- Although we were road weary and it was dark, we could see
what we hoped we wouldn't. A logging truck was coming out the
rainforest hauling huge trunks of primary growth cedar.
Then the federales stopped us. Their bright lights illuminated
our vehicle, followed by a question barrage. Seems there was
an armed robbery on this remote dirt road leading into Veracruz'
last, but no longer virgin rainforest, the Uxpanapa. We had
come to do what little we could to stop the plunder.
Uxpanapa's biodiversity has been bleeding for two decades,
but we carried a few eco- Band-Aids and hope. I was glad to
be traveling with Pronatura's
Sergio Aguilar and Alois Clemens. They had the answers for the
young cops and we were allowed through the military checkpoint.
In another hour, the 12-hour journey from Xalapa was over, we
had arrived in Poblado Uno and the safety and warmth of Chico's
Sergio heads Pronatura's Programa Uxpanapa but works out of
far off Xalapa. Chico was his man in the rainforest, and if
this program had any chance it would be because Chico had stayed
to work in his community to try to keep his fellow Chinantecos
committed to sustainable agriculture.
Instead of logging and running cattle, Pronatura was promoting
the planting of Ixtle, (aechmea magdalenae) a fibrous rainforest
bromeliad that can be converted into rope, belts and saddle
parts. There are over 20 small Ixtle plantations sprouting throughout
the Uxpanapa and finding markets for the finished product was
Alois and I met in 1997 when he was heading the Sierra Gorda's
(Querétaro) ecotourism program and he had invited me to tour
Pronatura's Veracruz programs. I've been traveling in Mexico
looking to buy a piece of ecologically threatened land and have
been lucky enough to marvel at Mexico's biologic richness from
Copper Canyon to Chiapas.
At 25, Francisco "Chico" Valentin is a second generation Uxpanapan
and it's brightest environmental hope. The federal government
in the mid-1970s relocated his parents and 1,500 fellow Chinanteco
Indians here. The Chinanteco's had lived for centuries on the
Oaxaca-Chiapas tablelands near the Veracruz border, but the
government took their land, clear cut it and put in a lake (Presa
Nezahaulcoyotl) to create hydroelectric power. It was supposed
to be a model relocation program. Its mastermind was Jorge Tamayo
who was married to then President Lopez Portillo's sister. When
Tamayo died in a plane crash near the Uxpanapa river, his masterplan
and the protections for the Chinanteco's blew up.
Today those original 1,500 Indians are now 40,000 people living
in 15 settlements or Poblados. The region has no protective
biosphere or park status although many say it should. Once the
road was built, many colonos of mestizo descent flooded in.
Chico's father was killed while building the dirt road. His
brothers grew up and headed north working in factories from
Tennessee to Tijuana making 20 times what they could here. Chico
was going to join them until Sergio called with the Pronatura
For ecotravelers, the Uxpanapa has jaguars, toucans and spider
monkeys, but to find the undisturbed forest you must journey
to the end of the poor dirt road and hike. There are plenty
of birds, butterflies, exotic trees and limestone caves to explore
throughout the 15 poblados, but there are always people and
After a good night's sleep on elevated mats used to dry coffee
outside Chico's cinder block home, we awoke to the myriad calls
of parrots, woodpeckers and trogans foraging through the deciduous
trees. After breakfast we walked through Poblado Uno talking
with village elders who Sergio wanted to attend a meeting that
night to discuss the Ixtle program and several new proposals.
The program is three -years-old, but was now ready to ramp up.
That afternoon Chico took us to the Rio Chalchijapan, the
region's cleanest river. A limestone cave's underbelly was a
crystal-clean subterranean lake and above its entrance were
gray stalactites delicately laced with hanging ferns. Small
fish swam to the entrance curious at our arrival. In the surrounding
forest, a spectacular scarlet rumped tanager flipped out of
a yellow- budding primavera tree and nearby a vermilion flycatcher
was as red-hot as the soaring afternoon humidity. A rare bare
throated tiger heron landed on a rock outcrop in the river to
rest but was dive bombed by swirling swallows protecting their
A river swim was the perfect respite from the mind numbing
heat, but immediately doubts about the evening meeting washed
over me. It was Friday night, many of the Chinanteco men go
on weekend drinking binges leaving their wives and children
for days. On the way to the meeting there were groups of women
and children carrying crosses in a weekly religious procession.
Who was left to talk to about Ixtle?
At the community center a dozen ejido elders and young workers
had gathered. Alois hauled the small but heavy Ixtle processing
machine out of the truck. Sergio, is a young fun loving college
dropout, but tonight he was all business. His earnestness was
in marked contrast to his playful cavorting earlier on the trip
and I sensed strong leadership skills. Chico is charismatic,
smart, and ambitious, together with Sergio, they were a formidable
combination. Alois a Dutchmen and myself an American were cross-cultural
bookends, showing the locals that the world outside Mexico cared
very much what was happening in Uxpanapa.
Sergio outlined the proposals and within two hours, several
major agreements were struck. We were surprised at how quickly
the Chinanteco reached consensus and embraced the new program.
Pronatura would pay the collective 300 pesos per kilo for
the finished Ixtle fibers. Pronatura would provide the processing
machines but the maintenance would be the ejido's responsibility.
The group agreed to put aside 300 of its 2,300 hectares as a
forest reserve and agreed to replant native trees. Pronatura
will send two members of the collective to Xalapa to be schooled
in forestry practices. In addition, Pronatura would supply the
community 50 hand- held corn and bean planters. Pronatura would
finance a handicrafts and carpentry program for other income
By the time we had left, the workers had picked and processed
nearly 20 kilos of Ixtle in three days that will be sold by
Pronatura. A prison in Guanajato was buying Ixtle and Sergio
was hoping to get a high price for the flaxen fiber.
Alois and I hitch hiked out while Sergio stayed behind to
tutor Chico on the computer and work with the ejido. The closer
we got to the paved highways, the trees had all been chopped
for cattle ranges. The problem was clearly evident, but I had
come away with a sense of renewed hope. Pronatura has introduced
solutions and let's hope Chico and Ixtle grow rich in the remaining