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