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No quick solution to deforestation in lush Chiapas

Mexico is losing nearly 3 million acres of forest and jungle each year, a study says.

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.

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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 deforestation.

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.

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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, and mudslides.

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

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 customs.

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 methods.

"Mexico's government has never concerned itself with educating these people and giving them the capacity to earn money. Without this, they cannot form a healthy society."

But the presence of the military, deployed around the jungle following the 1994 Zapatista uprising, has exacerbated tensions in recent years, and raised local mistrust of any federal efforts.

Human rights groups and indigenous leaders blame soldiers and paramilitary groups for a wide array of abuses, ranging from day-to-day harassment to the massacre of 45 Indians in Acteal village in 1997.

Villagers in places like Quexil have virtually never witnessed good government, and seem not to believe it can exist. They call their village "autonomous," and so subsist with no electricity, running water, or any sign of government at all, save the two military bases down the road to the west.

President Vicente Fox made peace with the Chiapas Indians a priority. But his peace initiative fell apart months after he took office a year ago.

Legislators so watered down the Indian Rights Bill Fox presented to Congress - specifically where it applied to land-ownership rights and self-rule - that the Zapatistas and other indigenous groups rejected it and returned to their jungle hideouts.

Many communities in the jungle also distrust the Fox administration's Plan Puebla Panama, an ambitious development program for Mexico's poor south and Central America which, according to its general outline, seeks to exploit the same lands for private investment.

It's difficult to get a read on what exactly the Fox administration has planned for the forests and jungles of Chiapas.

Government records indicate there are broad blueprints to carve paved highways through the forests and jungle, open laboratories to search for new medicines, build dams on key rivers, and open lands to petroleum exploration.

It makes some activists question the government's dedication to the environment, and worry that the restive Indian rebellion may start up anew if villagers perceive their land is to be taken away.

"You can't exploit the water, the oil, and the bioreserves without wrecking the forest," says Ryan Zinn, a biodiversity expert with the aid group Global Exchange. "Such plans might light the match to the Chiapas conflict again."

Dr. Montoya, who has reviewed a bill prepared by Fox on reforestation and rural development, says the government is trying to come up with a comprehensive plan that would push for green development, by giving poor villagers environmentally sound options for making money.

A handful of such programs exist already, and some even have private-sector backing. The Washington-based Conservation International, where Mr. March works, supports more than 600 farmers in Chiapas who are cultivating "shade-grown" coffee beneath the forest canopy. Starbucks Coffee Co., which has dedicated more than $750,000 in loans to participating farmers, is one of the private investors that buys the beans at above-market rates.

But creating similar programs for the millions of people who dwell in the endangered forests is a monumental and long-term project, far beyond the financial means of Mexico's cash-strapped government, says Montoya.

Currently, the federal government is spending annually about 2 to 3 pesos (30 cents) per person in the forest to combat deforestation, he calculates.

Many of the rare hardwoods in the jungle take 15 to 20 years to mature, meaning any successful government program would need to be sustained over such a period.

Conservation International's March agrees. "This is a race against time, and we don't have much left," he says. "This area is probably changing faster than anywhere else in the world in terms of land use. We have the next 10 to 20 years to decide if we want to save the forest for the future."