Montes Azules has lost 300 hectares of forest this year to fire.
Credit: Mauricio Ramos
Montes Azules - Forest of Discord
By Diego Cevallos
Environmentalists are at odds about what to do with the Mexican reserve Montes Azules, an area under heavy pressure from several different conflicts, ranging from illegal logging to a guerrilla presence.
MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- Contrary arguments and assessments flow over the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve like rivers. Located in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, it brings together an explosive mix of irregular human settlements, guerrilla influences, forest logging and burning, plundering of species, international financing and opposing visions of how to manage this natural wealth.
The 331,200 hectares of Montes Azules are Mexico's center of greatest environmental conflict, and in its management the present and future challenges of other reserves around the world come into play, Julia Carabias, former Mexican environment secretary, told Tierramérica. She is one of this year's recipients of the United Nations Environment Program's Champions of the Earth award.
The area and its surroundings, the Lacandona jungle, constitute the most important humid tropical reserve in North America and the leading supplier of freshwater in Mexico. It holds most of the country's tropical trees, as well as 33 percent of its reptiles, 80 percent of butterfly species and 32 percent of birds.
''The region is plundered by foreign companies and interests linked to bioprospecting, who say the indigenous peoples living there are a bother, and so they push them out,'' Miguel Angel García, coordinator of Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste, a civil association working in the area.
But Carabias says those arguments are ''fallacious''.
They are accusations that ''use terms like biopiracy and bioprospecting, which cause a reaction, but they don't know what they're talking about,'' said the former environment secretary, now member of a non-governmental organization that runs a research station in Montes Azules, where nature reserve managers are trained.
Reserve director José Zúñiga agrees: ''There is a great deal (false or exaggerated information) about Montes Azules, while the results of the programs under way and the crude and evident realities garner little interest.''
The official told Tierramérica that in the reserve 85 percent of the tree cover remains intact and that the processes of relocation -- not displacement -- of the indigenous populations -- who he says moved to the reserve without authorization in the first place -- are running smoothly, while the research programs are regulated and conducted in a professional manner.
''There is no bioprospecting going on,'' he stressed.
Working in Montes Azules, declared a reserve in 1978 by the Mexican government, are various governmental agencies, along with a dozen NGOs, and there are research projects involving funding from the United Nations, European Union and foreign universities.
''There are very strong and unyielding viewpoints, and it is all a product of political posturing and diverse interests,'' a foreign researcher who works in the area told Tierramérica, requesting anonymity ''to avoid being attacked.''
Since the 1970s Montes Azules has withstood heavy pressures resulting from social, political and even religious problems, which are manifest in new human settlements, expanding unsustainable agriculture, and environmental destruction from fire and logging.
This year around 300 hectares of the reserve were burned when local peasant farmers lit fires to clear their plots of land.
Conflict in the area intensified in 1994 with the appearance in Chiapas of the leftist Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), led by the now famous ''Subcomandante Marcos''.
Some of the EZLN's social bases are in the Lacandona jungle, including Montes Azules, where they arrived after fleeing violence or were ordered there by EZLN leaders. But there are also indigenous peoples who oppose the Zapatistas and many have moved to the area simply looking for a plot of land to grow food for survival.
Environmentalists maintain that the pressures on the reserve and the Lacandona jungle, which together cover 500,000 hectares, are immense.
A century ago the jungle encompassed nearly two million hectares, and in that time the human population has grown from fewer than 20,000 to more than 600,000.
The reserve and the jungle area ''are losing their viability little by little,'' warned then-minister of environment Víctor Lichtinger in 2002.
Surrounded today by several military barracks that were set up following the emergence of the EZLN, the reserve also attracts interest from transnational pharmaceutical and seed producing companies.
''It also brings with it a serious and complex agrarian problem dating to the 1970s, when the government at the time handed over farmland to indigenous groups, with the only aim to plunder the timber in the forest'' they left behind, said Maderas del Pueblo's García.
According to Zúñiga, director of the reserve that until 2000 did not have an integrated management plan, there are 15,000 Chole, Lacandon, Tzeltzal, Tzotzil and Tojolabal indigenous peoples living in the area with legally recognized rights. There are also 500 people living there who are considered invaders.
He noted that thanks to negotiations with the invading indigenous groups over the past five years, half of them had left the reserve. Carabias attributed that achievement to the current environment secretary, Alberto Cárdenas.
The talks will continue in order to remove the more recent arrivals from the reserve, said Zúñiga.
As in most matters related to Montes Azules, there is no agreement on the numbers. García says that the people with recognized rights in the reserve number no more than 5,600, and that the other ''invaders'' total almost 2,000.
In his opinion, the so-called relocations of the indigenous peoples are in fact expulsions.
''There could be a reserve with people, and it could be left in their (the Indians') hands,'' said the activist. But such a model contradicts the ''concept of biosphere reserves without people and against people, which is the approach of Montes Azules and was imposed by the developed countries,'' he added.
''Now biodiversity is converted into genetic banks, of great interest to the biotechnology, agro-food, and pharmaceutical industries, and for water bottling companies,'' said García.
When asked to name who he believes to be working for those interests and conducting the bioprospecting he denounces, García responded that it is difficult to do so, ''because the transnational firms hide behind local institutions and universities.''
On the official list of the reserve's director of the work and research being carried out in Montes Azules, there are no transnationals.
Ten projects are in motion, including flower species inventories, the habitat situation in cavern areas, the impacts of ''anthropological disturbance'' on mammals, a study of the diversity of vanilla plants, and others focused on birds and hunting in the area.
The institutions conducting this work are largely Mexican, although one of the registered groups is a university from the U.S. state of California.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.