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Report from Uxpanapa: Can bromeliads save Veracruz' last rainforest?
by Steve Ginsberg


Publication date: 2000

Mexico - 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 rainforest home.

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 Sergio's job.

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 job offer.

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 cows about.

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 nest cavities.

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 sources.

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 Uxpanapa rainforest.


Steve Ginsberg (email) is a New Mexico-based writer whose novel 'The Gringo Always Pays' will be published in 2008 by Infinity Publishing. His previous features include Eco Travels in Oaxaca and Costa Rica's Macaws.



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