The Lacandon are direct descendants of the Maya peoples who live in the jungles of the Mexican state of Chiapas. Until the mid-20th century, they had little contact with the outside world. As a result, the indigenous group was almost extinct. Today their population is growing rapidly, but at a price: Their cultural purity and way of life is being eroded through Westernization and intermarriage. Many people predict the Lacandon will disappear as a unique class of Mayan descendants within the next 50 years.
Our helicopter lands in a clearing in the Lacandon jungle. We are amazed at the sight of three men, who seem to have emerged from another era. They view the visitors with curiosity. They have long black, tangled hair. They wear knee-length white tunics. They are barefoot.
Government officials, local authorities and traditional leaders arrive to show us the way of life of the Na Ha people, one of three remaining Lacandon tribes.
MAN: "Senor Don Antonio Martinez. He is one of the oldest people in the community. He makes all the rituals. He heals people and all the magic things."
The Na Ha spiritual leader, Senor Don Antonio Martinez is 83 years old. Director of Natural Reserves and Wildlife in Chiapas, Maria Theresa Vasquez describes the ceremony Don Antonio is performing in the temple.
"Healing," said Maria Theresa Vasquez. "To wish that people is ill gets better soon. Only two people here in Na Ha and on the other side is Lacanja can practice…He is the last old man in this area that can do it. The tradition is getting a little bit lost because of the new culture."
The Lacandon are one of the most isolated and culturally conservative of Mexico's native peoples.
"The Lacandonians were the only Indians in Mexico who were never conquered because the place where they were living-it was very, very big and they were the only tribes that remained from the Indians, from the pre-classic, from the Mayans living in that area," said Vasquez.
Maria Luisa is president of the Board of Na Bolom, a scientific and cultural institute set up 60 years ago to protect the culture, traditions and environment of the Lacandon.
In the 1970's, she tells VOA, the Mexican government began paying the Lacandon for rights to log timber in their forests.
She says the government built roads, which helped expand farming and logging, but led to severe deforestation. She says Indians from other communities were brought into the Lacandonian jungle and they introduced cows and agriculture, which added to the problems.
"So, what we are trying is to teach them different ways of living in that area without affecting the jungle, which is at this moment very difficult because there are not many ways to do it," she said. "As a matter of fact, one of the projects we developed is the eco-tourism for people to come and to see this wonderful sight where the Quetzal still lived and everything."
The Quetzal is the royal bird of the Maya. Relatively few tourists go to the Lacandon jungle because it is so remote and difficult to reach. This is a problem because the indigenous people derive much of their income from selling handicrafts to tourists. Luisa worries about their future.
"At this moment, they are at big risk of disappearing because many of them are moving to another community, which will offer at this moment better opportunities of living," said Maria Luisa. "We cannot save the jungle if we do not save the people. So, we have to save the people first and teach them and work with them for them to learn how to protect the jungle."
The Lacandonians as an ethnic group is diminishing. There are only 1,100 people in the three communities. They are losing their customs. Many of the men are shedding their white tunics, cutting their hair and speaking Spanish instead of Mayan.
Their society is one in which men have all the rights and women practically none. Some girls get married as young as nine. They have between two and five children. The community has problems of domestic abuse, alcohol and drugs.
Jenner Rodas Trejo is chief of the Department of Wildlife and the Environment. He says there are genetic problems as well because of too much inbreeding, which causes mental retardation among other ills.
Trejo says the Lacandon are aware of this and, increasingly, the men are marrying women from other ethnic groups. He says that will ensure their survival as a people, but not as a culture.