The government, eager to avoid conflict between landless peasants and large property owners, encouraged thousands to emigrate to the Lacandona.
The newcomers brought with them slash-and-burn agricultural practices that had no place in a rain forest. And their presence put pressure on the tiny indigenous population -- the Lacandon Indians, Maya descendants.
Eventually the forest became a confusing checkerboard of claims, some parts owned or managed by the government, some by the Indians, some in private ranches -- and the new villages.
Today, Montes Azules is a reserve in name only. Hunting continues, reducing the jaguar population to a phantom of its former self. Macaws and other parrots keep disappearing, victims of an illegal trade that pays more than $500 for a live baby bird.
"Every year we need more land to plant beans and corn to support our families," says Lucio Mendoza Alvarez, one of the leaders of Ejido Zapata. "Besides, in our culture, it is customary to have five or six children, and we know we don't have enough land to take care of the next generation."
Planting their crops on thin jungle topsoil that runs out of nutrients after a year or two, the farmers are continually forced to push farther into the forest in search of arable land.
When the crops are finished, they graze cattle.
Today, the hills and canyons of the Lacandona are pocked with bald remnants of abandoned pastures, some eroded to bedrock.
"Somehow, we're going to have to make the point that short-term destruction of the land will only deplete resources and lead to worse impoverishment of people," says Peter Seligmann, chairman of Conservation International.
"We have to show people that, in the long run, the land will be far more valuable to them if they take care of it."
Pub Date: 8/02/97