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.

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