Biologist Alicia Barceinas and three scarlet macaw parrots at the research station in Chajul, Mexico. (Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post)

The esteemed biologist awoke in her jungle dorm to face a midnight apparition from an almost forgotten past.

Three men had traveled by boat up the murky Lacandon River, carrying guns and wearing the black balaclavas made famous two decades ago in a peasant rebellion born in this same rain forest. They broke through the mosquito screen into a sitting room hung with posters of dolphins and scarlet macaws. Shining a flashlight in her face, they informed Julia Carabias, a former Mexican environment secretary, that they belonged to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and were taking her to meet their leader.

Three of her students were also sleeping at the solar-
powered research station inside the Montes Azules biological reserve. Forced to the floor at gunpoint, they listened as Carabias was dragged off.

“We could hear her screams,” one recalled.

The kidnapping that April night, now thought to be the work of men impersonating the Zapatistas, escalated a long-running conflict over who has the right to the fog-draped forests in this far-off corner of Mexico: the biologists who track jaguars and tapirs under the green canopy, or the indigenous tribespeople who want more authority over land they can own but not use.

Biologist Valeria Towns climbs up a ceiba tree in the jungle in order to check the canopy cameras for new photographs. (Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post)

Land struggles have a storied history in Mexico. They were at the heart of the country’s biggest political upheavals, dating to its decade-long revolution at the turn of the 20th century. During the 1994 Zapatista uprising here in Chiapas, the masked Mayan farmers who seized towns across the state demanded respect, an alternative to NAFTA-era global capitalism and the right to live by their own rules on their own land. The latest jungle conflict is a test for the Mexican government — one that is being replicated in other vanishing ecosystems across the country — over whether it is committed to conserving its protected areas or will let the pressures of development prevail.

“This is an area of critical importance for Mexico,” said Omar Vidal, the head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Mexico office. “A permanent solution has to be found.”

A forest under pressure

The Lacandon Jungle is the largest rain forest of its kind in North America and the most biodiverse ecosystem in Mexico. For thousands of years, humans have hunted and fished across its lush terrain. The Mayan kingdoms of Palenque and Tikal rose here. Over the past half-
century, though, much of the jungle has been lost, as thousands of poor settlers — and larger mining, petroleum and timber interests — chopped and burned it to clear plots for farming, grazing and industrial enterprises. In 1971, the Mexican government set aside an area of the jungle slightly larger than Delaware to be shared among some 60 families of the indigenous Lacandon tribe. A few years later, it established the protected Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve over much of the same ground.

Unlike its U.S. counterpart, the Mexican federal government does not own its national parks, but its laws govern their use. The Lacandons, along with the Tzeltales and Choles tribespeople who also make up what is known as the Lacandon Community, owned the reserve land but were not allowed to clear or build on it.

As tribal populations have grown and more landless farmers have pushed into the jungle, the boundaries of the reserve and the rules governing its use have become matters of dispute. Illegal settlements have eaten away hundreds of square miles of the Lacandons’ original territory. The government has legalized some of the squatters’ holdings, buying back land from the Lacandon community to clarify local property rights.

Some settlers are living illegally inside the protected biosphere, and others have cleared forest just outside. Indigenous groups want to change the boundaries of the reserve so they have the right to the land, or the ability to sell it to the government. But Mexican officials do not want to allow more people inside the reserve.

“The real problem is agrarian. It is not environmental,” said Florencio Cruz Gomez, a representative of the indigenous groups. “We want to define the boundaries.”

A view of a partially settled portion of the Lacandon jungle, on the road out to the research station. (Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post)
Researchers’ role

Since the 1970s, as the surrounding forest was burned and plowed under, scientists have conducted research in the reserve, setting up residential stations where they study butterflies, anteaters, howler monkeys and other jungle species. Among them was Carabias, a professor and biologist who served as Mexico’s environment secretary from 1994 to 2000. Her nonprofit organization, Natura Mexicana, helped locals establish eco-friendly businesses outside the reserve to encourage tourism and slow deforestation.

Carabias, 59, with long, graying hair and an intense demeanor, staunchly opposes any further invasions into the reserve.

“A country has to make a decision about where they are going to conserve their natural heritage and their biodiversity,” she said in an interview several weeks after her brief abduction. “This is one of the areas Mexico chose to protect.”

If the slash-and-burn activity continues, “these people aren’t going to end up living any better,” she said. “Because the land will run out. The population will grow. And the resources will be exhausted. Just as has happened in the rest of the Mexican tropics.”

Carabias’s kidnappers took her from the research station by boat, then hiked for about three hours before they stopped and chained her to a tree. They demanded a $760,000 ransom but eventually released her unharmed, without ransom, two days later, she said. “I was at risk, but they were also.”

Carabias thinks her kidnappers were pretending to be Zapa­tistas, the former rebels who still control villages in parts of the forest but have not been vocal opponents of the biologists. “They are not the ones fighting with us,” she said.

Tribes divided

To complicate matters, the indigenous community is deeply divided on the issue. The Lacandons are the smallest group, but they also own the bulk of the land. Most of them support Carabias and protecting the forest. But they also recently lost the leadership of the governing body that ostensibly represents them.

“We are not going to recognize any authority that is not Lacandon,” one of their leaders wrote this month.

The Tzeltales and Choles, who have taken control of the governing body, have been strongly opposed to Carabias and more amenable to selling the forest. One of their leaders, Gabriel Montoya, was arrested last month on suspicion of orchestrating Carabias’s kidnapping and other alleged crimes. Fliers from his organization have appeared in the area demanding his release and the expulsion of Carabias and her “band of flora and fauna traffickers.”

Montoya’s allies accuse Carabias of conspiracies to privatize the jungle and claim she staged her own abduction.

“Her group wants to know what’s inside the forest so they can exploit it all in the future,” said Cruz, the indigenous representative, who went to Mexico City to negotiate the issue with the federal government. “We don’t want Carabias inside the forest. She has never done anything for us. And she wasn’t kidnapped. It was a big lie.”

The road to the Chajul research station passes over swollen rivers and down green hills into mist-filled valleys, through tiny villages of tin-roofed shanties, where mangy dogs sun themselves on concrete basketball courts with no nets. More than a month after Carabias was abducted, her team decided to return. They flew to Chiapas, drove six hours into the forest and then traveled upriver in a motorized skiff.

At the station, biologist Valeria Towns greeted their chubby pet peccary, Tocineta (Spanish for “bacon”). “My love, my love, my love,” she said. “Did you miss the humans?”

After a morning spent checking the canopy cameras, Towns convened her colleagues and the local staff under a gazebo to discuss the recent trouble.

“Obviously, the situation right now is super-tense,” Towns said. “We have to make it clear that we are not a company. That we are not selling the forest to anybody.”

The staff agreed that the research should continue, even though the government has not approved Carabias’s request for protection at the station.

“We have to be careful,” Carabias said. “But we can’t just stand here with our arms crossed and do nothing.”

If they could convince the local Mayans that there were viable alternatives to burning down the jungle, she said, it would be “an example for Mexico, and for the world.”