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A Broken Bridge to the Jungle: The California-Chiapas Climate Agreement Opens Old Wounds

By Jeff Conant, Communications Director at Global Justice Ecology Project

Photo: Jeff Conant

When photographer Orin Langelle and I visited Chiapas over the last two weeks of March, signs of conflict and concern were everywhere, amidst a complex web of economic development projects being imposed on campesino and indigenous communities without any semblance of free, prior, and informed consent. Among these projects is a renewed government effort to delimit Natural Protected Areas within the Lacandon Jungle, in order to generate carbon credits to be sold to California companies. This effort, it turns out, coincides with a long history of conflicting interests over land, and counterinsurgency campaigns aimed at the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), as well as other allied or sympathetic indigenous and campesino groups.

California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, AB32, mandates targeted Greenhouse Gas reductions statewide. An important component of AB32 is its controversial reliance on market mechanisms, such as cap-and-trade, which will allow California companies to buy offset credits from participating domestic and foreign agencies. The cap and trade provision of AB32 hit a major roadblock a few weeks ago, when the San Francisco Superior Court ruled that the California Air Resources Board violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by not fully evaluating alternatives to the cap-and-trade system in the 2006 law. This is a significant sign of opposition to market-based climate solutions in California; but the local impacts in California are but one side of a global equation.

Bonampak. Photo: Jeff Conant

When Governor Schwarzenegger signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the states of Chiapas, Mexico and Acre, Brazil last November, to establish the world’s first sub national cap and trade agreement to use the emerging mechanism known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), he set in motion a process that critics see as leading to potential land grabs in Chiapas and Acre, as well as continuing industrial contamination in California.

REDD, in Brief

The U.N. defines REDD as “a mechanism to create an incentive for developing countries to protect, better manage and wisely use their forest resources, contributing to the global fight against climate change. REDD strategies aim to make forests more valuable standing than they would be cut down, by creating a financial value for the carbon stored in trees.” On its face, the idea of “reducing emissions from deforestation” sounds good, especially given that 15 to 25 percent of global CO2 emissions are linked to forest loss. But while the major multilateral institutions, including the UN, the World Bank, and many large environmental organizations, support REDD, many forest-dependent communities, environmental justice advocates, Indigenous Peoples organizations, and global South social movements see REDD as a way for industries in the North to continue polluting, and for forest communities in the Global South to be evicted from or denied access to their lands.

A policy brief from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on the application of REDD in Mexico notes that “there are a number of problems for which solutions need to be found if [the REDD] mechanism is to achieve its potential. One of these is linked to local difficulties, both in terms of policy integration and application in communities.” Indeed, that is precisely the concern: while the overall concept may be appealing (assuming that creating a market value for non-market commodities like air, carbon dioxide, and forests is not inherently problematic), its application in real-world communities brings many real-world problems.

Welcome to Zapatista territory. Photo: Jeff Conant

The Tangled History of The Lacandon Community Zone

The Lacandon Jungle is the northernmost intact rainforest in Mesoamerica, sitting in a remote region of Chiapas, directly bordering Guatemala. The region is marked by a long and complex history of conflicts over land rights, including a long history of settlement by migrating indigenous and non-indigenous populations, as well as many cases of indigenous peoples being forcibly removed from territories they see as their home. Key to understanding the conflict in the region, however, is the story of the historic construction known as “the Lacandon Community”.

For centuries following the collapse of classic Mayan civilization around 900 A.D., the Lacandon jungle – a montane rainforest marked by rugged terrain, snaking turquoise rivers and limitless biodiversity – was largely inaccessible, and too remote to draw much attention from the outside. The original inhabitants, relatives of the Chontal Maya, had been responsible for building the great temples of the region, but were virtually wiped out during the first centuries of the conquest. At the end of the 18th-century, however, a group of indigenous Caribes migrated into the Lacandon from Campeche, northeast of Chiapas. In the course of the 20th century, many other people began to settle there, including colonists, encouraged by government programs to open the jungle, and wave after wave of indigenous peoples escaping from the fincas – the large plantations where they’d been held in indentured servitude for generations.

By the late 1960’s, there were an estimated 30,000 people living in isolated settlements in the Lacandon. This population explosion led to land-related conflicts and an increasing pressure on the rainforest. To halt the migration, the government decided in 1971 to declare a large part of the forest (614,000 hectares) a protected area: the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. As tenants and guardians of the area, they appointed the Caribe tribe, erroneously understood to be the region’s original inhabitants, and now designated, by government fiat, as “Lacandones”. At the time, the Lacandon, neé-Caribe, tribe consisted of sixty-six families. These families, along with a few settlements of Tzeltal and Ch’ol settlers, became the new owners of the territory, officially designated “the Lacandon Community.” In order to designate the Lacandon Community, 2000 Tzeltal and Ch’ol families from 26 communities had to be displaced.

These evictions, and the government programs that followed, led to a state of constant tension between the Lacandon Community and the rest of the region’s inhabitants. Several campesino organizations formed throughout the 1970’s to demand redress; among them was an organization called Quiptic ta lecubtesel, whose rallying cry was “No a la brecha Lacandona!,” or, No to the Lacandon border – a specific reference to efforts to demarcate the disputed territory that had been given to the Lacandon Community.

In Amador Hernandez. Photo: Jeff Conant

It was into this jungle of tensions that several militants from northern Mexico arrived in the early ‘eighties, to begin forming what would become the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). On January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, an armed insurgency broke out, led by the EZLN. The Zapatista movement, “the first Postmodern revolution,” as it became known, brought the world’s attention to the region, and helped spark what would soon be called the “anti-globalization movement” worldwide.

But, while the Zapatistas gained a lot of attention (waning in recent years) due to their strategic use of symbols and their expert handling of communications, few are aware that the Zapatista organization represents the first and only time that six of the seven ethnic groups in Chiapas (all but the Caribe/Lacandon tribe) have united under a common banner – that of opposition to the “brecha lacandona.” Indeed, as often as the Zapatista story has been told, few people outside of Chiapas are aware that this movement, which seemed to appear as if out of nowhere, grew out of the long history of resistance, but specifically out of the indigenous peasant organization Quiptic ta lecubtesel. In this sense, since the very beginning, the Chiapas conflict has been the result of an arbitrary “forest protection” scheme.

While Zapatista communities, like peasant farmers throughout the world, practice a form of swidden agriculture based on opening productive spaces in the forest to plant maize and beans,  they have, since the beginning of their uprising, maintained a strong stance on protecting the jungle from neoliberal development—especially cattle ranching, illegal logging of precious hardwoods like mahogany, expansion of military installations, and exploitation of the eight unexplored oil reserves in the jungle. Perhaps more to the point, the history of Chiapas, like the history of most of the “New World,” is built on successive waves of resource extraction: hardwoods, medicines, and rubber, followed by sugar, coffee, cattle, and petroleum – all of which have done immeasurable damage to the jungle ecosystem. The cheap labor force that allowed this exploitation to occur was provided, in Chiapas, by Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Ch’ol, and Tojolabal indigenous people who were virtually enslaved for centuries to work as peones on the haciendas and latifundios that formed the basis of the New World economy. The communities that make up most of the Zapatista support base, and most of the population of the jungle region of Chiapas – those who are today being expelled yet again from the only lands available to them – are the direct descendents of these enslaved people.

Photo: Jeff Conant

The Lacandon Today

In the forty years since the Lacandon Community was established, the Mexican government has been unable to demarcate the Lacandon Border, despite many attempts. Many of these attempts have involved military efforts by the government of Chiapas to remove settlers, and specifically Zapatista-aligned communities, from the territory of the Lacandon Community and the Montes Azules Reserve. On October 18, 2000, then-President Zedillo expropriated 3.5 hectares of the ejido Amador Hernández, a Zapatista-aligned community located precisely on the border of the Reserve, to build new military installations. On July, 4, 2004, the government moved families from the community of San Francisco El Caracol, in the Montes Azules Reserve, to a “new population center” called Santa Martha, in the municipality of Marqués de Comillas. On January 23, 2005, 160 Tzeltal families were displaced from Montes Azules to the pre-planned community of Nuevo Montes Azules, near Palenque. On November 13, 2006, hundreds of armed peasants from the Lacandon Community reportedly attacked seventeen families living in the village of Viejo Velasco Suárez, leaving 4 people dead (including a pregnant woman) and 4 people disappeared, in what entered local mythology as the Massacre of Viejo Velasco. On August 18, 2007, a joint police and military operation evicted 39 families from the communities of Buen Samaritano and San Manuel, also in Montes Azules.

Now, with the promise of financing under REDD, work is underway again to delineate the “brecha lacandona”. While there are many other potential sites for REDD-related projects throughout Chiapas and throughout Mexico, all worth keeping a close eye on, the historic tensions in the Lacandon region make the reopening of la brecha lacandona a case of particular concern.

As I traveled with my colleague Orin Langelle throughout the region over the past two weeks, signs of la brecha were legion. On March 19, Juan Francisco Leo Durán, a federal government topographer with the Secretary of Agrarian Reform working at the archeological zone of Bonampak, told me that the demarcation was nearing completion, with all but 80 kilometers left to delineate.

A Lacandon jungle reserve. Photo: Jeff Conant

“That 80 km,” he said, “lies in the region of the cañadas, where the EZLN communities are.”

The next day, on March 20, the Governor of Chiapas, Juan Sabines, paid a high profile visit to Frontera Corazal, a population center of the Lacandon Community, to deliver the first REDD payment of 2000 pesos to each landholder, and to stage a photo opp. Mexican newspaper La Jornada reported that this was the first visit of a governor to the community of eleven thousand people, mostly indigenous Ch’oles, since Sabines’s father, a former governor, paid a visit in 1980. In the La Jornada article, based on a press release from the State government, Governor Sabines is quoted as saying, “After thirty years, we are here to respond to the needs of Frontera Corozal, and we are doing it by way of this program, REDD +, that we have initiated in the seven reserves of the Lacandon jungle.”

“Before eleven thousand inhabitants,” the article says, “Juan Sabines Guerrero made it clear that payment for environmental services is a project in support of life, and that their children and their grandchildren will thank them, because from this they will live; they’ll receive money to care for the forest.”

The article concludes, “The State government authorized a monthly payment; however, this is merely to allow the completion of the forest inventory so that [members of the Lacandon Community] can access federal and international funds, as well as complement these funds with projects like agricultural conversion outside the reserve with species such as oil palm and rubber.”

While the members of the Lacandon Community are the beneficiaries of both the monthly REDD payment and access to vast territory, such benefits come at a high cost. In the words of Miguel Angél García, Coordinator of the  Chiapan NGO Maderas del Pueblo, “Of all the ethnic groups in Chiapas, the one that has suffered the greatest abuse of their rights are the Lacandones; they’ve been robbed of their history, of their identity, and of their dignity, and they’ve been turned into walking folkloric entities. There’s nothing worse than that.”

Further, García explains, the monthly payments for forest protection go to only about 600 landholders; as the next generation comes up with no possibility of planting to feed their families, and with no options for employment besides tourism and managing plantations of African palm, what it means for the Lacandon culture is all too clear.

In Amador Hernandez. Photo: Jeff Conant

Amador Hernández: A Village on the Edge

On March 23, I traveled with photographer Orin Langelle and two local videographers to Amador Hernández, a village of about 1500 people that lies on the border of the Lacandon Community – and the site of the previously mentioned expropriation of land, as well as a site of intense military interest during the hot years of the Zapatista uprising in the late ‘nineties. On arrival, we learned that the community had received a government advisory just a few days previous, announcing that a demarcation team would come through soon. Residents of Amador Hernández told me that their best planting land lay within the Lacandon Community, and that without it they would be unable to grow enough food to support themselves. They also said that, a year earlier, all medical services, including vaccinations, had been cut off to the community, in what they believed was an attempt to force them to move or negotiate. Several elderly people and children had died due to lack of medical attention. It turned out that this village, and a few small outlying settlements, were the only communities left that had not capitulated to the brecha Lacandona.

At the same time, those communities that had negotiated for resettlement, were beginning to protest that the terms of their resettlement were hostile and abusive. The day before we arrived in Amador Hernández, on March 22, the residents of Nuevo Montes Azules issued a public denouncement condemning the conditions of their resettlement. In their statement, they say:

“On February 4, 2005, seven communities that were located in the Lacandon Jungle, in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, were relocated in the municipality of Palenque. We accepted the offer of relocation due to the fact that, in the process of negotiations, the government of the state of Chiapas assured us that the lands we would be given were in perfect state, that our land title was assured, that the houses were well-constructed, that our electricity would be subsidized, that we would receive good educational and health services, potable drinking water, and modern systems of sewage and drainage. They offered us a dream, but they gave us a nightmare. As we were moved to the new location, we were threatened that if we returned to our former home in the jungle, we would be arrested and taken to jail; those who refused to leave were forcibly removed.”

The denuncia goes on to describe the living conditions in Nuevo Montes Azules: “We live in utter abandonment, with grave health problems and insecurity. Our houses are too small for our families, they have no foundations, the roofs are badly built, and the walls are collapsing due to the poor construction. When there is wind, our houses tremble.” The water and sanitation systems have failed, there are neither medicines nor medical personnel in the health center, and the land is too compacted to grow anything. When it rains, the land floods, and further deteriorates the houses.

To the residents of Amador Hernández, resisting the brecha Lacandona means refusing to accept the nightmare of Nuevo Montes Azules.

African palm plantation, Marques de Comillas, Chiapas. Photo: Jeff Conant

The Broader Context of Economic Development in Chiapas

Many NGOs in Chiapas support REDD, while many more criticize and resist the program. Of those who support it, with whom I was able to talk, there was agreement that any REDD program would have to be developed slowly, with community engagement and participation.

“There is no REDD project currently in operation in Chiapas,” a representative of the Mexican NGO Pronatura told me. The Chiapas office of Conservation International, on the other hand, said they are working on REDD-related project in the southern Sierra Madre, in the coffee-rich areas around the National Park El Triunfo, which the global conservation group manages. When asked about the government REDD program, those I spoke with generally refused to comment, or indicated that the government was moving ahead with its own REDD program, and that this would surely be a topic for discussion in upcoming meetings.

Whatever the case with REDD itself – which, even its proponents agree, is a vanishingly complex set of policy initiatives that must be handled with great care – delineating forest reserves in Chiapas in order to place them into the carbon market is pouring salt in old wounds. Further, the growth of carbon-sequestration projects in Chiapas can only be understood as part of a massive wave of economic development that is sweeping the state and the region, accompanied by displacement, conflict, and deepening marginalization.

Among these intertwined developments are the rapid expansion of African palm and Jatropha plantations for biofuel production (Governor Sabines made the first biofuel-powered flight from Mexico City to Chiapas on Friday, April 1), numerous dams and mining concessions, and the dubious resettlement centers known as “sustainable rural cities”.  These so-called sustainable cities include sixteen pre-fabricated housing developments planned precisely at the locations of strategic resource extraction and land conversion (with the sad case of Nuevo Montes Azules considered to be the first trial effort, followed by two more UN-backed efforts, Nuevo Juan Grijalva and Santiago El Pinar). Also under development is an effort to further exploit the Mayan history of the state for tourism; a superhighway under construction designed to link major tourist centers and Mayan archeological zones has led to violent conflicts in the communities of Mitzitón and Bachajón, where several people have been killed and hundreds arrested for attempting to block the development. All of these development projects run roughshod over autonomous indigenous territories.

"Rural city: Santiago El Pinar" Photo: Jeff Conant

Two decades after the Zapatistas put Chiapas on the global map of resistance, the region is again coming to represent all of the conflicts and tensions of arbitrary economic development. Such development – turning land, life, and livelihoods into market commodities for the benefit of global elites – continues to be antithetical to the needs and desires, indeed, to the cosmovision, of most of the residents of this, Mexico’s poorest and most indigenous state.

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