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

May 6, 1994

Air Date: May 6, 1994


Mexico's Troubled River / Richard Mahler

Richard Mahler visits a river in Chiapas, Mexico that flows through the heart of a rainforest. Recent land battles in the area and a proposed hydroelectric dam both threaten the future of the Usamacinta River and its surrounding ecosystem. (08:27)

The Ecological Struggle over Mexican Land

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. (04:18)

Traditional Healers Protect a Rainforest in Belize / Matt Binder

Matt Binder reports on Terra Nova, an innovative rainforest reserve in Belize. The government of Belize has entrusted management of the preserve to traditional healers, who tend to the area's medicinal plants as well as the surrounding ecosystem. (07:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Stephanie O'Neill, Mary Boyle, Richard Mahler, Matt Binder
GUEST: Pablo Farias

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Social problems in southern Mexico have led to armed conflict and destruction of rainforests. Some now worry that a quick government response to the Chiapas Rebellion may lead to even more deforestation.

HOFFMAN: One of the things that we were worried about here was that they were going to divide up the rest of the rainforest here to appease a mass of the problems on an immediate level. Yeah, the Zapatistas are talking now. One of their huge issues is land.

CURWOOD: Also, from nearby Belize, the story of a new medicinal plant preserve run by the country's traditional healers.

ARVIGO: This is a very good way to juxtapose the needs of humanity and the needs of our environment, by making an area that's a reserve for medicinal plants that's going to be user-friendly.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news. A southern California songbird has lost its year-old status as a threatened species. Ruling on a lawsuit filed by developers, a Federal judge stripped the controversial California Nat-catcher from the Federal Threatened Species List. From Los Angeles, Stephanie O'Neill has the story.

O'NEILL: The ruling stems from a 1992 lawsuit filed by the Southern California Building Industry Association and Orange County's Tollway Agencies, who say environmentalists used the Species Protection Law illegitimately to stop them from building on valuable land. The judge ruled that the government violated procedure when it refused to give ornithologists hired by the builders the raw scientific data used to justify the bird's protected status. The ruling potentially opens up to development valuable sagebrush habitat along portions of California's southern coast. An Interior Department official fears the ruling may jeopardize a California program designed to protect habitats while allowing some development. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

NUNLEY: The National Park Service believes that plans to open a major gold mine next to Yellowstone National Park could violate an international treaty. Park Service officials claim the controversial Noranda Minerals Project will cause resource and wildlife destruction in the park. From Billings, Montana, Mary Boyle of High Plains News Service has the story.

BOYLE: The 1972 World Heritage Convention was signed by 136 nations to recognize natural and cultural sites of worldwide importance. If the environment of one of these world heritage sites is threatened by mining or logging, an international committee can exert pressure on the responsible nation. Yellowstone National Park has special status under the treaty, and the committee could pressure the United States to block the mine. The committee has successfully used their clout to stop similar projects, but the treaty has not been tested in the United States. National Park Service officials hope the international attention will help stop the mine permit. It's up to the National Forest Service and the Montana Department of State Lands to decide whether the mine can go forward. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Boyle in Billings, Montana.

NUNLEY: Meanwhile, gray wolves, which vanished from Yellowstone over 60 years ago, may once again get the chance to call the park home. That's if the US Interior Department adopts Wildlife Service recommendations for reintroducing the endangered predator into Yellowstone. The plan calls for gray wolves from Canada to be relocated into the park and nearby Forest Service lands over the next 3 years. Ranchers have been among the main opponents to reintroduction, but the proposed plan makes 2 important concessions. Ranchers will be compensated for livestock killed by wolves with money set aside by a nonprofit conservation organization. And under some circumstances, ranchers could harass or kill animals which become a nuisance, a provision some environmental groups oppose. Secretary Babbitt's final decision on wolf reintroduction could come as early as next month.

This is Living on Earth. More cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year than all other forms of cancer combined. that's according to a study soon to be published by the American Academy of dermatology. Author Martin Weinstock of Brown University says new reports of skin cancer will top 1 million in 1994. That's twice the number found in a study 17 years ago. Weinstock says the increase is probably due to greater public exposure to the sun in recent years.

WEINSTOCK: Many, many years ago, when people were outside in the sun, they would have parasols and clothing that protected virtually the whole skin surface. But we haven't seen that for decades.

NUNLEY: And Weinstock says there's no indication the skin cancer epidemic has peaked.

WEINSTOCK: The ozone layer is getting thinner. Now I don't think that's really shown up yet in skin cancer statistics. But sooner or later it probably will.

NUNLEY: Weinstock studied the most common and less lethal types of skin cancer, but he says more dangerous melanoma skin cancers are also on the rise.

Scientists say underwater temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean have risen significantly in the past 35 years. The deep water warming is a surprise and its cause is not completely understood. The rate of the rise, one degree Centigrade per century, is consistent with some models of global warming, but the researchers writing in the journal Nature say most climate change models predict warming will occur at the ocean's surface, where these scientists could find no significant temperature rise.

Using a gasoline-powered lawn mower for one hour creates as much air pollution as driving a car 50 miles. In fact, the roughly 89 million pieces of gasoline-fueled lawn and garden gear create over 10% of the nation's air pollution. The EPA has proposed the first emissions standards for lawn mowers and other power tools starting in 1996. The Agency says the controls will cut carbon monoxide emissions from yard equipment by 14% and hydrocarbons by a third over the next decade.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Mexico's Troubled River

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Land and water, two of the most essential elements of life, are coming under increasing pressure in the southeastern part of Mexico known as Chiapas. Ecological stresses form some of the roots of the recent Zapatista Rebellion, and Mexico faces hard choices about the Chiapas region. Near the top of the list of concerns is the fate of the mighty Usumacinta River, which forms part of Mexico's border with Guatemala. It still runs freely through the dense rainforest, which was once home to the ancient Mayan civilization. But the forest is being slowly cleared by small farmers, and talk of damming the river itself for hydropower has been revived in response to rebel demands for economic development. Reporter Richard Mahler has our story.

(Running river)

MAHLER: It is the isolation of the Usumacinta that protects it. The river is many bumpy hours from the nearest town by a single muddy road. There is only one launching site for large boats, and from that point on a traveler is swallowed up by the largest intact rainforest north of the Panama Canal: a jungle of magnificent natural beauty and stunning biodiversity. According to some scientists, a single square mile of riverbank is likely to contain more plant and animal species than the US and Canada combined. Including endangered cats, macaws, and monkeys.

(Birdsong, running river)

DAVIS: The magic being on the river is pretty phenomenal.

MAHLER: Scott Davis is a naturalist who spends half of each year in Arizona and half in Chiapas, where he guides trips down the Usumacinta, which he calls a rare resource.

DAVIS: One of the few rivers in Chiapas and actually throughout the whole Mayan, the La Ruta Maya, that provides access to Mayan ruins. And using the vehicle, using the river as a vehicle, is pretty unique. It also allows the individual to see what second growth forest is all about, what clear-cutting is all about, and also what the pristine tropical jungle is all about.

MAHLER: Like any tropical waterway, where there are roads near the Usumacinta there is also deforestation. But the river itself is deep and swift, too dangerous for most small boats. Thus, the immediately adjacent area is largely uninhabited, the embankments unspoiled and shaded by a dense canopy. Yet hundreds of people live nearby, using trails to hunt wild game and tend small fields. Among these forest dwellers are Lacandon Maya Indians, who hold legal title to much of the watershed. Others are arriving uninvited every day.

BOR: [Speaks in Spanish]

MAHLER: In the village of Lacanja, a Lacandon named Bor tells us that his tribe shaman has asked the governor of Chiapas to do something about peasants from the highlands who are homesteading without permission, cutting trees and killing animals. Authorities acknowledge Lacandon ownership, Bor says, but haven't evicted the encroaching trespassers despite prayers offered by the shaman at the ancient ruins. Many of the unwelcome newcomers, also of Mayan descent, have been forced from small farms in the overcrowded highlands by powerful ranchers. Last January, the frustration of these highland Maya led to open warfare between the new rebel Zapatistas and Mexico's army. Now, there are fears that the government may be tempted to sanction immigration to the Usumacinta Basin to satisfy rebel demands for land redistribution.

(Insect buzzing, nighttime rainforest sounds?)

MAHLER: Will Hoffman is project coordinator for the independent research center Na Bolom, based in the highland town of San Cristobal de las Casas.

(Music on busy city street)

HOFFMAN: One of the things that we were worried about here was that in a lot of institutions locally is that they were going to divide up the rest of the rainforest to appease a mass of the problems on an immediate level. Yeah, the Zapatistas are talking now. I guess one of their huge issues is land.

MAHLER: Although they share a common ancestry with highland Maya, Hoffman says most Lacandon Indians rotate and diversify their crops and raise no cattle, making little lasting impact on the jungle. In contrast, highlanders have forgotten how to practice sustainable rainforest agriculture. They quickly exhaust the shallow topsoil and must frequently clear new land for corn and cows. While these immigrants pose a serious long-term threat to the watershed, potentially more damage to the Usumacinta itself looms in the form of a huge hydroelectric project. James Nations of Conservation International is an anthropologist who has lived among the rainforest Maya, and also listens to the Zapatistas.

NATIONS: One of their requests, demands, however you want to phrase that, is for electricity. Chiapas has the lowest percentage of all Mexican states of households with electricity, 66%.

MAHLER: Nations says the Zapatista demand for an improved infrastructure has revived talk about damming the Usumacinta, a controversial idea that has been around for 3 decades. The project could power not only Chiapas, but much of Mexico and virtually all of neighboring Guatemala, which shares a 150-mile border along the Usumacinta. In the process, however, a dam is likely to dry up wetlands, devastate fisheries, destroy unknown biological treasures, and inundate long-forgotten ruins still being discovered along the Usumacinta. It would partially flood 2 large ancient cities where many secrets of Mayan civilization have been unlocked: Piedras Negras on the Guatemalan side, and Yaxchilan on the Mexican bank. Victor Perera is a Guatemala-born author who has written extensively about the region. He believes it is the need to protect these ruins that may ultimately save the Usumacinta.

PERERA: It's the destruction of Yaxchilan and Piedras Negas that is the biggest bone of contention here. But I think there are much larger issues involved: cultural, environmental, as well as archaeological. But it's on the archaeological grounds that you can make a real strong stand.

MAHLER: It is unlikely that any hydroelectric project will move forward until at least 1995. Mexico's lame duck president, Carlos Salinas, has shelved the plan, and Guatemala cannot proceed until a pace agreement is reached with the guerrillas who are now in control of its side of the river. Meanwhile, ecologist Arturo Gomez-Pompa, an advisor to Salinas, believes the uncontrolled influx of landless farmers could do more damage to the Usumacinta river system during the next few years than the dam might cause in the long run. While politicians and rebels negotiate, he says, a sustainable economy needs to be created that minimizes destruction by those who have moved into the watershed.

GOMEZ-POMPA: We have to find alternatives for a better living of the people who are there in the high diverse forest environment, and I think what we need is more action and less talk.

MAHLER: The fate of the Usumacinta has yet to surface as a campaign issue in Mexico's presidential election, which takes place this August. But the so-called Group of 100, a powerful lobby of prominent Mexicans, is warning of potential armed conflict in the Usumacinta watershed that could involve the Zapatistas. That's if efforts aren't made to resolve the competing claims of immigrants, rebels, and indigenous residents. Continued inaction by officials, the group concludes, will cause further degradation of the jungle and the loss of priceless Mayan artifacts. It would also make it impossible to experience the unique rapture of a boat trip through the cathedral-like majesty of this mature rainforest. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Mahler.

(Sounds deep in the rainforest: lightning, downpour)

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The Ecological Struggle over Mexican Land

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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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: What do you think? Should the US help Mexico save its rainforest? And if so, how? Give us a call on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or you can write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

Traditional Healers Protect a Rainforest in Belize

CURWOOD: Some of the solutions suggested for the rainforest in Mexico are already being tried in the tiny neighboring country of Belize. Tucked on the Caribbean coast between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize has set up forest preserves to protect plants and wildlife and give local residents ways of making a living. The newest reserve might be thought of as a huge medicine cabinet. Local practitioners of folk medicine are managing a large tract of rainforest that is rich with plants that are known to have healing powers. From Belize, Matt Binder has the story.

(Birdsong, rainforest sounds)

BINDER: Belize is a wondrous, lush, and sparsely populated country with just 200,000 residents. After sugar cane, ecotourism is its second largest industry. Nevertheless, like so many other tropical nations, Belize has been rapidly losing its virgin rainforest to logging, grazing, and agriculture. Only 10% of Belize's original rainforest is left. The new reserve, called Terra Nova, is in part of this pristine 10%, in one of the most inaccessible parts of the country, right next to the Guatemalan border.

(Ferry: moving chains)

BINDER: To get there, you cross a river on a hand-cranked ferry, drive on overgrown logging roads, and finally push your car along some narrow boardwalks through the swamps. Seventy-five miles inland from the cool Caribbean breezes, Terra Nova is stiflingly hot and humid.

("No, it just discourages them from crawling up your pants.")

BINDER: But the bugs are so bad you cover yourself from head to toe in heavy denim, and spray your boots and pants with insecticide.

(Animal calls)

BINDER: But the inconveniences are worth it. This is a place where howler monkeys, tapirs, crocodiles, and jaguars are regularly spotted. And the plant diversity is even more amazing. There are thousands of species of trees, and tens of thousands of species of other plants on this 6,000-acre reserve.

ROMERO: This is the cedar tree. The bark is the one you use for drink, for bruise, blood inside, like when you get an accident or your fell down from a tree...

BINDER: Polo Romero is a grizzled old Creole herbalist who uses medicinal plants from Terra Nova. He began studying jungle medicine 40 years ago. When deep in the rainforest collecting chicle sap for chewing gum, one of his coworkers was bitten by a deadly poisonous snake and some of the older men there rushed to gather herbs for an emergency treatment.

ROMERO: We gave him a purge, you know what is a purge? Like a laxative. So that it gets rid of poison that remains because what you drink is poison. You take poison for kill poison.

BINDER: The man survived the bite and the treatment and Romero decided to become a healer himself. He's now a board member of the Traditional Healers Association, and he helps run the reserve. He says lately the pace of rainforest destruction in Belize is accelerating, and 13 medicinal herbs are now officially endangered.

ROMERO: I never used to go to far to harvest my herbs. But now I have to walk miles and miles into the jungle, get bigger jungle, because the people are just destroying.

(Machetes cutting through high grasses)

BINDER: Tens of thousands of new refugees fleeing the civil war in Guatemala are settling in remote areas of Belize, where they can carry on their slash and burn farming methods in peace. But their methods are destroying the rainforest, and part of the reason Terra Nova was set up was to give refugees an economic alternative.

ARVIGO: The people who live on the fringe of the reserve can either be looked at as uninvited predators, or invited participants. We would like to see them become invited participants.

BINDER: Rosita Arvigo is an herbalist from Chicago who moved to Belize 15 years ago. Now, as the founder of the Belize Association of Traditional Healers, she's the moving force behind Terra Nova.

ARVIGO: We feel that this is a very good way to juxtapose the needs of humanity and the needs of our environment, by making an area that's a reserve for medicinal plants that's going to be user-friendly. We have an opportunity to rescue the plants that are going to be destroyed. There's an opportunity for people to use these medicinal plants for their practices, for their patients, for their families, and an opportunity for people who live on the fringe of the rainforest to find income resources from non-timber products, as they're called.

BINDER: About a dozen refugees are working for the reserve now, as cooks, laborers, and medicinal plant harvesters. And even though there are no government rangers in the area, there's been very little hunting or tree-poaching on reserve property.

(Jungle sounds.)

BINDER: It's hoped that the reserve will also play a part in improving health care in Belize. As a developing country, modern medical clinics are few and far between, so herbal medicine is often the only available or affordable treatment. Nearly everyone here uses medicinal herbs to some extent. Even the eminent American archaeologist, Arlen Chase, who works with a crew of 100 deep in the jungle at the Mayan ruins of Caracol.

CHASE: In terms of anything having to do with the jungle or what one would perceive was a malady coming out of the jungle, I'd much rather trust my men and native medicine than Western medicine. Because they're better prepared to deal with it. One of the experiences I've had is getting extremely ill and not quite knowing what it is. But there's one thing that definitely cures you, and that's mahogany bark tea: guaranteed half hour later you're feeling better because you don't want any more of that mahogany bark tea. And it works every time on the students as well.

BINDER: The government of Belize hopes the Terra Nova reserve will be an income source for the entire nation, with tourists coming to see the natural plant and animal wonders and foreign patients coming to get treated by healers from the Mayan, Creole, Garifuna, Hispanic, Mennonite, and other cultures. Terra Nova is part of a nationwide system of reserves set up by the government but run by local groups. Belize's ambassador to the US, Dean Lindo, says the country needs to get economic value from its forests, and reserves like Terra Nova are a way to do it.

LINDO: Because you can't just, in my view, let the forest be reserved to the extent that it's not utilized at all. I think with scientific approach and scientific management, you can get the benefits of, you know, like any other product, fruit, for example. At the same time protecting the rainforest.

(Bird calls)

BINDER: Lindo says the Traditional Healers Association will have total control over the management of Terra Nova as long as they do a good job. Polo Romero says he's thankful that the government trusts a group of shamans to run a national park. He says the healers will live up to that responsibility.

ROMERO: My personal ambition is that in the future we have the privilege for train young generation, give the youth a privilege to learn how the older people used to survive without a medication doctor.

BINDER: For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder in Yalbac, Belize.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, our associate producer is Kim Motylewski, and our director is Debra Stavro. Our production team includes Chris Page, Colleen Singer Coxe, Jessika Bella Mura, and Eve Stewart. Our engineer is Laurie Azaria, with help this week from Doug Haslem and Mark Navin. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. Special thanks for production help last week to NPR member station KPLU in Tacoma, Washington.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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