Mexican environmentalists and government authorities are expressing alarm over the rapid loss of forests in areas where impoverished peasants are invading natural reserves. If nothing is done, Mexico could lose some of its most important natural treasures within the next few decades.
Evidence of Mexico's deforestation problem can be seen in many forms. Anyone driving the highways in central and southern Mexico can see the trucks loaded with logs, some of which have been taken legally under government permits and others which are products of illegal operations. Authorities estimate that for every cubic meter of wood taken from the forests in the central state of Michoacan, two cubic meters are taken illegally.
A study released late last year showed that Mexico lost 7.8 million hectares of forest between 1993 and the year 2000. Officials with the federal Environment Secretariat say Mexico has lost 530,000 hectares of tropical forest alone.
Evidence of the loss can be seen from airplanes and in satellite images. Whole areas in the Yucatan peninsula and in the southern state of Chiapas have been cleared in the past 10 years. Experts estimate that 70,000 hectares of forest disappear each year in Chiapas.
The most critical area is the Lacandon forest - the largest rain forest in North America. Alejandro Lopez, who works with the federal ecological reserve known as Montes Azules, says invasions by poor peasants present the biggest threat to the natural area.
"These invasions are often in the most fragile areas of the jungle such as along rivers, and near springs and ponds," he said. "The clearings made by farmers are in some of the most biologically diverse zones, places that are rich in animal and plant life."
Poor farmers accuse the government of being more interested in helping animals in the forest than in helping underprivileged human beings. Social workers also say that the government needs to do more to help the nearly 15 million Mexican peasants who have no alternative but to exploit forest land.
Critics also blame confusing land-registry laws and land reform programs that have sometimes resulted in ugly disputes over forests and farming land. Last week, 26 peasants died in an ambush in the southern state of Oaxaca in what appears to have been a dispute between two communities over exploitation of a nearby forest.
But environmentalists say the situation will only get worse if the forests are not protected. They say deforestation diminishes soil fertility as well as the soil's capacity to retain groundwater. In addition, they note, widespread deforestation reduces rainfall in the area and promotes soil erosion. All of this, they say, will eventually make the land worthless to the farmers who wish to exploit it.