MEXICO CITY – Two Mexican environmentalists have been freed after they were briefly kidnapped by settlers seeking to carve up North America's last large pocket of tropical rain forest, their group said Tuesday.
The kidnapping follows the two-day abduction and subsequent release of a former federal environment secretary in a different part of the jungle a month ago, amid a battle over the governance and land use in the 1,290-square-mile (330,000-hectare) Montes Azules — Blue Mountains — forest reserve in the southern state of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border.
The head of the Na Bolom Cultural Association, Maria Luisa Armendariz, said two of the association's activists and two American tourists driving with them were stopped at a roadblock inside the Lacandon jungle by settlers.
Maria Luisa Armendariz said Tuesday the settlers surrounded the vehicle Sunday and threatened to burn it or tip it over. They allowed the vehicle and its occupants to leave unharmed on Monday, about 20 hours later.
"They were rocking the truck, saying they were going to tip it over," Armendariz said. "The threat was that they were going to set it on fire."
The settlers, Chol and Tzeltal Indians who want to clear more forest land for cattle ranching, were apparently angered by the environmentalists' support of jungle-dwelling Lacandon Indians, the official guardians of the jungle.
Settlers' argue that they have been living in strictly proscribed settlements in the reserve for decades, and the communities' natural growth means that they need more land for their children. They argue the few remaining Lacandon Indians — about 1,500 in total — were unfairly given reserved seats on the council governing the reserve, despite the fact they now only represent 20 percent or less of the population.
The issue came to a head earlier this month, when residents tried to vote non-Lacandon Indians into governing positions, an apparent violation of the reserve's bylaws..
The Lacandons have lived in the jungle for centuries, wearing traditional knee-length, white-cotton tunics and waist-length black hair. They practice a sustainable form of agriculture based on multi-cropping small cleared patches in the jungle, and don't keep cattle. They also earn money through ecotourism.
Ranching and corn farming, on the other hand, require clear-cutting large swaths of jungle. The thin, poor jungle soil quickly wears out, requiring ranchers to cut new land.
In late April, former federal environment secretary Julia Carabias was kidnapped for two days in a different part of the reserve, where her group, Natura Mexicana, works on jungle research and conservation efforts. In a statement she later published about the abduction, Carabias identified her captors only as "masked men," but suggested they too were linked to settlers.
"We know that our activities affect some people's interests," Carabias wrote. "We oppose the theft of jungle plants and animals, and we oppose the invasion of protected nature areas."
Armendariz said some of the oldest settler communities have been in the reserve far too long to be evicted, but suggested they should be portioned off from the main part of the reserve, to govern themselves, rather than trying to wrest control of the entire area from the Lacandons.
"This is the last stand," she noted. "If we lose the Lacandons' stewardship over the jungle, we'll lose the jungle," Armendariz said.