Lacandones under threat

Tuesday, 6 February, 2001
Ancient tribe under threat

By Nicki Defago

In the rainforest of Mexico, there still exists an indigenous tribe of Indians who live off the land and worship their ancient gods.

The Lacandones are rare to have survived so long. Deforestation and the Western way of life are ever encroaching, and by the end of our lifetimes these people in their authentic state will most likely be gone.

Concerned at the rapid disappearance of such communities, the independent cultural association Na Bolom, based in San Cristobal de las Casas, has commissioned research that shows there are just 500 Lacandones left.

The Na Bolom Centre supports the Lacandone people and keeps records of their way of life

The Chiapas region where they live was once covered in dense jungle. Fifty per cent of that was destroyed between 1970 and 1993, and if the destruction continues at such a rate, North America's only rainforest will be gone in the next few decades.

'True People'

The Lacandones call themselves Hach Winik, or the True People, in their own language - Maya. They are direct descendants of the ancient Mayan people and are believed to have arrived in the region in the 17th or 18th Century to escape colonial domination.

They used to live in scattered villages to avoid detection and disease - remaining undiscovered until the early 1900s.

But the 500 still surviving have been pushed together and now share the one village of Lacanja Chansayab, close to the border with Guatemala near the ancient Mayan ruins of Bonampak.

Traditionally, the Lacandones lived in complete harmony with their environment, rotating crop fields that reverted back to rainforest.

The Lacandone people still use dugout canoes

Their jungle (Selva Lacandones) contains about 17% of Mexico's plant species.

As Manuel Barbosa, the director of Na Balom, puts it: "The Lacandones live in the rainforest, but the rainforest lives in them."

For hundreds of years, the two were totally interdependent.


Barbosa is hopeful the newly-inaugurated President Vincente Fox, heading the first change from one-party rule in Mexico for 71 years, will show more sympathy towards the country's earliest inhabitants than his predecessors.

The loss of their natural environment, the depletion of the plants that give them their food and natural medicines, has caused the community to modernise itself, though plenty of old customs are still in evidence.

Most wear the traditional dress of a simple white tunic, and men and women alike wear their black hair long with a fringe cut straight across.

Mexican soaps and the universally understandable Mr Bean are reportedly favourite programmes.

Despite the efforts of visiting missionaries, Lacanja Chansayab still has a 'God House' where the people worship Hachakyam - the god of all gods who they believe created the rainforest.

The village elders inspire the children with mythological tales, and travel on water is by dugout canoe.

Satellite TV

But the younger inhabitants go to school where they are taught in Spanish, not Maya.

Electricity arrived in the village eight years ago, and the most recent modern temptation is satellite TV - the dish perched incongruously atop the thatched roof of a simple wooden shack.

Mexican soaps and the universally understandable Mr Bean are reportedly favourite programmes.

The village entrepreneur Vincente Kon has branched into tourism, offering hammock space and hikes through the surrounding jungle to his infrequent visitors.

The future for Lacandone children is uncertain

Now that the Lacandones are grouped together, and with education and advice on hand, they are learning the impossibility of remaining true to their ancestors.

Intermarriage has resulted in an increasing rate of genetic defects, and in recent years individuals have begun to move further afield to find partners.

Na Bolom was set up by a Danish couple, Frans Blom and his wife Gertrude in the 1950s. They did more in the way of research into the lifestyle of this indigenous tribe than anyone else.

They were good people - friends with the locals and non-interventionist.

But white man, be he benign and curious or of the warring colonial type, ultimately beat a path through the jungle that will never grow back.

Conflict in Chiapas: Understanding the Modern Mayan World
by Worth H. Weller, Ben Weller (Photographer), Julia Weller (Photographer)
$16.95, Paperback, March 1, 2000
Rebellion in Chiapas : An Historical Reader
by John Womack (Editor)
$14.36, Paperback , March 1999
Voices from Exile : Violence and Survival in Modern Maya History
by Victor Montejo
$18.17, Hardcover, October 1999
©Copyright 1997-2000 Jeeni Criscenzo