Sacrificing The Forest: Environmental And Social Struggle In Chiapas

Sacrificing The Forest: Environmental And Social Struggles In Chiapas
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Fifteen years later, around , hectares of forest had been lost O'Brien The government, trying to regain control over the forest and stop the expansion of the agricultural frontier, implemented several regulations. Due to the neoliberalization of environmental governance in Mexico, the government facilitates the use of land for exclusionary protection and natural resource exploitation by private actors including investors, conservation organizations, agricultural and tourist industries Rocheleau As a result, evictions and land grabs have been reported in LR since the s Durand ; Rocheleau Reactions from those directly affected are complex and varied.

Conservation policies have changed the cultural, economic and political dynamics of LR communities.

People have been relocated and lost access to part of their lands, some communities became illegal settlements after PA creation, traditional 2 According to Van der Ploeg peasants are smallholders, usually poor who orient their production to self- provisioning. The struggle for autonomy and the construction of a self-governed resource base that allows for co-production also characterize the peasantry in the 21st century. Journal of Political Ecology Vol. However, little is known about how people mobilize their identities, even though identity is a key factor that shapes reactions "from below" to the enclosure of natural resources Hall et al.

The aim of this article is to understand how indigenous inhabitants of the Comunidad Zona Lacandona Lacandon Community, LC in the LR, a big part of the MABR, comprehend, incorporate and reconfigure conservation discourses and practices, and how their identities are continually reformulated in this process, in order to take advantage of the opportunities that conservation offers, while simultaneously maintaining their autonomy and control over their lives Porro et al.

To show how identities are constituted through struggles over nature and natural resources, and how the discourse and practice of conservation influence social difference, I adopt a political ecology perspective by placing attention on power relations in what Sundberg , as explained below, calls "conservation encounters. Lacandon Rainforest Region. Protected Areas: 1. Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

Bonampak Natural Monument. Lacantun Biosphere Reserve. Metzabok Flora and Fauna Protection Area. Communities: A. Nueva Palestina, B.

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San Javier, D. Frontera Corozal.

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La Democracia. Agua Azul. Source: Durand et al. Lacandons were semi-nomadic and lived in small family groups called caribales; with a Journal of Political Ecology Vol. By the mid 20th century, the LR still was a vast forest and uninhabited area, but surrounding it, Tzeltal and Chol indigenous people took land.

Tzeltals came to the LR mainly from adjacent municipalities such as Ocosingo, Altamirano and Las Margaritas, where large landholdings or fincas owned by powerful mestizo families from Chiapas began to drive the change from subsistence farming, based on coffee and maize, to extensive cattle-ranching, an activity which demands a smaller workforce Ascencio Franco ; Paladino Influential mestizo peasants created new ejidos on those lands, displacing Chols from the area Paladino Indigenous families expelled from the fincas were pushed to the LR by the government, which opened unsettled lands to peasants and encouraged cattle ranching as an option to transform the unproductive virgin forest into profitable pasture lands Ascencio Franco ; de Vos ; Paladino Deforestation was also hastened by forest companies like Maderera Maya, founded in de Vos The Tzeltal and Chol settlers who founded the communities of Nueva Palestina and Frontera Corozal, where this study was conducted, arrived to the LR between and , while the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab was established in when Philip Baer, a missionary of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, brought together some Lacandon family groups that lived in the area Trench By overlooking the intricate history of the recent colonization of LR, biodiversity conservation, as a narrative, tends to produce simplified images of indigenous people Brosius ; Escobar ; Milton ; Nygren Even though Lacandons did not inhabit the area in pre-Hispanic times, they are seen as the last survivors of the ancient Mayas, and have become a sort of "ecological noble savage.

In contrast Chols, Tzeltals and Tzotzils who occupied vacant lands in LR decades ago, are regarded as trespassers and destroyers Trench , a; de Vos Within the indigenous world in Mexico there are great differences, [some] groups have acted coherently, such as the Lacandons, who have always been few, who use the ecosystem well.

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But there are other groups, Tzeltzals and Tzotzils, who reproduce differently, use the environment differently and will eliminate the Lacandons, by absorbing them genetically, or doing away with them, just because they need land. The production of these images has concrete effects: Lacandons receive most of the available funding for conservation, as well as most other economic benefits resulting from protected areas, and their opinions regarding the rainforest are viewed as authoritative.

Meanwhile, the rest of the indigenous groups occupy a subordinate position Rocheleau ; Trench a; Villalobos Cavazos Stereotyped images assign coherent and stable identities, ignoring heterogeneity within social groups, and they fail to consider all the practices, interactions, conflicts and alliances that are created through conservation projects, which constantly challenge and transform the way people perceive themselves and others.

Therefore, identity construction is an iterative and continuous process through which individuals and 3 A milpa is a traditional productive system in which maize is cultivated simultaneously with other crops such as beans, squash and peppers. February To overcome the idea of identity as fixed attribute, I use the idea of identity proposed by Tania Li , for whom it is a positioning resulting from an ongoing process of meaning and historically sedimented practices in specific geographic areas.

Identity is produced in specific contexts of social interaction and dispute, through which people assume and transform their positions regarding nation, government, region, environment, community and themselves; recognizing differences and finding ways to negotiate and transform their condition in contexts of differential power Li ; Porro et al. Indigenous and mestizo peasants, merchants, cattlemen, tourism operators, tourists, urban inhabitants, academics, environmentalists, NGOs, government agents, among others, coexist in LR.

According to Sundberg , the presence of all these actors makes it possible to consider conservation as a place of interaction between individuals and groups with very different historical backgrounds, cultural nuances and power resources, creating what she calls "conservation encounters. Conservation encounters are specific places of social interaction where discourses and practices reconfigure power relations and subjects' positions and, therefore, identities Fearon ; Sundberg ; Vadjunec et al.

Power in conservation encounters is the capacity to act within social structures that both allow and restrict human agency.

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As individuals and groups take part in social relations by mobilizing their identity and other resources, they reshape, transform and reproduce the web of power Reik et al. Conservation encounters place our attention on a wider social space considering not only how people react to conservation, but also how social and environmental formations are transformed through conservation Sundberg The LC decree created deep conflicts over land, because several Tzeltal and Chol communities settled there became illegal occupants when the area was given to the Lacandons de Vos ; Trench a.

In the following years, the land rights of some communities were restored, but those that could not demonstrate land ownership acceded to relocation into two new settlements which became, in , sub-communities of the LC: Nueva Palestina, that grouped Tzeltal families coming from 15 villages, and Frontera Corozal, where Chol families from 8 villages were concentrated de Vos The total number of founding members with land rights as "comuneros" in LC was 1, in Nearby communities had invaded the lands of LC, members of the LC were also invading MABR's restricted areas, and discontent among peasants without land rights was increasing.


Simultaneously, the CONANP was trying to get LC approval to update the MABR management plan INE , and various government agencies and NGOs were discouraging the extensive cattle farming and slash-and-burn practices for maize cultivation, proposing 5 Comunidades agrarias and ejidos are collective forms of land tenure in Mexico created by the State as part of the post- revolutionary land reform. The former are lands that were historically occupied by indigenous communities and that were recognised or restituted to them by the State, whereas the latter are land grants given by the government to groups of peasants.

In this article, after describing the social context of the LR and the LC, three ethnographic situations are presented to illustrate identity transformations in LR conservation encounters. The first situation describes how Lacandons, Chols and Tzeltals assume their cultural differences and adopt a position in relation to non- indigenous actors. The second illustrates the way in which Chol and Tzeltal inhabitants assume the role of "rainforest guardians", a tag created and imposed by authorities, and how they negotiate with this component of their identity to obtain benefits from national and international interest in LR preservation.

Finally, the third situation shows how a new generation of Chol indigenous peasants, offspring of LC community founding members, detach themselves from their parents' identity and practices to create their own, only to find access to land and economic resources monopolized by both their parents and the MABR. Context and creation of conservation encounters in MABR The conservation movement became relevant in Mexico in the s, and after signing the Rio Earth Summit agreements in the country assumed some new responsibilities Lezama However, in Mexico, PA decrees do not alter previous land tenure and people can continue to live inside of certain zones of the protected areas.

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By , 5. Between and , other federal protected areas were created 6, and the area dedicated to conservation in the region reached , hectares. Some The LC and MABR implementation, which involved the creation of new villages, the relocation of population and restrictions regarding natural resource use, shaped a scenario with many disputes about land ownership and conflicts between different ways of interacting and comprehending the rainforest.

Cattle-ranching is central to the local economy, being the main productive practice in Nueva Palestina and Frontera Corozal, as well as subsistence farming maize, pepper and beans. In these three sub-communities, the mostly illegal harvest and sale of Xate palm Chameadorea sp. Ethnographic situations First situation: rainforest guardians or "we are not kaxlanes" Chols, Lacandons and Tzeltals that live in LC recognize themselves as different from each other, even though they share the same territory.

Chols and Tzeltals believe Lacandons have 'another way of thinking' because of their small populations and the fact that they have lived in the forest for centuries. In their view, the Lacandons have a lot of rainforest because "they occupy the land but don't abuse it" and because"they practice ecotourism" and "are closer to nature.

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In Frontera Corozal it's the same as in Palestina. One Lacandon mentioned that "Tzeltals and Chols think very differently. They have another vision. If they thought like Lacandons, they wouldn't bring in so much cattle farming…We [Lacandons] are the only ethnic group that doesn't raise cattle.

With that money, a Tzeltal peasant explained, Lacandons finance conservation projects in their communities, but also support themselves: We don't know, but we have heard, that they the Lacandons get support… for not cutting down the rainforest. We believe that, because how can a human being live without eating, without food? They have food, they have everything, and they even have cars, where did they get it? We think they get support… Chols work; they have cattle and milpas, but the Lacandons don't have milpas or cattle ranches or anything.

They get by because of the money, that's how they survive… because without money you can't buy anything. They buy their maize, they buy and buy whatever they want.

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They live easy lives, they come here to visit, to buy, but what about us? We must work very hard…9 For Frontera Corozal and Nueva Palestina inhabitants, the Lacandons' work is keeping the forest for tourists and, in fact, the Lacandon people explain their role similarly. One Lacandon peasant told me that "the rainforest brings us tourists; they come to see the nature and don't want to see cattle ranches.

They want to see animals, the toucan, not to see corrals. If there's no more jungle, tourists won't come. I wish the other indigenous people understood, we live off tourism, all of us live from tourism…"10 Chols and Tzeltals know that the big extensions of forest that Lacandons own grant them more legitimacy in the eyes of the government, because the rainforest is currently a valuable resource treasured by powerful agents such as NGOs, academics, environmentalists, public officials and government agencies.

This allows the Lacandons to establish close links with local and federal authorities who, at the same time, re-create and reinforce the dominant image of Lacandons as nature stewards. The Lacandon people who live the old way, on their scattered parcels of land… and obviously, from an environmental point of view, they don't affect the jungle because they are not aggressive. Nueva Palestina, October Lacandons have two kids per family and that's it, and they [Tzeltals] are like rabbits, they have all the children they can…11 Through these narratives, it is possible to observe the colonial legacy that remains in conservation practices in Mexico Adams Based on a clear distinction between natural and social issues, a hierarchy of inhabitants is produced from a romantic interpretation of nature as a harmonious space perturbed by human presence and by situating some ethnic groups closer to nature than others.

The agreement gave Lacandons great power in defining the LC agenda, guiding discussion and negotiation, and influencing final agreements Tejeda Cruz This document explains that this measure was adopted to defend the interests of Lacandons as a minority but, in fact, contributed to creating a long-lasting alliance between federal and local authorities and the Lacandon people. This alliance facilitated government negotiations with the LC for decades. A high officer of PROFEPA with much experience working in the area explained that "it is very easy, in terms of conservation and the environment, to come to agreements and negotiate with the Lacandons, they have their style and their ways, but it is much easier than with Palestinos Tzeltals who are very difficult, or with Chols.

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The lack of ecological and archaeological interest in their lands gives Nueva Palestina inhabitants less cultural and material resources to insert themselves into conservation. They have a clear disadvantage compared with Lacandons, who frequently appear, with their exotic aura, in TV commercials and ads promoting the state of Chiapas, using their identity in strategic ways Trench Some studies report the existence of substantive ecological knowledge between Palestinos Paladino but they are known basically as cattlemen and criticized for their preference for extensive cattle ranching, a productive practice strongly rejected by environmentalists because of its low productivity and the deforestation it produces.

One of the public officials interviewed explained that "every Tzeltal wants to be a cattle rancher. Chols, on the contrary, are comprehended to be more reasonable. In general, people say they think more clearly and produce less deforestation in their lands Ascencio Franco ; de Vos Chol people think more, they analyse, they are more analytical, you know? Tuxtla Gutierrez, In contrast, the Tzeltals are quick, and they are quick to get angry, but they are easier to convince. Chols, Lacandons and Tzeltals conceive and view themselves as different, but they act together in response to perceived outside threats.

LC inhabitants distinguish clearly between the LR indigenous people and white people, kaxlanes in Maya, be they environmentalists, academics, government officials or entrepreneurs with an interest in their lands and resources. For example, when describing some LC land invasion conflicts that occurred between and , one interviewee remembered the train of thought he had during the negotiation with one of the invading indigenous groups from a neighboring village: …we see each other as enemies on both sides; you said you were going to kill us… but if you kill us, we will kill you, too.

Look what we say to each other, but we are of the same blood, we are not like the kaxlanes, that have studies, professions, they can live in cities, but even if we fight for our children, to send them to school, sometimes we can't because we lack the resources. The only place we can live is in our mother land because there's nothing else to fill our stomachs.

Because, if we don't work, what are we going to live on? A peasant in Nueva Palestina told me that "they used to call it a national park…they called it a reserve because it was useful for the future, the reserve was really useful… and they told us that the government put us here as care-takers, as guardians. That's what they called us…" 16 While Lacandons take advantage of their image as people who lives in balance with the rainforest Trench , Nueva Palestina and Frontera Corozal inhabitants' contest dominant representations arguing that they take care of the rainforest as much as Lancandons do.