Dead Forest Defenders

by JOHN ROSS

Mexico City.

Mexico’s 56.000.000 hectares of lush forestland covering a quarter of its national territory and comprising 1.3% of the world’s forest resources, are increasingly littered with the corpses of dead forest defenders.

With the highest deforestation rate in Meso-America–272,000 hectares of tropical forest disappear a year–Mexican forests are a violent battleground between narco-gangs clearing land for illicit cultivation, guerilla groups encamped under the canopy, heavily-armed wood poachers who steal 2,000,000 board feet of timber each year, and those who seek to defend the trees.

In recent years, Mexico’s forests have become a killing floor every bit as lethal as Brazil where such environmental martyrs as Chico Mendez, Sister Dorothy Stang, and young Dionicio Ribieras have been cut down by the pistoleros of ruthless landowners.

The list of the dead is horrific. In the state of Mexico, 30 forest inspectors, a third of the state force, have been murdered since 1991 according to a count kept by Hector Magallanes, Greenpeace Mexico forest action coordinator. Federal forest wardens are equally as vulnerable. With 300 inspectors to cover more than 50,000,000 hectares, each inspector oversees 180,000 hectares. Too often, they find themselves caught up in shoot-outs with organized gangs of wood poachers ("talamontes") who do their dirty work mostly in the dark with an army of gunsills standing watch.

When Wilfredo Alvarez, a Guerrero state forest inspector was ambushed in 2003 near the state capital of Chilpancingo, one of his killers was a fellow inspector who had been corrupted by the talamontes. Miguel Angel Maya, regional coordinator for the National Protected Land Commission, was gunned down in the Chimilapas, one of Mexico’s last two great forests, in 2005–his predecessor had been murdered the previous summer.

Poor farmers who seek to defend their forests from the wood poachers are met with homicidal repression. 17 members of the Farmers Organization of the Southern Sierra (OCSS) were massacred at Aguas Blancas Guerrero in June 1995 after they blocked a crony of corrupt governor Ruben Figueroa from logging out their sierra. 28 Zapotec Indians were butchered in 2002 in the southern Oaxaca sierra in a feud over forest ownership.

The most recent killing to shame national attention was that of 21 year-old Aldo Zamora in Ocuitlan Mexico state this past May 15th–Aldo’s brother Misael was critically wounded in the attack by wood poachers from the local Encarnacion clan. Aldo and Misael are the sons of legendary forest defender Ildefonso Zamora. "They go to where we hurt when they take our children" Ildefonso, a Tlahuica Indian leader, mourned, vowing to continue his peoples’ struggle to defend their forests. Although President Felipe Calderon came to Ocuitlan and pledged that Aldo’s killers would not enjoy impunity, arrests have been slow in coming.

When forest defenders are not murdered outright, they are persecuted and jailed on absurd charges on orders from the talamontes. This past June 6th, Jaime Gonzalez who campaigns to halt the wholesale devastation of fragile mountain forests in Motozintla Chiapas was jailed by local police for a traffic offense and disappeared for 15 days during which he says he was relentlessly tortured. Gonzalez remains in state prison.

The Campesino Ecologistas ("Ecological Farmers") of the Petatlan sierra above Guerrero’s Costa Grande organized to combat uncontrolled clear-cutting by the U.S. timber giant Boise Cascade –Boise moved to Mexico after having timber permits to log in U.S. national forests cancelled as the result of environmentalist pressures. A Campesino Ecologista blockade of mountain roads eventually cut off Boise’s access to its wood supply and the transnational moved its operations to greener pastures in southern Chile. But caciques (rural bosses) who had cut lucrative deals with the transnational to sell off the forests grew disgruntled and at least five villagers were killed by their gunmen.

Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera who had been prominent organizers of the blockade were taken prisoner by the 40th Motorized Infantry Brigade and tortured for days by the soldiers. Later, they were charged with possession of marijuana and automatic weapons and thrown into the Guerrero state prison in Iguala where they languished for two years. Both farmers were designated as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International and in 2002, while still in prison; they were awarded the Goldman Prize, sometimes described as an environmental Nobel. Released by former president Vicente Fox because of their poor health as the result of the beatings by the military, Montiel and Cabrera, afraid to move their families back to the forests of Petatlan, took up residence at the other end of the country in Yucatan.

They had good reason to be fearful. Their lawyer Digna Ochoa died mysteriously in Mexico City in 2001. Fellow ecologist farmer Felipe Arriaga was framed for the murder of the son of a local cacique and served 10 months in prison in 2004 before justice was done. In 2005, Campesino Ecologista Albertino Penaloza and two of his children were assassinated in an ambush in the Sierra of Petatlan.

The persecution of forest defenders is not confined to southern Mexico. Isidro Baldanegro, a Raramuri Indian defender of the diminishing pine forests of Chihuahua state’s Tarahumara sierra from "chabochi" (non-Indian) talamontes, and young Hermenigildo Rivas, were taken into custody on their ejido in 2003 after state police broke into their home without a warrant and charged them with the usual guns and marijuana violations, the same charges lodged against the Campesino Ecologistas.

The two were beaten unmercifully and locked up for 18 months before international environmental groups intervened. Once again, Amnesty International declared the forest defenders prisoners of conscience and they too were awarded the Goldman prize, a prerequisite of which seems to be torture and imprisonment by the Mexican police.

But those who defend Mexican forests from predatory wood poaching are not the only defenders of the environment to be killed or jailed for their efforts. In December 2003, Navy officer Andres Espino was murdered by turtle egg poachers while providing protection for endangered Pacific Coast sea turtles on a Michoacan beach–a second sailor was wounded. The Mexican Navy has been active in defense of these diminishing species. But when the Cucapa Indians in the Baja California desert try to fish the Sea of Cortez for their sacred corvina, they are removed at gunpoint by sailors assigned to this protected area.

Much of Mexico’s forestland is titularly owned by 500 mostly-Indian ejidos but indigenous ownership does not guarantee that the forests will be defended and conserved. While many ejidos zealously protect their forests which are held in common and represent the communities’ most valued resource, other Indians such as the Lacandon who occupy the forest of the same name lease out their timber rights to millions of meters of precious mahogany and cedar stands to corporate talamontes.

On the other side of the ledger, Zapatista Mayan Indian rebels who share the rain forest with the Lacandones, enforce timber cutting strictures in their communities and set up roadblocks at key chokepoints in the jungle and the surrounding canyons to keep the wood poachers from moving their loads to clandestine sawmills in the municipality of Ocosingo. Clashes at the roadblocks have resulted in casualties on both sides. "The earth is our mother," explained Omar, a Zapatista forest defender on the Ejido Morelia, at the recent Intergalactica forum in the Lacandon jungle, "we are prepared to die to defend her."

JOHN ROSS can be reached at: johnross@igc.org

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