San Cristobal de las Casas
Apr 26th, 2010 by robert

I arrived in San Cristobal (about two weeks ago)  just in time to go out to dinner with my friends Peter and María Elena, who I hadn’t seen in sixteen years. Peter and I worked together in Costa Rica and Nicaragua during the turbulent 1980’s. Peter´s mother was visiting too, so I began a needed period of regrouping: laundry, writing, talking with friends, and just hanging out. There was no lack of social opportunity, as every night there was an engagement with some of their friends. The conversation in Spanish was rapid and intellectually stimulating, lots of it centered on politics in Chiapas. Read the rest of this entry »

Trash birds. . . and deforestation
Apr 25th, 2010 by robert

Sitting in a bus winding along the serpintine road from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas, I remembered what one of our Bacalar hosts had said, such a long time ago. She had been living in Bacalar for four years, leading wildlife and birding tours, and only recently had added great-tailed grackle to her yard list of over 200 species. For days I had been living in the absence of grackles, and only when reaching the town of Ocosingo did I start to see them again.

Trash Birds

Usually I’ve thought of trash birds as introduced species like English house sparrow and European starling, but Jacquies, the Bacalar birder, considered trash birds those that flourish with the environmental changes wrought by humans. The urban birds, especially the noisy, obnoxious ones. In Cancún, the most radically altered place I have been to on this journey, practically the only birds seen, and certainly the overwhelming number, were grackles house sparrows and domestic pigeons. Some of the places I have been have been swarming with chickens, certainly a trash bird if ever there was one, despite its palatable qualities.

Steep Plantings

Now rising in elevation towards cooler San Cristobal, I began to see the occasional house sparrow and pigeon. Black vultures also became much more numerous, but I cannot bring myself to call them trash birds.

As we passed by barren, rocky fields, I was more struck by the impoverished indigenous communities through which we were passing, than by trash birds. The many indigenous communities in upland Chiapas are literally marginalized, pushed to the edge of society. It’s the same old story: colonists invade and take all the best land for ranches or plantations, evicting entire communities and terminating their way of life.

In Chiapas many indigenous communities base their economy on cultivating crops in poor soil only 5 centimeters thick. For before the land was divided and distributed to the rich, it was deforested, and erosion on the steep terrain left to the poor caused the soil to flow into the oceans.

Ek Balam deforested

I have been observing deforestation throughout the trip, beginning in the Yucatan. Rural people cut down trees for both firewood and expansion of la milpa, the family corn and vegetable plot. Occasionally the rural poor also clear land for cattle. The problem is that lands available are already marginal for agricultural production, steep and rocky. Cutting and burning the second- (or third-) growth forest bares the land to yet another round of erosion, and then to get anything to grow impoverished farmers buy inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. It is a vicious circle through which the campesino always loses.

Pojoj deforestation

It is heartbreaking to see the last vestiges of virgin forest being cut and burned around the edges, but it has become such a common sight. Yet I cannot help thinking that this grief is actually a by-product of privilege. I grew up in a part of the country that was deforested centuries ago, with the indigenous peoples extinguished or removed. Scraps of forest were set aside long, long ago, in parks. Those battles were fought, boundaries set.

El Ocote deforestation

What is happening in Mexico, and everywhere else in the world for that matter, is no different than what has happened in the developed world. Think of the lost Eastern hardwood forest that stretched for a thousand miles, of the great northwestern redwood and fir forests decimated, the denuded islands of Southeast Alaska or the United Kingdom. How about the clear-cuts out Birch Creek way, or in your neighbor’s yard to improve a view?

The solution in Mexico seems pretty simple. Redistribute some of the best agricultural land back to the people who once owned it, and give them electric ranges. It’s not simple, of course. No social movement ever is.

Different Rhythms: Birding and Travel
Apr 22nd, 2010 by robert

For the last day I have been hanging in Tuxtla, the big, hot capital city of Chiapas, waiting for another piece of the travel puzzle to fall into place.  There are only eight days until I fly home. I arrived in Tuxtla after two days of intensive birding with the friendly guides I met in El Triunfo, an incredible place I have not written about. Yet.

Sitting in limbo, I’ve been thinking how birding and international travel are essentially diametrically opposed activities. Two days ago we traveled by car to Puerto Arista, on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, to look for giant wrens and a couple of other southern Mexico specialty birds. We drove down a road with scattered houses and fields, and occasionally we would stop, get out with our binoculars, and scan the bushes. One time we stopped to identify some parrots that landed in a tree. I looked down and noticed people at the house were grouping around a window to observe us observing the birds. I said buenas tardes, but thought how strange to pass through a community without really seeing it. Greeting our onlookers opened a door, and a woman and her son came up to us. I explained what we were doing, and showed her pictures of the birds we sought. She recognized all of them and told us their local names, what time of day they sing, and where to look for them.

I haven’t completely digested this conundrum yet, but it seems like there might be a better way to bird while traveling, such that the richness of travel itself is not missed. The species  list may not grow as rapidly, but so what? Birders, what do you think?

Of course you can avoid the issue completely by going to places where there are no people or culture. That’s what I am doing this afternoon. I leave for another five days in a biosphere reserve called El Ocote. Nos vemos pronto.

Deep in the Lacondon forest
Apr 20th, 2010 by robert

Chambo stopped every fifty meters to talk about specific trees or customs of his people. He carried himself with dignity and a sophisticated charm that encouraged his audience to ask many questions. I listened while lagging behind to keep an eye out for birds. It quickly became apparent that birding was going to be no more successful than on any other portion of the tour, and that led to further disappointment. But gradually it dissipated as I began to realize that when I relaxed my expectations, I could appreciate other dimensions of the experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 15th, 2010 by robert

After a long, hot day amongst the ruins of Bonampak and Laxchilán, we were dropped in the Lacondon village called Lacanjá. A Lacondon man dressed in nice clothes welcomed the five of us staying the night: the Dane, the three young Mexicans, y yo. He led me and Jacob, the Dane, across a yard, through a hedge apparently onto someone else’s property, and let us into a shed with two beds and a ceiling fan. And left. Light was fading, and when we tried to turn the light bulb or the fan on, nothing happened. Read the rest of this entry »

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