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An Invasion Slowly Flattens the Last Tropical Rain Forest in N. America


The carpet of uninterrupted green in southeastern Mexico that makes up the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, the last expanse of tropical forest in North America, is under attack.

Where squawking red macaw parrots, thundering waterfalls, cicadas, and pelting rains were once the dominant sounds, today chainsaws, the thwack of machetes, and the crackle of burning forest are fast-rising rivals.

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What some see as an emerald jewel to be preserved, many others covet as unused land waiting to be cleared and farmed. What casual observers see in one-to-five-acre patches, biologists studying the jungle are tallying up. They are arriving at an alarming conclusion: The Chiapas jungle is being destroyed at one of the fastest rates in the world.

The assault began as early as the 1960s, under a government plan to populate a wild and unguarded region bordering civil-war-torn Guatemala, and to develop its oil potential. It has sped up in recent years as a burgeoning population and interethnic land conflicts in the reserve's surrounding state of Chiapas have increased pressure on the 815,000 acres of "protected" tropical forest.

The Zapatista peasant rebellion that began in 1994 on the reserve's western and northern flanks caused further land-grabbing as families sought refuge from the conflict inside the reserve - an area larger than Rhode Island. "The destruction that began with large relocations and wasteful agricultural practices, I'm afraid the [Zapatista government] conflict is going to finish," says Homero Aridjis, a prominent Mexico City environmentalist.

Montes Azules is one of 10 Mexican natural reserves registered with the United Nations and eligible for funding from various international sources.

Mexican officials insist the area, exceeded only by Brazil, Colombia, and Indonesia in flora and fauna diversity, is being managed with the best interests of both local residents and broader humanity in mind.

They note that designation as an international biosphere reserve does not rule out human presence and uses, while Chiapas state officials insist the reserve is being wisely administered.

But reserve residents and experts studying changes in the region, are less positive.

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"I once thought that declaring this a reserve would be a protection, but I don't think so now," says Carmelo Cham-Bor Yuk, a leader of the Lacandon Indians who have nominal control over the Lacandon Jungle. "The invasions [by land-seekers] have gotten worse."

The Lacandon Indians number only about 700 but were even fewer when they were granted custody of 1.5 million acres of jungle by former president Luis Echeverria Alvarez in 1972. The idea that such a small tribe would be able to control such a huge expanse of territory seemed naive.

At the same time, Mexico opened the eastern flank of the Lacandona bordering Guatemala to colonies of campesinos (farmers) transplanted from as far away as the northern border state of Sonora. One idea was to guard against infiltration by Guatemalan guerrillas, but the new residents had other ideas - clearing land for cattle.

Today experts estimate that more than a quarter-million people live in the jungle and on the reserve's fringes. And a growing number are slashing their way deeper into the reserve.

From his thatched-palm garage in Lacanja, a Lacandon settlement near the Mayan ruins at Bonampak, Mr. Cham-Bor Yuk says the test of the government's resolve to halt the destruction of Montes Azules will be in the fate of a new settlement of about 15 families in the reserve's heart. Called Rancho Campo Cedro, the jungle outpost is an eight-hour horseback ride from Lacanja, and has no electricity or other services. "The government has said these families must relocate to other lands outside the reserve," says Cham-Bor Yuk, "but still they are in there burning the forest and planting corn."

It takes little imagination to picture the destruction by the settlement, since all along the reserve's eastern edge and near Bonampak, thick viney forest is giving way to struggling cornfields and pastureland.

"Between 1970 and 1993, an average of 2.14 percent of the forest cover in Chiapas was destroyed every year," says Ignacio March, director of ecological studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. Reviewing conclusions of a recent study his department completed for the US-based Nature Conservancy, he adds, "If this continues, in 48 years, there will be no forest or jungle left."

That rate tops the annual percentage of forest loss in Brazil and Indonesia, whose deforestation has caused an international outcry. Total acreage lost in Brazil - on average about the equivalent of the state of Chiapas every year - is much larger, however.

What concerns Mr. March is that while the rate of destruction in Brazil has slowed in recent years, in the larger Chiapas area the rate has accelerated since 1993. "Our aerial studies do show a difference in the Montes Azules reserve, with less destruction occurring," he says, "but there too, and especially on the fringes, we're seeing these growing patches of lost forest."

What March fears is a buildup of so much pressure from the region's booming population and deepening land conflicts between large landowners and poor campesinos, and among Chiapas's divided ethnic groups, that a "massive invasion" of land seekers will destroy the reserve.

So far that hasn't occurred, and state officials say it won't. "There have always been people living in this region, and those communities are growing," says Froilan Esquinca Cano, secretary of the Chiapas ecology and natural resources office. "But we are working to develop a respect among those residents for the reserve and in some cases a sustainable use of its resources, so that Montes Azules can be a reserve for everyone."

Chiapas is the only Mexican state to have "ecological infractions" in its penal code, including illegal cutting of trees, says Mr. Esquinca. And negotiations are continuing, he says, to move some of the reserve's inhabitants. But the priority is on "sustainable" development projects, he adds, that allow use of resources without forest destruction.

The state's governor, Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro, says the protection of Montes Azules is a priority, which is why a commission on the central issue of agricultural uses and their impact has been created.

But he adds that "we must make a difference between those who use these lands, perhaps illegally, but out of legitimate necessity to feed families," and others, like animal traffickers, for example, "whose activity is also illegal but completely unacceptable." For the former group there can be education and training for new economic activities, he says - growing and harvesting ornamental palms for export, or cultivation of new, high-density crops - while the latter "are attacking the reserve out of personal business interests."

Biologists like March, who has studied the Lacandona jungle and Montes Azules for 13 years, agree that the government, the forest's residents, and private companies are showing greater interest in preserving forests. Last month, for example, Pulsar Internacional, an agribusiness and consumer goods company in Monterrey, Mexico, announced a donation of $10 million to the Washington-based Conservation International to develop forest-friendly alternative economic activities in the Lacandona jungle.

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