Siege of Montes Azules:
History of the Real Destruction of the Selva Lacandona

Antonio Castillo
La Jornada
Translated by irlandesa
Monday, June 12, 2000.

Over the last few weeks, some display ads have appeared in the press, placed by ecologists and researchers, demanding that the government intervene in response to the destruction of 70% of the original area of the Selva Lacandona. They also express their concern for the similar danger to the Comprehensive Reserve of the Montes Azules Biosphere (RIBMA) in Chiapas, occasioned, they say, by indigenous groups who have "invaded" and caused "uncontrolled fires," adversely affecting its "legitimate" owners, the Lacandones. Several facts and intentions are concealed in the above demands:

The Existence of Anti-indigenous Agrarian Policies in Chiapas.
When the Spaniards arrived in Chiapas, some of the peoples residing in the Selva Lacandona were from the Maya-Chol family, such as the Lacandones, the Acala'es, the Topiltepeques, the Pochutlas and the Choles. During the Colonial period, and as a result of multiple armed Spanish expeditions from San Cristo'bal, Tabasco and Guatemala, the native peoples were displaced to other areas. Other peoples took refuge within the Selva, such as the original Lacandones, who were exterminated by the Spaniards in their settlements at Lacam-Tun and Sac-Bahla'n during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Choles, Tzotziles, Tzeltales and Tojolabales also sought refuge in the Selva in the early 17th century. They were attacked and expelled from their lands by the caciques of Los Altos of Chiapas. At the end of the 18th century, and until the middle of the 19th, other peoples arrived in the Selva from Guatemala and Yucatan. They came to be called Lacandones. With the Spanish reduccio'n [villages into which Indians were 'reduced' or 'concentrated', thus making them easier to train, utilize and purportedly 'protect'], the Choles were displaced to Palenque and Tumbala', and the Tzeltales to Bachajo'n and Ocosingo.

From the end of the 19th century, and until the 60's in the 20th century, the greatest part of the Selva Lacandona was integrated into 11 private properties belonging to large latifundists, several of them foreigners. This was permitted, despite the Mexican Revolution and the 1917 Constitution, because of the fact that the large cacique forces in Chiapas had signed the Act of Cangui, and, in 1914 they had declared war on Carranza's constitutionalism. In 1920, Alvaro Obrego'n recognized the military landowners, paid them the costs of the war, and left them sovereign over lives, haciendas, fincas, and in charge of the state government. Once again, this situation provoked the expulsion of peoples from the Selva.

Beginning in the early 40's, groups of Choles, Tzotziles, Tzeltales and Tojolabales returned to the Selva. The Lacandones, or Caribes, had remained there. During the current century, those companies which for decades exploited chicle and precious woods contributed to the destruction of the Selva Lacandona. Among them were Madera Maya, with North American capital, who contracted, and became partners with, Aserradero Bonampak. Through the intensive use of machinery, and the highway they built from Palenque to Chancala', they had the greatest devastating impact on the Selva Lacandona between 1951 and 1973, not the indigenous people who were living within it.

During the sixties and seventies, as a consequence of one of the forest companies not having paid taxes, their ownership titles were declared void, and their predios were turned into national lands. By law, other companies should have divided them up and disposed of them, but they evaded that commitment for decades. Some other companies divided and sold their lands to rich ranchers, who became "small landowners." In 1972, Nacional Financiera ended up buying Aserradero Bonampak.

During the same decade, there was social rebellion in Mexico, and indigenous communities in Chiapas and the Selva Lacandona expressed their agrarian discontent over the existence of landowners and "small landowners." Owing to these circumstances, the agrarian rights of the Lacandon community were recognized in 1972, and the Lacandon Community Region (CZL) was created, with 614,321 hectares and 66 Lacandon beneficiaries. In order to accomplish this, the Lacandones were relocated and concentrated in Lacanja' Chansayab who had been dispersed to Piedras Negras, Guatemala, from Tenosique, Tabasco and to the banks of the Lacantu'n, Lacanja', Tsendales, San Quinti'n and Santa Clara Rivers. In the north, the Lacandones from Monte Libano and Itzanocu' were concentrated in Metzabok and Naja'. But this agrarian recognition turned other indigenous families into illegals and invaders, including the Lacandones of Indio Pedro. This resolution left out the just agrarian demands of other primarily Tzeltal and Chol settlements.

In 1972, the Nacional Financiera sawmill began operating, which was made into the para-state company Compa~i'a Forestal de la Lacandona SA (Cofolasa) in 1974. From 1974 to 1988 it held the concession for exploiting 1,308,312 hectares of the Selva Lacandona. This company was responsible for the reduction and over-exploitation of the Selva, as well as for exhausting precious woods. However, just like its twin in Guerrero - the para-state company Forestal Vicente Guerrero (Fovig) - it set about crisscrossing the Selva with roads and breeches, in order to fight possible insurgents who were appearing in Chiapas, as had already occurred in Guerrero. CZL's existence made possible the "legal" forestry exploitation of the Selva, which purportedly "paid" for the wood as their right to the mountain.

During the seventies, the lumber business and the ranchers were disturbed by the 80 indigenous centers settled in the Selva, and, with the help of the army and the CNC, they illegally and violently dislocated them. They moved and concentrated twenty-three of these centers in two new population centers: they took the Choles to Frontera Echeverri'a (Frontera Corozal) and the Tzeltales were located in Velazco Sua'rez (Nueva Palestina). They were integrated into the CZL through a presidential resolution on 1978, which added 1452 new comuneros. Out of a population of 12,000 inhabitants, the percentages reflect the disparity: 61.97 were Tzeltales, 31.4% were Choles and only 6.28% were made up of the nucleus of 66 Lacandon families. To aggravate things further, out of the 614,321 hectares promised in the 1972 Resolution, on July 9, 1988, only 501,106 hectares had been established. The difference in hectares complicated the agrarian conflict. This new ruling favored the 1297 relocated families, and it left 2250 families unfairly and illegally without agrarian rights, who were now declared to be invaders.

Owing to agrarian demands in other areas in the country, and in response to the need for labor in oil exploration - which had begun growing - and in forest exploitation, the Department of Agrarian Reform, the Chiapas government, the PRI and the CNC began officially promoting the colonization of the national lands of Marque's de Comillas. They appealed to persons from eight states in the Republic, but primarily those from the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoaca'n and Veracruz. Each mestizo was awarded 50 hectares in Marque's de Comillas and there were 20 hectares for the indigenous in the rest of the Selva Lacandona. The power of the landowners, finqueros and ranchers, in addition to the new prospects for exploiting the Selva, prevented the resolution of the agrarian conflict. In Chiapas there were 877 unresolved agrarian inquiries, 5000 agrarian inquiries backed up and 78 unexecuted presidential Resolutions, 20 of these due to "errors" by the Department of Agrarian Reform. The "illegality" of the indigenous settlements is, thus, owing to racism and to a lack of government will to resolve them.

Among the 614,321 hectares of the 1972 presidential resolution for the Lacandon Community Region, there are 16 presidential resolutions predating the decree, in favor of the agrarian centers. In addition, another 44 new resolutions were granted subsequently. These were also found to be legal, although only on paper, since agrarian justice was not served in practice, and the agrarian conflict continued to be complicated. In this same area there are two towns with executed government mandates, 16 predios which have been requested as national lands, seven ejidos formed by solicitation of first and second extension, plus 16 villages considered to be "irregular settlements." In total there are 78 villages covering an area of 100,770 hectares of the CZL.

If we consider the Comprehensive Reserve of the Montes Azules Biosphere - decreed in 1978 with an area of 331,200 hectares - we will see that 80% of the area was decreed on the property of the Lacandon Community. In the RIBMA, there are 27 legally constituted villages, 18 villages being processed and some 15 villages considered "irregular." In total, 42 villages occupying 34% of the Reserve, that is, 113,598 hectares.

From an historical point of view - and one of legitimacy - it can be said that the various indigenous peoples who, for different reasons, have lived in the Selva Lacandona for centuries - and are still living there - even prior to the current Lacandones or Caribes themselves, have as much legal and legitimate right to the land as those who have been legally recognized, and they have much more right than the landowners and ranchers.

The current agrarian law, which is not being complied with, says that a peaceful possession, in five years in some cases, and for ten years in others, confers legal recognition on its occupants. Why then, if there is agrarian backwardness, are racist, anti-indigenous policies being enforced, dressed up as ecologist which - with the urgency of dealing "legitimately" with the "legal owners" of Montes Azules - are an attempt to justify dislocation through the use of force, echoing what some ecologists and academics are demanding?

The Failure of the Government's Programs in the Selva
By falsely accusing the indigenous communities of being the ones guilty of destroying the Selvas - because of their use of the swidden [slash and burn] system to plant and harvest their food - they are trying to conceal the wisdom and culture of the native peoples, who have, for centuries, managed and conserved the original and acahual Selvas. Along with the system of the Maya field, the practice of multi-cropping of more than 15 different products harvested in just one single hectare has been enough to feed an entire family. The building of terraces and islands, as well as hunting, fishing, gathering and plant domestication, has allowed for the processes of vegetal succession, the conservation of the Selva and its biodiversity for thousands of years, as has been demonstrated by Efrai'm Herna'ndez Xolocotzi, A'ngel Palerm and Eric Wolf.* They can then incorporate appropriate techniques, such as slash and turn, along with multiple crops in the totonaca field manner, and agro-forestry and agro-ecological systems which develop intensive agriculture. This will allow for a reduction in the agricultural area and an increase in the area of the Selva, without any need for expelling the indigenous.

Asking for the dislocation of the "indigenous invaders" covers up the ones truly guilty of destroying 70% of the Selva Lacandona over the last 40 years: private and para-state forest companies, the mistaken policies of cattle ranching in the tropics, support for chiapaneco ranchers - with draconian laws like those of former Governor Gonza'lez Garrido - and the policies which forced the leveling of land in order to achieve recognition of rights in agrarian proceedings. One example will suffice. The financing of credits for cattle and single crops for market caused crops such as chile to contribute to the Choles and Tzeltales of Corozal and Palestina of the CZL ending their forest-covered area in their corresponding parts of the Selva, even within the RIBMA itself. For this reason, both sub-communities are encouraging the expansion of their plots within Montes Azules, in the treed part which is under conservation and which is in the possession of the current Lacandones.

In the late seventies, the forestry business Triplay, of Palenque, projected that, between 1970 and 1981, more than 400,000 hectares of the Selva Lacandona had been leveled, as a result of the policies of colonization and agrarian proceedings, which forced leveling, cattle ranching and monoculture. Property owned by cattle ranchers from Tabasco and the northern states of the country expanded from Palenque and Ocosingo to the Selva.

Over the last three years, the entire Selva Lacandona (including Marque's de Comillas) has been the graveyard for all the government's programs. Economic and conservation failures from their failure to take into account the potential for the ecological use of tropical ecosystems. For thinking only of quick profits. And for their contempt towards indigenous knowledge. That is the explanation for the destruction of the Selva and for the failure of the official model for colonizing the tropics.

The failure was not due to lack of money, but to the poor use of money. For example: Funds for the Selva Lacandona went from 21 million in 1985, to more than 2 billion in 1988, to 35 billion in 1990. There was a procession of various well-intentioned programs, such as the Economic Development Program in 1975, the Trusteeship for the Selva Lacandona in 1976, the Executive Coordinating Body for the Ecological Program for the Selva Lacandona in 1978, the Inter-Departmental Commission for the Conservation of the Selva Lacandona in 1986, the Coplade Special Subcommittee for the Selva Lacandona in 1989, Sedesol's Conservation and Development of the Selva Lacandona Program in 1991. There have been 28 bodies and organizations operating in the Selva Lacandona since 1980. Where are their results and those responsible for the failures? It is clear that those responsible for the destruction of 70% of the Selva Lacandona are private initiative, erratic tropical policies and officials of the various programs, not the indigenous communities.

There is also the recent failure of the Program for Sustainable Regional Development (Proders) of the Semarnap and the Chiapas government for the Selva Lacandona (from 1995 to 2000), because they did not have results in economic restructuring, in ecological conservation and in alternative training. Their lack of influence allowed the continued growth of agricultural and fisheries border, the intensive use of technological packets with agro-chemicals which contaminate and destroy biodiversity. As for the conservation of the Selva, the Forestry Pilot Program for Marque's de Comillas (an identical copy of the Forestry Pilot Program for Quintana Roo, of the former SARH and Germany), also promoted by Semarnap, failed. Their proposal involved, with the disappearance of the Selva's precious woods, the exploitation and sale of common tropical hardwoods. Where was cultural management, diversified use and cultural and sustainable development of the Selva, decided and operated by the indigenous peoples themselves, the original owners of the lands and natural resources?

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
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