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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Ecological Struggle over Mexican Land

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks to Pablo Farias of the Center for Ecological Research of the Southeast about the ecological roots of the Chiapas rebellion in Mexico.


CURWOOD: As Richard Mahler reported, many of the problems confronting the Usumacinta River region stem from population growth in the nearby Chiapas highlands. To understand more, we spoke to Pablo Farias, a physician who directs the Center for Ecological Research of the Southeast, located in the Chiapas city of San Cristobal de las Casas.

FARIAS: The highlands of Chiapas have traditionally been an indigenous region, with a pattern of agriculture that is basically subsistence agriculture. However, with the population growth rate, this type of agriculture no longer provides a subsistence for the family. And that has forced some sectors of the community to migrate and look for new lands where they can continue to have a subsistence agriculture for their family.

CURWOOD: What happens to those highlanders when they go to the forest to try to make their way with subsistence farming?

FARIAS: Well, they open the plots of land, they burn the forest, and they fertilize the soil in this process of burning the forest. And they're able to produce corn, basically for cycles of about 3 years. Now after the soil becomes depleted, and they can only grow pasture in those lands, which then they use to raise the cattle. Now, when the population density in the jungle was very low, as was the case with the Lacandon Indians, who have lived in the jungle for many, many years, you could have a pattern of burning plots of land, using them intensely for 5 years, and then letting them regenerate for 15 years and moving in these different plots in a cycle that allows for regeneration of the jungle.

CURWOOD: Now, it would seem that land reform redistribution would be key to stemming the flow of those displaced peasants from the highlands into the forest. Yet the Mexican government seems to have taken this off the table. Do you think there's any chance that's going to change?

FARIAS: Well, I think we really have a problem there. I think that we need to convert land, cattle-grazing land, into agricultural use so that they can provide more labor for people, and people can use those lands more intensively. So I think that it's more than redistribution of land in the sense of opening new territories for colonization or expropriating properties. Except for a very small percentage of land, we don't really see a concentration of large land holdings in private hands. I think we have to see the other alternative of conversion of cattle areas back into agriculture, so that they can provide a viable alternative.

CURWOOD: I want to ask you: what's needed to improve or to address environmental problems in Chiapas? And what should the United States be doing here in terms of aid or technical assistance or policy changes?

FARIAS: Well, I think that the country and also the United States in its relation with Mexico need to address the portions of valuing the conservation of biodiversity and tropical forests and the need to pay for that, and not to expect that the poor peasants that are living in these areas are going to carry the burden of conservation, which is the case now. The reality is that these regions are very poor, and we don't have that many alternatives. We have to develop economic instruments that compensate for carbon sequestration in the forests, for carbon recycling capacity of this tropical forest, and we have to find ways to develop instruments that would protect the intellectual property rights and allow communities to have a benefit from the development of medicinal products that could lead to patents and licenses, and which so far do not benefit the community. Because we don't have the legal mechanism. Until we have alternative mechanisms like those, it's not going to be enough to simply provide more infrastructure, or capital, or even new technologies for these communities.

CURWOOD: Dr. Pablo Farias directs the Center for Ecological Research of the Southeast in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico.



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