As strangers gaze upon their lands, the Lacandons face an uncertain future

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The Lacandon Jungle is the largest contiguous tropical rainforest in Mexico and the most biodiverse jungle in the hemisphere after the Amazon. Once part of the heavily populated heartland of the Maya civilization that flourished in the region and stretching from Chiapas and the southern Yucatán Peninsula to Honduras and Guatemala, the jungle is home to abundant wildlife.

Toucans, howler monkeys, tapirs and a small population of critically endangered scarlet macaws inhabit this ecologically rich region, along with arguably Mexico’s most unique tribe: the Lacandones.

Residing near the tributaries and lagoons of the Usumacinta River basin, the Lacandon way of life – known in the Mayan language as the Hach Winik (True People) – is probably the closest modern approximation we can find. of how the ancient Maya lived – minus, perhaps, the relentless pursuit of new territory.

Speaking of his time with them, Mike Alcalde, documentary filmmaker at México Natural, says they are “a people who live in true harmony with nature. Their worldview revolves around traditional agriculture, gathering, hunting and fishing; they live according to their own traditions and laws.

Taking only what they need to survive in the forest, the peoples of Lacandon are unrivaled in their ability to attribute useful properties to plants, medicinal or otherwise. The paths they follow in even the densest parts of the jungle – dark and indecipherable to visitors – are obvious to them, and they are able to move through the land without harming its non-human inhabitants.

The Lacandons get only what they need from their land, which has a rich and thriving ecosystem, abundant in natural resources.

As a result, they benefit from abundant milpas (fields cultivated for a few years at a time) where maize, beans and other native crops grow, as well as access to water in rivers and streams.

“The Lacandons are sentinels of the jungle,” says Alcalde. “Their territory is sacred and they do not allow other communities to harm it. They zealously protect trees, animals and water.

The people of the Lacandons were not always so isolated in their management of the jungle. In the late 1970s, 3,312 square kilometers of Lacandon was designated as a biosphere reserve by the federal government under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme.

The MAB initiative aims to improve the relationship between people and their environment. Biospheres are set aside for their genetic significance rather than other considerations such as aesthetics.

However, the protected land area that Mexico established, known as the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, turned out to be a legal fiction. Despite all the supposed protection of their land by the government, the Lacandons struggle to keep the wolves of extractivism out of their doorstep.

Extractivism refers to the process of extracting valuable natural resources to sell them on the global market.

Las Nubes Waterfalls, Chiapas
The Las Nubes waterfalls in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas.

It is a rich and thriving ecosystem, rich in resources that neighboring communities, as well as big corporate capitalists and the government, are increasingly seeking to get their hands on.

The land is historic with such conflicts: like all indigenous tribes at the time of the Spanish conquest, the Lacandones were threatened with virtual non-existence hundreds of years ago and have remained under prolonged threat from newcomers flooding the jungle.

The Lacandonian jungle was also the scene of major conflicts during the 1994 Zapatista uprising, fueled by the colonization, enslavement and exploitation of indigenous communities across Mexico. Although the Zapatistas claimed to be fighting for the indigenous peoples, the Lacandons questioned whether their own battle to recover their stolen lands had been doomed by the Zapatista cause.

This problem is compounded by the various side effects that the arrival of modernity invariably has on small, isolated communities. It’s a story as old as extractivism itself: workers on behalf of governments and corporations arrive with their various luxuries and leave behind a polluted legacy that seeps into the functioning of communities that have sustained themselves for centuries.

“The arrival of government support instruments, far from benefiting the Lacandon community, is increasingly moving it away from a historically sustainable way of life,” says Alcalde. “Faulty concepts and strategies, one after another, led Lacandonian communities to initiate negative changes in their way of life.”

It is not uncommon today, for example, to see children consuming the same plastic-wrapped, chemical-filled fast food that is tragically ravaging populations of all sizes around the world. Perhaps more unnerving, says Alcalde, are the sleek new vehicles hitting the roads, sponsored by automakers with vested interests in the land and its resources.

Lacandones people, Mexico
The Lacandon way of life is perhaps the closest approximation to how the ancient Maya lived. Mike & Iliana Alcalde/Natural Mexico

As a result, Alcalde argues, the Lacandons begin to lose the essence of what has distinguished them for centuries.

“New generations of Lacandons are visibly moving away from the way of life that has sustained them for centuries,” he says. “Fewer and fewer young people plan to stay in the communities in the future.

It is a familiar story, repeated across Latin America and even around the world, one that involves the loss of language, biosphere, cultural memory. But Mexico, unlike many other countries, still has these riches to spare.

The Lacandons are a hardy people, ghosts of the rainforest. Their extinction – as with all extinctions – will be slow, but it’s not too late to give them the protections they need.

And what are these protections? Alcalde is candid in his response:

“To be left alone. Have the power to make your own decisions. To have their lands protected by the federal government, with serious consequences. To be celebrated, to be trusted. We should learn from them, not the other way around.

Shannon Collins is an environmental correspondent at Ninth Wave Global, an environmental organization and think tank. She writes from Campeche.

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