LAGUNA MIRAMAR, Mexico -- From the air, the forest looks like a green blanket tossed over a campfire. It is tattered, scorched and smoldering -- slowly being burned to bits.
The Selva Lacandona is Mexico's largest rain forest, but at least 40 percent of its original 4 million acres has been destroyed. Although commercial logging is the cause of destruction in many forests, it is not the main issue here. The remoteness and density of the Lacandona have protected much of it from the ravages of clear-cutting.
Instead, the forest is being laid waste by disenfranchised peasants who are defying environmental laws much as their forefathers rebelled against the landed aristocracy.
In their search for more arable land, residents of fast-growing villages -- known as "ejidos" -- are moving into the forest and burning trees to make room for cornfields and cow pastures. They insist that slash-and-burn agriculture is their only means of feeding their families. It's either forest or food, they say, many of them having had no land and few prospects until the government encouraged their migration to the jungle a generation ago.
About 300,000 people live in forest villages, a total likely to double in the next 20 years.
The dismemberment of the Lacandona raises a different challenge for conservation groups used to claiming the high moral ground in battles with multinational energy and timber companies.
This time, their adversaries are poor people. Not only that, they are icons of social upheaval -- the heroes of the 1994 Zapatista rebellion, which embarrassed the government while arousing international sympathy for the long-suffering peasants of southern Mexico.
Up to now, the forest has been the loser. Although soldiers are stationed throughout the region, they usually watch the fires burn, reluctant to do anything unless one gets out of control and threatens a nearby settlement.
Nowhere are the stakes higher than the Montes Azules Reserve, an 800,000-acre mountainous expanse of virgin forest not far from the Guatemalan border. It's one of the most spectacular areas of the entire forest -- but also the stronghold of the Zapatista movement.
Here, 1,200 soldiers, based in a rude stockade, look on as residents of a neighboring village -- Ejido Emiliano Zapata -- burn a new patch of forest on virtually every day that is dry enough.
The troops tend a small nursery, growing thousands of seedlings that are offered free to the villagers in hopes they will plant them to replace stately mahoganies and Spanish cedars.
So far, there has been little enthusiasm for replanting. The general's seedlings have had few takers.
Fernando Ochoa is having a little better luck.
Six years ago, the 48-year-old horticulturist from Colima, several hundred miles to the northwest, gave up a thriving greenhouse business to devote himself to preserving the forest.
Ochoa has a fighting chance because he represents neither the government nor the mainstream environmental movement, which is almost equally mistrusted. Last year, a field station run by the Washington-based Conservation International was overrun by armed peasants, who made off with equipment and supplies.
His approach is to try to persuade the locals that they can make money off the land without destroying it -- through eco-tourism. And he's realistic enough to narrow his focus to just one fragment of the Montes Azules reserve, an area known as Laguna Miramar.
Inaccessible by road, Miramar is hidden in a misty valley, bordered by a curtain of vines and creepers. The full pageantry of the Lacandona is on display: chattering birds and monkeys, 600-year-old Mayan ruins, insects that glow like neon in the dark, and orchids and giant bromeliads that crown the stems of ancient ficus trees.
Visitors pay $180 for four days of camping and exploring. Ochoa has trained locals to be guides and cooks, hoping to one day turn over the operation to them.
The residents of Ejido Zapata, which controls access to Miramar, are fond of the self-effacing Ochoa, calling him "Don Fernando" when his small plane arrives on a makeshift landing strip. But they won't easily give over the land to such an unproven enterprise. Initially, Ochoa sought to ban deforestation on 1,600 acres around the lake. Village officials would only agree to protect the 400 acres within a kilometer of the shoreline.
A blank space on 19th-century maps of Mexico, the Selva Lacandona was known as "the desert of solitude." It was an incubator of fevers and poisonous reptiles. It was also a brutal, lawless place, where timber contractors operated forced labor camps and peasant conscripts were whipped or hanged from trees if they didn't cut their day's quota of mahogany.
It wasn't until the 1970s that the government began to protect the Lacandona by creating reserves. By then, however, old logging roads had become access routes for peasants hoping to find refuge from peonage and poverty in Chiapas' northern highlands.