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

Saving the Selva

Air Date: Week of

The rainforest in southern Mexico--known as the "selva"--is slowly being destroyed to make way for farms and ranches. One Indian community is trying to stop the destruction--with an innovative blend of ecotourism and sustainable agriculture. Correspondent Tatiana Schreiber reports from the village of Zapata (za-PA-tah), in the state of Chiapas (chee-AH-pas), Mexico.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The rainforest of southern Mexico was once so mysterious and unpopulated, it was known as the Desert of Solitude. But like most rainforests these days, the selva, as the jungle is called in Mexico, is disappearing. Bit by bit, people are clearing land for farms and ranches. In the southern state of Chiapas, a small Indian community is trying to halt the destruction. They are experimenting instead with a creative blend of sustainable agriculture and eco-tourism. Reporter Tatiana Schreiber went to see how well the project is working. Her journey begins in the remote village of Zapata.

(Footfalls; birds call)

SCHREIBER: The village of Zapata, named after Mexico's revered revolutionary hero, sits at the junction of two wide, unspoiled rivers. Crossing a wooden suspension bridge, I see children swimming below in clear, emerald water. A sharp contrast to many Mexican rivers, which are often gray and smell of sewage.

WOMAN: Buenos dias.

SCHREIBER: Buenos dias.

Here, even in the dry season, the rainforest is lush. The air holds the scent of flowering fruit trees.

(Ambient voices speaking in Spanish)

SCHREIBER: Early each morning, the men and boys of Zapata walk to their fields, each swinging his machete. Many are participating in a new project to see if they can improve their incomes while also protecting the environment.

GOMEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

SCHREIBER: Farmer Manuel Lopez Gomez shows me his cafetal, or coffee field. It looks a lot like the jungle itself. Don Manuel grows coffee in the traditional way, beneath the shade of other trees like banana and mango. But the highest quality coffee can't be grown in these jungle lowlands. So, now he's mixed in another crop, which sprouts greenish, melon-like pods from its trunk.

GOMEZ: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: This is a cacao tree. It's already given a lot of fruit. I've planted them in almost the whole coffee field. This is the fruit that I harvest, this cacao.

SCHREIBER: Cacao, for chocolate, was grown by Mayan Indians in this area for hundreds of years. It's well-adapted to the jungle. Don Manuel cuts open a fresh pod for me and my translator to taste.



TRANSLATOR: It has a tart taste to it.


TRANSLATOR: Very delicious.

SCHREIBER: By growing several crops side by side, Don Manuel hopes to weather the ups and downs of world commodity markets. He'll concentrate on coffee when the price is good, and on cacao when demand for chocolate is strong. This may bring him a welcome measure of independence.

GOMEZ: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: If the price goes down on one product, I'll leave that aside and work on another product. If I don't do this, no one is going to do it for me. If I don't plant these different plants here, no one is going to plant them for me. If I don't look for my own way for the future, well, no one is going to come here and give me anything for free.

SCHREIBER: As it turns out, multi-cropping is also good for the rainforest.


SCHREIBER: As Don Manuel prunes his trees, he leaves the ground littered with a thick layer of limbs and leaves, an excellent natural compost. The shade trees also create valuable habitat for birds.

(Bird song)

SCHREIBER: Perhaps most important, says Don Manuel, multi-cropping makes the most of every acre, relaxing the pressure to clear more land to earn a living.

GOMEZ: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: For example, we could try raising cattle, but it's a problem. You have to expand every year cutting down forest for grazing and corrals. You need a lot of land for cattle. But with cacao and coffee, you can keep growing it in the same place. You don't have to keep cutting more land. No, you just take care of it. That's it.

(Music; a dog barks)

SCHREIBER: Back in the village, Don Manuel's yard is alive with chicks, puppies, and children.

(Beans spill)

SCHREIBER: Women are raking freshly-washed cacao beans on the patio to dry in the sun. The beans are light pink, the size of big peanuts.

(More raking; cock crows)

SCHREIBER: For 30 years, like a promised land, the selva has drawn people from several indigenous groups. They now live and work together, sharing each other's languages and cultures. Compared to many parts of Mexico, where communities tend to be of one ethnic group, the cultural diversity here is striking.

(More crowing, raking; fade to flowing water)

SCHREIBER: The second part of my journey takes me to Laguna Miramar, a lake of fluorescent turquoise water ringed by forested mountains. My guide, Adolfo Mendoza, tells me that to support eco-tourism, the communities bordering the lake created a buffer zone around the shore, allowing no cutting or cultivation.

MENDOZA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The jungle, the truth is, it's our life. We have calmness here, tranquility to live with our families. Because the air is not contaminated, there is pure air to live. That is to say, it is healthy the way we live in the jungle. It is what the family, or any human being, should have, you know?

(Evening sounds)

SCHREIBER: Lying beside the lake in my hammock at night, nature provides the evening's entertainment. First comes a chorus of frogs.


SCHREIBER: Then, in the middle of the night, strange, distant growls.

(Howler monkeys)

SCHREIBER: It's the saraguatos: howler monkeys, calling to each other across the glassy water.

(Howling continues, up and under; fade to voices speaking in Spanish, splashes of water)

SCHREIBER: The next day, we paddle to historic Lacam-Tum Island. Here the trees are draped in Spanish moss, with roots stretching into the clear lake. The original Lacandon Indians on the island held off the Spanish Conquistadors for more than a century.

MENDOZA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: This is the area where the ancients once lived, and we'd like our children to see it. We are happy to have people come with a guide, so we can show them how magnificent their work was, how the ancient ones lived and worked. We would like people to keep coming, so we can show them how they worked or how these ruins were made long ago.

SCHREIBER: As we explore the ruin, someone spots a saraguato. It looks like a small black gorilla hanging by its tail, nibbling leaves.

(Ambient voices in Spanish. A man imitates a monkey.)

SCHREIBER: At first I'm thrilled, but then something unsettling begins to happen.

(Clapping; the monkey barks)

SCHREIBER: The monkey retreats, hiding its head in its hands. Don Adolfo is hitting and shaking the tree to get the animal upset so I can record some sound.

(The monkey howls, barks)

SCHREIBER: Everyone laughs when I protest that we should leave the creature in peace. The idea that wild animals should be left unmolested may take a while to catch on here.

(Howling continues; footfalls)

SCHREIBER: As we head back to camp, I wonder whether all this beauty and wildness can survive. So far, few tourists have ventured here, and the project hasn't made much money. In its ongoing effort to battle the Zapatista rebels, the Mexican army wants to build a road to Laguna Miramar. A road would help bring tourists in, and agricultural products out. But so far, local communities have said no. For now, you can still walk to a lake surrounded by rainforest and imagine it might last forever. And for now, you can still listen in the middle of the night to the saraguatos sing. For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber at Laguna Miramar, in Chiapas, Mexico.



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