Sunday, May 12, 2013

Crossing the America’s version of Wallace’s Line - the Yukatan peninsular and the land of monkeys

Heading yet further eastward, I passed through the (relatively) narrow bit of land where the gap  between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific is at its narrowest. And from there you start to climb - upwards towards San Cristobal de las Casas, after which the influence of the Caribbean to the east starts to kick in and you know you have moved into very different ecological systems. The humidity increases, the pine forests give way to rain forests and you meet your first monkeys - feels a bit like Wallace's line in Asia ( 

The central plaza of San Cristobal
San Cristobal is another very quaint little town with a beautiful and relaxed central square surrounded by little lanes lined with stores and restaurants, mainly directed towards the tourists - most of whom are Mexican. Caught up again here with Pat and Monique and kids and a few other overland travelers which provided handy tips for places to go through Central America. Also chatted with a British-Mexican who is studying the bird communities of the coastal lagoons and is interested in ways to develop community conservation in the region. 

From San Cristobal to the ruins of Toniná, picking up a couple of hitch-hikers on the way (French and French-Canadian). Another delightful campground next to the ruins was perfect for an early visit before it got too hot. 
Maya ruins at Toniná

A visit to the Zapatistas

Protest camp in San Cristobal
And then, to the backroads again, this time heading south towards the Guatemala border, the Lacadón Rainforests and Laguna Miramar, and the lands of the Zapatistas - a group of communities that initiated a guerrilla uprising in the 1990’s against the one party rule of the then PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). In order to get into the North American Free Trade Agreement the Government tried to privatize the lands that were, up till then, managed by local ejidos or community collectives. The Zapatistas were after greater political and cultural autonomy for the region and after several years of conflict eventually signed an agreement with then President Zedillo that outlined a program of land reform, indigenous autonomy, and cultural rights, but after less than a year, Zedillo reneged on the accords. In the meantime, presumably with support from the US, government sponsored paramilitary units staged attacks on local villages - one of which resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 people - mostly women and children. And, according to photos and reports on display in the square at Oaxaca, people are still being murdered if they are seen to be a problem for those with power, influence and money.

It seems there was widespread community support throughout Mexico for this movement, and after 70 years the first non-PRI government got elected. The Zapatas have since established local governance arrangements - effectively unilaterally implementing the terms of the accord, moving away from armed conflict. While things seem relatively peaceful now, tensions with the government continue to simmer, as evidenced by protests in the squares of towns like Oaxaca and San Cristobal. 

Passing through Zapotista farmlands...
I guess it is this very recent history that causes locals to look at me guardedly as I pass although, while not initiating interactions, they respond quickly with a smile and a wave when you wave to them. 

And into the Lacadón forests
Some of this history I picked up from Roberto, a local in yet another pueblo called Emeliano Zapata. He was a guerrilla fighter in the past but now was my guide as we hiked to Laguna Miramar, and then my boatman as we paddled  around the edges of the beautiful, forest fringed lake, with the roars of howler monkeys echoing over the water. My spanish was tested as conversation ranged across politics (capitalism versus socialism), religion and family, not to mention the environment that we were in, all whilst paddling around the lake!

The shores of Laguna Miramar

My namesake and guide

This is all limestone country and hence riddled with caves. In one of these by the lakes edge we found large tortoises hiding in the dark chambers, with many small bats clinging the walls overhead. Spider monkeys also swung off into the forest as we passed and a pair of keel-billed toucans watched with bemusement from the safety of their high perch.

Unfortunately, because this is the burning season (slash and burn agriculture in preparation for the coming wet season) it was quite hazy, but the blood red full moon over the lake that night was a rewarding offset. My bed for the night was a hammock strung under a shelter, with the breeze off the lake keeping me cool and the insects at bay.

Overlooking Laguna Miramar
My bed for the night

While the forest is magical, its area is diminishing as everywhere the locals chip into its edges with machete and matches - clearly the resultant income is only marginal. It seems like a high price to pay to generate only subsistence income - seems like a place that desperately needs a scheme that pays them for not cutting the forest down. 

The villages around here are all very well organized and very tidy - these people are obviously very committed to their community collectives, and the results are quite impressive. It feels good here, in spite of its recent history. 

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