like these for Mexico's frightening rate of deforestation.

A nationwide survey of satellite images found that Mexico lost almost 3 million acres of forest and jungle each year between 1993 and 2000 - nearly twice what officials had previously estimated.

Like most problems in Mexico's poorest state, the dwindling forest in Chiapas presents a dilemma that can't be simply explained or easily solved.

Deforestation here has a direct correlation with crippling poverty, disputed land rights, and decades of misrule. It is difficult even for hard-core environmentalists to argue that hungry farmers have no right to feed their families. Most barely scrape by in their squalid village hamlets, where some argue they have every right to farm.

"This is a perverse circle that will be difficult to break," says Dr. Guillermo Montoya Gomez, an expert on deforestation at Ecosur, an environmental institute in Chiapas. "These people will starve if they don't cut down more trees, and a comprehensive solution will be complicated and costly."

Chiapas - home to the Montes Azules Biosphere and the Lacandon rain forest - is considered one of the states in most critical danger. The Lacandon, the world's most biologically diverse jungle after the Amazon, will disappear entirely within 10 to 30 years if the current rate of deforestation isn't stemmed.

The study blames illegal logging practices, saying poor villagers often work in cahoots with wood companies, local officials, and the Army. But it's mainly slash and burn methods to clear for farming that destroys rare hardwoods, natural habitats, and oxygen-giving canopy in order to plant maize and beans, or provide cattle grazing.

Rare wildlife, ranging from big cats to colorful parrots, risk extinction. The jungles are also home to thousands of species of rare and medicinal plants.

Massive deforestation could even change climate patterns hemisphere-wide, experts say, or cause massive flooding, erosion, and mudslides.

Over the past 40 years, millions of farmers - mostly indigenous people driven off their land - have migrated to the forests and jungles.

To win support in elections, past Mexican governments often decreed and then have withdrawn rights to thousands of acres of family plots here. Indigenous groups, including the Zapatista rebels, have fought bloody rebellions to protect their rights to the lands they claim, and demand autonomous rule according to Indian customs.

Unfortunately, land-registry records in Chiapas tend to be patchy, making a full-scale study complicated at best. Environmentalists suggest that a better use of time and resources would be training uneducated farmers in other skills.

"Believe me, most of these people do not know how to do anything besides raising corn or cattle," says Ignacio March, who spent 18 years in the jungles training local communities in conservation methods. …

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