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Monday, 4 March, 2002, 17:32 GMT
Mexico's 'devastating' forest loss
Lacandon jungle
Scars on Mexico's forests can be seen from the air
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By Nick Miles
BBC Central America and Caribbean correspondent
line

Deforestation - which environmentalists say is one of the most pressing concerns affecting the planet - will top the agenda at a United Nations meeting of environment ministers in New York on Monday.

Mexico is one of the world's worst affected countries. Depletion of forest cover is taking place twice as fast than previously thought, with more than one million hectares being lost each year.


The forests around the town have been devastated by small scale logging

Ryan Zinn, development worker
A number of initiatives to resolve the problem - including the eviction of illegal settlers from protected forest land - have been announced by President Vicente Fox.

But environmentalists say the settlers are just a scapegoat and the government is ignoring the real problem, illegal wood cutting.

According to a recently published government report, Mexico now has the second fastest rate of deforestation in the world, second only to Brazil.

Parrot
The jungle is in an area of high biodiversity

Nowhere is the deforestation worse than in the southern state of Chiapas.

In the south east corner of Chiapas lies the Lacandon jungle, a million hectares of, until recently, pristine tropical forest.

It's one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet home to rare parrots, jaguars and hundreds of species of hardwood trees.

From the air the damage caused by logging and illegal farming settlements is plain to see. The light coloured maize fields form a patchwork amongst the bottle green expanse of tropical forest.

"The farmers here have no right to the land, it is a reserve," state government forestry advisor Hernan Alfonzo told me as we come in to land at a small airstrip cut out of the jungle

"It's not just the land they grow crops on that's lost," he said. "Thousands of hectares of forest go up in smoke every year as the fires they light to clear their land rage out of control."

Suspicion

Landing at the hamlet of San Gregorio we are greeted with understandable suspicion by the inhabitants.

San Gregorio is home to 50 families. Until 20 years ago they were farm labourers working in the north of the state, but they lost their jobs when much of the area was turned over to cattle raising and their labour was no longer needed.

"The people here are threatened by the government with eviction all the time," said Antonio Jimenez, who heads an organisation representing the forest farmers.

"They literally have nowhere else to go, and they don't create the environmental havoc the government says they do, they protect the environment, it's in their interests to do so," he added.

The claim is backed up by environmentalists working in the area.

"The farmers here are cultivating in a sustainable way," said botanist Miguel Angel Garcia. "They no longer need to destroy more and more of the forest because their fields remain productive."

'Smokescreen'

There is a growing body of opinion that the government's focus on removing the settlers from their land is simply a smokescreen deflecting attention from the widespread illegal logging going on across the country.

Development worker Ryan Zinn working near the town of San Cristobal has been studying the problem.

Logs
Illegal logging is on the increase
"The forests around the town have been devastated by small scale logging concessions," he told me, as we stood in a recently cut area of the forest.

"The municipal governments hand out permits illegally to local consortia. In many cases what we see are not huge logging companies but the middle men of the intermediaries who are causing much of the deforestation," Mr Zinn said.

Huge task

It's a problem the federal government acknowledges.

"We're working to bring an end to the corruption," said Hernan Alfonzo.

"Corruption has been endemic amongst officials because of the low salaries of the inspectors and the big profits to be made.

"We're now putting in place teams of new inspectors to check all the wood leaving the state," he added.

This, however is a massive task. The agency has just a hundred inspectors having to cover an area of about a hundred thousand square miles.

Even if the will to protect the environment in this part of southern Mexico is there, the finance to bring about change is lagging far behind.

See also:

20 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
Indonesian forests on borrowed time
25 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
Amazon forest 'could vanish fast'
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