Lacandon Forest

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Lacandon Forest

Lacandon Forest (Selva Lacandona), the largest surviving tropical wilderness area in modern Mexico and a major segment of the once vast rain forest belt of Middle America. Located in the Usumacinta River basin in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco, it harbors a considerable, if largely unstudied, diversity of flora and fauna. This humid, lowland region was once a part of the heavily populated heartland of Classic Maya civilization that flourished between 300 and 900 ce. The forest is named for the later Lacandon peoples, who fled to the region from the direction of the Yucatán Peninsula in the centuries following the abandonment of the ancient cities.

This great forest, which covered at least 520,000 square miles in 1875, was, in spite of much manual lumbering of hardwoods, largely intact and isolated until 1950. Yet by 1990 it had suffered extreme alteration and at least a 70 percent reduction, to approximately 156,000 square miles, as a result of mechanized lumbering, road construction, excessive settlements, extensive cattle ranching, massive uncontrolled burning, and large-scale energy projects for oil exploration and planned hydroelectric dams. During the last decade of the twentieth century, efforts were undertaken to regulate the forest area and to formalize the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve to preserve a significant remaining upland portion.

The Selva Lacandona has received increased attention from the international community due to the January 1994 rebellion of the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional / Zapatista Army of National Liberation), a revolutionary group made up of both indigenous and non-indigenous members that is based out of the forest. The subsequent militarization and continued conflict in the region demonstrate the tenuous relationships and divergent priorities of the Mexican government, the indigenous population of the Lacandon, and national and international environmental conservation groups.

See alsoForests; Mexico, Zapatista Army of National Liberation.


Frans Blom and Gertrude Duby, La Selva Lacandona (1955).

Gertrude Duby Blom, Bearing Witness (1984).

S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson, "The Usumacinta River: Troubles on a Wild Frontier," in National Geographic Magazine 168 (October 1985): 514-543.

S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson, "The Last Forest: Exploring Mexico's Lacandon Wilderness," in America's Hidden Wilderness: Lands of Seclusion, edited by Donald J. Crump (1988), pp. 36-61.

S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson, "Damming the Usumacinta: The Archaeological Impact," in Sixth Palenque Round Table 8 (1991): 118-134.

Additional Bibliography

Jan de Vos, Una tierra para sembrar sueños: Historia reciente de la Selva Lacandona. Mexico City: Fondo De Cultura Economica, 2002.

Karen O'Brien, Sacrificing the Forest: Environmental and Social Struggles in Chiapas. Boulder, CO: Western Press, 1998.

                                     S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson