Their footprints mark the trails beneath the pines, oaks and oyamels. Once a week, 10 men walk through here with machetes on their shoulders, flashlights and jute bags of food, to defend a piece of the 594,000-hectare communal forest that makes up the Chimalapas.

They are young people who inherited the management of this woodland, which for them is life. They stand up for it every day. They go out on patrol in the dark, before the first rays of the sun reach them, and return when it has already gone down.

Mauro Vásquez leads the weekly treks, part of a 45-year legacy to protect the forests of this area. He knows these parts of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca very well. He began accompanying his father and grandfather in the woods when he was eight years old. He remembers how as a child he admired the songs of the birds, especially that of the quetzal, a colorful sacred symbol of the dominant Mayan culture here. “If we don’t take care of it, the forest will be destroyed,” says the young father.

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Mauro Vásquez is a Zoque community member who has headed the community brigades for a decade, making weekly rounds to protect the territory. Photo: Diana Manzo.

Owing to mountainous terrain and southerly location, Oaxaca is the state with the most biodiversity in Mexico. In addition, it ranks third in forest area, with nearly 6.3 million hectares (Semarnat, 2014). Of the total state area, some 530,000 hectares are designated as Protected Natural Areas, the National Ecology Institute explains.

What’s more, the Chimalapas region possesses the largest swath of well-preserved rainforests and cloud forests in Mesoamerica, making it one of the most important tropical zones and gene banks in the region. According to a World Wildlife Fund 2005 publication, the foliage includes primary older growth of dry, temperate, and cloud forests, as well as zones of secondary regrowth. It has 3,500 vascular plant species and 300 kinds of orchids. It is famous for providing habitat for the jaguar, the tapir, and the quetzal, among other threatened and protected species.

The access to San Antonio and Benito Juárez is covered with an evergreen canopy of ocote pine trees; that is why Chimalapas is one of Oaxaca’s most important natural lungs. Photo: Diana Manzo

The municipality of San Miguel Chimalapa, located here, contains the largest section of virgin tropical evergreen cloud forest, according to Conabio, the Mexican biodiversity commission. Yet its 6,470-member Zoque population, descended from the Mayan Empire, is heir to a painful history. Conflicts over land tenure have resulted in environmental degradation, with its respective negative impact for Vazquez and his neighbors. It’s been a long time since the resplendent quetzal nested in these hills – due to illegal hunting and logging.

The landscape is picturesque; blue and green are the shades of this Oaxacan forest, nestled in the Chimalapas area. Photo: Diana Manzo.

SAD MEMORIES

Chimalapa means “gourd of gold.” The name comes from the Conquest when the Spaniards forced the Zoques to buy their own lands from the Crown, by delivering gold in gourds.

Centuries later, in 1940, the Sanchez Monroy, Salvador Moguel and Juan Pérez lumber companies invaded the Zoque territory. They extracted large amounts of wood, enough to leave thousands of hectares without vegetation cover. It was “left damaged and deforested,” recounts Emmanuel Jiménez, a community member from Benito Juárez, one of two main towns here.

In the document “Chimalapas: Defense of Territory and Natural Resources as a Factor of Indigenous Identity”, researcher and activist Miguel Angel García Aguirre points out that the logging company assault caught its second wind after 1950.  The most influential, Sánchez Monroy of Michoacan state, took over 100,000 hectares of temperate and cloud forests, home to pine and ocote.

Supporting the onslaught were Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party President Miguel Alemán Valés  and Oaxaca’s southern neighbor state of Chiapas, governed by the party’s Francisco J. Grajales, the author maintains. They took advantage of “an involuntary mistake by the Zoque Chimalapa communities of not populating the extensive eastern area of their territory, since they considered it their reserve and harvesting area, while Oaxacan authorities paid no mind,” he said.

Almost 30 years down the line, in 1977, after agrarian reform land distribution, the companies closed, and outsiders came to the area. Chiapas residents entered the territory of the Chimalapas without permission and took over 160,000 hectares of Oaxaca. They staked out a dozen private properties where they built ranches and introduced cattle. They created four ejidos. They even founded a municipality called Belisario Domínguez.

The border conflict leaves a scar of 50,000 hectares of forest eroded by illegal logging and forest fires, according to García Aguirre, in the 2015 report published by the Center for Studies for Change in the Mexican Countryside.

Getting to the Chimalapas jungle is by land; the road gets worse in the rainy season, one of the challenges for these communities that care for and protect this natural corner of Mexico. Photo: Diana Manzo.

RESOLUTION COULD AID RESTORATION

Nearly four decades later, on Nov. 11, the federal Supreme Court issued a resolution that 160,000 hectares of land in four ejidos and 10 private properties claimed  by Chiapas belong to Oaxaca. The opinion had taken nine years in proceedings.

The plenary determined that within 30 months of the sentence, the legislatures of both states must make modifications to their respective Constitutions and laws to incorporate the border that the court had determined.

After the sentence, Oaxaca Gov. Alejandro Murat Hinojosa called for harmony and concordance in building comprehensive development in the Indigenous Zoque area. He stressed that the restitution of the sovereignty of Oaxaca be achieved to benefit the dignity of the Native peoples found in the Chimalapas and the Oaxacan Isthmus.

In contrast, the former governor of Chiapas, Roberto Albores Guillen wrote a strongly worded letter warning that a border conflict could break out due to the resolution. For this reason, he requested the intervention of the Ministry of the Interior to agree on a political truce. “It’s a national problem,” he stressed.

For their part, the Chiapas ejido members from the municipalities of Cintalapa and Belisario Domínguez announced that they would go before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to contest the ruling.

Alfonso de Jesús Gómez Mendoza, president of the ejido of Constitución in Chiapas, warned that the Chimalapa community members from Oaxaca could invade them. He said 28 parcels have been at risk of “being carved out” for a long time.

Community members from the community of San Antonio in the municipality of San Miguel Chimalapas agreed to seek peace through dialogue; they no longer want any more conflicts with Chiapas. Photo: Diana Manzo.

However, Chiapas residents of the Díaz Ordaz and Rodulfo Figueroa ejidos indicated that they have dialogued, and the majority believes that if the Chima community members respect their lands and Chiapanecos do not lose their agrarian rights, then they will accept being Oaxacan.

“We have dialogued, there are those of us who already want peace, in fact many of us have even become related due to the closeness that exists with Benito Juárez and San Antonio, but we are in dialogue, we no longer want more conflicts, hopefully there will be agreements and we will move forward,” they stated.

The residents of the towns of San Antonio and Benito Juárez, Oaxaca, held an assembly on the last day of November, noting that the next step the verdict describes is “dialogue.” For this they have had meetings with the government of Oaxaca and federal agencies.

About 1,500 Tzotzil Indigenous people live within the jurisdiction of Benito Juárez and San Antonio, according to a local census. They make up the four ejidos of Rodullfo Figueroa, Díaz Ordaz, Roman E. Balboa, and Flor de Chiapas. In addition to the 10 private properties, 800 Zoques live in the communal property of San Miguel Chimalapas municipality. The municipality of Belisario Domínguez, formed by territorial invasion, looks desolate; social infrastructure is abandoned, the grounds of the school and city hall are overgrown with brush, the streets are unpaved. It seems like a ghost town with only 200 residents remaining.

Considering this scenario and with a heritage of 45 years of efforts for the sustainability of community forests, the assembly set up a committee for relations with Chiapas, another for environment and forestry, and another for attention to federal programs. “If they give us a solution, we have everything resolved,” states Antonio Jiménez, commissioner for the negotiation of the resolution.

Every week, the community members meet to share stories and talk about the defense of the territory and social problems; they call this “communality.” Photo: Diana Manzo

Their laughter belies their seriousness. They are happy because they have recovered their access to their resources through legal instruments. They deny rumors of an armed insurgency in their territory.

“The only weapons we have is our voice and the community,” insists Elias Gómez, Antonio’s counterpart on the negotiating commission. “We want peace with the people of Chiapas, nothing more or less.”

Part 1 of a special series on one of the best preserved tropical forests in Mesoamerica, the ChimalapasPart II, coming soon: Taking action for sustainable community forestry amid the new threat of mining