In the past few weeks, much attention in the international press has been focused on the situation in the Montes Azules Integral Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico. If one is to believe the Mexican government and certain self-described environmentalists, the indigenous families living within the boundaries of the reserve are recklessly destroying one of Mexico's last "pristine" jungle forests, both by cutting down trees and by setting fires which easily grow out of control. Although this year's dry season is quickly approaching its end, the government claims fires are spreading through the region, causing the Lacandon jungle to be destroyed at a rate three times the national average. The argument is clear: the Indians must leave so we can protect the trees.

But the situation in the Montes Azules biosphere - a region which covers nearly half of the Lacandon jungle in southeast Chiapas - is not so simple.

Within the preserve itself there are hundreds of indigenous families living in dozens of communities, most of them established within the last fifty years. Many are sympathetic to opposition political parties and/or the Zapatistas, a group of Indigenous rebels struggling for land reform, democracy and respect for native culture. Using the threat of fires as a pretext, the federal government has attempted for several months to force most of these communities to relocate.

Hoping for a negotiated settlement of the issue, 506 of the families proposed to move out of the biosphere, provided that the government guaranteed support for the construction of new homes and the provision of services and other supports for the new communities. In return, they asked the government to legalize the status of seven other communities that wished to remain within Montes Azules. These latter communities even made a pledge not to burn their land before planting, in order to reduce the risk of starting forest fires. Their proposal was rejected by the state and federal governments.

The families proceeded with their plan anyway. Five communities have since moved out of the reserve; seven have remained, and have honored their promise not to start fires (this has even been acknowledged by Mexico's Environment Secretary, Julia Carabias). But the families which accepted relocation have received absolutely nothing from the government, and are threatening to return to their old communities if their demands are not met.

There is an historical precedent to the current situation in Montes Azules.

In 1972, PRI President Luis Echeverri'a issued a decree granting 660,000 hectares (about 2400 square miles) of the Lacandon jungle in extreme eastern Chiapas to just sixty-six families of the reclusive Lacandon Maya. Included in the land transferred to the Lacandones were four thousand Chol and Tzeltal families who were abruptly told to pack up and move out ñ so that the federal "managers" of the forest could harvest precious timber on the land belonging exclusively to the "Lacandon community."

Nearly thirty years later, history is basically repeating itself. Many of the families now under threat of displacement were actually forced into their current homes during the relocation process of the 1970s. After being moved once in order to allow greater exploitation of the forest, now they are being moved again - supposedly to save it.

But the environmental argument breaks apart upon examination. It turns out there has only been one significant forest fire in the entire Montes Azules preserve during the current dry season, and that fire was extinguished within two days. The current fires in the region are occurring either on agricultural land as contained burns, or outside Montes Azules altogether.

Furthermore, while it may be true that the Lacandon jungle is disappearing at a rate three times faster than the national average, it is important to identify who the real culprits are: logging companies, ranchers, and the Federal Army. For years, indigenous farmers have been prohibited from cutting down a single tree in the biosphere; while the government has made a killing out of the logging of entire groves of mahogany and cedar throughout the Lacandon jungle. In fact, the recent moves to expel indigenous communities from Montes Azules began only after representatives of the state government attempted unsuccessfully to secure the support of local communities in a plan to log even more precious timber from the area.

Finally, the hypocrisy of the government's professed "environmentalism" is revealed with just a rudimentary comparison between its discourse in Chiapas and its actions in Guerrero, where those who work for forest preservation are routinely assassinated or imprisoned. (The most recent example is that of Vi'ctor Arreola Barrientos, president of the Ejido Commission in Atoyac and an outspoken defender of forests along the Costa Grande. Arreola was murdered recently by paramilitary assailants who shot him 45 times at close range. In addition, environmental activists Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera Garcia languish in jail.)

The Mexican government has no interest in protecting the environment. Rather, the most likely reason for the government's attempt to displace the thousands of men, women, and children within Montes Azules is as simple as it is cynical: counterinsurgency.

In past weeks, most of the PRI-affiliated families within Montes Azules have accepted "voluntary relocation." Of the families who remain and are still under threat of forced displacement, a majority are Zapatista bases of support or sympathizers. By expelling these families (presumably through the deployment of the Federal Preventative Police, PFP), the Mexican government hopes to simultaneously accomplish three major goals:

1- Deliver a blow to the Zapatista bases of support in the jungle. It is an attempt to strike at the morale and endurance of the civilian supporters of the rebels (this is a rather basic counterinsurgency technique). Particularly hard-hit would be the refugees who have been given shelter by communities in the biosphere and would now be forced out.

2- Create a public relations victory by confusing the public about the true situation in Montes Azules, successfully painting the indigenous communities as the destroyers of the environment. This could have an effect on attempts to bring middle-class environmentalists and other greens into the solidarity movement at an international level.

3- Complete the full encirclement of Zapatista positions and communities in the jungle. Montes Azules is the only area around important Zapatista territory still not considered "militarized." The process to close the hole began last August with the military occupation of Amador Herna'ndez, which constitutes the western entry-point to Montes Azules. With Montes Azules under Army control, and Zapatista bases of support within the region pushed back out to the west, Zapatista troops would presumably be left with nowhere to hide - and nowhere to run. If attacked, they would be forced to either stand their ground or surrender. (The reader should keep in mind that following the February 1995 military offensive against the Zapatistas, the latter chose not to return fire, and instead retreated into the relative safety of Montes Azules).

4- Create a pretext for disrupting state elections scheduled for Chiapas on August 20. Unprecedented numbers of Zapatista supporters are registering to vote, to the point where the Federal Election Institute is establishing over 100 new polling places in the jungle area. The ruling PRI is in danger of losing both the Presidency and the Chiapas Governor's races. The disruption of these communities may just be a pretext to prevent thousands of opposition voters from participating in the democratic process. This is one of the reasons that the Zapatistas began their rebellion in the first place.

The problem in Montes Azules has very little to do with trees. It is about forcing people off their land in order to establish better strategic posturing in preparation for war. The Mexican government's "environmentalism" in Chiapas is a farce.

Mexico Solidarity Network (

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